I like horror movies—not all of them, obviously, and not necessarily for being horror movies, but I also like horror movies as a thing, a genre, a cultural phenomenon. Because of this and the fact that I suffer from clinical knowitallism I have Opinions on the subject and things relating to it, and my Opinion on Stephen King’s 1982 essay "Why We Crave Horror Movies" is this:



I mean, I believe he is actually, substantively wrong in this piece, not 100% but in a fundamental way, but because I don't have the resources to prove that and because I wrote the first, much shorter version of this screed for a communications class, I’ma argue it at least fails as a persuasive essay.

King offers a few answers to the implied question of why we watch horror movies, and specifically why we go to watch them in a theatre (not the only way to view them when the essay was published but certainly proportionally more common than today)—we go to demonstrate our bravery, we go to "re-establish our feelings of essential normality" (paragraph 4)—but the bulk of his explanation for why we crave horror movies is, deceptively simply, that they are fun.

There are four problems with this statement, “we crave horror movies because they are fun”, as a foundation, and those are the words “we”, “crave”, “horror movies”, and “fun”. The nouns are insultingly easy to dispute and the “we” is plain insulting—King’s basically claiming to speak for horror viewers as a population, for everybody who has ever voluntarily watched a horror movie, and just . . . no. Speak for yourself, you do not speak for me.

Of course it’s easy for King to assume that his experience is universal. He’s privileged, both in the sense of specific entitlement because by the time of writing he’d already achieved professional success, fame and fortune (and to quote Harnick and Bock, “when you’re rich they think you really know”), and in the more general sense that he’s a straight white man. As a straight white man (and a New Englander to boot), a member of the unmarked category and the presumed default human being, King can pretty much get by without thinking about things from the perspective of any so-called “minority” person, while we can never get away from his. The resulting kind of casual, condoned egocentrism, combined with the extra layer of authority he gets from belonging to this socially overvalued group, support King in believing that his perspective is objective, correct, and universal, and of course people are going to take him seriously. It helps too that he’s basically addressing his peers, Playboy readers of 1982 (when “I read it for the articles” wasn’t necessarily a joke), so he can take this casual, chummy tone and not worry too much about actually arguing any kind of case. The result is a lazy, overgeneralizing piece of prose full of things that, like—Stephen King should know better, right? He’s an expert, he writes the stuff he’s talking about, that’s why we care what he has to say (there’s the rub, what makes this essay especially irritating: King’s an expert; he must be right).

It shouldn’t be surprising that the King and I experience horror differently; not only are we coming to it from different places, we’re talking about different things. I’m sure I haven’t seen most of the movies he’s specifically thinking of and he can’t have seen most of the movies I’m thinking of because in ’82 they didn’t exist. More than that though, the second problem with King’s thesis: “horror movies” is like the Blob. It’s a protean body, permeable and plastic, without clear or constant boundaries, and it contains multitudes.

Sure, "horror movies" sounds like a specific topic, and King’s certainly not the only one to treat it as a consistent, uniform, monolithic entity, to suggest that if you’ve seen one horror movie you’ve seen them all, but that’s kinda just not true. Absolutely, there are patterns that show up again and again, both in terms of content and of structure, that’s what makes it a genre, but just in terms of subject matter . . .

a venn diagram-style representation of a wide range of sub- and sub-subtypes of horror movies

That’s off the top of my head, nothing statistical, and there’s a lot of bleed both between “categories” and off the edges into other fields like fantasy, thrillers, action-adventure—which is why if you’re looking for a specific title at Sonic Boom or BMV or back in the day at a rental place you can’t confine your search to the shelves that say “HORROR”. To further illustrate this diversity . . .

screenshot of powerpoint slide covered in movie postersanother powerpoint slide covered in movie postersyet another powerpoint slide covered in movie posters

The poster selection above is biased towards the recognizable, movies that were groundbreaking, critically successful and/or wildly influential, or in some other way distinctive enough to stand out from among a mass-production industry of derivative McMovies (I haven’t even seen a lot of these yet, and yes, there is at least one Stephen King adaptation on each slide).

Some horror movies are creepy, some are violent, some are both, some are neither. Some age better than others. Some are pure sensationalism, tits and gore wall-to-wall, while others aren't graphic at all; some are highly cerebral and others so lowbrow there's no room for a neocortex. Some films are dead serious or at least bless-their-hearts earnest, while others are more tongue-in-a jarcheek—consider the large body of horror comedy, which can include both parodies of horror films/tropes (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil) and movies that use horror tropes and trappings to satirize things outside themselves (Fido). Some, particularly the relatively young niche of "found footage" films and horror verité, strive for credibility, cultivating realism for its own frightfulness or as a foundation for more fantastic elements, while others, including most horror musicals, run the opposite direction, into the cheerfully unreal, over-the-top and larger-than-life.

screenshot of powerpoint slide covered with posters for horror comedy and horror musical movies

On top of all that variety you’ve got movies that sort of dress like horror movies, using either the set dressing/aesthetic inputs or tropes/content often framed as horror elements, but don’t really feel like horror. Case in point, these all have vampires in them:

screenshot of powerpoint slide covered in posters for movies with vampires in them

Are they identical, or even fungible? Not remotely. Are they horror? Most of them to some degree, but a lot are something else first. (Joey Comeau talks about/struggles with the is-it-or-isn’t-it, genre ambiguity and so on, especially wrt horror comedy, in this 2012 post about The Cabin in the Woods, ultimately proposing that “horror movies are movies that people who like horror movies will like”—tautological, yes, but it’s the truest definition I’ve seen.)

I respect King’s need to be selective in order to keep his essay brief and appropriate to the publication, but instead of narrowing its focus or acknowledging that any kind of variety even exists, “Why We Crave Horror Movies” sweeps all of that under the rug and pretends horror movies are homogeneous. This is a problem not just because it’s inaccurate but because it allows King to exhibit some embarrassingly slipshod reasoning. For example, saying that horror movies urge us to see things in black and white is stupid. Sure, they're not all subtle and nuanced, many horror movies do paint in sharp contrasts of good and evil, human and monster, and so on, but there’s also a massive body of films all about grey shades and ethical complexity of which King should be keenly aware. Not only are examples thick on the ground—one of my favourite films, An American Werewolf in London, was released in 1981, and even allowing for lag between the essay’s completion and appearance in print, werewolf movies have been exploring questions of free will and responsibility since their first major success and standard-setter The Wolf Man—King’s own moral complexity-fest of a story Carrie had already been adapted for film in 1976! To say, in light of that, that horror films are all morally straightforward? That I just don’t get.

screenshot of powerpoint slide with posters for An American Werewolf in London, The Wolf Man, and Carrie

Of course the WTFery doesn’t stop there, but drags us back around to the stickier problems, “crave” and “fun”:

Instead of actually talking about what he means by “fun”, King talks about insanity. A lot. From the first clause, “I think that we’re all mentally ill”, establishing a throughline positing insanity (the word for which “mental illness” is always and only synonym) among humans as ubiquitous, variable only in degree and shape of manifestation. Invoking madness here seems almost inevitable, given the prominent place of disability generally and mental illness (still mostly synonym for insanity) specifically within horror cinema (something I hope to get into in later posts, because this is a complicated can of worms), and King’s application of it as (partial) explanation for horror’s appeal is germane but tautological—we crave horror movies because we’re crazy, and the proof that we’re crazy is that we crave horror movies. Platitudinal, unhelpful, but not really offensive—yet.

The reason we must be crazy to crave horror movies is that they let our inner monsters out to run around in a safe environment and okay, fine, I kind of agree with that. Voyeuristic violence as catharsis for the dark or indigestible content of our own imaginations, sure, the idea’s older than Aristotle and there’s definitely something to it. However, the way King approaches it—“the fun comes from seeing others menaced” (paragraph 6), “if we allow our emotions . . . no rein at all” (7), and my favourite bit, about the care and feeding of the “potential lyncher [that] is in almost all of us” (9)—sits ill with me. It implies to me that King assumes his viewers identify with the monsters, because he does, because that’s what he find “fun”. That we like imagining we’re Leatherface chasing Sally through the bushes with a chainsaw. The choice of lynching as an analogy is particularly disturbing because it basically says “gee I wish I could participate in a violent hate crime, too bad that’s frowned upon, guess I’ll just have to watch a horror movie instead.”

WHAT.

It’s probable that’s not what he meant to say, it’s just there because it sounds punchy, but this is what I mean about this essay and privilege: King doesn’t always think through the consequences of what he’s saying, because King doesn’t have to (either way, not a person I’d want to keep in my life). It’s careless and immature, King’s indifference to the hurt his words might cause, just like the whole essay is careless and immature. Bad assumptions, lazy analysis, he’s not even tidy or consistent, and it’s depressing that this piece is so widely read, often assigned in writing classes as an example and not of what not to do. Funny, too, because King has the pieces here to make a more intelligent argument, he just doesn’t put them together.

Rather than glossing over those pre-“fun” explanations for viewing horror movies (to show that we are not afraid and to re-establish essential normality), King should have opened them up and looked at how they work together with his insanity pseudo-hypothesis.

Showing that we're not afraid is about proving, to ourselves and any external audience, that we can survive fear. Exposing ourselves to frightening situations and coming out alive could be as much a purgative for anxiety as exposing ourselves to enactments of violence is supposed to be for aggression. Supernatural and more fantastic science fictional threats could be especially soothing if we want to reassure ourselves that that (whatever horrible thing we’re watching happen) will never happen to us, and even more mundane nightmares can be bolstering because we would fair better than the characters (especially the early kills). We wouldn’t wander down into the spooky basement, we wouldn’t go off alone. Even if we weren’t armed with the knowledge of genre conventions, we’re smarter than that (this is probably why the scariest movies/scenes for me are ones where the characters are smarter and it isn’t enough, why unlike Comeau I did find parts of The Cabin in the Woods scary in the sense of disturbing, because the characters recognized weirdness and foolishness and tried to do the right things but were manipulated to the level of their own thoughts—they had the appearance of agency but the game was rigged, their attempts to exercise control totally futile).

Genre conventions are also the mechanism behind horror’s function of re-asserting normalcy. King calls horror movies “innately conservative, even reactionary” (4, though he overwrites or amends this in para 11 saying “the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time”) and he’s not wrong—that’s how genre conventions work—although his remarks about ugliness strike me as multiply superficial (not a deep insight, not really the point of physical ugliness onscreen? And not even necessarily true!). Instead, I see horror’s conservatism and its space for radical transformation enacted like all film, theatre, and other liminoid practices as watered-down rites de passage. Engaging with a film separates us temporarily from our own realities, launching us into the film's world and placing us alongside the characters on this journey through a liminal space of heightened experience, suspended rules, indeterminacy, excess, and communitas, finally culminating in reincorporation, the reinstatement of norms and restoration of a social order all the stronger for having been temporarily broken (or not), both on-screen and in our heads. Genre conventions serve to channel the transformative energy of the transitional phase towards the desired end, the same as the rules/norms of other liminoid activities and the traditions that guide liminal ritual through their own internal logic and lexicon of poly-valent symbolism. Narrative rules are followed, the evil is defeated, and life goes back to normal (at least until the sequel, and except when it doesn’t—there's always room to move sideways. . . .).

Speaking of defeating evil, and the reason King keeps mentioning fairy tales and meaning Grimm more than Disney: horror movies as a trend are exceedingly moralistic. Seriously. All about punishing evil and protecting innocence, whether that’s the threat entity seeking to punish whichever unfortunate souls for some trespass in fact or in the skewed logic of the knife-wielding maniac or the justified violence performed by the hero(es)/survivor(s) as revenge for what the entity did to their friends (or to them personally) or to stop it from hurting anybody else, and all about the cautionary tales, horrible bloody tragic consequences of doing whatever. “Whatever” is a shitshow assemblage of inderdictions; offenses can be concrete and legit (not intervening to stop that gang-rape you witnessed), concrete and ridiculous (having sex, particularly while young and female—but oh don't the filmmakers love to revel in showing what they tell not to do), or kind of abstract and subjectively significant (not having faith/believing in something numinous; “playing god” and like hubris). The flipside, of course, is that if we haven’t done the thing so-and-so is getting punished for, we get to feel smug and superior and safe (this is another area I have to come back to, particularly with regard to sex, bodily autonomy, gender policing, and the Final Girl; for now I just had to acknowledge it because I think it’s absurd that King didn’t). Of course even movies that bash viewers over the head with moral messages can dress them up some rather than pushing them across like sermons, wrapping the lessons in corn syrup like a razor blade in a candy bar.

I think King’s partially correct that the primary motive for watching horror movies is to have fun, because they’re supposed to be fun. They’re entertainment. They're not always entertaining for the reasons they set out to be, whatever those reasons are (sometimes a shitty movie is accidental, sometimes it's a labour of love). I say partially because King doesn’t actually talk about fun except to say that horror movies are it; based on what he does say about violence and graham crackers and his elision of “fun” into “crazy”, his definition of fun appears to be “a tolerable substitute for doing things that would otherwise get me locked up”. That takes us back to the catharsis of vicarious violence, but catharsis isn’t the same thing as fun.

King trips over the actual fun part talking about sick jokes and how they can “surprise a laugh or a grin out of us even as we recoil” (11). The way I see it, jokes, horror movies, and every other thing in the freaking universe register as fun/funny based on one two principles: anticipation and incongruity. Humour works by setting experiencers up to expect one scenario/outcome (anticipation) and delivering something different yet still appropriate or otherwise meaningful (incongruity).

A surprise doesn’t necessarily have to be funny to register with the thrill of the unexpectorated, to give us that same flash of shocking (*gasp!*) realization. Scary surprises, both jump scares and successful “oh, shit!” plot twists/reveals, can be particularly fun because our startlement is incongruous with our situation (safe and hopefully comfortable, staring at a screen) as much as the cause is with its own (not to mention the physiological responses, adrenalin etc.; arousal is excitement is intense engagement whatever brings it on).

Anticipation is likewise exciting because we’re on tenterhooks waiting to see if our expectation is correct, and if we don’t get the buzzer-shock we’re rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction because we’re right, we’re clever, we totally saw that coming. Even if the anticipation is for something we don’t want to happen (watching with dread as the character you like but know ain’t gonna make it tiptoes right into the sadistic puzzlemaster’s exquisitely vicious trap), we get the gratification of accurate prediction and either way we're allowed a sigh of relief because at least the wait is over (tension: released). Very often with horror movies (and other media) anticipation and incongruity combine in anticipation of incongruity, where we’re confident this character is gonna bite it but we don’t know how, or we know something’s gonna jump out at us and tense up waiting for it to be over with. Filmmakers love to wind viewers up until the suspense is killing us, relying both on the very “rules” of genre convention as well as internal contextual cues to prime us, baiting us with fakeouts before hitting us with something we never imagined (creatively horrible is still admirably creative). Even movies that completely fail as horror can be analyzed in terms of anticipation and incongruity, and quite often their failure has to do with getting the balance wrong and being either too predictable or too surprising (weird/bizarre/literal/random/surreal/otherwise confounding expectations). The latter can be compelling even in terribleness, occasionally “so bad it’s AMAZING” (Lair of the White Worm, I’m looking at you), but the former are usually just boring.

Then there’s the content again, where horror movies again mirror sick jokes in confronting things that make us uncomfortable—most obviously death and what happens after we shuffle off this mortal coil, but also disease, mutilation, loss of bodily autonomy, loss of free will, loss of self, loss of safety, loss of loved ones either through death or through change and alienation or betrayal and the discovery of something terrible. . . . Like gallows humour, cracking jokes as a coping strategy, attempting to fit a leash of control onto something we can’t control or even understand, horror movies provide tension relief, a sort of mini-catharsis even in absence of purgative vicarious aggression (not all horror movies are violent, after all), allowing us to face our fears in measured doses, in an environment where we can safeword, NOPE, and walk out of the theatre/stop the DVD/close the VLC player window/go back to the Netflix menu. It’s even possible, though I wouldn’t lean too heavily on it, that exposure to this nasty stuff acclimatizes us in a positive way and prepares us for when these things enter our own lives (rather than numbing us to suffering or conditioning us to like it, as critics might suggest).

So yeah, horror movies are fun, King’s right about that, although he’s confused or half-assing his way through what that means, and you don’t have to be insane to enjoy them (but it helps? At least, some forms of mental illness might make some viewers more sensitive to some themes/content, making certain films more effective), and it’s unfortunate that this essay is still circulating because it’s rubbish and an artifact of hegemony. One thing I will say for it, the conclusion is slicker than this one :P

Next up: I honestly have no idea, but I'm open to suggestions.
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