Not Really Nervous

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.

Author Talks

Author talks are one of my favorite perks.  While work obligations mean I often can’t attend, I was glad to have caught this week’s visit by Mathias Clasen.  Clasen has been writing books on horror movies for Oxford University Press, and his talk strangely made me feel less alone.  Let me explain.  First of all, lots of people came.  Yes, Halloween is merely days away, but I get accustomed to thinking I’m the only one who watches horror.  Nobody close to me does.  Learning that many colleagues enjoy the genre was a boost.  Clasen runs the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University.  Their survey of Americans found that 55 percent liked horror films.  I’m actually in the majority, which felt affirming.  

The Recreational Fear Lab studies various aspects of why people seek things that make them afraid.  This ranges from thrill seekers to those who cower in the corner of a theater to watch the latest slasher.  There were several takeaways from his talk.  One was that two main types of people subject themselves to horror: “adrenaline junkies” and “white knucklers.”  Adrenaline junkies are pretty self-explanatory—they like getting scared for the rush of it.  White knucklers, on the other hand, enjoy steeling themselves from fear while subjecting themselves to it.  They try not to scream, but keep control.  I was putting myself in the latter category when he mentioned that further research had revealed a third personality type: the dark copers.

Dark copers are those who use horror as therapy for themselves.  I immediately knew this was my group.  Some people, for whatever psychological reasons, find horror movies therapeutic.  They help us cope.  Interestingly, and in line with other materials Clausen has published, horror is good for people.  It has many benefits and if we deprive children from any stressful situations in their young lives they tend towards neurotic behaviors when they’re faced with stress as adults.  The Recreational Fear lab is a place for the scientific study of voluntary fear experiences.  They operate by grants and have many programs of study from a variety of disciplines.  And some of them watch horror.  Perhaps because when I started this blog I tended to write mostly about religion, I suspect many of my readers don’t really care for the horror posts.  They’ve been there from the beginning, however; my first month I wrote about werewolves, zombies, and Barnabas Collins.  Religion and horror are closely related, even if it makes me feel a bit alone to say so.

2017 in Books

At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.

For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!

Why Horror?

Some people wonder why I like horror. Well, “like” is hardly the proper verb here, I’d rather go the passive route—why I’m compelled by horror. That fits better. But isn’t compel a transitive verb? What’s the object? It really depends on the circumstance—compelled to read, watch, or look at. Quite apart from grammatical imponderables, I keep finding myself coming back to horror and I frequently wonder why. Mathias Clasen may have answered that question for me. Why Horror Seduces is a fascinating study that considers biological and psychological explanations for why we’re compelled to watch or read or play horror, even when we find it distasteful. And it’s not just excusing bad behavior!

As fairly weak creatures that are prey as well as predators, human beings have always placed a high value on security. We’ve driven most of our predators to extinction, but we still have other people to worry about. And microbes. And things that come from space. And, after all that, we still die. These are, realistic or not, things we must face. Horror allows us to confront them and assists us in considering “what would I do if…?” Clasen delves into an evolutionary theory of horror—we’ve evolved to need it. Negative emotions are some of the most ancient, leading us to self-preservation in a hostile environment (something our own government is teaching us anew even now). Watching or reading how people cope in such settings provides us with valuable information. In other words, horror is a learning opportunity.

From that perspective, it doesn’t feel so bad to have written a book about horror movies. I’m participating in the long struggle of humankind against forces that are out to get us. As with most things evolutionary, we need not know why we do them for the whole thing to make sense. Our brains reward us for behavior that is conducive to survival—we like to eat, sleep, and reproduce. Reward centers in our heads go crazy. Then we go to the theater to see the latest, greatest horror film. What may seem counterintuitive here is that we are engaging in a similar kind of activity to other atavistic survival techniques. Watching these movies, reading these books, (and for those who do so, playing these games,) has a basic biological utility. Who knew? And once I get brave enough to crawl back out from under the bed, I may feel better about myself for admitting I like horror.