Like literary mad scientists in our labs, horror writers mix verbal solutions and concoct new terrors to unleash on the world. We take the wholesome goodness of something like a child’s laugh and pervert it until the reader feels a chill at its mention. Most cultures have a Halloween or Day of the Dead, where death is not a specter floating in the background, but the guest of honor.
Why do we celebrate death? What is the obsession with the macabre that makes us want to be afraid and stare at scenes no one should ever see? Why do we need horror?
For all its gore and guts, monsters and devils, fears and frights, horror is an art. Like all art, it has beauty, strange though it may be. Since all beholders are different, this beauty is not seen by everyone. All art forms share this challenge. Not everyone can appreciate the grace and strength of ballet, ordered chaos of abstract paintings, or rage-filled catharsis in rap and heavy metal. Artists practice for hours until each step, stroke, and verse is executed with a seemingly effortless perfection. Just as every pas and pirouette adds to the beauty of the dance, each carefully placed shadow and echoing footstep adds beauty to horror.
Beyond beauty, art feeds needs we may have not known we had. Art gives society the shared experiences that bind us together as one body with the senses it needs to thrive. As a world body, we see the harmony of colors, hear the melodies in life, and laugh at the absurd. We each appreciate these things differently, but we learn to perceive them through art.
Horror addresses fears. The dark. The unknown. The mad, wild, and insane. Evil in its infinite disguises. Pain. Bloodletting and disembowelment. Above all these, sits the timeless king of fears, ole’ Mr. Death. These are things which can never be controlled and, as such, cannot be avoided. What cannot be foreseen cannot be stopped. Madness defies logic and understanding. Evil always ignores the rules of righteousness and the safety these rules provide. There will be pain. Injuries will happen. Mr. Death is coming.
Horror tales are our waking nightmares with lessons to share. We must face the monster in the dark and feel the fear. If the fear grows too great, close the book, turn off the movie, look away, and feel safe again. After the terror subsides, we can be bold enough to look again, replay that movie, and open that book. If scared enough times by the monsters hiding in the dark, fear scares us less. The monster is not as big as we thought; the dark, not so mysterious. We can face uncertainty because we have seen these battles play out on screen or in pages. When we meet Mr. Death as we all must, we can match its empty-eyed stare with a steely-eyed glare of our own.
We learn to feel our fear and still do what needs to be. Acting in spite of fear is the essence of bravery.
So, write on, you Stealers of Sleep and Knitters of Night Terrors. Make the witch cast her spell, the ghost rattle his chains, and the werewolf howl at the moon. Bring Mr. Death in all his many forms. Create the nightmares the people of world need so badly. After the screaming and the tears, they will all thank you and line up again for another fright.