Saturday, August 23, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Why does horror appeal to us?
Juhi Bakhshi

EVERYBODY is celebrating the return of the spooky and the scary to main- stream Indian cinema. Not that it had really gone away. It was always there though in the hands of the so-called B-grade and C-grade moviemakers. We did have some mainstream directors tinkering with this genre of films now and then but horror never caught the fancy of big-time stars, directors and producers like now. Itís like all of a sudden that the filmmakers have discovered, "Hey, it fun to see the audience scared and screaming."

And the audience too seems to be enjoying that throat-clenching, gut-wrenching, dry-mouthed feeling that these films give rise to. The misty nights and lonely mansions of Raaz had us reaching out for our rosaries but that did not dampen the audience enthusiasm to run up to view the bad ghost on the big screen to ensure a better scare. Bhoot had the audience queuing up to see everything eerie step out from dark jungle nights into our urban flats. Hawa with its promos of an invisible evil power out to afflict Tabu has already whetted the audience curiosity and appetite for ghostly stuff. The promos of Darna mana hai warned us before hand not to be out there in front of the screen all alone.


And yet we all are making a beeline to the theatres to give the moviemakers the pleasure of having succeeded in scaring us out of our wits and even having made money out of it. What is it about horror that is making us walk out of the smug comfort of our homes to sit for three long hours in the darkened halls only to have our nerves frayed? What is it about horror that tingles our pleasure buds? Are we truly a bunch of sadists deep inside who delight in all the blood and the gore and the suffering that the poor protagonists undergo? Is it to appease the animal in us that we delight in horror films?

Yes, say that very respected gentleman of psychology Sigmund Freud and his followers. Though they refrain from outrightly labelling us as loathsome animals at our very core. They, however, do affirm that all of us in our psyches carry certain unacceptable and even harmful sexual and violent tendencies, the expression of which is unacceptable to our society. During our growth and socialisation process, we learn to bring under control or rather repress these negative tendencies. We, thereby, obliterate them from our conscious psyches, but leave them alive and kicking in our sub-conscious psyches or "Id". Horror films with their blood and gore help us deal with these destructive "Id" impulses from "discreet distances with the insulation of metaphor".

Monsters of the horror movies are embodiments of forces sealed up in the unconscious mind. They represent "the return of the repressed" and offer a substitutive outlet for unacceptable sexual and aggressive instincts. The release of repressed energy that identifying with the monsters provides is inherently pleasurable and constitutes the appeal of the horror films, according to the claim of the Psychoanalytical School of psychology. Beyond the appeal to the Id, the horror flicks also have pleasure in store for the Ego (our conscious) and the Super-ego (moral force), which too are gratified by the ultimate conquest of the ghosts, which is the common end of most horror films. This to our psyche symbolises the vanquishing of our unacceptable baser instincts.

However not everybody is satisfied by this complicated psychoanalytic explanation of appeal of horror cinema. There are some for whom a factor as simple as curiosity is sufficient to explain the appeal of such films. The fact is that we humans are a curious lot. After-life is a phenomenon that has never failed to arouse our curiosity, leading to a considerable attention being paid to this phenomenon in several religious and metaphysical works. Horror movies, with their emphasis on the evil side of the spirit world, offers alternate, though grim, pictures of the hypothetical scenario. "What if evil becomes more powerful than good?" "If God rules ó this is the world, what would be the world if an anti-God were to take over?"

Horror movies, with their emphasis on the anti-God and the other side of the coin, satisfy the curiosity motive. Thus, writes Noel Carroll in his noted work Philosophy of Horor, while watching a horror flick the audience does not really take pleasure in art-horror (he differentiates between a feeling of horror arising from a real-life scenario and that arising from a work of fiction, say a horror movie or a ghost story).The enjoyment, on the contrary, comes from the structure of the plot, which inevitably revolves around a process of disclosure and confirmation that is cognitively satisfying. "The emotion of art-horror is not our absolutely primary aim in the consuming of horror fictions. Rather, art-horror is the price we are willing to pay for the revelation of that which is impossible and unknown, of that which violates our conceptual schema," writes Carroll. Thus, according to Carroll, only those horror movies will truly succeed in holding our attention and arousing our pleasure which are cognitively satisfying. A horror flick which fails to play with our curiosity also fails to provide us with pleasure.

Apart from the element of curiosity, the fact that horror films burrow into our psyche to deal with emotions of fear, abhorrence, aversion, disgust, dread, terror, shock, panic, also contributes to their appeal.

H.P Lovecraft, generally regarded as the father of modern horror fiction, describes fear as "the oldest and the strongest emotion" experienced by mankind. Thus opine some philosophers and psychologists that the appeal of horror films may lie solely in the fact that they address the darker aspects of our emotive psyche.

We all like to play with our fears, to see how far we have succeeded in conquering our tendencies to cower, flee and run. Horror films are just one such medium through which we test ourselves. Extreme sports and adventure sports are the others ways in which we play, derive thrill and ultimately conquer our fears. Even small children play with their fears as they creep out from behind a door to suddenly frighten anyone who enters unawares. The pleasure is all theirs after they have successfully startled the poor unaware entrant.

Horror movies too perform a similar function. They allow us to play with our fears, to confront things that disturb us. They allow us to face our greatest fears like those embodied in death, dying and the dead through the very realistic visual medium of the cinema. Thus, having confronted our fears we are better able to deal with the associated emotions in everyday life and therein lies the appeal of the horror films.

Explanations of the appeal of the horror films and literature abound. From satisfying the baser elements in us to combating our fears and making us mentally stronger: You can take your pick and decide for yourself what is your rationale behind visiting your nearby hall only to have a hair-raising experience. You can also take comfort in the fact that whatever be your preferred explanation of your date with fear, the fact remains that in the end watching a horror movie, apart from scaring you, manages to help you in some way or the other.

So, go out and enjoy being scared!