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     When a very intelligent, albeit somewhat inexperienced,
college student waxed eloquent on how much she "really liked" the
writings of Stephen King, I began to wonder, "Why horror?"  As a
writer myself, it seemed important that I figure out what's
behind the huge and growing genre of literature which goes by
that name.  "Horror!"  It can't be simply the result of the
megabuck ballyhoo of the giants of the best-seller book
industry -- what some small publishers call simply, "New York."
     Why do people think they like to be made afraid?  They like
it even when they know it's artificial and superficial and make-
believe?  It doesn't seem possible that New York can simply by
advertising drive people into such a deep relishing of the
feeling of fear.
     True fear, in the midst of danger, triggers the flee-or-
fight reaction.  Fear alone, without either subsequent fight or
flight, is totally ineffective and no defense at all.  Also, it
is extremely unpleasant to be left in fear, with real danger
threatening, and no action pending.  So why do people think they
like to be made afraid, by what they read?
     The hypothesis which best explains the popularity of the
horror genre, I have concluded, is the following:  Many people
live lives that are so dull, so tame, so safe, so boring, and so
devoid of any of the risks that life in a primitive situation used 
to provide regularly, that they need, and have come to enjoy, 
anything which causes a gush of adrenaline.  People need it.  It's 
invigorating, somehow.
     Some go into roller coaster riding; some like sky diving, or
bungee-cord jumping.  They seek danger, or the illusion of
danger, or the bodily sensation of danger.  Most of those who do
those things keep some sort of mental safety net in place:  "The
roller coaster device has passed EPA inspection."  "The cord will
hold."  "Sky diving is safer than driving to the grocery store."
These reassurances may or may not be logical -- it hardly seems
to matter.
     The human imagination is so vivid, and the invention of
writing/reading such a remarkable device, that Stephen King can
scare some people -- lots of people evidently -- thereby
providing for them that adrenaline jag, while they are sitting
safely inside their locked houses.  Their mental safety net is
the knowledge that there really are no goblins, no gremlins, no
ghouls, no ghosties.  But they suspend disbelief and get into the
story as if, and the adrenaline flows.
     For a while I tried the hypothesis that maybe more people
really do believe in those mythological entities than we thought,
but I find little evidence of it.  It's the illusion of fear they
want.  The imagined danger is enough to trigger the adrenaline
injection, even though they know, in the intellect somewhere,
that there really is no danger.
     Of course, for persons weak in body, perhaps the adrenaline
roused by reading could constitute a danger.  My own spoof of
censorship and detective stories, called THIS'LL KILL YA, makes
this leap.  People die from reading the book, even after being
warned by labels on the cover, "Caution!  Reading this book may
be hazardous to your health."  But that's anti-censorship
fiction; there are few known cases in which the reader really was
killed by reading a book.  I personally don't know of any.
     Why doesn't the horror in Kosovo, or Bosnia, or Haiti,
arouse more adrenaline than it does?  Why is reading Stephen King
a pleasure, and seeing pictures of starving and bleeding children
on the evening news so unpleasant that many refuse to look?
     It's the adrenaline that people want, not a motivation to
change things.  I wonder if Stephen King sells well in ghettos,
like the South Bronx.  I wonder if the horror genre siphons off
energy and caring that could go into trying to change things.
     I called several local hospital gift shops, to ask if the
horror genre did well there, where quite a bit of real fear is
nearer the surface than usual.  The responses were inconclusive;
the clerks and managers hadn't noticed.  They are paying little
or no attention to that detail.
     Isn't there enough horror in the real world?  Many of my
activist friends do not read fiction at all, not Stephen King's,
and not mine.  They're busy, trying to change the world.  But
most people are not trying to change the world.  A NEW YORKER
cartoon from decades ago comes to mind.  One female fat-cat says
to another, "There's enough unhappiness and misery in the soap
operas, without having to put up with it in real life, too!"

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Copyright © 1999 Harry Willson

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