Horror stories do not make good bedtime stories.
December 28, 2010 5:06 PM   Subscribe

Why do I read horror stories? Someone please explain it to me.

So yesterday I was flipping through some online manga and stumbled on this manga called Doubt, which is (I suppose, I never saw the movie) like SAW only drawn. It's a slice 'em and dice 'em without the trippy music and gratuitous sex. I never watch slice 'em and dice 'ems, but for some reason, I'll read them. I really don't know why.

Needless to say, I didn't get any sleep last night. Not because I was afraid of someone coming in the house and killing me (that fear always crosses my mind just before I go to sleep), and normally I can do this and go right to sleep. But there's something about slice 'em and dice 'em stories that bothers me on a deep level. It disturbs me that someone not only thinks of these stories but takes the time to write them down, draw them, or make a movie out of them - and that these ideas are common enough that people will read them (I did) or watch them. And yes, it bothers me that that it's possible, just possible, that there are people like the characters "out there." I don't think they will come after me -- not really -- but it bothers me. It really bothers me.

It doesn't help that I'm house sitting, so I'm alone in a strange house and not use to the the noises... but every time I read one of these stupid stories or one of my friends convinces me that the movie I'm about to watch "isn't that bad" and I'm treated to blood and gore, I get stuck with the same situation - no sleep because how could anyone create such a piece? and why do people enjoy watching it? and what if there are people like that out there?

So why do I read them? I don't know. I couldn't stop myself from finishing the story (even though it was fairly predictable), and I paid the price with a restless night. Does anyone know the psychology behind this? I'd really like to know.
posted by patheral to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There are lots of theories about this, but personally I think it confirms something awful we suspect about the world, and on some level we prefer feeling right over feeling good. The fact that we can then shelve these feelings afterward (because it was just a book/movie/whatever!) is also a great feature -- it's like trauma-lite, with the advantage of being able to make it go away (mostly) whenever you want.
posted by hermitosis at 5:10 PM on December 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I always thought it had to do with the adrenaline high you get after watching/reading. I was just thinking today, though, that I always want to watch those movies and then immediately regret it afterward. What's wrong with us?
posted by two lights above the sea at 5:14 PM on December 28, 2010

I've thought along similar lines to two lights above the sea - it's a rush from controlled danger, much like rollercoasters.
posted by Coobeastie at 5:19 PM on December 28, 2010

Same reason we go on roller coasters; there's no real danger, only the illusion of one.
posted by griphus at 5:30 PM on December 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I love horror movies, and I was going to say exactly the roller coaster thing. I mean, I think there is more to it than that, but when you get down to it, that's pretty much the appeal. They're sort of the worst kinds of monsters you can think of presented to you in a way where there is no real danger.

The other thing is - there's a lot of horror and gore out there already, and it often feels like everything has been done (this is a problem in a lot of genres, not just horror), and at this point you need to do something really hideous to shock jaded viewers. I personally am almost never shocked watching movies anymore, so something that does actually take me aback is always novel. (The Saw movies are just not very good though.) So people make - and consume - stuff like this in search of new shocks. It's like you master one roller coaster, so you want to find a bigger one.
posted by SoftRain at 5:39 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: I don't go on roller coasters for the same reason I don't watch slice 'em and dice 'em movies - because they freak me out too much. I dunno if you can describe what I feel as a "rush" when reading them, more like morbid curiosity. Yesterday, I wanted to see if I was right in who was the killer, and if some of my other predictions about the story would come true (I was, and they did). That's more like going to the other part of the house when I hear a noise to prove to myself that no one is there... So I dunno if I buy the rush theory.
posted by patheral at 5:42 PM on December 28, 2010

I asked a similar question a while back, only in my case it was about horror movies, not books, and I got a whole bunch of good answers. While I recommend you read the whole thread and come to your own conclusions, in my case, I came to this conclusion. That's the answer to your question, at least as far as I'm concerned.
posted by Effigy2000 at 6:05 PM on December 28, 2010

Julia Kristeva would say something about how this is an example of the abject. Things that are abject represent in some visceral way the lack of a physical basis for the boundaries of our bodies and by extension our selves (egos, subjects, etc.). Like shit is abject. We recoil in horror because it's of us but not us(am I my feces?), but discuss it endlessly. It's both an object of revulsion and fascination. She'd say this is because these transgressions of the boundaries of the self are both constructs that help prop up the feeling of self and things equivalent to the roller-coaster ride in that we're flirting with the dissolution of subjectivity, but in no actual danger of becoming a buddha from talking about our bowel movements on the internet.

It's the same. These fantasies about literally deconstructing a person are a stand-in for deconstructing the boundaries of the self, which is a crazy roller-coaster thing to do.
posted by cmoj at 6:05 PM on December 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yesterday, I wanted to see if I was right in who was the killer, and if some of my other predictions about the story would come true

That's not about why you started reading the story though, is it? It might be why you continue reading a story that you didn't know was horror until you were part way through, but not about reading something you knew was horror before you started. The question is why you pick up a book like this in the first place, not why you continue once you've started (which as you've stated, is relatively explicable).

Some amateur pop-psychology: the stories do represent a controlled environment for a lot of things - fear, death, pain and so on. Your questions about people like that out there show that there's a lot you want to know, so are you drawn to the stories that allow you to explore them? You can't entirely discount there being some sort of 'rush' - if you can't sleep then you've obviously had a significant reaction which you might be seeking more than you're fully aware of.
posted by Coobeastie at 6:13 PM on December 28, 2010

As you may have heard from recent stories of a woman whose amygdalas have been destroyed by neurological illness, and who is absolutely fearless, the amygdala is an essential brain structure for being able to feel fear.

In an interesting counterpoint to the current discussion, this woman once escaped from a knife wielding assailant and merely walked away rather than running because she felt no fear.

You may also have heard that people with fibromyalgia often have an unusual level of activation of the amygdala:

Fibromyalgia Patients Have Greater Activation of Amygdala, Insula Compared With Healthy Controls ... No direct association was found between depression, ...

I think that means you would have terrible fears and anxieties about such things as horror stories are made on regardless of whether you had anything to do with such stories and movies, but that reading them and watching them makes it easier for you to reassure yourself that you have not gone insane even though you couldn't under any circumstances stop yourself from having all those fears.
posted by jamjam at 6:26 PM on December 28, 2010

The traditional theory is "catharsis".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:51 PM on December 28, 2010

Response by poster: The traditional theory is "catharsis".

That's why I watch chick flicks when I'm depressed, but I've never understood why I would read something I know will keep me up and jump at things that go bump in the night. One missed night's sleep probably won't hurt, but too many could lead to mania = not a good thing for patheral.
posted by patheral at 6:56 PM on December 28, 2010

Best answer: So, how I parse your question is: you will not watch this stuff, but you will (apparently) read it; why? I imagine the main reason is control.

Like, if you go to a theater or sit down to watch a DVD with a friend, you know you're in for either 90 minutes of this stuff or a potentially awkward moment where you walk out and say "no it's cool I'll just wait in that cafe" and your friend is like "are you sure" and you say "yes it's fine you don't have to leave with me" and then he decides to come out with you anyway and you feel bad etc. Plus, there is a good chance that some serious, horrible gore will happen early in the movie, maybe as a framing device; and even if not, the movie will be doing its hardest with lighting and music and framing to creep you out, right from frame 1.

Now a book on the other hand is something you read alone. If you want to stop reading it, you just do. You can do it right then and it won't affect anyone else. You also control the pace of reading, and although horror books too will try to affect a creepy atmosphere, they simply cannot be as viscerally scary as audiovisual media. (Granted, they can be much more chilling psychologically by giving you more insight into thoughts and motivations, and there are many books that build a creepy atmosphere superbly and keep you awake at night... I don't want to get into books vs movies here, but I hope we can all acknowledge the difference between a creepy experience that envelopes you from without and one you recreate within your mind.)

So, you think you can handle a book. You read a little. But then you get hooked. You want to know who the killer was. You would be just as happy if it was a detective story and/or the gore was offstage and not described... but that's not the option. You're stuck. So you read to the end, and you are officially creeped out for the night. (Wikipedia might help you here if it really is just about puzzle-solving. There was a great Chainsaw Suit news post about how he doesn't ever want to see one of the Saw movies but still likes reading about them on Wikipedia, IIRC.)

Anyway, it's either that or your bookshelves are located directly over an cursed burial ground and are seething at this very moment with vengeful spirits who seek only to drag you into their nightmare realm... forever.
posted by No-sword at 7:33 PM on December 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

I looooooove horror movies but I gave up on the "torture porn" after Saw 4 because it was getting too gory for me. Then my friend fell in love with the series and insisted I see 5 & 6 with her and go to 7 when it came out in theater. The plot was interesting to me, but I got to the point where, to get through the worst scenes, I'd have to sit there saying to myself, "oh that's a fake arm, it's so fake, his real arm is safe inside his jacket, he's just holding a fake arm and putting it in the saw." Towards the end of Saw 7 I think I was overly warm and hadn't moved much in a while, and I felt kind of sick and just shut my eyes through the last several minutes of it.

When I was a kid I was terrified of horror movies but then I realized that they're actually less scary than books... a book makes you imagine all the worst things about the plot (the killer in your mind might look extremely scary, but in a movie it'd look like some famous actor). Still, a few horror movies get to me for a while... like The Ring. It scared me for about 3 weeks after I watched it. But I was like "oh it stuck with me so strongly that it really had an effect and I just have to have my friends see it!" so I've now seen it enough times that it doesn't scare me anymore. I also got a little creeped out at Paranormal Activity, so I paused it, went online and read the plot at themoviespoiler.com so I'd know what was coming, and then I was fine.

I really enjoy all the different ideas of the paranormal in horror movies - every movie has a different idea about the afterlife and ghosts or monsters. But I definitely watch scary movies and TV shows, at least in part, for the adrenaline rush. It was not a horror show, but most pronounced in me last fall during the NBC show Trauma about paramedics - emergencies really get my blood pumping. I'd be planning in my head exactly what I'd do in each situation. Trauma got me a lot more worked up than ER ever did because it was about going out into the unknown scene of the accident. The rush was awesome.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:24 PM on December 28, 2010

Stephen King wrote a whole book about this called Danse Macabre.

Worth the read if you're really interested.
posted by NoraCharles at 6:33 AM on December 29, 2010

Response by poster: Stephen King wrote a whole book about this called Danse Macabre.

Worth the read if you're really interested.

I remember reading Danse Macabre, but it's been awhile. I remember that it explains why he writes what he writes and why terror sells... and yeah it's about controlled fear and looking at the ugly side of humanity... I'll check it out again.

Also, I can usually read Stephen King and not have any problems - with most of his books. I mean yeah, there are some blood and guts in his stories, but there's also huge chunks of actual story there too. It's the "killing for the sake of killing" type of stories that make me hide under the covers at night.
posted by patheral at 6:57 AM on December 29, 2010

Best answer: What you're asking about is commonly referred to as the paradox of horror (it's closely related to the paradox of tragedy). Several of the above posters have provided explanations that have been proposed to explain away the paradox, but I think it's worthwhile for you to understand that this is still a question up to debate. This is a philosophical and psychological issue that many theorists are still grappling with.

A good starting point if you want a greater consideration of the paradox of horror is Noel Carroll's book "A Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart." It's a pretty fun book, but it's also hardcore philosophy.
posted by meese at 2:11 PM on December 29, 2010

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