Those who know me personally—and not just through the internet—sometimes are surprised to learn that I watch horror movies. After all, I’m a pacifist, vegetarian, and a very caring person. Plus I’m squeamish and I eschew violence. Why, then, do I watch such things? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I might be a bit closer now that I’ve read Adam Rockoff’s The Horror of It All: One Moviegoer’s Love Affair with Masked Maniacs, Frightened Virgins, and the Living Dead. Now, I’ve never met Mr. Rockoff, but from reading his book I get the impression that he’s a descent human being and fun to hang out with. He’s also a family man and a sympathetic individual. The Horror of It All is an extended discussion of that troublesome question: why do some of us watch movies of this kind?
It’s pretty clear from this book that Rockoff is way ahead of me in the number of horror movies seen. I’m sure he doesn’t mention all of those he’s watched, but there are some I’ve seen that didn’t make this book and, in my own way, I hope, show that I’m no slouch when it comes to the genre. I’m not in the media like he is and those of us trying to be respectable ex-academics have to read weighty tomes to keep any street cred at all on campus. That having been said, it was fascinating to read how many of the same triggers are at work in not just Rockoff and myself, but in other horror watchers he’s known and interviewed. These films are, for the most part, not just degenerate trash. Many of them have redeeming value and an unexpected profundity. Academics and other society people don’t like to get caught watching what hoi polloi do, but just take a look at the box office take and you’ll see that horror sells. We are not alone.
Ultimately every horror viewer has to struggle with this monster him or herself. Why do we watch? While in grad school I had a sociology doctoral candidate interview me to explore just that question. Why? At the time, admittedly, I had seen only a fraction of the films that I’ve moved on to see since then. One thing I can definitively say—I’m looking for something. Life is plenty scary as it is. A world where a good job can be yanked away from you at will and the specter of a life on the streets leers, can be an intimidating place. In the horror movie you see how it could be even worse. So as my waking hours are increasingly spent in the dark, as if the sun itself is afraid, I see books like Rockoff’s as a kind of flashlight through this forest. If I run into monsters, I want to have prepared myself.