After years of reducing horror to slasher flicks that seemed to prioritize blood and gore, I made a shocking discovery. Horror is hopeful. Often, it’s the most hopeful genre there is.
My spouse and I like to pick shows to watch together. When he pitched The Walking Dead I asked what it was about.
Essentially, I was told it was about a group of people who are trying to stay alive after everyone has been infected with a plague that turns them into zombies after they die.
My response was, “That sounds depressing. Why would I want to watch that?”
My response betrayed my own bias about the genre. I thought of horror as one big downward spiral. Things got worse and worse as people died. Nothing about this type of content sounded appealing or entertaining to me.
We actually did watch many seasons of The Walking Dead. It didn’t start as a purely voluntary experience. My stepkids, who were 9 and 10 at the time, were allowed to watch it at their mother’s house. I felt we needed to be aware of what they were viewing so that we could have informed discussions if required.
What surprised me was that I actually enjoyed the show. I found people to cheer for. There were insightful moments when characters reminded you that they were still human and they weren’t going to let the horrific experiences they had make them abandon their principles.
In 2018, I had a defining moment in my exploration of horror. I had heard plenty of talk about The Haunting of Hill House and I decided to check it out.
This was about far more than a group of kids who lived in a haunted house. There were characters dealing with trauma. They were trying to understand their experiences, cope with losses, and still move forward with their lives. More often than not, their circumstances were compounded by the greed or arrogance of others in the family. Some of these characters were experts at gaslighting others. Their motives varied. Some were in denial and some were consumed by their career objectives. This was a different type of horror. The horror of not being believed by those closest to you. The horror of having your experiences dismissed. The horror of being labeled a failure because you couldn’t cope with the trauma that members of your own family tried to deny happened.
Characters like Luke and Nell knew only too well how being dismissed by others didn’t negate their experiences. All it did was alienate them and compound their trauma.
These people felt real to me, and their trauma was real. The factors that complicated their recovery were also very real.
What others dismissed as a weakness was actually a strength. Some of these characters were not blocking out what had happened. They weren’t in denial. They were confronting their pain and their past.
I began to see this as not simply a story about some kids who had lived in a haunted house and how messed up they all were as adults. Instead, I saw it as a story about survivors. About those who endure unspeakable, terrifying events and still survive. About people who experience horror but do not let it consume them. They embrace happiness when they can. They even try to live a normal life.
Since The Haunting of Hill House, I have been reading more and more books from the genre and I’ve watched horror films and shows. The more I’ve discovered, the more I’ve reinforced this fact: horror is hopeful.
Search for a definition of horror, and you’ll read that horror “calculated to inspire feelings of dread or horror.” In literary terms, horror “is a genre of fiction whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, repulsion, and terror in the audience.”
The emphasis is on eliciting what are considered to negative emotions.
The definitions don’t talk about horror being encouraging. They don’t talk about the inspiration you can draw from the characters. They don’t talk about the hope that underscores so much horror.
For me, it was horror’s hopefulness that ignited my love of the genre. In spite of experiencing the traumatic events or confronting evil, characters persevered. They fought. They survived. And they went beyond surviving. They loved. They laughed. They lived.
Ignoring horror’s potential for hopefulness while emphasizing its intent to frighten or repulse is a way of reducing the genre and reinforcing a common misconception about horror. Horror may intend to draw out negative emotions, but it is not a negative genre.
The point of negative emotions is that they inspire healthy choices. When we feel afraid we take steps to protect ourselves “from danger.” When we are threatened we are motivated to fight against the things that can harm us.
If we talk about horror provoking those negative emotions and stop there, we’re only actually exploring a fraction of horror. There is horror designed purely to terrorize. And there is horror that uses the fear and dread to motivate a response.
The response horror elicits reaffirms our faith in the strength of the human spirit. It can remind us that, no matter how far we’re pushed, we don’t have to break. It reaffirms that we can not only survive bad experiences, but we can also thrive.
Perhaps more clearly than any other genre, horror reminds us that we can triumph over whatever life throws at us. Horror informs the blueprint of our survival story and ultimately reminds us that we’re stronger than we realize.
Experience Hopefulness in Horror
Whispers in the Dark by Laurel Hightower
The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
Chills by Mary SanGiovanni
Infested by Carol Gore
Cockblock by C.V. Hunt
Halloween Fiend by C.V. Hunt
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Tigers Are Not Afraid