The Power and Lessons of Fear
by Charlotte Bond
Having kids can be a learning curve. For example, I never realised just how lucky I was to be able to sleep in until 10am every weekend. Before kids, I never really appreciated just how luxurious it can be to go to the toilet without an audience.
But being around kids – whether your own or other peoples’ – can make you look at mundane matters in a whole different light. They ask questions about the perfectly normal, but an answer of “just because” is not sufficient. You have to break down mundane matters to a level that they can understand and which you’ve never thought of before.
I have a regular horror movie evening with a female friend every couple of months. I mentioned this when walking home with my daughter and her friend, and her friend asked me: “Why do people watch horror movies?”
Without really thinking, I answered: “Because people like being scared.”
“Why? I don’t like being scared.”
And there he had me – why do we watch horror movies? Why do we enjoy being scared as adults, when it’s the worst possible experience to have as a child? It took a moment of thinking, but the answer I came up with was: because horror movies are safe, and because we learn from them. And then, because he was five, he asked me a question about something completely different.
Horror movies are just the latest extension of an age-old tradition of storytelling. Before we had written words, people used to gather around the fire and tell stories. Stories in those days had a purpose: to educate as much as entertain. This is perfectly illustrated with fairy tales, which are still around today. Fairy tales are stories with a moral message. What that message might be has been changed or interpreted differently over time. One of my favourite fairy tales is that of Little Red Riding Hood which is constantly being re-examined for both obvious and hidden meanings ranging from “don’t stray from the path” to an allegorical tale of a woman’s growing sexual awareness.
To quote the exceptional Roald Dahl, fairy tales today are very “soft and sappy”. As Dahl so accurately points out in his Revolting Rhymes book, fairy tales used to be filled with far more gore and terror than they are now. For example, the original tale of Rapunzel, as collected by the Grimm brothers, didn’t have Rapunzel being a witless dolt and saying to her captor: “Oh my, you weigh so much more than my fair prince!” What actually gave away their liaison was the fact that she fell pregnant with twins and her clothes stopped fitting as her belly grew. While these details were included in the first edition of the Grimms’ work, it was changed by the second edition when the Grimms decided that pre-marital pregnancy was too immoral for their audience.
One thing the brothers did keep in the stories however was the part about the prince falling down from the tower and being blinded when he fell into a rose bush. It is interesting to note that sex outside of marriage was seen as objectionable, while blinding someone or pushing an old woman into an oven was seen as acceptably necessary to the moral lesson. I have seen some modern children’s retellings retain the subplot of the prince being blinded, but it’s certainly not something that you would find in, for example, Disney’s “Tangled.”
An adult’s love for horror stories – whether in book or movie format – can grow out of a love of fairy tales, as there are many similar elements in evidence. There is gore. There are definite good guys and bad guys. Luck can play a strong role. And there’s always a moral message whether that’s something as simple as “don’t go into the cellar when you hear weird sounds” or something greater like “don’t fiddle with DNA and try to play God or your creation will try to eat you.”
In many modern horror movies and novels, we live vicariously through an experience and come out the wiser for it. We enjoy watching or reading about other people getting stalked by the monster because we learn what not to do in the same situation. At the same time, the story also validates the lessons we already know from the fairy tales of old: for goodness sake, Natalie Dormer, don’t go off the path in the suicide forest when you’ve been told not to and your sister is missing. We all know that you shouldn’t do something that stupid, and we enjoy being proved right, even as we root for Natalie to get out of it alive.
There are societal judgments involved in horror movies as well, some of which are receiving a backlash. The most notable one is the sexual transgression: you can pretty much guarantee that anyone who has sex in a horror movie is next in line for killing – we’re right back to Rapunzel’s pregnancy again. Whether it’s horror stories or fairy tales, you can’t have a woman survive and be the heroine if she’s had non-marital sex at any point in the narrative.
Horror stories, whether in the form of movies or books, fills a hole in our psyche. We want to be aware of the dangers in life – both real and imagined – and know how best to deal with them should we ever encounter them. We like to see others triumph, and watch while those we deem unworthy fall prey to whatever is hunting them. Horror is validating, it’s educational, it’s been around a very long time and, most likely, is here to stay.
About Charlotte Bond
Charlotte Bond is an author, ghostwriter, freelance editor, reviewer and podcaster. Under her own name she has written within the genres of horror and dark fantasy. As a ghostwriter, she's tackled everything from romance to cozy mystery stories and YA novels. She is a reviewer for the Ginger Nuts of Horror website, as well as the British Fantasy Society. She is a co-host of the podcast, Breaking the Glass Slipper.
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