I’m a wimpy reader. Like, seriously wimpy. The first time I tried to read The Lord of the Rings, I got to the part about the Ringwraiths, and I literally stopped reading the book. Y’all, I was in college.
Then there was the time someone gifted me a horror novel, and I couldn’t even bring myself to open it because the cover was so creepy. I don’t remember what the book was, only that the face on the cover was unnerving to the extreme.
It wasn’t just books, either. As a kid, when I’d watch horror flicks (and this literally only happened at slumber parties where I didn’t have control over the feature film), I’d have nightmares for months. I think I spent half a year when I was 10 running as fast as I could from the living room to my bedroom anytime after dark because of some movie about druids.
How does a person go from a lifetime of balking at the mere mention of a work of horror to craving horror like a zombie craves brains? The answer is surprisingly simple: 2020.
Yup, 2020 — as in, the 20th year of the new millennium. Unpleasant though it was, let me take you back just briefly: it was already set to be a rough year, what with worsening climate conditions and a looming election during an era of extreme political polarization in the United States. Of course, pretty much right off the bat, it got worse when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And then, in those first months of the pandemic and as political tensions ratcheted up, George Floyd was murdered, and it felt like the whole world broke.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the first half of 2020 was absolutely, terribly, gut-wrenchingly horrendous. Like many people, I turned to books as a means of coping with everything that was happening. I’m not the only one whose predilection for books intensified during the pandemic. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “U.S. consumers spent more on recreational reading during the COVID-19 pandemic than ever before.”
Along with the rise in reading came a rise in interest in horror. A graph compiled by The Numbers shows that while movie tickets sold across all genres plummeted from over 1.2 billion in 2019 to just 211 million in 2020 (a decrease of over 1 billion tickets), horror ticket purchases jumped from just over 7% to just under 13% of all ticket sales.
As Megan McClusky writes in her essay on the history of horror films reflecting societal fears, “It’s easy to see how the horrors of 2020’s pandemic, from isolation to contagion, could not only prove a rich vein for filmmakers to draw on in coming years, but might also influence how audiences respond to future horror offerings.”
For me, the pandemic, combined with the other horrors of 2020, influenced my personal response to horror in a very specific way. That is, 2020 changed me into an avid consumer of horror fiction. I’m like a parched vampire, and the only thing that will slake my thirst is horror.
This surprised me (not to mention my friends and family, who knew what a hopeless, scaredy cat I was), but it turns out this shift makes a lot of sense. In Melinda Wenner Moyer’s NYT article called “How Horror Stories Help Us Cope With Real Life,” Moyer discusses some of the connections between horror and psychological wellbeing. Among certain theories about why people are drawn to horror are arguments that horror lovers may empathize differently than those who dislike horror, that people can only enjoy horror when they can experience it while feeling safe, and that people who like intellectual stimulation are more favorably inclined toward the genre.
That’s not all, though. Moyer also discusses a study that found that “horror fans reported experiencing less pandemic-related psychological distress than non-fans.”
All of these theories got me thinking about my own shift toward horror. I believe what I experienced was a gravitational pull toward literature that was worse than reality. Put another way, during a time marked by horrific events, conditions, and rhetoric, I found solace in literature and films that depicted realities that were undeniably worse than mine.
I could read a book like Mexican Gothic and take in the critique of heteropatriarchy and colonialism delivered through a creepy old fungus-infested Gothic mansion without worrying that there were mind-controlling shrooms being cultivated by a white supremacist cult on my property.
Or I could encounter the fearsome Elk-headed woman of The Only Good Indians and witness the gruesome bloodbath she left in her wake (with all of its implications regarding settler-colonialism, Indigeneity, and systemic racism) without being scared that she was coming for me.
This weirdly symbiotic relationship with horror persists in my reading (and viewing) life. When I picked up Erin E. Adams’s Jackal, for instance, I thought maybe the contemporary setting would break the spell, and I’d transform back into a shivering mess. But no.
What I’ve realized is that horror, as a genre, has the ability to examine hard truths about contemporary realities. When reality is horrific, reading horror creates a safe space in which to reflect upon that reality. The blood and guts, the monsters and villains, are borne of our reality. However, their appearance in horror fiction transforms them into something I can look directly in the eyes.
It’s been a long, dark journey, but I’m learning how to move within the darkness. After all, horror is scary because it’s so much about fear. How does that saying go — the one about fear itself being all we have to fear? Horror can allow us to sit with our fear and understand it better, and to understand fear diminishes its power over us.
This doesn’t make fear (or their attendant horrors) go away; actually, I’d argue that in allowing us to see more clearly, horror can also motivate us to work toward addressing the issues that lead to fearful conditions…but that’s an essay for another day.
Seeking some chills and thrills?
If you’re interested in learning more about how horror can reflect our realities, this essay on the social horror genre should be your next read. And for those of you who share my former aversion to horror, hunt down a title or two on this list of horror books for people who don’t like horror. Finally, if you’re good with horror and just want more of it, take a look at the titles on this list of 2023’s best horror books.