An Examination of Horror (Or Why Am I Fascinated by Something so Scary!)

Hello All! Quick life update before I jump on into this piece, which I’m sure you are all anxious to read, the second volume of The Cosplay Journal is finally out and available for purchase after taking over my life for far too long and, in all honesty, much longer than I had hoped or planned. If you would like to get your hands on it you can find all the links for where to purchase it HERE on our website which I will also be linking at the bottom of this article.

I am very sorry that I haven’t written in such a long time, and even more sorry that I missed Halloween with this piece but I feel that this will be an interesting examination (see Ramble Essay) of the fascination that I, and many others, have with horror despite not wanting at exactly engage with it. Odd one, isn’t it? Well I think so, hence why I have decided to delve into it, at least by looking inward somewhat to see what it is that draws me in while at the same time repulsing me so much.

I’ll precis this by telling you that I cannot watch horror movies of any sort. They trigger a very unpleasant reaction in my that can be anything from throwing up (yeah, nice) to going into a full on state of shock (one time at 2am when my housemate was so scared for me he nearly called an ambulance) followed by days of bone chilling anxiety, and I am not exaggerating this. This reaction is often referred to as psychosomatic shock, literally the brain perceiving danger where there is none in reality and putting the body into a state of shock. It’s horrible. So, obviously I do not watch horror movies, and yet I am fascinated by horror as a genre. Maybe this is because I cannot interact with it, and so it is a morbid curiosity but I think it is something more.

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Photography by Thomas G Anderson

In actuality I do engage with horror on certain levels. I love horror games more than any other genre of video game – though not “hack and slash” games – but this isn’t because I like to be scared, mostly definitely not! But the ability to have some level of control over what is happening in the story – no matter how false that belief is – often to have a weapon and the option to defend myself, as well as being to engage in a very safe environment where I can leave at any time makes it easier for me to play these games. Essentially I need to be in charge and then it’s slightly less awful – there is a reason why have never, and will never play Amnesia. 

I play horror games in 20 minute sections and if something very scary happens it often takes me quite some time to get started again after calming down (once or twice I have literally just stopped playing because it’s too much and gone to watch a Let’s Play to see what happens next).

No, my love of these games, is not because I want to be scared, clearly this is not something that I enjoy in anyway, but is because they create lore in a way that very few other genres do. And I believe the reason that so many people are enthralled by this genre of storytelling in general. The lore of horror – not mass murder-y, cliche gore fests such as the Saw franchise, though I am told that the first one is actually quite good for this type of horror – is more often than not so well woven and bound into the story that it is compelling in its own right. Sometimes the lore is actually better than the media itself – I’m looking at you The Conjouring films, yes and you Resident Evil (though I do love the Resident Evil games, even if they jump the shark a lot).

An example of this type of lore building is one of my favourite game franchises of all time is Fatal Frame, aka Project Zero. This franchise is built on the ghost stories and beliefs of Japan (by Japanese creators I must add), and while it has some jump scares and some gore, though never overtly in your face, it builds up the story, and therefore the fear, though it’s lore and world building. Each game has its own story, but the overarching themes of Japanese traditional rituals, secret places, forbidden acts and a connection between the land of the living and the dead run through all of them creating a whole world to get lost in – there is of course the clever game play mechanism of fighting ghosts with your camera, capturing their souls within it, which definitely adds a level of intrigue, but that is specific to this game rather than the genre as a whole.

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Getting the perfect snap in Fatal Frame

This type of storytelling is very common in horror, especially more “spiritual” horror where you do not have constantly recurring characters but rather recurring lore and narrative. The works of HP Lovecraft are a perfect example of this, or if you want an example in film, the Hellraiser franchise fits the mold in many ways, even if Pinhead and his cohorts are recurring throughout the films. Shame there is such worrying backgrounds to both these bodies of work, but that is not what this article is about so let’s get back to the point, whatever that might be.

From my own point of view as a writer, the intriguing thing with this type of lore building, is that not only is it scary because a feeling of dread is built up stronger and stronger with each new story that is added, but it also gives the viewer/player/reader/audience/whatever more belief in the world and desire to know more. The perception that you are only seeing windows onto a much, MUCH larger creation pulls us in like the curious little beings we are. We need to know more. We have to know more. So in this sense it is the not the desire to be scared by these stories – it cannot be denied that the chill down the spine can be exhilarating from time to time – but the desire to see more, to know more, to find out what else is happening! And that seems very human.

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Photography by Denise Grunstein

But why horror? Why not fantasy or science fiction? These genres have just as much lore, normally they have much more than horror does. Well I think it is for precisely that reason. Horror very rarely over eggs the pudding as it were. To make it scary there must be gaps and unknowns in the world. If you told your audience all the information it would no longer hold any fear – well it might if it’s just awful, horrible murder and mayhem but again, not the horror we are talking about – the fear of what might be around the corner is more thrilling than knowing the name of every river and mountain in a magical land.

Fantasy and science fiction are interesting in their own right, and you can study the lore of many franchises and stories for years, but I honestly don’t think it’s as enticing. There are less openings for the imagination to run riot in, less space for curiosity. And I say this as a life long Tolkien fan (I have elvish literally tattooed on my body) so please do not think I am “bashing” these genres, this is simply exploring ideas.

I will say that Detective Fiction, possibly my favourite genre in any form of storytelling, fits this same sort of idea; mystery, unknowns, uncertainties, all drawing you through the story.  Horror and detective fiction can mingle together in the most pleasing way as well, in my mind they are almost the same thing in regards to plotting and thematic traits, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat in desperate need to know what is happening. For myself this is probably part of the reason I have very little interest in gore or slasher films (other than the obvious reason). They rarely create this detective like level of enigma, using cheap jump scares and violent thrills to scare the audience rather than taking the time to entice them into danger without their knowing and turning on them when it’s too late. This is the tool of all detective and crime fiction writers, despite the current trend for visceral murders and voyeuristic levels of gore porn (I have a lot of opinions on this too and one day I will do a ramble essay on them as well). We will walk down this path, even if we are afraid, because we have to know how it was done, who did the deed, and what will happen in the end.

I do not want to go on too long about all of this, it is merely me showing the workings of my adventures into my own psyche and wondering what on Earth is wrong with me, BUT do think that storytelling that makes us wander down paths to the unknown, that opens up worlds full of half truths, forbidden knowledge, and yes, things that might scare us be that full on horror or ghost stories, or just dotting themes of the genre into other things, is so intrinsically part of ourselves that we will always be drawn to it, whether we like it or not. We are curious beings, and stories are a safe way to indulge curiosity, psychosomatic shock notwithstanding, so what is better than letting yourself fall into a good ghost story every now and then?

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‘Olly Out!

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Written by Holly Rose Swinyard

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