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Why Horror Will Never Be as Popular as Sci-Fi or Fantasy — and Why That’s Okay

If there’s a common element to the stories that have captured the imaginations of entire cultures over time, it’s rather obviously mythology. People innately respond to myths. This goes back as far as you can take it, whether we’re talking about the Greek myths (probably the most popular example) or even an epic like the Ramayana (which has been dated as far back as the 11th century BCE). Any of these ancient myths could be placed alongside such modern mythologies as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the Marvel universe, and the similarities would be many. These things don’t change much over time. New mythologies are created with old mythologies in mind, and the old mythologies are constantly being reevaluated and updated to fit modern times. It’s a basic cultural function to create and share myths. Star Wars and Marvel may be relegated to strictly pop culture phenomena now, but it’s not hard to imagine that centuries from now they’ll be looked back upon as full-fledged cultural phenomena, as cornerstones of our society in the same way that the Greek myths of old are regarded now.

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Avengers — er, gods — assemble!

And it’s partly this mass predilection for mythology that I suspect keeps horror out of the mainstream consciousness.

Now, to be sure, horror is a cultural phenomenon. It’s quite possible that the oldest stories ever told were horror stories of some kind. Telling stories about what we fear is as elemental a function of fiction as there is. But as hard as it is for us horror freaks to wrap our heads around sometimes, most people don’t watch horror movies. Oh sure, they’ll go to see a horror movie once in a while if there’s an unusual amount of hype or acclaim surrounding it, and maybe they’ll watch a few during October every year as part of their Halloween festivities, but on the whole, horror is not something that most people respond to. As much a part of the pop culture lexicon as many horror tropes and characters have become, the act of actually watching horror movies on a regular basis is still a niche interest, and it probably always will be.

I’m not a scholar on the matter (or on any other matter, honestly), but I was thinking the other day about how there really aren’t that many horror movies that have their own mythologies. Mythology — this shared element of literature, films, comics, and art over centuries — is really not a prominent feature of the horror genre. That’s not to say that there aren’t any mythologies in the world of horror, but it’s very rarely the selling point. In fact, even those horror movies and books that have gone out of their way to create a mythology for the characters and setting have typically only used it to provide a vague explanation to justify some of the more outlandish elements of the plot, and they’re still not fully fleshed out mythologies that fans obsess over and want to know every little detail about. They’re purely functional mythologies. Think, for instance, of the loose mythology behind the Hellraiser series. Sure, there’s a world-building aspect to the series, but it’s basically only there to serve as a basis for what’s happening on the surface. In other words, it’s not designed to be delved into independently of the individual films.

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Here’s your new mythology, kiddies.

A lot of people seem to lump sci-fi, fantasy, and horror into one overall category of “genre films,” but I can’t be the only person who’s noticed that sci-fi and fantasy fans tend to be one distinct group, while horror fans tend to stand apart from them as their own unique thing. There’s overlap, sure, but I would argue that while sci-fi and fantasy have a lot in common and seem to appeal to a lot of the same audiences, there’s enough that makes horror different from them that it really doesn’t belong in the same overall category. I know people who are big fans of sci-fi and/or fantasy, and pretty much none of them are all that interested in horror. Mind you, I’m also counting the superhero genre (even though it has kind of become its own genre at this point) under the sci-fi/fantasy umbrella. In essence, they’re the Comic-Con crowd. They are what has come to be embraced as “nerd culture.” While some nerds have an appreciation for horror, it still seems like horror isn’t thought of as a part of that culture. It’s still more for freaks, goths, punks, and metalheads, if we’re going to identify which other subcultures horror fans overlap with the most.

So getting back to my original point, what’s the most obvious common element between the sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero genres? Mythology. They’re genres that lend themselves to world-building. To many fans of these genres, the ideal movie, book, or comic is one that fully immerses them into the world it creates. The creators of these worlds typically lay out a set of rules that govern the workings of their stories, describe the settings with rich histories and detailed accounts of their unique physical characteristics, and provide the often enormous cast of characters with their own backstories and family trees that inform how they fit into this larger literary world. It’s mythology, pure and simple. The individual stories are rarely ever the sole focus; it’s more about how everything all ties together: how this character’s actions will later affect that character, how the prophecy foretold by characters in one book will determine the fate of the characters hundreds of years later in this other book, and so on. Each individual story is designed to be a small part of a larger epic. I think that’s the primary appeal of these things to their fans: they’re vast mythologies that can continue to grow, and oftentimes, fan speculation and even participation are encouraged (not just in terms of fan fiction, but of course these mythologies are meant to be passed on to other writers who keep the myths going, as countless comic book writers have done over the years with superheroes created before they were even born). These worlds are giant playgrounds for the imagination.

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Okay, I guess this is a bit bigger than a mere “playground” for the imagination.

Horror doesn’t usually have that kind of mythologizing quality — perhaps out of necessity. Because whereas sci-fi or fantasy epics appeal to the imagination and the intellect — they have a cerebral effect, in other words — horror is by its nature more visceral and direct, and it appeals to what some might disparagingly refer to as the baser emotions. Horror absolutely involves the imagination of its audience, don’t get me wrong. But whereas, say, fantasy might engage the imagination by feeding it the wonderment of a strange new world, horror doesn’t so much feed the imagination as it feeds off the imagination. It’s not there to introduce you to a new universe of discovery and adventure (though it sometimes can), but to use what’s already in your imagination to create a visceral response within you. It preys upon the imagination. Because after all, fear is something that exists within the imagination. The most effective horror doesn’t create something out of thin air to scare the audience; it uses what the audience is already afraid of and exploits that to tell its story.

In this respect, it could be said that sci-fi and fantasy are Apollonian genres, and horror is a Dionysian genre. In other words, sci-fi and fantasy appeal to imagination and logic (cerebral effects), and horror appeals to emotion and instinct (visceral effects). That’s not to say one is better than the other, lest you think that’s what I’m trying to do. It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this that I gravitate more towards horror, but that doesn’t mean I think everyone should. I’m simply stating that I think this is one of the, if not the biggest reason why the mythology-based sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero genres tend to be much more popular and resonant in the culture at large than horror is. Throughout history, Apollonian art has always been more celebrated, accepted, canonized, and studied. That’s not to say Dionysian art is necessarily shunned, but it often gets dismissed as being inherently simpler and therefore less worthy of such mass embrace. My personal feeling is that Apollonian art appeals to what we strive to be, whereas Dionysian art appeals to what we are. And most people aren’t all that interested in dwelling upon what we are — which is fine, but it doesn’t make it any less valid a subject.

I mentioned earlier that horror didn’t lend itself to mythology out of necessity. This should be pretty self-explanatory, but since I’m writing this at least partially hoping that some non-horror fans read it, I’ll break it down like this: horror thrives on suspense, atmosphere, and dread. Not all horror relies quite so heavily on these three elements, but nonetheless, I think they’re probably the three most commonly cited elements that horror writers and directors apply to their craft. And in almost all cases, it’s much easier to keep the audience in suspense and fill them with dread when you don’t explain to them everything that’s going on. This is why there’s not that much mythologizing in horror. It would simply dilute the suspense, the dread, and the atmosphere. It would also diminish the potential for shock, which is of course another crucial element of horror. Take The Exorcist. The prologue provides only the suggestion that the demonic entity that will later serve as the film’s antagonist is an ancient being. We are never told exactly who this demon is, how it came about, what its motivations are, or what it’s capable of. If we had been given a full Tolkienesque background of the demon, we wouldn’t be shocked when we see Regan’s head spin around or when we see her levitate above her bed. We would have already known the demon could do that, and the effect wouldn’t be the same.

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“Do you know what she did? Your cunting daughter? Well, you should go back to The Exorcist: Book 2, Chapter 17 to find out.”

The vast majority of the time, something is scarier the less it’s explained. Maybe that comes from a primal fear of the unknown. The less we understand something, the scarier it is to us. Many horror movies provide little to no explanation of the horror at their core. Exposition is typically kept to a minimum and is only used to further the plot just enough that it doesn’t come across as completely nonsensical and absurd. Ideally, having just barely enough background to root it in some form of reality that could still be relatable to the audience is the standard basis of an effective horror story. You want the audience to be on at least somewhat familiar footing so it’s not just a surreal phantasmagoria that has no bearing on their real-life fears, but not so familiar that they feel comfortable in the setting you’re placing them in. Over-explaining things has actually become a common flaw in some recent horror films. Perhaps there’s some pressure on horror filmmakers to make their movies more accessible and therefore more like the superhero epics that dominate the box office? I don’t know. But it’s a time-tested truth that the less the audience knows, the more scared they’re liable to be.

So with that in mind, horror almost inherently operates on an anti-mythological level, and I suspect it’s this element of targeting an audience’s base emotions that prevents it from being a genre equivalent in widespread popularity and cultural relevance to superhero movies or certain sci-fi and fantasy epics. The desired effect of most horror movies is not primarily a cerebral or intellectual one (although that’s not to say they can’t be appreciated on an intellectual level, because they definitely can — much more so than most people give them credit for), but a visceral and even physical one. There are actual physical effects to the fear that horror movies can instill in people, and even in movies that aren’t quite so subtle or reliant upon atmospheric dread, there are definitely also physical effects to watching sheer gross-out gore flicks. Again, these movies often have more going on than what’s on the surface, but still, the surface effect should ideally be a physical one. You’re supposed to actually feel something in your body — not just in your mind — when you’re watching a horror movie. Horror engages more of you than just your thoughts and imagination, and that’s a huge part of its appeal to a lot of its fans, I think.

Returning to what I said earlier about there being a lot of overlap between horror fans and punks and metalheads, I think it’s that same principle that accounts for that. While most outside observers would likely thumb their noses and say, “Oh, they’re just a lowbrow bunch who enjoy aggressive things,” the real common element between horror and punk or metal is that they invoke physical, visceral responses in their audience more than cerebral, intellectual responses. And again, that’s not to say they can’t achieve both, but the emphasis is on the visceral. In order to be a fan of these things, you need to be willing to surrender yourself a little bit to them so they can fully have an effect on you. There have been studies done (which I’m not going to bother looking up, but I’m only touching upon this briefly anyway) that show that thought activity tends to decrease when listening to metal music, but emotional activity increases dramatically, and in some cases the physical senses are even heightened. I would assume the same principle carries over into horror, at least to some degree. A lot of academics seem to have this attitude that engagement with art is supposed to be a purely intellectual phenomenon, one where you can go to the museum and marvel the symbolism behind a painting or attend a symphony and admire the musicianship that it takes to play the complex arrangements being performed. I think that’s a very narrow-minded view of what art is and can be. Horror, metal, punk — these are things that are not taken seriously in many circles simply because they don’t lend themselves as easily to in-depth critical analyses, but the response they’re capable of invoking is just as great, even if it’s a response that comes from a different place in the body or the psyche. Don’t relegate your definition of art to that which appeals to just one part of your brain, I say.

I think I veered off-track a little bit here, but what I’m saying is that horror is never going to be as big or as popular a part of the cultural consciousness as, say, Star Wars or Harry Potter. Those function as mythology, which has always and will always have broad, universal appeal. Horror is anti-mythological. It’s visceral instead of cerebral, and while that may seem like it would be even more accessible, it’s simply a matter of mainstream preference, and historically speaking, Dionysian art has never been as popular or as respected as Apollonian art. And most horror is definitely Dionysian in nature. That’s okay, though. I do hope that even if horror is never going to be enjoyed by the majority of “regular” people, it can someday at least be respected by them more than it currently is, but if not, that’s okay too. Horror fans have created for themselves a passionate community that’s only growing larger every year, and if the rest of the world never catches on, I mean, there are advantages of having an interest that’s not considered widely marketable to the mainstream public, after all. At least Disney won’t fuck with it.

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An excited crowd waiting outside the theater at the latest Disney midnight premiere.

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