Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Guest Pod: The Appeal of Horror by Dean Harrison

Today in the Pod, my long time friend and colleague, Dean Harrison agreed to share a post about the appeal of horror. With the my upcoming attendance to the Horror Writer's Association annual conference this June, it only seemed fitting. -M

 The Appeal of Horror by Dean Harrison

“Why do you write scary stuff? Why not write something the whole family can read? Why can’t you write something nice and happy? Why don’t you write a children’s book?”

Those are a sample of questions about my fiction that I have fielded from relatives over the years and is not surprising.

Many in the mainstream don’t understand the appeal of horror as a genre. They turn their noses up at it and label it as nothing more than garbage lacking in value, and void of any insight into the human condition. They believe it offers nothing but cheap thrills, blood, gore and sex, and  that it teaches no moral lessons beneficial to society.

But if they look beyond the onslaught of splatter-punk and Stephenie Meyer novels, they might find their negative perception of the genre to be wrong. From William Shakespeare to Stephen King, storytellers for centuries have used their talent to shine a light on the darkness within us all, a darkness which some in the mainstream are too afraid to face.
In horror, a character is put in a situation where they must confront their worst fear or else suffer a terrible fate, such as death. Those kinds of stories reflect the good and the bad of human nature, and expose what human beings are capable of when thrust into extreme situations, and the heroic acts they perform when pushed to the brink. I strive to illustrate this in my fiction, and so do the countless others who write within the genre.
Horror evokes a visceral, emotional response and an intense and prolonged feeling of fear. It is one of the oldest forms of storytelling, according to Michael West, author of The Wide Game.
What makes [horror] relevant today, West said in a Facebook interview, is its ability to help us “deal with our own fears, to explore the human condition, real world problems, and injustices through allegory, and to continue to provide a safe outlet for our emotions.”
Horror stories, in essence, are character studies. Just look at such writers as Jack Ketchum (The Girl Next Door), Brian Keene (The Rising), and J.F. Gonzalez (Survivor). You will find stories of human beings forced to rise up and confront evil, to fight for the survival of those they love and the things they care about. Even classics written by the likes of William Faulkner (Sanctuary), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) have something to say about the dark side of human nature.
Some people say we as humans are inherently good, but we all have a bad side. According to Ty Schwamberger, editor of Fell Beasts, it is that bad side that comes out when we watch the news “or almost marvel at the destruction that some madman caused on the highway.”
Michael Knost, editor of Legends of the Mountain State: Ghostly Tales from the State of West Virginia, has a slightly different view of horror, and why it holds such appeal. He says it’s actually beneficial to our mental health.
“Horror is the only literary genre that focuses on the excitements of fear, fright, terror, apprehension and dread,” Knost said. “It is a genre that takes on the goal of making its reader actually feel one of the variants of this emotion.”
And because of the emotional elements involved, Knost said we shouldn’t surprise ourselves with the “mass appeal for these particular styles of literature and cinematic experiences.”
“After all,” Knost continued, “the majority of our emotions are processed by our brain's limbic system. When endorphins reach the opioid receptors of the highly emotional limbic system, we experience pleasure and a sense of satisfaction.”
According to Knost, that means horror emotions are created by endorphins, which give us pleasure, much like those from breathing, sexual satisfaction and hunger.
“Taking all this into consideration,” Knost concluded, “the horror genre is very important to our mental well being, keeping us emotionally stable and as far from depression as possible.”
Elizabeth Massie, author of Wire Mesh Mothers, believes horror is “dread to the nth degree, a state of being that in the first moment of its emergence replaces everything else in the human heart and mind.”
“And in this brutal moment,” Massie said, “some of the most powerful stories of human strength, weakness, compassion, cruelty, courage, and love can be born.”

According to Massie, good horror fiction deals with the most basic of human emotions. Stripping away the fluff of the ordinary day-to-day, it gets “down, dirty, dangerous and gritty to see how characters will either face up to or run from their circumstance.”
When done well, Massie concluded, horror can offer “insight into who we are, why we act as we do, and the quite beautiful desire humans often have to come together and unite with each other against the direst of situations.”
Horror can also have a mix of other genres such as romance, comedy and action all in the same story, said Thomas A. Erb, editor of Death Be Not Proud.

“It is not all about the blood splatter,” Erb said. “It is about fear--internal and external.” He added that everyone loves to be scared.
 “I believe it is in the human condition to wonder about the unknown and to love to fear it,” he continued. “If we can’t explain it, we will let our devious little imaginations create far greater and vile things that truly exist at the bottom of the lake or dank basement of our house.”
Erb also believes that we as a race need to have fear.  “Fear of anything. It is through fear that we truly live.”

“When we read or watch a truly terrifying book or film, we live vicariously through those characters,” Erb concluded.

And it’s when we feel the panic and horror of losing what we have in our lives that we find value in it.

***You can find more on Dean Harrison at his website.
He's also done some previous posts with us: THESE UNQUIET BONES and an interview.

Next time, a Game Pod with me and G. Fun times will be had!

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