Recently, a New Republic article entitled “What It Says About You if You Enjoy Horror Movies” caused a lot of controversy and angered many horror aficionados and creators, including myself. One of the conclusions, and the one that drew the most ire, was that people who enjoy horror movies lack empathy. (The article can be found here: newrepublic.com/article/120689/babdook-what-it-says-about-you-if-you-enjoy-horror-movies)
I take exception to this as someone who considers himself both an empathetic person and a lover of the horror genre. My fiancé is one of the kindest, most compassionate people I’ve ever met, and also a voracious devourer of all things horror. These two examples don’t exactly make a scientific case study, but there is something to be said for personal experience.
And my personal experience is that horror has actually made me more empathetic.
In order to really explain what I mean by this, it will be necessary to provide a brief rundown of how I define horror. What I think makes for good and true horror storytelling.
For me, the most basic building block for horror is suspense. It’s not the gore or the creative kills or the blood-curdling screams…what actually makes horror horrifying is the ratcheting of tension, that edge-of-your-seat suspense that ties the audience’s stomach up in knots.
And what is the most effective way to build suspense in a horror story? Well, ask a dozen people you may get a dozen different answers, but as a lifelong fan of horror and someone who has been publishing in the genre for the past ten years, I’m going to share my thoughts on the subject.
The most effective way to build suspense for me is to introduce characters the audience can relate to, can care about, then place those characters in jeopardy. It is this investment in sympathetic characters that are in peril that gives the story the sense of risk that is necessary for true suspense.
Of course, not every horror movie or novel follows this formula. There is a subgenre—sometimes called “torture porn” in film and “siction” in print—where the main focus is the imaginative death scenes, the extreme and graphic violence. And dating back even to the later Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street movies, killers were being turned into anti-heroes, and the fun of the films was derived from rooting for the killer to off a succession of increasingly obnoxious and vile characters.
It is not my intention to judge those that enjoy those types of stories; they provide their own form of entertainment. However, I do not believe that they are truly horror. You cannot be horrified if you are cheering and laughing your way through the film. That may be an enjoyable ride, but it is not the essence of horror.
As I’ve stated, my definition of horror makes you feel connected to the characters you’re watching or reading about, and you root for them, you want to see them survive…but you know for some of them that might not be an option, and that’s what creates the tension and suspense. There’s also an element of putting yourself in the shoes of the characters, imagining what it might be like to be in their place. All of this can be summed up in one word: empathy.
Yes folks, I firmly believe that horror in its truest form actually fosters a sense of empathy for other people. The success of such tales hinges on it. In fact, I would argue that if horror has a higher purpose beyond mere entertainment (which I think in and of itself is a pretty lofty goal), it would be that it develops and nurtures a deep feeling for those in trouble, those in need, and makes you feel their pain as if it were your own.
When watching the original Halloween and Halloween II, which I saw repeatedly as a child, I was not on Michael’s side. I was putting myself in Laurie’s shoes. Her unease early in the film was mine, and when she started finding the bodies of her friends strew all about the Wallace home, I felt her pain and fear and desperation. I was frantic for her as she tried to escape. I felt for her and cheered for her when she ultimately got away.
Whenever young people perpetrate unthinkable acts of violence, a certain contingent is always quick to blame the music they listen to or the movies they watch. It’s an easy way to dismiss the actions and avoid a more in depth investigation of what may have caused these tragedies. While it doesn’t take away the horror, it does make it somewhat easier to sleep at night to say, “Well, it was just those violent movies he watched, nothing more.”
I suppose if I had grown up today, I would have been flagged as a kid to keep an eye on, a potential one-man Columbine. I was an outcast, bullied at school with a rough home life, and I was an avid horror fan, both films and literature. From as early as ten years old, I was submersing myself in the genre. Did this cause me to lose my sense of empathy?
No, quite the opposite. I wasn’t learning empathy at home, I certainly wasn’t learning it at school…the lessons I learned in caring for other people came from the movies I watched and the books I read. And the majority of these were horror. I would walk down to the Capri, the only movie theater in my hometown, and see every new horror movie that came out. I would go to the local library and check out King and Koontz and Harris. And in these tales, I was taught to be concerned for the welfare of others.
At the time, I wasn’t overly aware of this, I just knew I was being entertained and enjoying the suspense of the storytelling. Looking back on it, however, I vividly remember the attachment I would develop for certain characters, how much I would want to see them make it, the apprehension I would feel when they were in danger, the devastation I’d feel when some of them didn’t survive and the celebration when others did. I can see now how this was providing me with something I wasn’t getting in my real life.
One of the first horror movies I ever watched was the Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle Prom Night, and I became very invested in those characters. I remember that the opening scene of the girl with the stutter being taunted really affected me, maybe because of my own experiences being bullied. Then as the movie went along and the murders started, I found myself now sympathizing with those who had tormented that girl in their younger years. Starting with Kelly, the virgin (proving that it isn’t always the virgin that survives slasher films). I felt most protective of her, perhaps because of her awkwardness. Then there was Jude with her insecurities, Nick with his hidden pain. And Wendy, the nastiest bitch at Hamilton High…and yet during her extended and gripping chase scene, I found myself actually caring about her. Because for all her cruelty and callousness, she was still a human being and watching her fight for her life was a tense experience.
Perhaps the most a horror movie ever moved me as a child was with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, the death of Nancy. Over the two films in which she appeared, I had grown to actually love the character and respect her for her strength, resilience, and ingenuity. When she finally died, I felt it like a blow, as if I’d lost a friend, and as Kristen wept over her and said, “I’m going to dream you into a beautiful dream, forever and ever,” I found myself near tears. Because the horror films I loved weren’t hardening or desensitizing me. Instead, they were making me feel more intensely for the plight of others.
I realize it sounds rather crazy to say that I learned empathy from horror movies, but I believe this to be true. And that is something I try to bring to a lot of my own work in the genre, because I genuinely feel horror works best when it revolves around making an emotional investment in characters that are in life-or-death scenarios. I like to think that perhaps one day a young reader with a rough home and school life might read one of my works and find in it a core of humanity that moves them.
I know that is what happened with me. That’s how horror made me more empathetic.