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.