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The Allure of Horror

--By Scott Nicholson

What draws us to scary stories, and what compels people to tell or write them?

Horror is an enduring genre that has roots in prehistoric campfire stories, became a part of early literature in works like “The Odyssey” and “Beowulf,” was prominent in much of Shakespeare’s work, then became a literary form in its own right with “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” which were published in the 1800s. While the genre has had an inconsistent presence in the marketplace, stalwarts like Stephen King and Dean Koontz still have automatic spots on the bestseller lists. Do these stories really have a higher purpose or are they just thrilling entertainment? I asked some of North Carolina’s writers why they delve into the spooky stuff, and why readers find the chills appealing.

“Scary stories fill in the blanks of our lives,” said Raleigh writer and literature professor Michael Jasper. “They put a face on the noises in the basement in the middle of the night or explain why someone had to die unexpectedly. They are a kind of escape valve, a link to the past when our ancestors told stories around the fire to explain what went bump in the night.”

Joseph Nassise, president of the Horror Writers Association and author of “Riverwatch” and "Heretic" said, “All of us have lost loved ones, have known tragedy, have been scared, or confused, or under stress. Horror fiction allows us to find a release for this. We can deal with the horrors found within the pages of a horror novel, and that in turn provides some catharsis for the horrors that we might not be able to dismiss so easily in our daily lives.”

Most horror fans believe that the genre has grown up over the years, though horror is often considered an arena for juvenile and prurient delights rather than the addressing of serious social problems. However, authors like Stewart O’Nan, Peter Straub and Ray Bradbury are well-respected in literary circles.

“It’s become more sophisticated,” said Thomasville’s Julie Anne Parks, author of the Blowing Rock, N.C.-based novel “Storytellers” and numerous short stories. “I think modern horror tends to explore more psychological aspects of life than the boogeyman-in-the-bedroom closet kind. Whether we admit it or not, we all have a dark sidesome obviously darker than others. It’s humanity, and the hopeful triumph of good over evil.”

D.G.K. Goldberg of Charlotte, who has published numerous short stories in addition to the modern gothic “Doomed to Repeat It,” said that the trauma of real life is so daunting that fictional monsters can seem mundane by comparison. “Life is a smooth path and a little escape via fiction can be restorative,” Goldberg said. “We can’t all take a two-week cruise or hang out in a nice castle with servants at our beck and call when the washer breaks down or we get speeding tickets. But we can escape into novels and stories where the villains are manageable. Horror as a genre is often essentially a tad moralistic, the bad guys often get their comeuppance, the good guys frequently win, and the world makes sense.”

Many longtime horror buffs don’t enjoy the gory, violent fare that has become the image most people have of horror: blades, buckets of blood, and plotless exercises in running up body counts. The stories that draw the largest audiences and achieve a lasting popularity often focus on characterization rather than action.

“I like a horror story that doesn’t drown the reader in gore, but shows us something new about humanity and human nature in spite of the horrific elements,” Jasper said. “A chance for redemption, a second chance at life, a chance to undo a mistake. Sometimes it just takes a zombie or a crowd of bloodthirsty cultists to show us the true meaning of life.”

Doug Hewitt of Mayodan, author of “Raising Khane” and “Spear,” also believes that horror stories can be an important learning tool. “I enjoy watching horror movies with my children, and I encourage them to read scary stories,” he said. “It helps them to bring up the subjects of death and fear, subjects that are not discussed enough in today’s politically correct society.”

Drew Williams, author of “Night Terrors” and co-author with Nassise of the collection “Spectres & Darkness,” thinks even the worst horror literature is still a cut above television. “Stories of supernatural antagonists teach us that we have the power to rise above our daily situations and become better and stronger,” Williams said. “Horror novels and stories create modern day myths and heroes. No other genre does that.”

Dale Bailey of Hickory is also a college professor, along with Jasper and Williams. Bailey is author of the academic book “American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula In American Popular Fiction” as well as the novels “The Fallen” and "House of Bones" and the collection “The Resurrection Man’s Legacy And Other Stories.”

“I think horror fiction gives expression to psychological materials otherwise taboo in our culture,” Bailey said. “It’s a lot like comedy in this respect. Comedy frames culturally taboo materialoften sexual or politicalwith humor. Horror takes similar materialsex again, but also issues relating to death, violence, and bodily integrityand frames it inside forms that make it safe or acceptable to think about.”

But, come on, Dale, is this stuff just mindless cheese, or is there really a higher purpose?

“There’s absolutely a higher purpose," Bailey insisted. “If we didn’t find a way to talk about those aspects of life our culture doesn’t want to talk about directlyif we just repressed themthen they would have the potential to paralyze us, or worse. Art, including horror fiction, is incredibly important.”

“Each life makes its own imitation of immortality.”-- Stephen King

-- Originally published in the Watauga Democrat. Copyright 2003 by Scott Nicholson.

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