On Horror and Empathy

I was having a great night out with my mom, her sister, my sisters, and my oldest daughter. There were jokes and food and philosophical discussion about whether or not “pickle” should a contender in “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”

And over the froyo the topic turned to movies and what people want to see. My sister brought up the newest incarnation of Stephen King’s “It.” I started fidgeting. I had a run-in with the 1990 mini-series at age eight and never really recovered. Clowns. *shudders*

And this launched us into the obligatory discussion that it’s not really an evil clown, and it’s about confronting fear and the very nature of evil. Yada-yada-yada. And I get that. I get that there is a layer of sophisticated social commentary to most good horror genre pieces: film, book, series, whatever. I just can’t get into it.

I think there is a bit of the voyeur in all readers. We want to be part of a story we don’t really participate in. We want to understand the characters emotional struggles, to be “on the inside” and “where the action is” without having to put on pants or stalk actual people which gets creepy and illegal. But for those that love the scary side of entertainment there’s maybe a pinch more. There is, admittedly, something cathartic about the adrenaline that comes from a good scare. It’s part of the same drive that all cultures have to confront the darkness. Some folks like to laugh at it (sister 1). Some get a kick from the mind games side (sister 2). Some folks are simply living out their own horrible fantasies and find they need a good blood bath every now and again (I don’t think I know very many of those).

And then there are those like me. I enjoy a good suspense. I like most of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies (even “Split” was pushing it for me a little). It freaked me out when I read “The Old Man and the Sea” because the guy is hauling a huge bleeding fish through Caribbean waters. A friend posted a fake “It” trailer where Pennywise is replaced by *spoiler alert* Mike Meyer’s version of the Cat in the Hat. I couldn’t watch it. I couldn’t. Georgie loses track of his boat and I’m out. I can’t go on, even when I know it’s a joke.


Could be I’m a coward. *brushes chicken feathers off sleeves* Could be I don’t have much in the way of thrill seeking so all that adrenaline just makes me ill (which it does on occasion). But I think it has to do with empathy. And possibly an unhealthy level of over identification.

But empathy. I cannot stand watching horrible, traumatic, grizzly things happen to good people. Especially innocent people. As a mother, every child in a scary scene could be mine. Every person running for their lives has my devotion to their cause, and yes there are horrors that end with escape and happily ever after and “I became a better person because I went through this ordeal.” But for every one of those there’s at least half a dozen others that just bite the dust. And I can’t take it.

I mourn that the characters (fictional-made-up-not-real, Anika) have to perish to achieve the story’s end. I want people, even fictional ones, to live. I don’t want to watch while terrible things happen and there isn’t anything I can do about it. There’s enough of that in my real life, from hurricanes in the Gulf to my kids hitting each other over whether that doll dress is blue or purple. And I do what I can in my real life.

But in fiction I can do nothing. I am along for a nightmare over which i have zero control, yet there is still a longing to help. To reach out and stop the bad, particularly when it is senseless. I may be the ideal horror genre audience because I feel everything that is going on. I feel the terror of the victim and the apprehension of the observer. I shake and I quake and in the end it never really leaves me feeling be the release that others get. Only the fear stays with me.

I guess what this boils down to is I will sticking with “Practical Magic” and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” this Halloween, thank you very much.

Y’all feel free to get your kicks where you like them. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be written or watched/read. I’m just saying, for this bleeding heart, I don’t want things to go bump in the night. I want my microwave to beep and tell me my chocolate is ready.

I’m curious what genres send you to the side of the book store? Why do you avoid them?


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