When I was about eight, a babysitter (who had apparently not been briefed on my parents’ ban on all things violent and scary) told me a scary story at bedtime. It was a variation on a classic theme: a young girl is left home alone with no one but her faithful dog. She is woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a leaky tap in the bathroom, but is too frightened to get up and shut it off. She reaches down to her dog, who licks her hand in reassurance. She drifts off to sleep. When her parents arrive home the next day, they find their daughter murdered in her bed, and her faithful dog gutted and dripping in the shower. A cryptic message is scrawled across the wall in blood: Humans can lick too.
With the wisdom granted by adulthood, I can now see that there are some glaring inconsistencies in this story. For instance, why would the murderer slay the girl’s dog and then hide under her bed for an indeterminate amount of time? Was he hoping for the opportunity to lick her hand? Did the message hold some kind of significance for her parents, and if not, why bother writing it? Neither the cleverest nor the most original tale, I’m afraid. But despite all that, I can say with complete honesty that this story terrified me.
Scared. Me. Shitless.
For a good year or two after hearing that story I religiously checked my closet for the bevy of hand-licking psychos I was certain were after me. The thought of what would happen if I ever actually discovered one of these palm-laving crazies never really entered into the equation. Perhaps he would stomp a foot in frustration and slink out into the night to lurk under some other little girl’s bed while I slept soundly, triumphant in the knowledge that he would never lick my hand.
But, I digress. I also proceeded to tell the terrifying story to everyone I knew. On sleepovers and camping trips. At pool parties. On movie nights. Even though hearing the story had scared the pants off me, I wanted everyone else to experience the same rush of fear that I had. Because the fear had been just that: a rush. A mix of adrenaline and terror and something like pleasure. Even though it had scared me, I had enjoyed being scared, and that was the feeling I wanted to share with everyone else.
Babies are born with only two innate fears: the fear of loud noises, and the fear of falling. Every other fear, anxiety, and phobia known to man is learned during the intervening years between infancy and adulthood. Spiders. Monsters. Murderous hand fetishists hiding under your bed.
Throughout human history, fear has been valuable. Fear is what has kept our species alive for so long. Fear tells us when our safety is being threatened, when we should be running for our lives or raising weapons to defend ourselves. Fear keeps us hunting for food so that we don’t starve come winter. Fear reminds us to light the campfire so that the darkness (and what lives inside it) stays away. Our learned fears keep us safe and keep us alive.
But most modern humans don’t have many concrete things to fear anymore. We may worry about rogue nuclear powers, or not being able to pay our taxes, or trans fats in junk food, but there isn’t much that we really fear. No sharp-toothed nasties ready to rip our throats out if the bonfire isn’t big enough. No spear-wielding tribesmen come to burn our huts and rape our women. No gut-twisting, heart-pounding, hair-raising terror.
So we search for it in other places. Alfred Hitchcock once said:
Give them pleasure – the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.
And that is what the horror genre gives us. Pleasure in fear. That’s why Stephen King books fly off the shelves and get turned into movies and remade into newer movies. That’s why there were seven Saw movies, complete with blood and screaming and psychological torture. That’s why Psycho is Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular and infamous film. That’s why every so often I rewatch The Ring even though I know I’ll have to sleep with the light on afterwards.
Being scared is titillating. Why? Maybe now that we aren’t constantly clawing our way through life, desperately fighting for survival, we crave that adrenaline and that danger. Or maybe it’s practice, so that if you ever do meet a finger-tasting lunatic, you’ll know to run.
Well. Stick your hands in your pockets first, and then run.
Do you enjoy books or movies in the horror genre? Do you enjoy being scared? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!