Over the last six months, I have (understandably) turned to reading books that comfort me. I reread the first “Harry Potter” book out loud to my six-year-old neighbor; I revisited the meditative poetry of Walt Whitman and the remarkable prose of Tom Robbins. The words that I had read time and time again consoled me while everything else seemed impossibly crazy. More and more, though, I began to return to the genre that my friends think I’m insane for craving when I need a night alone, curled up in bed: horror.
Part of horror’s intrigue is the ability of talented horror writers to pinpoint the aspects of society or our own subconscious that bother or scare us, and turn them into something tangible. Effective horror unlocks fears we do not even realize we have, or personifies it in a way that makes it simultaneously fantastical yet much more real. Horror movies get a lot of attention in the media: horror books, less so. However, horror books, when done well, are infinitely more terrifying than horror movies. They force the reader to create the thing they fear in their own mind. Every reader creates a different universe from the words provided by the horror book, no matter how specific the author’s description is. In other kinds of books, this can be beautiful; the love interest resembles the person we love, and the houses of characters look like the homes of childhood friends, tucked away in a corner of the brain until a book unlocks it. But when a book requires us to create something we fear, we do the same thing — we draw from our own life to create a parallel yet imaginary world. We have to create something uniquely terrifying to us. It holds a mirror up to our fears, namely the darkest ones that we prefer to hide away.
If horror unlocks and personifies our deepest fears, then why would anyone read horror? This is, of course, a question I have been asked many times. Why do I choose to watch horror movies alone? Why do I read so much Stephen King? Don’t I get nightmares? Unlike a night spent ruminating over both irrational and rational terrors, a horror book is expected and contained. The images may linger, but the story ends. There is always a final page, a point at which we can definitively put the book down. Real-life fear does not work like that — it’s incredibly (and terrifyingly) open-ended. Especially in the COVID era, fear surrounds us. For the vast majority of the population, the various ways one could get hurt or killed doing everyday activities never cross the mind. Now, of course, it is imperative that we think “fearfully” in order to protect ourselves and others. Every time we leave our “bubbles” and venture out into the world, that fear (for most) comes to the forefront of the mind. Horror does not create terror, necessarily; it consolidates it. Horror novels allow us to set aside time and space to be scared, and to let out all the vague daily anxiety we have. It packages fear between two covers, thus allowing the reader to set their fears to rest.
For example, I consistently return to one of my favorite short stories by Stephen King, taken from his collection of short stories Four Past Midnight, called “The Langoliers.” This is a story I read when I know I am a long way away from my next flight on an airplane, because it addresses the tiny, nagging question that a master of horror like King is able to pinpoint: What would happen if you woke up on an airplane and nearly everyone was gone? In a larger and more metaphorical sense, it reminds us of the control that we surrender each time we get on an airplane. This resonates now especially since air travel contributed so heavily to the spread of the coronavirus. The pandemic adds yet another level of surrender to the experience of flying. King could not have foreseen the effects of 9/11 or the COVID-19 pandemic on air travel back in 1990 when the collection was originally published, but he understood the basic underlying fear. In the story, the characters look out the window to see their world being eaten alive by darkness. This was never something I was afraid of before reading “The Langoliers,” but the image has stuck with me because it turned an abstract fear into a concrete image in my mind. It is therefore easier to compartmentalize that fear. It focuses it on a specific image. King said it best himself, when asked by NPR in an interview about fear in the pandemic: “It’s not panic. It’s not terror that I feel, that I think most people feel, it’s a kind of gnawing anxiety.” Horror is a break from the “gnawing anxiety,” while still feeding it the fear it needs to be satiated.
Arts writer Emilia Ferrante can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.