Although this question could arguably be applied to most genres, it is particularly interesting when it comes to horror, as most would reach for movies to get that adrenaline rush and suspenseful feeling (myself included). However, I believe that horror as a literary genre is quite underrated and deserves more recognition for creating that tension and sense of fear that one seeks, and can equally become addicted to, when watching horror films. I hope to explore the unsettling aspects of the genre, and the ways it makes our skin crawl, throughout this article.
Horror, in general, is a type of literature that is written purposefully to establish terror and distress within its readers. It allows them and authors to discover an unknown world, riddled with suffering and anxiety, within the boundaries of a controlled environment. Depending on the story, said books tend to feature many different supernatural elements which vary from ghosts and demons to vampires and werewolves. This wide scope of tropes is representative of the breadth and diversity of books categorised as horror: many of them crossover with other genres, target audiences of numerous ages, or serve different purposes. In this regard, horror is comprised of an abundance of sub-genres, such as horror comedy or gothic, which are not simply designed to be scary but could also be created to form a thrilling atmosphere. Evidently, the more realistic a novel, the more fear it can generate, as that sense of authenticity renders the story more believable. Nevertheless, the inclusion of violence and often traumatic scenes should be taken into consideration when picking up American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, for example. It is, therefore, crucial to check the trigger warnings before diving headfirst into a horror novel.
The first step to answering the question above is proving the fact that horror books can often be deemed more frightening than films of the same genre. While every person’s experience with books may differ, the act of reading is deemed beneficial by many professionals. Whether it be to increase concentration or to improve literary, one cannot deny the fact reading produces a positive impact mentally. In the case of horror, this exploration of one’s imagination can heighten the tension and sense of fear when turning the pages: while the author may guide the characters and the plot, it is up to the readers to create such a world within their minds. Therefore, horror films are decidedly the product of the directors’ imagination, whereas the readers’ own thoughts and lives impact their interpretation of the story. Not only does this make the experience more personal, and a solo one at that, but it also forces them to insert themselves into the story. In other words, the narrative permits the readers to adopt a more psychological approach, undergoing the events of the novel through the characters’ eyes and intense emotions, enhanced by a slower pace and vivid descriptions. Although books may not provide the same extent of visual aid as movies, you can easily spend half the time looking away; with books, you have no choice but to carry on reading to find out what happens next.
Beyond the general mental benefits mentioned above, reading horror can also have multiple other effects on the brain, both positive and negative. The exposure to such harrowing and distressing situations can increase readers’ self-awareness and promote empathy, and the lack of sensory input from sight or sound in books prevents a desensitisation of violence and suffering, unlike when regularly watching horror films. By being placed in these alternative perspectives, readers can improve their cognitive development and problem-solving skills, essentially how to cope under pressure which they can, in turn, apply to real life. Effectively, the way our brains react to the presentation of fear and brutality, as well as the way we process emotions and the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes, are helpful practice if they were to appear later in life. On the other hand, it should be taken into account that repeated exposure to traumatic scenes can perpetuate an unhealthy indifference, from which a lack of respect can fester. Furthermore, according to recent studies, someone who regularly watches violent films or books is more likely to commit a crime than those who tend to avoid them – this is simply a warning to those who consume an unnatural amount of horror to be mindful.
Despite this, horror novels are written for entertainment purposes that intend to release adrenaline hormones and act as a form of therapy: the reminder that we are in no real danger ensues the idea that everything is surmountable. As a result, the main concept to take away from this is that reading horror books is just as fulfilling and thought-provoking as watching the film equivalent, and to always be cautious of any potential triggers that the horror genre might stimulate.
Featured image: Loren Cutler on Unsplash