The Value of Horror Stories

Why do people like horror stories? What's the point? It may be different than you think.


The first thing you have to realize is that fiction is a highly advanced form of play. And, what's the purpose of play? Animals play to prepare themselves for the future. Lion cubs play hide and seek, chasing, wrestling, fighting, and killing. These are the skills that they will need for life.

When a lion becomes fully mature it no longer plays, it doesn't need to. There are some animals that never really grow up. Domesticated animals are usually neotenous, or child-like. Pigs are like baby boars, dogs are like baby wolves, cats are like baby panthers, etc.

Humans are neotenous our entire lives. This is why we play our entire lives, and why we can learn our entire lives. The type of play that you're involved with will depend on your environment. A child that has had a safe, happy, and protected life will probably play nice games. Most people don't have that experience of life though, and those nice games won't prepare you for the hard things in life. People naturally adapt their play to better prepare them for their expected future.

For instance, in the Nazi concentration camps the adults tried to distract children from the situation by getting them to play games. But the children invented their own games. The games that naturally emerged were ideally suited to prepare them for their reality. One such game is where a row of kids would stand across from a single child. The one child would close his eyes, and someone would punch him. Then he would open his eyes and be able to question the people in line. They would all deny it, and it was his job to be able to determine who was lying. Military psychologists couldn't design a better training program to prepare people to be able to stay calm, keep concentrated, and detect a lie while being in physical pain.

Fiction is a highly complex form of play because it's not just about a single skill, or even a set of skills, it's about all of life. A narrative is showing human behavioral patterns: how we make decisions, why, who's good, who's evil, what's valuable, consequences, and the behavior patterns of other humans throughout their lives. This is an immense amount of information. A good story can contain more useful information for life than any other form of communication. And, it contains all of this information is a safe place, a virtual reality. Fiction allows us to focus our awareness on the important parts of life and become aware of the key pieces so that we can live better lives. It's more condensed than life itself, it's beyond reality, it's a hyperreality.

That's why play and fiction exist; now, our main subject - horror. Life isn't all rainbows and unicorns. The underlying fabric of life is tragic. A happy ending is just a story that hasn't ended yet. We all die in the end. Some people live on, you may say, but they will die later. Everything that has ever been created will be destroyed. Everything that has ever been done will be forgotten. How do we confront such tragedy? Do we decide it's too overwhelming and that it's best to cut this suffering short? Do we go insane in the face of absurdity? Do you confront it with defiance? Do you redeem the suffering of life by voluntarily confronting it? Do we lock values into place for all of eternity as we move through life? There are volumes and volumes of books written in philosophy and psychology about these subjects, but the stories we tell about these things are more important because they are what provide the examples for us to imitate or to avoid. Narratives are the ideal way for us to decide how we will confront the suffering and tragedy of life.

Let me emphasize how powerful this influence is. "The Sorrows of Young Werther" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is about a young man that is in love with an older woman who is engaged to another man. He struggles with what he should do. He thinks about killing the other man, but won't do it because it violates his morals. So, he kills himself instead. This book is what launched the 24-year-old Goethe into fame. He wrote it in less than 6 weeks. So many young men committed suicide in similar clothes to the Werther character, with similar pistols, with similar letters, with the book by their side, that in the late 1700s multiple countries banned the book. That's how deeply narratives affect the human soul. We humans are made to structure our lives around narratives, because our lives are narratives.

All life is tragic, but human life goes beyond tragedy. Humans have a unique ability to experience empathy, to feel what other people feel. This allows us to be nice and good. It also allows us to be evil. Once you understand how you can be hurt, you understand how to hurt someone else. Now, you can torture. This desire to hurt people to see them hurt is malevolence. It's a unique human capacity, and it's what we consider truly evil. Most incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder are from experiencing true malevolence in either someone else, or in ourselves. But, we are going to confront it, so how can we learn to handle it? (Many people don't realize that there is such a thing as post-traumatic growth. This is where people that encounter a situation that is traumatizing become stronger and more resourceful afterward. It's more common than PTSD. How do we do that?)

The natural state of life is anxiety. If you take a cat and put it into a completely new place it will be anxious. The first thing it will do is freeze, then it will look around, then it will sniff around. Slowly it will start to explore the area, as it becomes more aware of the area, as it learns more about its new world, the less anxious it becomes. It's the same with humans. Anxiety is the initial state of life, being anything other than anxious comes from learning.

We are thrown into life, we don't choose it, it's chosen for us. The world is a confusing place, life is tragic, we are anxious, we encounter evil and malevolence, and if all of this isn't enough there are also monsters.

It's easy to find real monsters in the world, the news loves to make them famous. Can you handle an encounter with a monster? How would you know? What would you do?

There are certain patterns that are built into our minds and into the world. Think about a dragon. What is a dragon? It's a predator. The ultimate predator for medium-size mammals. Guess what humans are, medium-size mammals. Dragons are a combination of predatory reptile, plus predatory feline, plus predatory bird. Imagine a crocodile, plus a lion, plus an eagle. Now imagine that that animal breathes fire. It's the ultimate predator. That's what dragons symbolize, and that's why they're important. This same idea has taken other forms, griffins are part lion and part eagle, and chimeras are part lion and part snake, but no matter what form it takes the encounter with the predator is something that we as humans need to learn how to handle to live life.

These types of patterns dominate fiction, and especially fantasy and horror. Vampires are attractive people that suck the life out of you, aliens are strangers that you don't know how to interact with, werewolves are humans that hide a beast within, Jekyll and Hyde is a splitting of the personality, Frankenstein is the perfect thing that we try to create which goes horribly wrong and destroys us, zombies are death itself and deaths hunger to consume life.

Horror is nothing other than humans confronting the tragedy, malevolence, and monsters that are in the world in a place where you don't have to experience the horrible consequences afterward. A place where you can confront your own fears and limitations and still come out alive. A place where you can confront the evil without and the evil within and try to find a way to redeem the value of life and dig some meaning out of it in the face of such overwhelming odds. Life is what made horror, and horror is made for life.

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You can find more of what I'm doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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