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What Is The Point Of Reading Scary Stories?

Why write horror stories?

Why write something that is designed to induce fear? Designed to scare? Designed to shock and upset and haunt and terrify?

And why indeed do we read these stories? Why do we watch them?

It is a strange thing for me to find it the genre that I have settled into, that I have found comfort in, both as a reader and a writer. It’s certainly not through education, or carefully guided study. I basically fell into it by accident, having not really thought much of the genre or the writers within it.

Recently, Neil Gaiman spoke at BIL 2014 (a kind of anti-TED talk conference; BIL & TED, geddit?) and he discussed why he tells scary stories to children. Gaiman describes his reason as ‘inoculation’, a way of acclimatising readers to the difficulties and challenges in life.

Gaiman says that his fiction stories are ways of getting ‘to deal a little bit with the things that scare and hurt and damage us.’ He goes on to describe how he signs countless copies of Coraline to now-adult aged readers, and how that has enabled a conversation with his readers about how they have dealt with horrible things in their lives, and that the book became a comfort for them. The story, which deals with a young girl’s misadventures in a parallel world with parallel parents who attempt to sew black buttons over her eyes, is aimed at a younger audience, and is extremely dark, Gaiman clearly labelling it as a horror story for children.

For Gaiman, the horror story offers possibility, and hope, but not in the usual way. It talks to the reader, without talking down to them. It doesn’t try to hide, but instead reveals uncomfortable truths, truths that the reader is afraid to deal with. And the inoculation he speaks of is the fact that the reader knows they can get through it. They can get through the difficulties. If the horrific aspects of life are depicted in a story, then they’re manageable, they’re navigable.

Even if the characters of a horror story succumb to the terrors that lurk, even if the ending is a negative one, the reader still survives. They are the witness to the horror, the friendly ghost that accompanies the characters into the haunted house, and are able to walk back out again.

Terry Pratchett, who wrote the glorious end-of-the-world novel Good Omens with Gaiman, acknowledges this process between the horrified and the horror in his book Hogfather. The book itself is part of his Discworld series, which is primarily a fantasy-themed series, but in this particular story Pratchett deals instead with the fantastical things children believe, and what their terrifying reality is. In Hogfather, there really are monsters under the bed and in the cupboard, the Tooth Fairy travels with pliers, and the bogeyman actually exists, though he is upset as nobody believes in him anymore.

Pratchett has his characters confront the terrifying make-believe, often with improvised tools like fireplace pokers, and contrasts his heroic characters who can make sense of their fears with those who succumb to them and give in to the terror.

In the dedication at the beginning of his enormous horror novel, IT, Stephen King writes to his three children, then aged fourteen, twelve and seven.

‘Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists.’

The novel itself deals with a group of children who are confronted by unspeakable horror during one summer. Two decades later they reunite as adults to not only remember what had happened, but also to finally confront and defeat the horror in their lives. It’s a powerful structure, and one that acknowledges how horror works for readers.

As children, we are afraid easily. We scare at the coat on the back of the door, the noise from the floorboards, the cellar with the broken light. As children, so much of the world is unknown, undiscovered, and strange and unusual. We scare because our imagination overruns our knowledge. Our conscious gives way to the unconscious, and terror reigns. We are scared because we don’t know any better.

As we age, so our knowledge grows. Things stop mystifying us, we reason our way out of our fears. We know that the shape is just a coat, the noise is just the house cooling after the warm day, and the cellar is dusty and dank because we haven’t cleaned it this year. We think too much, and imagine too little.

It pains me that horror can be maligned as a genre, or misjudged as ghastly and disturbing preoccupations of writers and readers. For me, a horror story works when it tricks the reader, it fools them into believing something they know cannot be true. A horror story does something I think no other genre can do, by not just utilising your imagination, but letting it loose and allowing you to see the world as more than the sum of its parts.

One of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest short stories, The Curious Case of M.Valdemar,managed to create a scene for readers where a person was both alive and dead at the same time, terrifying and fascinating us all at once, by using words to extend the reality of the known world.

A great horror story is about believing, and in this belief we can confront more than we can in our waking lives.

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