The Corner

Film & TV

Some Thoughts on the Fascination with Horror

Two sisters were found dead this week, washed up on the Hudson riverbank. The young women were called Tala (16) and Rotana (22); they were bound together by duct tape at the waist and ankles; their bodies showed no signs of trauma and the police have not ruled out murder.

As I was contemplating this awful tragedy, it occurred to me that I had consciously chosen to read this story above other things. I had seen the headline and had clicked on it, wanting to know more.

In one sense, there is nothing remarkable about this decision. It is the same impulse that causes drivers to slow down and peer at a car wreckage, or for readers to linger at pictures of corpses in the pages of history or true crime.

A cocktail of emotions normally accompanies such moments: sadness, revulsion, and, most uncomfortably, curiosity. Though it’s a universal human experience, death is the least understood part of life.

But “it’s only natural” still doesn’t quite explain why it is that in the last 20 years, horror movies in the United States have grossed over $8 billion. It doesn’t explain, in other words, the enjoyment of horrible things.

Real life versus fiction is the key distinction, some say. Social scientists go further explaining that it’s a feeling of control — of knowing that horror movies are not real and can be “stopped” at any point — that allows us to detach. Indeed, one study suggests that the more realistic the depiction of violence, the more likely it is to have lasting negative consequences.

There may also be an evolutionary explanation for our appetite for negative emotions. Back when we were scantily clad cave dwellers, fear was a part of day-to-day life; we’re hardwired to expect it. Now we live in comparatively safer times, and we need to blow off some steam.

But there’s another side to this. One that is more uncomfortable. Both Aristotle and Freud thought we’re all latent sadists. Might they be right?

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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