Terror and taboo: understanding the horror genre

A few years ago I had the opportunity to teach Comparative Civilizations 12.  At one point we talked about folklore and legend and the fact that every culture in human history has had, for lack of a better term, a tradition of “scary stories”, an ancient and universal genre that modern literary and film critics usually refer to as horror.  All of these stories, regardless of the source, seem to have as their primary method the creation of a sense of vicarious terror or, to use a word which I think perfectly encapsulates the genre, dread.  Yet horror stories use this sense of dread as a means, not an end.  The end of horror stories is usually to confront a taboo, a forbidden subject, a topic so unsettling that at every point in history every culture has felt the need to craft frightening stories to confront it. 

There is more than one taboo, yet I think Sigmund Freud was right when he described the two great taboos as sexuality and mortality or, to put it in a more pithy manner, sex and death.  I would add as a third the existence of arbitrary evil and suffering or, as C.S. Lewis once described it, the problem of pain.

You will sometimes hear people say that the reason horror novels and films are popular is because people “like to be scared.”  But that’s not true.  Genuine fear is a horribly unpleasant emotion which no one in their right mind would willingly choose to experience.  If you’ve ever felt genuine terror, such as in the moments before a car accident or turning around in a crowded shopping mall to find that your child is missing, you know what I’m talking about.  No one wants to feel that way.  But horror stories attempt to allow their audience a sense of “play terror”, or a vicarious fear which can lead to a catharsis, a sense of relief that they have survived and endured the experience of confronting the three topics that civilized society is so reluctant to speak about openly.

Of the three taboos I mentioned above, I have always suspected that in the contemporary world, horror stories are most interested in exploring the finality of death and the banality of evil.  Sexuality as a topic is not the taboo it once was, for better or worse.  This was not always the case, of course; perhaps the most famous horror character in history, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was a character who symbolized Victorian sexual attitudes, closely linked with syphilis outbreaks in London.  Such topics could not be freely spoken of, and were instead addressed through allegory.
But unlike sexual attitudes, which have become more liberal or more conservative at different eras in history, I suspect that human beings have never quite come to terms with evil and death.  We can’t quite understand why some people do such horrific things as child abuse or mass murder, and we aren’t sure how to deal with the fact that one day we will die. 
This, of course, is one of the reasons that human beings have always had religion in one form or another, because unlike horror stories, which only attempt to address these taboos, religions all claim to have the answer for them (at least to different extents).  This is probably why so many horror stories contain religious imagery (such as the cross being used to fight the vampire); they are on each other’s turf, so to speak.

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