Columns > Published on February 4th, 2021

Finding Solace in Horror Fiction

There's something about it. That feeling of dread as a stalker observes its prey from the cover of darkness, the singing blade that tears through its victim, and the feeling of unease in the pit of your stomach knowing the killer is still out there. It's comforting. It's my sanctuary. I am one of many who seek refuge in the world of horror fiction and it's important to know why. As a writer, there's a lot of value in understanding your audience. Knowing who you're writing for helps you become a credible source with authority in the genre. You'll be surprised at what other voracious readers, like myself, had to say about why they seek solace in horror fiction.

In a way, horror is therapeutic.

Someone who suffers from anxiety might find relief in reading about fictional characters in terrifying situations. A coping mechanism if you will. Consider the coveted Final Girl trope. These female protagonists bear witness to some horribly slaughterous scenes, but seeing them make it out alive just warms my heart and gives me hope. Their stories are a grim reminder that life is hard but if these brave souls can survive, so can I. Escaping the frightening scenes and finding resolve can invoke a deep sense of comfort. I know for myself, this is especially true when I develop a deep connection with the protagonist. I become invested in their survival, and knowing they made it out alive puts me at ease. And when they don’t endure, well, their tale is one of courageous efforts during a time of extreme duress. My anxious mind can rest easy knowing the character's suffering has ended.

It pulls me away from people and places I need to mentally space myself from. It also excites me and helps me understand different situations and prepare for horrible events.

—Patrick R. McDonough, producer and host of the Dead Headspace podcast

Our body chemistry is reactive to what we read on the page.

There are those who state the obvious by saying, "I just like a good scare!" This is intriguing, because there are plenty of reasons for why this is, and much of it can be explained with science. Those "good scares" can bring on a surge of hormonal responses that have substantial effects on readers. The feeling of adrenaline coursing through our veins during a particularly arduous circumvention of the inescapable grip of death or the icy chill sweeping over our skin that raises gooseflesh during scenes of anxious uncertainty. There are even studies that suggest readers experience a dopamine dump from finishing a book. I believe this is especially true with horror fiction. Often readers are left with the feeling of unease, because although the story appears to have ended, it's never really over for the protagonist. Maybe the killer's still on the loose or the creature escaped to the shadows, avoiding its inevitable demise. Either way, we don't always get closure in horror, which instills the ongoing fear that fans of the genre pursue. You might close the book on that story but the fear remains.

The thrill of hidden things gives form to the real world, intangible fears.

—Chris Sorensen, author of The Messy Man series

Frightening fiction is cathartic.

Everyday life is strenuous for most people, and releasing the pent-up emotions we have from a hard day at work or a tough time with the kids can be essential to one's mental well-being. In my case, reading horror is incredibly important to maintain my equilibrium. Hell, I keep a scary story with me everywhere I go. If my boss is micromanaging me or if my kid is in the throes of a wild tantrum, I bide my time and go to a quiet place when permitted to read a dread-inducing tale. I purge myself of those repressive emotional moments and offer my mind relief with stories of the macabre. Getting lost in the nightmarish prose of a carefully crafted tale cleanses me of thoughts that might otherwise get me in trouble. Everyone has an outlet. For some people it is doing yoga or practicing a musical instrument, for others, it is visiting a world where monsters roam free and fear reigns supreme.

I see horror as the “training ground.” Real-life horrors are often abstract, and in fiction, they can be represented by a specific monster/demon/ghost. Characters in horror often have to face the thing they’re most afraid of, and that seems to be a solid way of living life as well.

—Tyler Jones, author of Criterium and The Dark Side of the Room

Myself, I am obviously a fan of horror fiction, but there's more to it. I hold it dear and want to protect it. I am an advocate for those who are creators and support others that help spread the word about the terrifying books we love so much. When I need to escape the real world, I turn to a fictional one full of dread and despair. When I ask myself why? Why do I find solace in horror fiction? It’s a sanctuary for my anxious thoughts and an outlet to rid me of daily insecurities. The genre is deeply enthralling. I am able to lose myself in a story filled to the brim with tension and steeped in suspense. It’s compelling in a way that keeps me reading every single day. Not everyone will understand but those who do are as bound to horror fiction as I am.

About the author

Andrew Robert, "The Book Dad", is a voracious reader and reviewer of horror fiction. He is the curator of a promotional platform called Horror Oasis and the owner of DarkLit Press.

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