To Celebrate our Existence through the Suffering of Others?

March 29, 2011

A graduate student named Hollis Jay recently included a few quotes from Horror Isn’t a 4-Letter Word in her thesis about whether horror should be taught in the classroom. (I’m always happy to post a student’s term paper on my interview page, where you may read Ms. Jay’s work now, if you like.)

In reading her paper, there was one paragraph in particular that stopped me cold.  It was about why we read or watch horror stories:

As morbid as it sounds, we want to celebrate our own existence through the sufferings of others, and be able to live another day with the realization that the end comes soon and without hesitance in it’s’ [sic] decision. Therefore, we are given the chance to face our own fears and to overcome them without the realization of them ever occurring in real life. Through horror, we are given a gift of the imagination[,] one in which we can appreciate and finally return to our own lives after experiencing a shocking story or the funhouse at the carnival. We can fully face our own monsters without death, and in the end succeed.

It was the “we want to celebrate our own existence through the sufferings of others” part that stopped me, of course.  Dude, really?  It makes me want to sit in my darkened throne room, surrounded by pickaxes and henchmen, and address my audience in a sinister French accent: “Dance for me on the hot coals, you pitiful fool.  Ha ha ha!  I desire to watch you suffer so I can feel alive.  (Guard!  Poke him with a stick.  He does not scream loudly enough.  Then bring me my Stephen King novel.)”

Out of context, that passage’s first sentence is a great — if misleading — quote.

But in the context of the subsequent remarks about facing our fears within the safe confines of a story, I think I agree with her.  Good stories are about life.  They teach us to cope.  They make us thankful for our lives and health because they put our petty everyday problems into perspective.

Are the folks in Japan reading horror stories right now?  Maybe not.  Deena and I are currently sheltering a woman from her physically abusive husband, so it’s not surprising that our guest wishes to avoid reading or watching romance stories.  However, I do think that, given the right timing and state of mind, all stories — whether they be slasher horror or tawdry romance — serve important maintenance functions in our psychology.  And I wish the busybodies who occupy themselves with “challenges” to the selections of school libraries would realize that.

To read a good book is a gift to your soul.  Do yourself a favor and pick one up.

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