27 January 2010

Why do we read horror?

I'm taking a class right now called Forms of Fiction: Horror. It's exactly what it sounds like: a literature class focusing on horror stories. Yes, I go to art school. I get to read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Secret Lives of Monster Dogs, and go to class two times a week to sit around with a bunch of other horror dorks and talk about it. I expected all of this, and I've been waiting a few semesters to get into this class.

What I didn't expect to encounter hit me yesterday. Real discussions about not just writing style, plot devices, character development or effectiveness of suspense or drama, but questions being posed like, "Why do we like horror?"

I didn't have an answer. It's something I have definitely thought about, but never really forced any conclusions out of myself toward. I have been a total geek for zombie lore since I was fourteen when some fellow outcast kid on my bus loaned me a VHS copy of the original Dawn of the Dead. I watched it four times in two days, just amazed. It was like someone kicked open a door that I had always passed thinking it was spare molding on a blank wall. And over the years, I've questioned it. Why am I so drawn to zombies? Why do I buy books breaking their idealogies into metaphors for human nature, culture, and society? Is it the blood and rotting flesh? Is it the limbo between life and death? Is it simply an attraction to the unknown?

I, at some point, deduced that the commentary on human nature is really what intrigues me. The idea that our brains are shaped by the ethics and mores of the society we are reared in, but that at our core, we are animals. For all of the progress, knowledge, technology, innovation, emotion, learned restraint, traditions, expectations of civility that a few thousand years has yielded via mankind, we, as a species, are still as base as the others on our planet. We require food, we feel the urge to travel, we crave company and the need to be a part of a group, yet inherently know we are alone as sentient beings, and when it really comes down to it, we'll save our own ass first.

And of course, I didn't realize it that afternoon in my mom's living room hogging the VCR in incredulous wonder, but the meat (pun intended) of the philosophical and social commentary of zombie flicks is in the living characters, and their responses to the undead counterparts. The ideals and values that people cling to in a post-apocalyptic world versus the mindset of necessity. When manners, social graces, formalities, and preconcieved notions of human interaction have been erradicated, man becomes a science experiment, stripped to pure instinct and emotion--dirty, volatile, selfish, violent, and malevolent.

So, why do we read horror?

Burton, my professor, quoted Stephen King as a contribution, who said horror literature is a means for us to take out the monster, play with it for a while, and put it back. Who is the monster? The monster is the shadow. Burton pointed us toward some light Jung reading, which really just organized all of my thoughts on the matter into something much more concise. "The Shadow", according to Carl Jung, is basically your unconscious. It's all of the shit that makes you you, that you're not aware is even there. The idea is that fate is a myth, that things don't just happen for no reason, you're not attracted to certain people 'out of nowhere', and that when you meet someone you absolutely detest, it's really that you hate the things about them that are a part of your shadow.

I already know this. I don't really hate anyone, but I can think of a few people I completely despise. And over the years (I'm so old and wise and sage now, and the ripe old age of 21), I've learned things about myself I seriously never expected. Things I thought I was the entire opposite of. Things that people I didn't understand my attraction toward have brought out. Not all of them are good, but through this whole lifelong process of getting to know yourself (that I hope I live long enough to complete, in some form), I've figured out what it is about me that I see in those that I dislike. I have always known everyone you meet is your mirror, I suppose I just didn't grasp how effectively the mind can separate itself; how efficiently the unconscious can mislead the conscious.

We read horror out of curiosity for the darkness that lies in us all, at that inherent level, that a majority of us now accustomed to a civilized society will never fully witness firsthand. We read horror, so I have decided at this point, to satiate those urges that are a part of us. I remember in eighth grade, I decided of my own volition to go to church for about six months, because I genuinely had no idea what Christianity entailed and I wanted to know why everyone thought it was so cool. I had some qualms right off the bat, and made the decision to leave when my pastor told me I was a bad person to question the Bible, or anything it had to say. I remember one of my biggest issues was the idea that God made man in his own image, loves him unconditionally, yet curses him with grief for having natural sexual urges. It made no sense to me. Likewise, I think humans naturally have inclinations toward malice, violence, anger, sex, apathy, greed, and selfishness. I'm not saying if you got it, flaunt it. But denying the things that make one human is a denial of life. Those urges must be addressed.

Carl Jung says, "Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions."

Put quite simply, if you repress pieces of your outward being, whether they be good or bad, they unbalance you. Indeed, "the shadow" is not necessarily a bad thing. It's not that cut and dry, just as there are rarely true examples of good versus evil, rather, it's all dependent on a balance. A pure concentration is never an option. We, as humans, are amorphous shades of grey living, breathing, and interacting in a grey world. Have you ever seen a white brain or a black brain? No. That's what I thought.

It's important to get to know yourself. It's important to explore your shadow, and make decisions on the kind of person you want to be based on what you've go to work with and how it relates to your world. I think it's also important to acknowledge your basic human traits, and find ways to exercise them. Reading horror literature or watching zombie flicks has worked for a lot of people for a long time, but it's not the only way. It's all a matter of balance.

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