Archive for October 26th, 2009

What’s the pleasure in terror?

26 October 2009

By Christina Morin.

With Halloween fast approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about why exactly people enjoy getting a fright. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of horror flicks – the thought of sitting in a darkened cinema just knowing that something gross and gruesome, at some unknowable but inevitable point, will eventually eat/slaughter/torture the hapless hero(ione) makes me cringe just thinking about it.

As an avid reader of the Gothic novel, though, I get the seemingly contradictory mixture of fear and excitement induced by any film or book worth its claim to ‘horror’ or ‘terror’. Every time I sit on the edge of my seat, peaking (metaphorically speaking in the case of reading a novel) through my fingers, waiting for the truly terrific to happen, I wonder, among other things, ‘why am I doing this to myself?’

Such a question was clearly in the minds of those observing the wildly enthusiastic popular response to the Gothic novel of the mid to late eighteenth century. Wondering why such a striking number of readers were so attracted to a form they considered sub-literary, critics began to ask what made terror so compelling. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, for instance, figured that there had to be something more than mere curiosity driving people on – they didn’t subject themselves to such intense fear just because they had paid for the book and felt duty-bound and a bit intrigued to see how it would all end. Rather, there was something more to the experience, some kind of productive effect of being scared that kept people reading. For Edmund Burke, this impulse to keep reading in the face of unavoidable fear – and the possible positive effects to be had from familiarity with fear – all came down to the fact that we enjoy being scared and, in that state of mixed fear and pleasure, can experience a truly mind-blowing encounter with the sublime. Read more