How Horror Impacts Our Society, Our Minds, and Our Fears
Horror stories, films, and books show society what it fears. The best stories within the horror genre are able to portray these subconscious fears that society has, subtly underneath the terror and violence occurring throughout the film or novel. The violence and chaos occurring within the best of these stories often highlight the cultural fears that lie beneath the surface of society’s psyche, and this has been the case since the beginning of horror, which started with fairy and folktales. These folktales often were meant to scare children into doing what their parents said.
Horror stories create a special emotion within the human mind, not only making the mind scared, but also excited and wanting to watch or read what happens next, promoting humans to title these stories as “thrillers.” The human brain, despite being terrified, releases dopamine while viewing or reading scary stories, which allows the audience to enjoy the fear they feel when experiencing the story. This is similar to the reaction of individuals who enjoy riding roller coaster rides. Experiencing fear through a fictional story also allows the audience to safely confront societal or cultural fears they may have, at a safe distance from harm. There are several reasons as to why horror is important to humanity. However, this is arguably the most relevant reason.
While some individuals may believe that horror is vulgar and has no real purpose other than providing scary images to deranged people, horror does a lot of good for people’s mental capacity when it comes to dealing with real life terrors. Experiencing horror on the screen mentally prepares people to confront their fears in real life, without being totally unprepared for the emotions and reactions they may experience during these circumstances. This is specifically true when it comes to children and real life fears. Oftentimes parents may believe that scary images and themes presented to younger audiences may leave them with psychological troubles, such as night terrors and inability to differentiate reality from fiction. However, this is simply not supported by solid evidence. Instead, studies actually suggest that showing scary images and symbols to younger audiences may mentally prepare children for more mature themes into adulthood, and have a smoother transition when dealing with real life fears. The world is a frightening place, especially to younger children, and horror stories help these audiences cope with the real world they are growing up in. Horror stories may also encourage children to have positive reactions to fear, rather than being dismissive of them. As in old fairy and folktales, modern-day horror stories teach children what to be afraid of, and how to deal with these fears, whether that be monsters or survival situations.
Many early horror films reflected the fears of their society at the time of their release. One of the best examples of this is the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), released in post WWI Germany. At the time of the film’s release, Germany was experiencing hyperinflation, starvation, and economic distress. Many of the early German expressionist films reflect these emotions, and the film Dr. Caligari is no different. Robert Wiene, the director of the film, utilized German expressionist techniques to highlight these societal emotions, within the story and within the audience. German expressionism originally began as an art movement, but soon found its way into the lives of filmmakers and cinema. In film, German expressionism uses exaggerated buildings and set designs to highlight delusion or insanity, as well as shadowy villains or monsters, to highlight fears of the unknown. However, in the case of Dr. Caligari, Wiene emphasized the fears of insane authority through the character of Dr. Caligari himself. This fear of insane authority directly related to the fears soldiers had returning from a war that devastated the entire European world. While many soldiers had PTSD, or shell shock as it was known at the time, these audiences would not go see a film that would trigger that. However, many returning soldiers went to watch Dr. Caligari as it allowed them to experience their very real fears in a fictional setting, at a safe and comfortable distance.
Another important trait of horror stories is their ability to critique problems or issues occurring at that time within a specific society or culture. From the beginning of horror in cinema, directors have been critiquing societal and cultural issues with their scary images and themes presented on screen. This can be seen in many great horror films, from the Spanish film Tesis (1996) to the American-Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). The film Tesis critiques Spanish society’s obsession with obscene images, from gore to pornography, while also critiquing Francisco Franco’s dictatorship that censored these images from the media. The film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is similar, due to its critique on Iranian society and the Islamic revolution that occurred there in the late 1970’s, changing social norms and rights. It also critiques the lack of freedom women had during the time of the Islamic revolution. Horror films and their ability to critique society allows for an interesting and creative discussion on major social issues of the times. However, horror films are not the only medium of critiquing society. In fact, horror novels and short stories are able to get their messages across just as well, if not better. In the novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the author openly critiques the facades of Victorian society through the character of Dr. Jekyll, and the evil’s lurking in the shadows of London through the character of Mr. Hyde. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein critiques European society’s obsession with scientific advancement and the secret of life, while highlighting the strength of nature itself.
From telling children it’s okay to be afraid sometimes, to critiquing the major issues within society, horror stories are an extremely important aspect to humanity. They have been around long before people began writing, and have been passed on orally throughout the years. Now with modern cinema, these stories are being presented on the silver screen, pumping the hearts of viewers, while also encouraging them to consider why these images were chosen for that story. Horror stories encourage commentating on society by the filmmakers, which allows for a healthy and open discussion on daily fears and how to deal with them. At the end of the day, horror stories are deeply embedded within humanity, and they don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
Check out Dead Talk Live’s episode on “Top Horror Documentaries!”