Facing Our Fears: How Horror Helps

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

This month, scores of Americans will enter the darkened realms of theatrical haunted houses, nighttime hayrides and horror film marathons where monsters, ghosts and pop-culture urban legends wait to give them a scare. A popular Halloween tradition, these dramatized attractions, coupled with costumes, trick-or-treat candy and festive decorations added up to an estimated $7 billion in 2011.

While it may seem odd to celebrate a night of fright with so much enthusiasm, confronting what scares us isn’t new a new phenomenon, says Paul J. Patterson, Ph.D., assistant professor of English and co-director of Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation Studies at Saint Joseph’s University.

“The horror genre addresses our archetypal fears,” says Patterson. “You can see throughout history how each generation has defined ‘horror,’ and it turns largely on the idea of something outside of our understanding threatening us.”

As Patterson’s students are exploring this semester in his class, Horror in Literature and Film, the definition of what the “something” is that people fear depends on the social constructs of the time. The class is analyzing works such as Homer’s Odyssey (late eighth century B.C.E.), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Alfred Hitchcock’s canon (1940s–70s), the slasher films of the 1990s, and the post-9/11 movies of today.

Each generation’s fears are embodied in these works, sometimes literally — for example, in the form of zombies — and other times invisibly, as unseen beings or unidentifiable people who can cause great harm. Post-9/11 films have seen a rise in torture-as-horror, likely because those who grew up around the rhetoric of the tragedy needed a way to comprehend it. Diseases and outbreaks that attack whole populations are also popular in the horror genre, and they mirror the occurrences of stronger strains of influenza and the threat of biological warfare.

“Much of what we ask in class is, ‘what does it mean for something to be horrific,’” says Patterson. “Are we scared of death? Is it only death, or is it something else entirely?” Past texts have illustrated fears we now recognize as thematic: the rise of science versus religion; the recognition of sexual desire; and achieving immortality, Patterson adds.

So what horror is in store for us next?

“We’ve seen the ascent of movies like Saw and Hostel, and zombies — death personified — are back. But it’s hard to say just what today’s generation fears or will fear,” Patterson says. “It may be technology going too far and taking us over, or the anonymity that technology affords backfiring on us. But whatever it might be, these books and films allow us to imagine or experience our desire to defeat what is hunting and haunting us on a splashy canvas.”

Patterson can be reached for comment at ppatters@sju.edu, at 610-660-1353, or by calling University Communications at 610-660-3240.

Expand this section