The popularity of horror

Good horror stories are always a hit, no matter if they’re told in books, in movies, or in after-dinner chat. Something happens with these types of stories that almost everyone finds fascinating. I remember that my first “scary” reading was “Leyendas de Guanajuato”. My parents bought the slightly faded copy in an old bookstore and since then I discovered the curious art of being entertained by being scared. In addition, he greatly enjoyed the legends (urban or invented) that came up in children’s conversations: the classic myth of the school that was a pantheon, the doll that changed places, the Ouija board that killed a family, the ghost girl that appeared in road. When did this popular taste for fear arise? What does it mean?

Noël Carroll is the author of a reference book to analyze this fictional genre: “Philosophy of terror or paradoxes of the heart”. According to the American philosopher, terror as we know it arose in full modernity, with the Gothic novels of the late 18th century. The landscapes of romanticism, supernatural beings and darkness are here to stay at least for a while. It was the great nineteenth-century figures who exalted this type of story, particularly in novels, although there are also short stories. Names like Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Sheridan Le Fanu or John Polidori stand out in this period. We have already spoken in past columns about the last three. Shelley, the most gothic of all (she had her beloved’s heart kept in a jar), Le Fanu with her classic novel by “Carmilla” (creator of the first literary vampire) and Polidori with “El Vampiro”, a key work to define the characteristics of this evil creature.

Carroll explains that the current popularity of horror came with the generation of the so-called baby boomers, the first to grow up with television. After the period between the wars the entertainment industry began. Special effects and movie magic gave the monsters a different kind of life. They took shape and face. Mass culture found a new path. Already from the first silent films, terrifying fantasy was explored with works like “Nosferatu”, but now it was different. Carroll calls these periods of the genre “cycles”, both literary and cinematographic. The terror in “Frankenstein” is not the same as that of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, nor is it the same as that of Stephen King’s “Pet Cemetery” or Polanksi’s “Rosemary’s Baby”. They are different times and intentions.

In his book, Carroll starts with two unknowns: How can one be afraid of what one knows does not exist? and why should anyone be interested in terror, since being terrified is unpleasant? After hundreds of pages of arguments and theories, the author deduces: “If terror, to a great extent, is identified with the manifestation of categorically impossible beings, horror works will arouse our attention, our curiosity, and our fascination” (which is stimulated by the narrative structures of the genre). “In addition, that the fascination with the impossible being compensates for the anguish it generates is something that can be made intelligible thanks to what I call the theory of thought about our emotional response to fiction.” In other words, the public “knows” that these terrible beings do not exist in reality, “and, therefore, their description or representation in horror fiction can be a cause of interest instead of flight or another prophylactic initiative.” There are also the monsters in relation to our reality, where new fears coexist with the oldest. Every day the paradox grows: enjoying terror in art, loathing it in everyday life.

The popularity of horror