Today I want to talk horror and fear. I've always had a fascination with it, the first adult book I ever read was Steven King's Eyes of the Dragon. I read that thing over and over, taking a curious joy over the sensation of being frightened whilst perfectly safe. I think that therein lies the crux of any horror enthusiast's attraction.
It's not often in life you really get to be afraid in a controlled environment. Many people simply lack the empathy to really place themselves in a character's situation, also there's the childish bravado of “I'm not scared!”
I'm not saying people that don't like horror are poorly developed but, you know. Draw your own conclusions.
The problem, of course, is that much horror media is tripe. The genre even has a sort of self-referential humour about it. Silly gore movies, such as Machine Girl or Braindead (Dead Alive US) are a lot of fun after a few beers, but noone is really having any emotional reaction except amusement or revulsion.
Slasher movies can occasionally be played with some finesse, as the skillful use of build up and jump scare will leave the audience feeling pavlovian dread as soon as creepy music starts. The first Halloween was a masterclass in this. As discussed previously however, most horror movies are 8 teenagers played by actors well into their 30s, a death every 20 minutes and a jump scare every 15.
Many horror books fall into the same trap. Shaun Hutson in particular writes incredibly lurid pulp horror, with a monster of the week, usually something unpleasant on the cover and probably a disturbing-for-all-the-wrong-reasons rape scene.
Steven King isn't the world's most talented writer. His endings are almost uniformly awful and his stories have a bit of a tendency to meander. He writes some strong characters though, and that empathy between reader and character forms the basis to generate fear. IT was excellent for that. A book packed with chilling moments, giant spider be damned.
One book that needs to be mentioned is Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. I don't even know where to begin describing the story. It's a about a guy who finds some books about a documentary about a house. Yeah. The book does not get less confusing. It really is a work of twisted genius however, with pages in mirror writing, pages written on the diagonal across the page and footnotes within footnotes within footnotes. It has the same pervasive sense of otherness that Lovecraft used so well, but without aping him. This book scared the bejesus out of me any number of times and I don't have much bejesus to spare. Heartily recommended.
Videogames are a relatively new medium, and tend not to have the most complex characters or stories. Even of those that do, horror games have never had a huge following. Most of them follow the Resident Evil playbook of “zombie dogs through the window whenever there's a lull in the shooting”. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with that, but shock is never as effective as dread.
For dread, you really need to visit Silent Hill. This series is very close to my heart and has been consistently terrifying me for many years. Silent Hill is a demonically tainted town that draws in sinners and lost souls and toys with them for it's own amusement. There's a reason why, but it's a spoiler and makes the whole thing even more creepy. Some are better than others, Silent Hill 2 being the real standout, but they all really get the sense of isolation and strangeness right.
The other problem of course, is that horror is very personal. What's scarier than a letter from the testicle doctor for one person is funny or boring for others. Some people are scared of moths or spiders, some of dogs or heights. I, for my part, scream in abject terror at even the friendliest of clowns and Kayako from The Grudge (Ju-on JP) had me nervous to be on my own for weeks afterwards.
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions in our toolkit, and those who avoid confronting it safely will be paralysed when the real thing comes around. Don't be put off by the vast bales of dreck, we live in an age of information. Seek out high quality examples of that which scares you and confront it. From the couch. With some nice cake.