What makes a good horror story? We ask that question of ourselves at THE DARK SIRE almost every day because we look for it, good horror, that is. Horror has been part of human literature since time immemorial. You can find it in Gilgamesh, the earliest known piece of literature written some 6,000 years ago. What we, in this modern age, consider “horror” crystallized with the publication of Mary Blythe Shelley’s Frankenstein, the first modern horror novel. But Aristotle wrote about the cathartic nature of horror in his Poetics centuries before.
A good horror story is designed to elicit its hair raising effects by exploring the human psychological phenomena of fear, disgust, and revulsion. These are emotions that poison and undermine our lives with anxieties. Aristotle felt that we needed to flush these emotions from our systems and clear the air. That was as true in 350 B.C.E as it is now, and because of that, modern horror is the direct descendant of classical Greek tragedy. Throughout horror fiction (and poetry) recognition scenes abound, gore practically drips from the pages. In his Poetics, Aristotle said that tragedy is characterized by its interest in the pity and fear of the audience, two of the emotions that modern horror directly feed upon.
Readers pick up a horror story and read it knowing that they will be immersed in the horrific events that will befall one or more of the characters just as the ancient audience knew that they were going to witness the murder of Agamemnon in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon or the blinding of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tryannus.
To Aristotle - and to us today, horror is cathartic. It purifies our systems. It leaves us healthier in the knowledge of our own well-being, having steered our fears into harmless channels. Maybe that’s just what we need during the time of renewed COVID concerns and shutdowns. We confront real fears daily. We need something to redirect those fears and act as an Aristotelian anodyne. And maybe a good horror story will do just that. In fact, a key to good horror is that it follows a narrative that appeals to the psyche of the readers: the setup, the conflict, and most importantly, the resolution. It is the resolution that allows for the emotional release. The greater the scare, disgust, revulsion the greater the delight at the resolution. This catharsis allows us to access emotions with which we are uncomfortable. In effect, it allows us to deal with emotions that we are not likely nor want to experience in our normal lives. It gives us the chance to indulge ourselves in the negative emotions that we spend our waking hours trying to avoid. And in doing so, we are better prepared to deal with real-life horrors, such as COVID.
And that's the best part of reading Horror. It takes us into a make-believe world that we can escape from. It literally lets us satiate our curiosity without our having to really live it. Horror stories highlight the uncomfortable but in a safe environment. Since none of us want to feel real fear, a horror story allows us to feel the symptoms of that fear while we are safely nestled in our favorite reading chair, or curled up on the couch with our favorite dog taking up the next cushion. You can empathize with the characters in the story, but, at the same time, you know you are not part of their dilemma. When you put the story down, you may want to look under your bed, but, intrinsically, know that you really don't have to because nothing's there.
Aristotle's idea of catharsis, then, proves true in reading horror. By reading horror, we live out our fears so that we can relieve tension, anxiety, and fear. And by doing so, we can better face the real horrors of our current world, COVID included.
At THE DARK SIRE, we look for stories that will appeal to our reader’s horror connection. Reading any issue of TDS will help, especially Issue 5 (which is the Anniversary/Halloween issue). If you want some suggestions to get you started, read: Gina Easton’s Tainted Love (Issue 1), Carl Hughes’ The Mask (Issue 2), and J. Pinaire’s Becoming (Issue 5). These stories are sure to please any horror lover!
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