Understanding horror

Two central questions

When working with the horror genre, there are two main questions that one might wish to examine.

First of all, it is interesting to consider what it is that makes horror scary. This might lead to careful analysis of the devices typically used in horror literature or horror movies, as well as an exploration of the types of themes that a majority of people tend to find scary.

Secondly, it is also interesting to consider why people enjoy the horror genre, when it is focused on creating emotions that we normally think of as negative, and normally try to avoid. It is easy to explain the appeal of the comedy genre, for example, as laughter is a pleasant experience, but why do people seek out something that causes terror and disgust?

Why is horror scary?

One of the main questions people have asked when studying horror is what it is that makes it scary. Is it mainly the types of literary or visual devices used, or is it more closely related to the subject matter? Does it play on people’s existing fears or phobias, or is it able to create terror of something that a person is not remotely afraid of in real life?

Many different theories about why horror is scary have been presented, but we will focus on two of the most popular ones in this section - the biological theory and the Freudian theory. 

The biological theory

One of the most simple attempts to explain why horror is scary is to link it to biology. Human beings have evolved biologically from our earliest days when we had to survive in an often dangerous wilderness, and this still has an impact on our present-day lives. According to the biological theory, the reason horror movies scare us is that they remind us of threats that we regularly had to face while living in the wilderness. The fear of monsters in stories or on tv screens is thus linked to a rational fear of real threats - especially predatory animals.

This theory seems intuitively attractive, and when reflecting on many of the typical fictional or mythological monsters, it is also notable that many of them contain some animal elements (such as claws or fangs), and most of them are literally trying to eat the unlucky humans who have to escape from them. There is also some research backing the biological theory up. For example, The Psychologist cites a study in which it is ...

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