A while ago, I ended up thinking about the purpose of the horror genre after doing some research into an interesting-looking computer game (that is way too modern to run on my vintage computer, but which made me curious nonetheless) called “What Remains Of Edith Finch”.
From what I heard, the premise of the game is that you play as a character called Edith Finch who is investigating her abandoned family home in order to uncover information about a family curse that has doomed all of the members of her family to bizarre, untimely and/or horrific deaths.
Intrigued by this macabre premise, I read reviews, looked at some gameplay footage and even read the TV Tropes page for the game. Yet, even without playing it, it had a surprising effect on me. Even though a lot of reviews I read claimed that it wasn’t a horror game, I was filled with a lingering sense of despair, unease and nervousness for at least a couple of days – just from thinking about the game!
Of course, never actually having played the game, my imagination probably made it a lot worse than it actually is. Yet, the themes of the game (eg: the inevitability of death, danger lurking in everyday locations, bereavement etc…) really didn’t have a very good emotional effect on me. It was kind of like how watching the “Final Destination” films tend to make me feel extremely paranoid about everything for a fair while afterwards.
It was then that I remembered why I don’t tend to look at as much stuff in the horror genre as I used to. Or, rather, I only really tend to look at more “light-hearted” things in the horror genre these days. Things like horror-themed comedies, cheesy monster and zombie movies, stylised gothic stuff, silly paranormal thriller TV shows, retro horror games with unrealistic graphics, cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi horror, horror-themed action games etc…
This, of course, made me think about the role of the horror genre. I would argue that the role of the horror genre isn’t to make the audience feel more afraid. Yes, it should scare the audience temporarily sometimes, but the audience needs to be able to “disconnect” from the horror fairly soon afterwards. As soon as something in the horror genre starts adding fear to the audience’s everyday lives (even just for a day or two), then I would argue that it has failed.
So, if the horror genre isn’t supposed to make people’s everyday lives more scary, what’s the point of the horror genre?
Thrills, enjoyably silly melodrama, emotional catharsis, cynical laughter, escapism, retro nostalgia, atmospheric locations, artistic experimentation, something to accompany the heavy metal music you’re listening to, feeling like a badass because you aren’t scared by the silly monster on the screen etc… I could go on for a while.
The point of the horror genre is to allow us to look at “horrible” things in a safe way. To laugh at the things that frighten us, to cheer for the main characters, to feel tough because we don’t faint when we see silly monsters and/or copious amounts of stage blood, to distract us from the very real horrors that greet us every time we watch the news, to make us feel smarter than the characters on the screen etc…
As paradoxical as it sounds, good horror might scare us for a while but it should leave us feeling less afraid afterwards.
Good horror shouldn’t be a razor-sharp sword of Damocles constantly dangling above our heads, it should be a thick iron shield that we can use to protect ourselves against any fears that we encounter in our everyday life.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂