With spooky season upon us, the horror genre gathers attention as a Halloween mood setter. The horror genre has enchanted and terrified people for as long as it has existed. While it seeks to thrill and scare, many find the horror genre, whether it be literature or film, enjoyable.
“It fills some sort of need that we vicariously live through,” Rob Weiner, a librarian specializing in pop culture, said. “And certainly films like 'The Exorcist' have become part of our pop culture, again because there's a possibility that could happen. And that scares people but also intrigues them.”
Monsters like zombies, ghosts and vampires have existed in fiction for centuries, Erin Collopy, an associate professor who teaches "The Vampire in East European and Western Culture," said. The vampire, for example, originated in slavic folklore, before being adapted to western European fiction, when it was adapted to the modern archetype of the vampire.
While there are shared characteristics, the vampire changed dramatically as it entered the Western European horror genre, she said. Gone was the undead zombie-like vampire, and the aristocratic byronic hero best encapsulated in Dracula was born, or perhaps un-born. In modern horror, many versions of the vampire exists, from a sexy vampire to a romantic vampire to the demonic vampire.
These monsters represent certain anxieties people may have, which contributes to the draw of the horror genre, Collopy said. Dracula, for example, represented many concerns facing England at the time.
Many of these underlying anxieties are consistent throughout time, she said. And most monster stories incorporate these elements.
“We have a lot of anxiety about the other, people who are different,” Collopy said. “People who come from different places, who could infect us somehow. Also things that are inside of us, this idea that we have evil inside of us and not just good. That's an anxiety as well, that we are not divine and godlike, that we are animalistic.”
Taste in horror has also changed, and subject matter has changed to reflect that, Weiner said. Supernatural movies have increased in popularity, perhaps because they play into viewers' emotions that something wicked and otherworldly could exist.
From the 1980s to the early 2000s, the horror genre revolved around gore, torture porn and slashers like Michael Meyers, he said. The horror genre is in an era of subtlety and supernatural elements, leaving the "What If?" question posed in viewers or readers minds. Regardless of the shape the monster takes, the basic principles of horror remain the same.
“I think they are archetypal,” Weiner said. “Either they’re real life monsters, as in serial killers, or they’re a vampire or a mummy. They're part of our legends and myths that we have processed over thousands of years. There's an archetype theory of a monster. They're interesting. That's the bottom line. They're interesting.”
Horror exists in everyday life. From podcasts to novels to film and TV, the true crime genre also attracts curiosity. Horror and true crime exist side by side, Collopy said. And while there is some shared reasons, horror serves as an escape.
“We want to know these horrible things, we want to see these things that excite your emotions, but you need to be in a safe place to do it,” she said. “So it's a way of releasing anxiety, and generally reinforce the status quo. Usually, not always, but usually the viewer or reader is safe. They're not going to be attacked by vampires.”
Despite there being an abundance of horror in the world, viewers and readers are drawn to horror because it offers a kind of catharsis, Weiner said.
“The stories are fictionalized, and those partaking know that it is just a movie, or just a novel, which allows us to live vicariously through those mediums," he said.
The supernatural element, similarly to superheroes, attracts viewers to certain stories, Weiner said. Viewers enjoy and seek those components.
“Horror is something that speaks to us and it's fun,” Weiner said. “Monsters are fun. The concept of Halloween, getting dressed up, it's a form of cosplay if you will, and it's fun.”