This Literary Life is lucky enough to have a wonderful guest post by Prime Books’ Senior Editor Paula Guran. Paula has been nominated twice for the World Fantasy Award, won two Bram Stoker awards, and two International Horror Guild Awards.
Today, she is going to talk to us about why we read scary stories. One of my favorite philosophical questions! (READ TO THE END, BECAUSE THERE IS A BOOK GIVEAWAY!)
Why Do People Read Scary Stories?
By Paula Guran
Despite the question posed by the title, the truth is that not everyone enjoys frightening fiction or movies or anything else scary. Some folks are just not “wired” either emotionally or physiologically to enjoy taking a walk on the dark side.
A number of scientific theories for not wanting to explore such fictional realms exist, but there are also simply people whose personal experiences take any enjoyment out of dark fantasy and horror. (I met, for instance, an elderly woman who had survived a concentration camp and lost almost all of her family in the Holocaust. It doesn’t take a great deal of deep thought to understand that she did not enjoy dark fiction.)
But for those who do savor the scary—why? Aren’t normal humans supposed to prefer pleasure over pain, the positive rather than the negative? Investigating just a few of the many scientific sources I found before beginning this little article, I quickly became overwhelmed with information. Evidently a lot of folks with academic and medical abbreviations after their names have spent considerable time and effort researching why we like being scared. They don’t always agree.
So, instead of providing a laundry list of scientific rationales (a lot of which focus on film more than fiction), I thought I’d offer my own unsubstantiated, unscientific, and personal theory. At least my theory for today, I may change my mind tomorrow.
One thing I did notice about a lot of these learned studies is they often seem not to differentiate between between the reaction “shock” and the emotion of “terror.” To quote something Stephen King wrote over three decades ago: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion… and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.”
Maybe it works for you, but going for the gross-out doesn’t work for me. Just trying to shock me evokes no reaction other than disgust—if even that. Fictional “shock” is like a roller coaster: an artificial stimulation that releases adrenalin and results in other physiological changes that linger for a while. I don’t like roller coasters either.
That’s not what I consider experiencing the emotion of fear. You enjoy reading a scary story (or the experience of a truly good dark film, but, for the sake of this article, we will stick with literature) because there’s an interaction between the writer’s words and you, the reader. You experience an emotional reaction: fear—“the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind” according to the founding father of modern horror, H. P. Lovecraft. That feeling of fear can be simply atmospheric, an eerie or weird sensation. (In fact, Lovecraft used the term, “atmosphere” to describe what creates the sensation of horror.)
A scary story can deal with the most fantastic of the supernatural or the terrors of the mundane—either way, it reaches for and pulls out that dark emotional response.
And like any emotion—it is an individual reaction. What chills you to the marrow of your bones and stays with you (sometimes) forever may not elicit the same feeling for me. What scares any of us also changes with age, personal experience, perhaps even brain chemistry.
But I think you enjoy the type of fear fiction that does affect you (at whatever point in your life) because it provides you with a chance to (at least subconsciously) explore those feelings. Perhaps, on some level, it helps us understand or help manage the true terrors in our lives. Through dark fiction we encounter the unknowable—just as we do in real life—and can safely consider and confront it, even learn from it or control it—something we can’t always do with reality. As for the ultimately unknowable, the glimpse of the truly ineffable—that fascinates us. Maybe there’s pleasure—or comfort—to be found in knowing we cannot possibly know, let alone understand, everything.
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Paula Guran edits the annual anthology series The Year’s Best Dark Fiction and Horror and is the senior editor for Prime Books (prime-books.com). Her most recent anthologies are HALLOWEEN: MAGIC, MYSTERY & THE MACABRE and ONCE UPON A TIME: NEW FAIRY TALES. She’s currently celebrating the 31 Days of Halloween herself on her website: paulaguran.com.
So why do YOU read scary stories?
Answer in the comments section, and my favorite answer will win Prime Books’ anthology HALLOWEEN: MAGIC, MYSTERY & THE MACABRE!