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Elements of Aversion
What Makes Horror Horrifying?
by Elizabeth Barrette

People often wonder what makes scary stories so attractive. Why do we find thrillers thrilling? Why does horror horrify us? What gives creepy tales their compelling magnetism? How does horror work? How do you write successful horror? What elements do good scare-stories have in common? What on Earth possesses us to read the blasted things after dark, anyway? The answers lie in human psychology and biology, in the software and hardware of our brains.

The old "fight or flight" reaction of our evolutionary heritage once played a major role in the life of every human. Our ancestors lived and died by it. Then someone invented the fascinating game of civilization, and things began to calm down. Development pushed wilderness back from settled lands. War, crime, and other forms of social violence came with civilization and humans started preying on each other, but by and large daily life calmed down. We began to feel restless, to feel something missing: the excitement of living on the edge, the tension between hunter and hunted.

So we told each other stories through the long, dark nights. Sometimes we told happy stories, or sacred stories ... but when the fires burned low, we did our best to scare the daylights out of each other. The rush of adrenaline feels good. Our hearts pound, our breath quickens, and we can imagine ourselves on the edge. Yet we also appreciate the insightful aspects of horror. Sometimes a story intends to shock and disgust, but the best horror intends to rattle our cages and shake us out of our complacency. It makes us think, forces us to confront ideas we might rather ignore, and challenges preconceptions of all kinds. Horror reminds us that the world is not always as safe as it seems, which exercises our mental muscles and reminds us to keep a little healthy caution close at hand.

Over the years, we have developed a wide range of scary stories and motifs. Horror may involve things that could never happen in this world (like attacks by indestructible supernatural monsters), that might happen (like a comet smashing into the planet during our lifetimes), or that definitely happen (like mass murder). Each type plays on different fears; the most effective play on the oldest, most visceral fears left over from ancestral experience or childhood imagination. Yet all of them have some elements in common, certain motifs that appear throughout the genre, however widely separated in time and setting.

Elements of Absence

These motifs horrify by taking away things we depend on. They disturb our preconceptions, our sense of safety and comfort and how the world should work. They yank all our certitudes out from under us; they take away the rules we use to deal with reality. They twist and warp the familiar into the unfamiliar. They bother us with differences.

  • The unknown: This is the first, most primal fear because it contains all the others. Anything could happen; anything could emerge from the darkness. In the real world, certain guidelines like natural laws help us predict events; in fiction, authors often suspend those rules. Our imaginations readily run away with us, leaving us clinging to the edge of our seats. Yet the unknown is limitless in potential as well as in threat. Everything known emerges from the unknown, and so it has endless power to hold our attention.

  • The unexpected: From the unknown comes the known, the way we expect reality to function. When something shatters our expectations, we feel shock and distress. Your stomach plummets when the monster smashes through the wall. Even without the sudden impact, unnatural creatures and occurrences make us uncomfortable. On a deep, instinctive level we react to them as wrong. Sane people do not like having to deal with an insane world! The absurd confuses us. We look for a solution, a rational explanation ... any rational explanation, just so long as it maintains our reality tunnel intact. However, we also need occasional shakeups to avoid getting ourselves into a mental rut; a one-track mind can become a serious handicap.

  • The unbelievable: Nobody ever listens. The scourge of the story can be flattening a city and the main characters can't get any assistance because nobody believes them. We disregard that which does not fit into our pre-existing definition of reality ... a dangerous habit. We also fear falling into a situation that places us beyond belief. The nature of sanity comes into question. Despite this, we enjoy a jaunt outside the boundaries of everyday reality. We look to fiction as a means of stretching our minds; we willingly suspend our disbelief and thereby enhance our abilities to distinguish between different types of reality. A definition, attitude, or set of rules which works well in one situation may prove worse than useless in another.

  • The unseen: Blood and guts grab our attention precisely because, in a normal world, we never see them. They only become visible when something goes seriously wrong. This is why slasher scenes work -- they show us something we rarely see -- and why their effectiveness decreases with repeat exposure. Other instances of the hidden revealed include ancient manuscripts, artifacts, or creatures brought to light. When something new and strange arrives on scene, we can't take our eyes off it. Our own curiosity holds us hostage.

  • The unconscious: Inner worlds mystify us because we can neither control nor escape their effects. We all fall prey to subconscious urgings, many of them not very nice. Thus, we fear ourselves; we also fear that others may give in to their vile desires. At the same time, we feel compelled to explore these strange regions which remain a part of ourselves no matter how we may try to hide them or expunge them.

  • The unstoppable: We all believe in entropy; in nature, things wind down. Humans and other animals wear out eventually. Therefore the inexorable advance and endless pursuit upset our expectations. People retreat, fighting harder as they back into corners. Relentless forces too powerful to fight call up uncomfortable associations with death, which most people don't like to think about. Yet death comes for everyone in time, so we cannot avoid it forever. Instead we go whistling down dark alleys to confront the inevitable.

Elements of Presence

These motifs intrude on our comfort. They crowd out our confidence, our feelings of self-reliance and dignity. Where nature abhors a vacuum, these horrors rush in, smothering us with their weight. They bother us just by existing.

  • Helplessness: Nothing feels worse than the inability to affect your fate. In most fiction, characters must have agency -- the ability to act, react, and change -- in order to hold a reader's attention. In horror, much of the attraction comes from a complete lack of agency, of power. We all feel helpless sometimes, so this motif strikes a chord with everyone. We can relate deeply to the anguish of helplessness. We also love the rush of satisfaction when, in many stories, the protagonist somehow manages to overcome the odds.

  • Urgency: When you can't do something, you must. This is the central conflict of most horror. Helplessness contrasts with aching, desperate need. The price of failure is always astronomical: the death of a loved one, the destruction of the world. The characters cannot simply walk away; they draw us into their urgency as well. This driving force also contrasts with the apathy common today, the feeling that one's decisions and actions never make a difference. Thus, the very stress of the protagonist's struggle appeals to us.

  • Pressure: Ah, suspense; a successful horror writer must master this technique. With the slow build of tension comes the increasing need to do something. Pressure combines with urgency to spur characters to greater feats, while heightening audience involvement. You lean forward, urging the protagonist on. It may seem strange to enjoy fiction like this when we face so much pressure in our own lives today, but unlike real life, fiction promises a resolution -- though not always a happy one. The pressure builds, peaks, and then dissipates.

  • Intensity: With danger comes a heightened awareness, enhancing all emotions both positive and negative, drawing attention to every detail. The senses pick up far more than usual; the world becomes more immediate, more real. Also, the threat of death often drives people to celebrate life, so we see romance running hand in hand with horror. People fall in love as the world falls apart and gibbering monsters chase them down dark alleys. Making love can also get characters killed, a popular motif in slasher movies. The intensity of emotion and sensation drowns out common sense. This surge of input from overloaded senses can appeal to people used to living a calmer existence.

  • Rhythm: The preceding elements combine to create a rise and fall of tension. Rhythm is essential to horror in that it allows the intensity to build to a higher peak than would a straight assault. It sets up a pattern of action which draws the reader in, rather like the panting advancement of childbirth. Alternatively, some horror stories succeed through a profound lack of pattern, again playing on our innate desire for the world to make sense. The random attacks eat away at our security and force us to take the story on its own terms.

  • Release: The promise of resolution offers a refuge from the undelineated stress of everyday life. Every story comes to a conclusion. In horror, we may see the world returned to "normal" or bent beyond recognition, removed from all hope of salvation. The uncertainty keeps us reading eagerly to find out what happens, because we have no way of knowing how the story ends until we get there. Either redemption or disaster offers us a sense of completion not often found outside of fiction; it allows us to heave a sigh and let the story go.

Whatever your reasons for reading or writing horror, remember that what you get out of it largely depends on what you take into it, like Luke Skywalker confronting himself inside the tree. Your own dark side will surprise you; your own fears will sustain you even as they threaten to drive you mad. In reading horror, we elect to challenge directly a great many fears and impulses which most people prefer to ignore. Yet for those who feel that "an unexamined life is not worth living" horror offers a chance to look within and confront our own reflections. For dramatic effect, we may choose to cast the images on someone or something else ... but in the end, we know where they come from.

"Elements of Aversion: What Makes Horror Horrifying" copyright 1997 Elizabeth Barrette, first published in Creatio ex Nihilo April-May 1997.

Elizabeth Barrette writes speculative fiction, related nonfiction and poetry, and often presents panels at conventions. Previous credits include stories “Breakthrough Combination” in Fortress and “Beaver Goes to a Party” in Mytholog; articles “Turning the Tables: So You Want to Be a Panelist” in Speculations and “Words of Power: The Languages of Mithgar” in Spicy Green Iguana; and poems “Warriors of the Broken Seal” in Paradox and “The Eyes Have It” in ByLine. Her other fields include alternative spirituality and gender studies. She enjoys suspension-of-disbelief bungee- jumping and spelunking in other people’s reality tunnels. Visit her Website at: http://www.worthlink.net/~ysabet/sitemap.html

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