Updated: Oct 31, 2021
I get it, horror movies aren’t for everyone. The Grinch said it best: “One man’s toxic sludge is another man’s potpourri.” For those like me, it’s the hands-down favourite genre. Others? You couldn’t pay them enough money just to sit through the opening credits of The Exorcist.
And then, for a small but significant portion of society, horror movies are actually seen as fundamentally dangerous. A cesspool of humanity’s worst visions and impulses, a breeding ground for deviants, psychopaths, and serial killers, and thus, deserving of special censure and censorship. This cry has come especially from religious communities in Western countries, and particularly from within North America. Which has always been ironic given the strong psycho-emotional kinship between horror stories and biblical Christianity. (More on that in the bonus feature at the bottom: "The Bible As the GOAT of Horror Fiction".)
To ignore or oppose horror films - and by extension, television, books, and video games - on the basis that they are too ugly for our own good, is to miss their huge (though sometimes hidden) value and perhaps even an opportunity to connect with our own humanity. To do so on moral grounds is especially odd given that horror movies are not only more morally responsible than they appear, they are arguably the most morally-driven genre of them all. Exploring morality and appropriate moral behaviour is what most horror films are all about.
In fact, it isn't a stretch to call morality horror's core business. In a thousand different forms and iterations, horror stories draw clear lines between good and evil, between madness and sanity, between right and wrong. Or they don’t, often preferring to play in the grey areas of human nature, illuminating the good and bad that exists and mixes in all of us - complex, paradoxical, often messy.
Yet even these films betray their fundamental moral ground, inviting us not just to consider acceptable behaviour and social rules but also to be more compassionate in our attitude towards people who are not exactly like us. Those who may simply need professional mental health supports rather than condemnation and punishment.
Let’s get to the blood and guts of it: in what specific ways can it be said that on-screen horror stories are actually good for us?
The Many Benefits of Horror Movies
Close your eyes (if you dare!) and think about the last time you watched a good scary movie. Apart from being entertained and terrified, something else was happening under the surface: you were learning how to face and deal with the seemingly inescapable monsters in your own life.
Whenever we watch a film, but especially ones that trigger our fight-or-flight responses, we vicariously (and viscerally) experience stressful situations we wouldn't ordinarily confront in real life. Through the characters on-screen, we face scary or downright traumatic events and decide what we might do in similar situations without actually risking any real-world harm in the process. If you’ve ever played the video game Until Dawn, you know what I’m talking about. (If you haven’t, you should!)
Best part is, we are fundamentally in control of these moments, which occur in the safety of our own home or in a movie theatre, and where the whole experience has defined start and end points. Think of it horror movies as a form of virtual learning, because in essence, that’s exactly what it is.
Again, horror movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and of course some people (especially young children) probably should not indulge until they’re ready. But if you are keeping them at an arm’s length because you’ve never seen their value, here are a few proven benefits to consider:
1. They function as cautionary tales, strongly suggesting that what goes around often comes around. Treat people badly and you might just get the same in return. Let addictions take over and they certainly will. Invite a vampire into the house to party and, well, you know.
2. They deepen gratitude for what we have in life. When people in movies face what feels like (or actually is) “the end”, it tends to put everything in perspective – for them and for us on the other side of the screen watching. The people in our lives, what’s going right, the dozens of ways we can count ourselves lucky, even for life itself. They remind us that things could be worse. If you don’t believe it, just take a cinematic drive down to the Bates Motel and look for Norman.
3. They can help us contextualize our anxieties and face our fears, sometimes even providing tools, strategies, and case studies in how to deal with everything from snakes and small spaces to tragic loss and even death itself.
4. Again, the give us safe spaces to imagine and test our responses to scary or life-or-death situations that real life ordinarily (and thankfully) doesn’t afford.
5. In all of this, horror helps us cope and manage everyday life while providing a bevy of physical health benefits, ranging from burned calories to increased brain activity to enhanced immune activity.
Not all horror films are created equal to be sure. The UK’s infamous ‘video nasties’ come to mind, as do films like Human Centipede 2 that truly test our limits of what is “acceptable”. Personal tastes, individual tolerance levels, who we are with, and age-appropriateness are also factors. As a genre, though, there is just too much enjoyment and benefit to simply axe the genre as a whole.
BONUS FEATURE - The Bible As the GOAT of Horror Fiction: Thinking more about my friends of faith who believe we shouldn't be putting horror stories in our heads. As an ex-pastor, I have to point out that horror films are, in fact, direct literary descendants of the Bible. Considered objectively for a moment, the “Good Book” (a.k.a. the moral decider of Western Civilization) may be the greatest work of horror fiction ever written.
If you don’t believe me, just read it. Here’s what you get: An omnipotent Supreme Being who creates worlds then destroys them at will. An almost equally powerful devil intimately aware of your deepest fears and private vices, and able to manipulate both without sign or warning. This is followed by angels and demons engaged in an invisible war all around us. Original sin (women's fault), death (by extension, also women's fault), and eternal Hell (women again). A global Flood (unleashed by the aforementioned god) that kills virtually everyone. And entire communities burned to the ground (God again) because of a few bad eggs.
Cain and Abel. Abraham and Isaac. Sodom and Gomorrah. Fratricide. Matricide. Patricide. Infanticide. Suicide. Genocide. And let's not forget male circumcision as the ultimate proof of one’s spiritual allegiance to the aforementioned Deity, not unfairly characterized as the scriptural equivalent of torture porn. And that’s just Genesis, the first book of the Bible. There are still sixty-five books to go leading up to that last one, the mother of all horror finalés: the nightmare-producing Book of Revelation.
It wouldn't be hard to argue that without the Bible, horror fiction as we know it simply would not exist. Given that lit history's most enduring authors inside and outside the genre have cribbed some of their best ideas from that frightfully fruitful place, where exactly would Shakespeare and Poe and Stoker and Shelley and Lovecraft and King be without it? The same could be said of European children's stories, including charmers like Grimms' Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, and The Girl Without Hands - which thankfully still don't compare to the scariest parts of the Bible.
Master of disaster Stephen King alludes to all this in his terrifying classic, It, when young Richie Tozier observes that "some of the stuff in the Bible was even better than the stuff in the horror comics. People hanging themselves like Judas Iscariot" and "the mass baby murders that had accompanied the births of both Moses and Jesus. All of that was in the Bible and every word of it was true - so said Reverend Craig."
Don't get me wrong, I'm good with it. Let the Bible be as scary as it wants to be, and ditto for George Romero, Ari Aster, and Ana Lily Amripour. So long as we can be honest about what they are and what they are trying to do. My point is, rather than ruling a film out simply because it's scary, disturbing, or even gory, first find out if it offers something of commensurate or transcendent value.
If it does, then dig right into those scary stories and enjoy!