People seem unable to resist the allure of what terrifies and repulses us, but why?
It’s almost October, and the growing chill outside serves as a reminder that the spookiest time of year is slowly creeping upon us. Soon enough, we’ll be skittishly making our way to haunted houses and headless horseman hayrides that send goosebumps down our spines, dizzying us with fear that a monster might jump out and grab us at any second. Mind you, we actually pay a couple bucks to get frightened out of our wits. So, what is it about horror that we can’t resist?
Dr. Margee Kerr, referred to as a “scare specialist,” is a staff sociologist at ScareHouse, a haunted house in Pittsburgh that takes all year to prepare. She told The Atlantic that fear is a natural survival mechanism for threats or danger, so when we’re frightened, our fight-or-flight response is activated. This natural thrill makes some people seek out horror attractions and scary movies.
However, what makes horror most enticing is that, whether we’re in a spooky haunted house or at home watching Freddy vs. Jason, we know that we’re actually in a safe environment. The fear seems strikingly real, triggering the fight-or-flight response and sending a flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine throughout our bodies, but deep down inside we know that we’re not in a life-threatening situation. Basically, the reason why people are so drawn to horror is more related to brain chemistry than personal choice.
But what most people don’t realize about horror is that it can actually stimulate our intellectuality and push us to confront what disturbs us. New research by Gary Vaughn, an associate professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, explored the themes of a popular TV show, American Horror Story: Freak Show. The first episode of AHS Freak Show was the most watched telecast in FX’s history, topping 6 million viewers. Vaughn delved into the show’s plot and characters to see what compelled viewers to follow such a morbid and graphic TV show.
AHS Freak Show revolves around discrimination — those who are classified as “freaks” by “normal” people. But the horrific episodes appeal to the audience because they conclude in reflection: viewers are forced to think about the real definition of corruption and “freakishness.”
"The 'freaks' in the series have their own sense of justice, their own sense of trust - sometimes misplaced - and their own ethics. In many instances, they demonstrate more admirable human qualities than the town's so-called ordinary characters," explains Vaughn. He says AHS Freak Show forces us to confront our intellectual fears about difference and diversity. Why do we jump to stereotype others as good or evil based on appearance?
Essentially, the show instills a sense of thrill around the horror, but it digs deeper at the human instinct to discriminate against others and label what’s different to us as “freakish” or abnormal. Our interest is piqued by the concept of “monsters” embodying traits that might make them more humane than people who look like an average Joe.
While some horror flicks don’t have a deeper meaning beyond a bunch of screaming chicks being chased around with a chainsaw, it’s clear that the deep intrigue generated by fear can drive intellectual stimulation. More importantly, our obsession with horror can challenge our concepts of human nature, bringing the stereotypes surrounding good and evil under scrutiny.