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Analyzing Analyzing Horror

There's something of a cottage industry in dissecting people's interest and love of horror media - I've certainly delved into the discussion, myself. Nonetheless, the sheer number of words put into understanding the genre's appeal is simply staggering, to the point where I find myself asking why horror is widely subjected to unique scrutiny rarely applied to other genres. (Well, maybe porn, but I'm certainly not going to unpack that here.) So, for today's Spooky Season post, we're going to look into why the quest to understand horror's popularity remains a topic as perennial and evergreen as... well, as horror itself. After all, what's scarier than getting meta with media?

To start with, a lot of these articles present an engagement with horror that I find... odd. Many focus on the psychological effect of the fear response, the adrenaline rush that comes with being scared (from the safe distance afforded by being an audience), and even some weird stuff about the performative masculine rite of men showing that they are not, in fact, as scared as any partners (potential or current) they're experiencing the media with. Except... this doesn't really reflect the motivations behind dedicated horror fandom. To borrow a phrase from an ex who was more invested in horror than I was at the time, "this stuff's not scary... it's cool!" And having subsequently attended horror conventions and consumed a significant amount of media across various formats, I have to say that this sentiment describes the attitude of the majority of people invested in the genre. So it's clear that these thinkpieces aren't written by, or, or even about horror fans. Who are they for, then?

One obvious answer for the modern iteration is that these articles are clickbait, where the reader uninterested in horror (but curious why someone they know is, or every why a stranger would be) and the horror aficionado who pulls it up and goes "pff, nope" are of equivalent value - they both clicked the link, after all. Moreso, these are usually fundamentally low-effort pieces, referencing a handful of studies  (if any at all) and presenting a quick rundown of pat explanations. Basic fodder for the content mill. Which is simple enough, except that one could imagine a similar treatment for every genre imaginable: "What's the deal with people who like comedies" for instance, or broad psychobabble about the appeal of romances. And these exist, sure, but not to nearly the same extent as writing trying to explain horror. There are a few factors at work here - one being that horror is more inherently divisive than other genres. It's based around an instinctual reaction (whether you're scared or whether you're intrigued) that will repulse a certain percentage of the audience by default. Indeed, horror, when done well, runs a unique risk - the best works leave plenty of room for the audience to fill in details themselves, an approach that's been part of promotion since the very beginning. With just that little bit of prompting, a potential audience member might conjure up a work terrifying enough that they'll never take a chance on the real thing. How many of us imagined movies far more frightening than ever could be depicted on screen when we caught trailers or ads as kids? Plenty of people whose experiences with horror works never get past this stage are going to wonder what anyone could possibly get out of engaging with the genre, and, in the most charitable interpretation, they're the ones who read (and, most likely, write) these articles.

But there's another factor as work here, one a little more loaded: classism, and, depending on the specific horror media in question, a score of other "-isms." The stereotype is that horror is inherently trashy, and well... it often is. From works that lean into existing prejudices about ethnic and sexual minorities (and let's not the pathologizing of female desire - the lesbian vampire novel Carmilla pre-dates the far more well-known Dracula by 26 years) to industries hell-bent on extracting every possible penny from tired franchises through sequels, remakes, spinoffs, and tie-ins, from the largest studios to the tiniest indies, in movies, books, comics, television, and, of course, games. For every widely-lauded, masterfully-crafted masterpiece, there are dozens of works that are cheap, lazy... often within the same series! The result is a reputation for low-brow, and even hateful, disposable entertainment drawing its appeal from shock value, fodder for the darkest impulses of the unwashed masses. The tendency of horror supporters to not only accept, but embrace the trashiness as part of the fun doesn't help matters much, either. I can't count the number of times I've recommended a horror classic, but had to include the caveat of "just this one, ignore anything after that," but people keep buying all the works I implore friends to skip.

I don't think this baggage is at the forefront of people's minds when they write "why do people enjoy horror" pieces, but it's the context in which these articles exist, and is going to be a factor, consciously or not, in the minds of the readers and writers. Which is a pity - I'd much rather these analyses focus on the ways that fans work around, and even with, the more unfortunate elements of their favorites. "How do you cope with these realities and and how does it shape your personal fandom" is a far more interesting question to me, because it requires discussion, engagement, and reflection. Which, I think, gets to the heart of why the "Why Horror" articles bug me - they could be so much more, and of greater value to the way we enjoy and interact with art. And, freed from the implicit judgement in the framing ("I don't like horror," they seem to say, "and neither do you, so what's going on with people who do?") the lens could be applied to so many more types of work. I've never really gotten into military shooters like the Call of Duty franchise, for instance, but I'd love to hear someone who is into them unpack why, and the ways the deal with the themes, both implicit and explicit, of jingoism, American exclusivity, and the moral imperative of violence. I'd probably scroll right past a clickbait-y "Why Do People Like Military Shooters," but I love to dig deep with someone who knows, and cares, about what they're saying.

I hope that's what we do here at Never Say Dice, all year round, but most especially in this Spookiest of All Seasons. Because, y'know... even when it's not scary, the stuff is cool. And we love to talk about it with you.

- B

Send questions, comments, and "why do people write articles about articles" articles to or "X"-press yourself @neversaydice2.


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