After a decade in self-inflicted pop culture purgatory, the horror genre is flourishing once again. From the nation’s small screens, where The Walking Dead and Rosemary’s Baby have become prime time viewing, to Hollywood’s recent spate of spooky remakes (Evil Dead and Carrie just to name a few) there is no denying that horror is back in a big way. And it’s not only TV and movies that are getting people excited about the macabre. In gaming, titles like The Last of Us and Left for Dead have seemingly apparated out of nowhere to dominate the conversation; Ouija boards are flying off the shelves (sometimes literally) and America’s ghost tour industry—yes that’s a thing—is bigger than ever.
Most notable of all however, may be the rise of horror in literature, the world’s original vehicle for scares. With the recent influx of talented scribes like Josh Malerman, Rene Denfeld, and the king of creepy himself, David Cronenberg, scary books are, in many cases, becoming ‘must-reads’ for the first time in a while.
But why now?
In the iconic words of Stephen King, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” At a time when there is so much real-life horror and atrocity, scary stories can, at least for some, help us understand our fears.
A look back at the history of the genre seems to support this theory. Edgar Allen Poe wrote gothic horror classics like Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) and The Masque of the Red Death (1842) during the Victorian era, a time of upheaval when medicine was poorly understood and misunderstandings about the human body often led to grisly, horrific outcomes.
In cinema, Zombie films like Dawn of the Dead matured during the AIDS epidemic, while “new zombie” flicks like 28 Days Later emerged later in the context of SARS, avian flu, and H1N1. Whatever the delivery mechanism however, horror has the same dual function, to offer the consumer both catharsis and fear.
Fast forward to 2014 and the earth is sick again. Dystopian Y.A. like has become a force in publishing, and it’s close cousin ‘survival horror’ (books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Snowblind by Christopher Golden come to mind) seems poised to break out next.
For writers like Ramsey Campbell or the ever masterful Stephen King, horror is a mirror that reflects our very real cultural fears. The bone-chilling, the ghastly, and the grim—all are ways of understanding the world around us, of gaining new perspectives and facing our fears.
Perhaps though, it is the godfather of horror literature H.P. Lovecraft that explains our relationship with fear the best: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
That’s the essence of horror. What’s behind the door, what is lurking in the dark is more terrifying than anything it might actually be. Horror has the added psychological oomph of mirroring the mad imaginings of nightmare – where what seems safe shifts and becomes something altogether sinister, where nothing can be counted on. Our fears and neuroses gain narrative expression and the story is terrifying.
Today, as the world seems to be falling deeper in crisis with each news cycle, it makes sense that readers everywhere are flocking to the horror section. Sure it’s spooky, and certainly it may lead to a nightmare every now and then, but horror just may be the best coping method we have against the great, terrifying unknown each of us must inevitably face.
Why not enjoy the ride with a great book?