Embarrassment is a not uncommon reaction. People who knew me as a religion professor or who now know me as a volunteer leader in my local congregation wonder why I watch and read horror. It helps to know that you’re not alone. Mathias Clasen is an author I’ve mentioned before. I read his first book on horror and I was excited to see his A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies, recently out. I’m not really a very nervous person in this particular regard. As those who know me will attest, I’m nervous in many aspects of life, just not this one. Still, after having heard the author describe what his university sponsored fear lab does I was curious how he’d approach horror for the nervous.
Clasen is an academic who clearly enjoys writing. He’s fun to read. He admits to being somewhat nervous around horror himself, not watching horror alone. In fact, the book has several tips—such as not watching horror alone—on how to survive the experience for the curious but cautious. What I inevitably take away from studies such as this is a couple of things: watching horror isn’t something only I do, and it’s actually good for you. Studies (and here’s where Clasen is able to point to actual sources) have repeatedly demonstrated that horror has adaptive benefits. Kids like scary stories, and there’s a reason for that. The interest in horror generally peaks at the onset of adulthood and tends to decline from there. Some of us, however, are perhaps arrested at that stage. Or rediscover it.
There’s a great utility in being able to discuss horror intelligently. Another point Clasen addresses is that horror is often intelligent but since those who don’t watch it often set the social standards it’s addressed as if it’s juvenile and unsophisticated. Yes, there’s trash out there. There is in every genre. For many people, however, the popularity of slashers in the eighties forever defined horror as naughty teens getting murdered by a bloodthirsty maniac with some kind of blade. That’s only part of the picture. Horror has a history as old as cinema itself and the earliest exemplars were based on literature. It has been an innovative genre from the beginning and when a particularly noteworthy horror film comes out critics and pundits are quick to relable it as a thriller or drama or anything but horror. We need to give horror its due. It’s always a pleasure to read a book by someone who has an appreciation of what horror has to offer, even if he’s nervous about it.