Horror and the loss of Control

PortraitThis post by Craig Snider

With Halloween fast approaching, I thought I would write something about horror writing.

Since my earliest memories of television, possibly as early as age 4, I have been enamored with horror in its many forms. I couldn’t get enough of the wolfman, or vampires, zombies, mummies, or any other monster. There was something about these terrifying creatures and people that appealed to my young mind, opening vistas of horror within my imagination. But, why? Why was a presumably normal child drawn to this dark side of the world? What is it about horror that so many people love and choose over the brighter and happier material out there? I’m surely not alone. Many of my friends would rather watch a monster ripping through a hapless crowd rather than the next popular, hum drum romantic comedy.

“Excuse me, but could you tell me how to get to Haddonfield?”

Why is horror so appealing? The typical answer is that being afraid makes us appreciate being alive, and gives us a safe way to observe death, and therefore internalize that understanding in some way to allow us to cope with the end of our existence.

I’m not convinced this is true. I don’t get afraid. I have no phobias (unless being bored counts). When I watch a really good horror movie, it isn’t the fear it induces that I crave. It goes beyond that. And, perhaps it is a telling thing about my own psyche. My own personal opinion is that it is about control, or in this case, the lack of it.

Yes, death frightens us. But, why? Because we have little to no control over it. It controls us. We know not the day or hour, to borrow a phrase. In fact, religion attempts to provide us with a modicum of “control” over death, giving us a more preferable outcome to a dark nothingness: an afterlife.

Watching something like John Carpenter’s Halloween is a great example of people becoming the victim’s of their loss of control. Michael Meyer’s is not merely a psychotic killer escaped from an sanitarium. That’s what he appears to be at first. But, he quickly becomes a faceless, unstoppable force that refuses to die. He is a horror convention I like to call a “juggernaut,” an unstoppable entity, often faceless, that steamrolls over the victims in its way. Does this sound familiar? It should, because it is a direct metaphor for death, or sickness; an indiscriminate killer.

The same can be said for movies with large monsters destroying cities like Godzilla, or even movies about natural disasters.

Look at any good horror tale and you will often find it is about the protagonist’s loss of control, and usually their death. This helps to explain why the audience will even root for the killer or monster. Because they are in COMPLETE CONTROL. We naturally want our protagonists to succeed. This is why we read to begin with. We love heroes we can relate to, seeing them conquer their obstacles, because we want to be able to do the same in our own lives. So, in a horror movie, we root for the character that is capable of succeeding.

As far as your writing, keep this concept in mind as you craft your horror tale. This is just one of many  themes you can use to create a layered and complex tale.

Until next time, write on.


11 thoughts on “Horror and the loss of Control

  1. Great post, Craig–and interesting topic. I’ve often wondered about the appeal of horror, but had never put it in terms of control. That makes sense though–either because of the final victory over the monster or the monster’s victory. I also wonder if it has something to do with being forced to be present. We spend so much of our time worrying about the past or the future. When faced with imminent death–either via disease or a monster–you live in the moment, both because it’s all you’ve got and because you’ve got to be present to figure out your next move. As watchers/readers, we become part of that. The vicarious emotions give us an intensity we often lack in our normal lives.


  2. Craig, I han’t thought of it in the idea of Control, either. I’ve watched horror shows since my childhood days. I don’t care much for the new ones and I don’t like any of the Spiritual Horror shows like Exorist. I just looked at them like all other TV shows, make believe. I will remember this concept if I ever write Horror. Thanks Cher’ley


  3. From childhood on I’ve always loved to read or watch horror. Zombies, monsters, clowns (Stephen King) were right up my alley. My favorite genre to read is True Crime and I think the control issue fits that as well. Of course, I love all kinds of books but my writing hinges on innocence and growing up. I agree with Cherley about the Exorcist, but when I read the book Amityville Horror I lost a lot of sleep. My husband was gone and our well was under the house. I’ll never forget the fear and it took me awhile to get over it. I still have recurring nightmares about the movie The Fly, that I saw in my childhood. Thanks for a very interesting post.


  4. The same thing holds true for why people like to go into horror houses (the ones sponsored at Halloween by the Jaycees, etc.), and haunted cornfields. Yep, they like that simulated feeling of being terrified and losing control of their lives. When some crazed, bloody man with an axe charges them, it kicks in their primordial terror that ingrained into their genes. Run or die; the saber-tooth tiger is hungry and he’s after me.


  5. I confess to being cowardly when it comes to horror movies and books. I don’t think I scare all that easily but it’s a genre I don’t get any buzz from. Maybe it stems from me watching ‘The Outer Limits’ when I was maybe 10 ish. I sat with a cushion in front of my face and peaked around it- as I also did with Alfred Hitchcock’s Tales.


  6. I’m not into horror and scary stuff — I think there’s too much brutality in reality to bring more of that into my life. Every writer writes their own genre and needs to capture their audience with some conflict or another — and there are plenty of people who do enjoy a good scare. Interesting post, Craig — thanks!


  7. Interesting twist on wanting the person in control to succeed. I like to see the one who thinks he’s in control get taken down by an underestimated character or unexpected support. I guess I like to root for the underdog but I hadn’t thought about it the other way around. Great post.


  8. I’m not a big fan of horror movies, I never have been. I see it as an acquired taste and I never acquired a liking for it. I did enjoy your analogy and hope you have many happy hours of viewing throughout the Halloween season.


  9. Interesting post. I’ve wondered what the attraction was. Is that why zombies are so popular? I can sorta see vampires, but zombies are beyond my ken.

    I hated scarey movies when I was a kid and now I can’t stand gore, whether horror or shoot-em-ups.

    Bet you have a lot of fun at Halloween!


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