We probably shouldn't be watching this

Let's get it over with and ask once again that tired old question they drag out every Halloween on a dozen horror documentaries and retrospectives and compilations and "top 100 scariest" shows on Bravo in which the nature of primal terror is explained to us by B-list comedians and sitcom stars. Let's ask, and try to get some new answers this time, the question:

Why horror?

I mean to state the obvious this stuff is trying to horrify you on purpose. Why on god's good Earth would you want to watch that trash? Are you people all devil-worshipping killers?

"We like to be scared!" squeal the Olsen twins, and some expert talking head delivers the hackneyed psychobabble about good vs evil and explains how the fight-or-flight response is triggered and we get all excited and relieved without having to experience real danger. Case closed.

Look I understand the being scared thing and it's legit. I myself dimly remember that stomach-tickly fear thrill and wanting to turn my eyes away, and I miss it, but I no longer experience such in my adult life. Not to imply that it's childish nor that I brandish any particular machismo; I'm just not psychologically able to suspend the necessary disbelief to be frightened by a work of fiction. I mean we all know it's not real, but for some reason I feel it's not real right in the 'ol basal ganglia. If a real leprechaun were after me though I'm sure I'd be properly scared. Actually let's go with Pumpkinhead on that; I think I could take the leprechaun.

So it's back to square one. If I'm not scared then what, am I just some kind of sicko who gets off on seeing that sort of thing?

Yeah kind of but let me explain.

I know I'm not the only one who watches horror for reasons other than tricking the brain into squirting a cloud of endorphins and I want to talk about it for a really long time. I'm just trying to get to the bottom of this so I hope what follows doesn't come off as a sermon from some arrogant know-it-all. I really want to understand why I, and maybe even you, are drawn to these terrible things. A life unexamined isn't worth living and all that. But of course I can only speak with any authority from my own personal perspective. Luckily it's the only one that matters but if I find anything in common with other darkside trippers so much the better. And by all means please type out your own crackpot manifesto on the subject so we can compare and contrast.

So then, I officially postulate that on top of being thrill-ride scary to many people, horror has three additional aspects which I'm calling aesthetic, sympathy and catharsis.

By aesthetic I mean the sense of actual beauty many people experience from things dark and macabre, and that exciting spooky vibe it produces. As a brat I was instantly in love with Halloween and all its regalia, my greedy little eyes nearly burning holes in those sensational comic book adverts for rubber bats and glow in the dark Dracula teeth. Back then I never had the money nor the patience to wait six to eight weeks, but I do now shipmates, I do now. To this day I'm mad for all the ghosts and rats and monsters and skeletons and foggy graveyards and Jack-o-lanterns and witches flying broomsticks across werewolf howled-at full moons.

But why do we like that stuff? Maybe that's the wrong question to ask, as the original reason humans find beauty in most things is probably too deeply imbedded in our reptilian DNA to unravel. Maybe we think the full Moon is pretty today because it helped us catch bugs a hundred million years ago when we were some kind of weird nocturnal proto-squirrels. Who knows. At the root of it I assume all animal behaviours are borne of our basic biological imperatives, but just as a computer can create endless complexity from simple ones and noughts, so it seems the shotgun effect of the brain can make us like all kinds of crazy shit, even to the extent of producing a bizarro effect - a love for that which is seemingly against our nature. My completely uninformed theory is that horror fandom is such an effect.

So maybe the question shouldn't be why do we like it, but what's it like to like it. Maybe that will say something more relevant about this totally not frivolous issue.

The best way I think to understand a feeling is to simply feel it and describe the sensation. As I type this in the middle of Winter, out my window a flock of crows have alighted upon a leafless tree, and the scene tickles a different fancy than that of seeing a snowy egret standing in a lush tropical pond. There's the blackness of the birds, their hint of sinister and supernatural omen, the barren lonely look of the tree silhouetted against an overcast sky. It's a scene of gloom and melancholy, yet strangely captivating. It evokes a sense of portent and mystery not present in more mundanely pretty things - exciting suggestions of a deeper hidden world. The crows seem to know something I don't.

There's also a strange sense of comfort, what I call the rainy day feeling. I think I feel in a way protected by that which is forbidding or dangerous to people, because it is dangerous to other people. Noisome though chupacabras and pumpkinheads may be, they are not the stuff of my nightmares; the real threat to humankind is provided by our eternal nemesis, the upright ape. So could it be that those who find beauty in the macabre also feel the most threatened by their fellow man? I'll just say this: when I watch Halloween it never even enters my mind that Michael Myers might kill me.

So maybe it's all just a different perspective, looking out from the dark rather than into it (or as the bible sanctimoniously puts it, "men loved darkness rather than light for their deeds were evil"). But the the dark asthetic is I think still essentially a positive feeling. It's simply beautiful, and doesn't necessarily require psychological morbidity to appreciate. A lot of goths just dig the look, and most trick-or-treaters don't even seem all that depressed. But there are other receptors deeper in the seedy unlit side of the human nerve centre and now I do need to talk about psychological morbidity.

I'm not going to get too personal here because who wants to hear some guy bellyache about mental illness, but I am in fact an actual not-faking weirdo. And I don't mean funny quirky entertaining movie crazy; I mean boring old real world crazy where you live alone with your dead cats and can't drive a car and haven't had an honest job since you were a teenager in 1986. I'll leave it at that and just say I'm not insane, and the difference between crazy and insane is exactly the difference between "I'd give anything to be Napoleon" and "I'm Napoleon".

The point is a lot of the time I don't feel so hot, and there's a state of mind in which happy, boisterous, life-affirming things no longer bring cheer, but instead come off like beer commercials. From there solace can only be found in broken, awful things and unwholesome places. So what am I going to stick in the ol' movie player? Romantic comedy? Cop drama? College crowd? Action explosions? Guy in a hockey mask murdering teenagers? Yyyyeah, that.

I'm not talking about malicious glee at the ultra violent fake deaths of teenagers here (yet). I'm calling it a kind of sympathy. Being unhappy is a societal taboo, an abberent behaviour that must be quarantined and don't come back until it's cured. A large chunk of my angsty youth was spent in constant struggle to whip myself back into shape and be okay, but there came a time I can almost remember to the day when I finally said the hell with it, I don't have to be okay, and with that came a massive release of denial and the strain required to maintain it. I'm not allowed to say it felt "good" good, but it most certainly felt bizarro good.

I've become addicted to that feeling, which I call a cold scratchy because it's the polar opposite of a warm fuzzy. It's what I experience when a work of art perfectly nails a horror scene. It's the sympathy of seeing something tragic that I don't have to put a pretty face on, as doing so is a form of mockery. It's that left turn, going to the sleazy sideshow instead of church, dropping out instead of falling in, Oakland Raiders instead of Dallas Cowboys. There's a very real downside, or to throw in a gratuitous third Pumpkinhead reference, a powerful price, but it's the only thing that isn't bullshitting me. I feel better in front of the sickly warm glow of late night horror movies.

And lastly I want to talk about that most vilified and misunderstood aspect of horror movies, which is catharsis.

I'll start off by making it clear that I'm not a sadist of any sort. I'm not even a little bit delighted or turned on by the actual suffering of others and have no compulsion to inflict pain. If I were god I'd even make a play hell for Hitler where he could harmlessly invade fake hologram Poland.

But I also hate Hitler and would shoot him on sight before he could get the Germans all worked up again. I hate lots of other people too. I believe at its core hate exists for the same reason as pain: to help us survive. Nature just can't stand it if we tolerate anything in our environment that might be dangerous, so we're given a compulsion, an exultation even, to destroy it with a vengeance. Without hate we'd probably have been exterminated by some other more hateful apes back when we were Piltdown men. I'm not saying hate is a good thing; in the hands of idiots it can be the very worst thing and I hope we last long enough as a species to evolve past all need for it, but I think it's there for a reason and does not represent some sort of voluntary evil.

The big problem with hate is nature seems to work on the principle of maximum overkill. It wants to make absolutely sure that we breed and run from tigers and throw stones at rival males, so we're wired up like a borg with a bajillion hormones and hurt nerves and hate activators. Just as pain is often gratuitous and unnecessary, so also can hate be directed at the harmless. Anything that seems different from us might be a threat, and nature figures better safe than sorry so we end up with rampant xenophobia, racism, sexism, hating some kid just for having a tail, all that tribal bullshit.

These behaviours must be overcome with higher primate intellect by those who possess such, but even then traces of that basal feeling can remain. It's what makes me feel pissed off when we hear that "who let the dogs out" song or see a little kid. Sorry I mean see a...mormon or something.

Again, I believe hate can always be traced back to feeling threat, and to be perfectly honest with y'all I probably feel rather more threatened by people than most. I'd go so far as to say it's been a bit of a problem. I deal with it and take personal pride in exactly not being some hateful rage guy. In fact I hate ragers and just wish I could kill them.

Movies provide a jail-free way to endulge those impulses without compromising one's status as a highbrow. I may genuinely detest advertising executives for instance, but only because they're scum and their product creates an unsightly hernia into my world. They don't actually harm me, so I'd feel like this place turned me into a common knee-jerk if I just up and shot one. Unless maybe he was messing around in my yard at 3am. I totally dare you. But none of that need stop me cackling like an old cockney lady when Mr Voorhees splits some punk teenager right down the crotch with a machete. Thought it'd be cool to walk around on his hands didn't he? Gonna impress the girls with that huh? YEAH NOW YOU'RE IN HALF!

Come on you loved that too. Don't even try to tell me you were all "oh no that poor kid I'm so sad, I hate that bad 'ol Jason". We dig it and that's catharsis. I think this notion that all our thoughts and feelings and policies have to line up in a nice neat row is bullshit. Through the magic of the amazing brain you can hate that kid and rewind that scene fifty times and at the same time not hate him at all nor wish him the slightest harm. I say behaviour is all that counts in the live action world. The fact that I love that scene doesn't mean I'm going to murder someone just for being a mildly annoying young male. And that policy also does not mean I need to feel guilt nor owe any apology for getting off on seeing an effigy of something that bugs me destroyed on screen.

Basically this is a long winded way of saying I like watching when people get killed in movies but it doesn't make me bad.

My opinion is thus stated. When a movie feeds these compulsions, when it's a dark and stormy night and the wailing ghost of a wet-haired girl who got thrown down a well scares some guy into a jibbering pack of ghouls and they gouge out his eye and show it to his other eye, and Peter Cushing's there, it's the best thing ever. Horror movies good.