MHI: HOW HORROR CAN OFFER SOLACE
The following post contains this writer’s individual experiences and opinions. This post should not be interpreted as mental health diagnosis or treatment. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please contact your nearest mental health center or local emergency services.
Written by Nicole Henning
[Trigger Warning: This article addresses mental health/illness]
Straining to see in the darkness, the slightest shift of light looks like movement in the perpetual gloom. Your ears are homing in on any sound for an indication of what direction the impending danger could come from. In this experience of veritable sensory deprivation, you may find yourself feeling a myriad of emotions. You could feel anxiety, dread, fear, exhilaration, panic, or even a marked absence of emotion. This experience can be cathartic and commonly occurs when we experience horror through reading and film, and Mathias Clasen covers it well in Chapter 4 of Why Horror Seduces (2017).
I often get asked “But how can horror have a positive impact on someone when it depicts such traumatic things?” In our everyday lives, we use fiction as a form of escapism. Soap operas, games and cooking shows, and animation distract us from what is happening in our lives. But horror is a special kind of distraction.
Horror is a more immersive experience than other forms of fictional media and uses all our senses to engage us, and the psychological arousal horror elicits is only the tip of the iceberg. In experiencing a horror novel or movie, you are allowing yourself to be exposed to extreme situations and emotional situations in rapid succession, all the while being in a safe environment. You allow yourself to feel extreme emotions, going through the highs and lows of horror in a cathartic way; apprehension, fear, sadness, grief, disbelief, and relief rapidly firing in a short amount of time all with the knowledge that you are in a safe and secure environment.
The psychological arousal that comes with experiencing fictional horror can mimic the feelings we experience during a traumatic event. In a similar way, as someone who is depressed, anxious, and a victim of abuse I am able to view situations and themes that remind me of my life, and I am able to process thoughts and feelings that come up in a safe way. I have been able to sort out a situation in a new way or from a new point of view I didn’t see before because of horror fiction. This type of situation can be set up to be therapeutic on purpose, but it can also occur naturally in ways you didn’t expect, and benefits can be subtle or profound depending on the person. Recently I read How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix. I expected an interesting ride about a haunted house, and I got that in spades. What I didn’t expect was to be confronted by more of my own unresolved grief from the loss of both of my parents five years ago. I did my research before I read the book – I knew it dealt with parental death – so I was prepared for that, but there were other little details that were so like my parents that it made me feel…gutted. I felt raw reading that book. I was able to enjoy it for what it was and loved it as I do all of Grady’s books. But I, for sure, had some moments where I had to put it down to cry and deal with my own reality. Unintended catharsis happens. Trauma is trauma, and we all grieve in our own time, obviously, I’m still processing some pretty big things.
Some people tend to think that horror is only about gore and monsters. But what makes it such a unique genre is its relatability. Where the casual observer might see Mrs. Bates’s corpse in a rocking chair others might see generational trauma and the cumulation of abuse and untreated mental illness. When I first read and then watched Psycho, I remember feeling so sorry for Norman. I empathized with his character and found myself wondering about what abuse he had faced as a child to make him grow up to become a killer. My mind took the instances of abuse that friends and family members had shared with me, and they made me see Norman as more than just a murderer. Sure, some horror is gore for gore’s sake, but for me, there’s often so much more under the slick surface. Horror allows people to take tragic events and explore the trauma in a way that other genres just don’t allow. So much so that I personally have identified both with the hero and the monster in many cases.
As a genre, horror makes use of imagery to show a mirror to society, and the ugliness that has been allowed to continue over the years, without being held accountable. Cautionary tales are able to be told with full consequences and actual solutions, although they are sometimes more violent and unorthodox than real life would allow. I remember being horrified at the concepts introduced to me when I read Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin. The thought of being taken advantage of, used, and made to think you are “crazy” for seeing things how they really are – it still makes me question strangers’ kindness sometimes and makes me wonder if they have nefarious reasons for their actions. The reality that the world isn’t black and white, but more grey tones, flows heavily through more recent horror fiction and can really help people be heard and represented. In my view, horror is a more inclusive and norm-bending genre than any other out there. It’s the one genre, where identifying with the “monster” happens in a cathartic way due to society’s consistent need to persecute the victim and those who are different than the norm. Many individuals who are part of a marginalized section of society identify with the persecuted in horror and are able to find comfort in the way the “monster” is able to exact revenge against their tormentors.
Marginalized parts of society can be shown in both YA and adult horror fiction. One that stands out in my mind is in the YA category: Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve involved a genderqueer fourteen-year-old zombie named Z Chilworth, and Aysel, an unregistered lesbian werewolf who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery. The concepts of class and race as it relates to prejudice are explored, along with homophobia within the confines of paranormal literature. Humanity’s ugly nature is on display and allowed to be exposed in graphic detail while the beauty of being different is highlighted. All the while, a captivating paranormal murder mystery unfolds through the story.
Horror can allow us to process many different levels of trauma in ways that other genres are too subtle and polite to achieve. It can put the reader/viewer into the place of the victim, hero, monster, or anti-hero seamlessly, and without apology, and we come back for more. This is why horror fans tend to be some of the most faithful and loyal fans of their favorite authors. For example, I get every book Grady Hendrix puts out as soon as I can because I love how he writes, and his characters always seem to stick with me and connect to me one way or another. It’s the one genre where fandoms are made out of love and understanding for the “bad guy” because we actively empathize and connect with them on a level that we can’t with other genres. Even though he’s a “bad guy”, I have been a part of the Pinhead fandom since I was a pre-teen. I always thought he was an interesting character and when The Scarlet Gospel came out, I was so excited I got it in hardcover. The psychology that goes into writing a good horror story that can ensnare the reader/viewer is powerful and uses human experience as a bond to the story, and Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark has a great chapter on this – Chapter 15. The Dark Heart of Horror (RDSP, 2020).
Behind every horror story, at its very core, is a need to be heard and understood. This basic human need drives most people and translates into the characters in most fiction, and sharing in the characters’ experience can impact an individual in a positive way. Knowing that you aren’t the only one who has felt that terror or pain, that you aren’t alone in your suffering…at the very least is something that can be experienced through horror. This shared consensual trauma, consent being key, can be an important step in accepting that something traumatic has happened to you. It can also be vital in taking back some personal power from a situation that left you feeling powerless. By experiencing something in fiction that has elements of the trauma that you have experienced already in it in real life, via fiction, you are taking control of that experience, you are choosing and consenting to re-experience this aspect of the trauma. You are re-exposing yourself to it and allowing yourself to process the emotions that could occur during the experience. I have found this is a big step when it comes to regaining some sense of power over your life after you have experienced a traumatic event. You could even take notes while the experience takes place, journaling when you feel particularly emotional during a specific part of the book/film.
Everyone processes trauma differently and it’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to do so. From a young age I found comfort in horror and didn’t know why, as an adult, I realized that I sought cathartic release from suppressed trauma that I continue to work to this day through horror fiction reading, writing, and also watching it. Through the tense lens of horror, I have discovered that the traumas of everyday life and the past are more bearable to process. There may not be any happy endings to the stories per se, but there are resolutions to situations. The true monsters that live in houses surrounded by picket fences and smile adoringly in family photos are revealed for what they are. We are revealed to be the heroes of our own stories instead of waiting to be saved, we have to defeat our own monsters and save ourselves, and hopefully some friends on the way.
For more information about the HWA Mental Health Initiative, including our charter, follow this link: https://horror.org/hwa-mental-health-initiative/
Nicole Henning was raised as an only child in a small Wisconsin town. Her parents taught her to love reading, art, horror movies, and British television at a young age. She is a horror and paranormal romance addict. Her goal when it comes to writing is to make her readers feel the same spectrum of emotions her favorite authors are able to evoke in her.