I’ve got horror all around me at the moment. My current work-in-progress is a gothic horror novel, I’m watching a lot of Twin Peaks, enjoying Devil’s Candy and The Stone Tape, anticipating Raw and working my way through the back catalogue of Shirley Jackson.
My question today is why do I like some dark, spooky, scary stuff but not others.
Firstly, I’m curious. Why do we like to be scared?
Doing a little research, it’s all about the adrenalin, the ‘fight or flight’. Our primitive brain trying to save us, rushing us with hormones, priming our bodies to outrun the tiger or bust out a spectacular round-house kick. The dopamine release means fun.
I can understand the adrenalin rush for proper scares, like jumping out of aeroplanes or walking a tight rope between the Twin Towers but surely it can’t be the same when I’m sitting safely on my couch, jumping and giggling at my own outbursts. But this article discusses how fear becomes enjoyable when we know we are actually safe, tucked up on the couch away from the reach of the demon.
But then there’s good scary and there’s bad scary. Good scary is exciting and stimulating. Bad scary is actual fear, a horrible gripping feeling when the threat seems too close to reality.
For me, good scary is supernatural, unrealistic, paranormal with ghosts, werewolves, monsters, demons, poltergeists, possessions and zombies.
Bad scary is torture and sexual violence.
The boundary between good and bad scary became obvious when watching Twin Peaks Season 2 Episode 7: the one where Laura’s killer is revealed. In one particular sequence, frame by frame, the action flips between good scary and bad scary. Bob is good scary, climbing over the couch with his evil grin. Leland, attacking and raping his niece Maddy, is bad scary. I’ve been reeling for weeks after rewatching this scene and had no memory of it from my first viewing. Maybe I blocked it out because of the authenticity (e.g. bad scary-ness) of the horror.
Similarly, the movie Don’t Breathe (skip ahead – vague SPOILER) jumped from good scary to bad scary once the scenes in the basement began. I went from enjoying the moral ambiguity of the story to covering my eyes, chanting ‘No. No. No.’
In my world, a warning of ‘supernatural themes’ before a movie takes my hand off the remote, while a ‘sexual violence’ warning makes me immediately change the channel. Sexual violence is a reality millions of people face every day and this is not enjoyable to watch. Especially without plot context.