Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Musings on Terror Reading

As I mentioned in my last post, Susan at You Can Never Have Too Many Books, asked some good questions recently about why those of us who read horror stories do so. I liked the questions and thought they'd be fun to answer, especially now that I've embarked on the R.I.P. Challenge, so I reached out a bony, skeletal hand over to her site and stole them to post on my own (with answers, of course). Here you go:

1. Why do I read horror/ghost stories?

I suppose one of the obvious answers to this question is that I'm a masochist? I mean, people like my mother and sisters have asked me since I was a teenager, "How can you read that stuff?" Obviously, many people don't enjoy being scared out of their wits, and to tell you the truth, I wouldn't paint myself out to be someone who does, because I'm such a chicken when it comes to so many things, but I can't remember a time when I didn't enjoy stories, books, television shows, and movies that sent shivers up and down my spine.

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was an old Scholastic Paperback called Strange But True. Most of the stories in it were quite forgettable, but there were two that really stood out for me. One was about a ghost ship that was sailing around with a frozen crew. The other was about a frightful man lugging a coffin on his back who later showed up on an elevator that the narrator chose not to take because "Coffin Man" was on it. The elevator malfunctioned, killing everyone on it. (That's how I remember it, anyway. That may not be what really happened. I haven't read the book since I was twelve or so, although I'd like to reread it).

About the same time I discovered that book, I also discovered Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators mystery series (which hardly anyone else has ever heard of). That series was to me what Nancy Drew was to almost every other girl I knew. I think I preferred it, because, like Scooby Doo (speaking of cartoons. I loved cartoons when they took on spooky themes. Anyone remember The Flintstones episode when that Addams Family type family moved in next door? That was my favorite!), these books tended to focus on mysteries that at first seemed to be supernatural in nature. Something ghoul-y-and-ghost-y-ish always spawned the three boys' investigations.

When I got older, I remember scaring myself to death reading The Amityville Horror, and then, of course, moving on to Stephen King. I always found the books scarier than the movies, because, as I'd say after seeing the movie, "That wasn't as scary as I imagined it when I read the book." In other words, I guess my imagination ran wilder while reading than it did while being presented with someone else's interpretation of events. The only exceptions here were the movies The Exorcist and The Shining, both of which pay excellent homage to the books and still scare the crap out of me.

Back in those days, it was very easy to send a chill up my spine while reading. These days, it's much much harder to do so. I read these books and stories now for two reasons: 1. I'm always hoping to come across something that does terrify me, that makes me feel the way I did when I was a kid reading Strange But True and 2. I like to write ghost stories myself, so I read them to see what others have written and for inspiration.

2. Do I like being thrilled?

Yes, I love to be thrilled. I'm a new-adventure-and-roller-coaster kind of gal. Or, at least, I like to think I am. Reality is that I love to be thrilled, unless I'm home all alone, it's late, and I've made the mistake of reading something like a collection of essays about serial killers. I hear a "thump" somewhere in the house (or was it on the front porch?), and then, well, I'm not too keen on being thrilled.

3. Do I like being scared, safely in the comfort of my own home?

Yes, but not when I'm alone. This is a bit of a problem for the sort of thrill-seeker I am, because I rarely ever get scared if I'm not alone. I might have a brief moment of chills up my spine while reading something macabre or thrilling, but all I have to do is go find someone else in another room (someone who's supposed to be there, I mean, not an intruder with a wicked grin and an ax raised above his skeletal face), and I'm fine. If I'm alone? Well, let's just say I've been known to lock doors and dive under covers hoping no one finds me.

4. Do I like the eerie frisson of chill running over my skin when I read a particularly scary line or scene?

Yes, I do like that sort of chill, as long as it doesn't last too long, and as long as it's only being inspired by reading/watching something and not by strange noises echoing throughout my house.

There you have it: I love to be scared out of my wits... maybe... sort of. Are any of the rest of you who read horror/thrillers as ambivalent as I apparently am?


Anonymous said...

Emily, I not only remember Alfred Hitchcock & the Three Investigators, I still have several of them.

And I still watch Scooby Do at any opportunity (the cartoons, not the live actions movies, obviously).

I love the 1930s horrors - Dracula, Frankenstein etc. When I was about 10 BBC2 had Friday night double bills of a 1930s and a Hammer Horror, which my Dad and I used to watch.

I think I like horror that is scary rather than gorey - if you know what I mean. I've never been keen on the bloodbath style.

Maybe we just need a little frightening to make us appreciate how safe we are?


Emily Barton said...


How wonderful to "meet" someone else who's familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock Three Investigators series. I wish I had several of them. And I hate the gore, too. To me a great tale/movie is one that can scare me to death without all the gore.

Stefanie said...

I used to love horror and being scared. I read the Amityville book and even watched the movie one night when I was babysitting. But in my early 20s it was like a switch was flipped and I started having nightmares after seeing horro movies or even overly violent movies. These days Shirley Jackson sort of scary is the most I can handle.

litlove said...

What an entertaining post! I think I loathe being scared, and avoid it whenever possible. But then when I read scary things or (very occasionally) watch them, I often find they are not as bad as I...umm, fear. But that still doesn't mean I choose them really willingly! :-)

Susan said...

I love your bony, skeletal hand, and even more your answers, Emily! lol thanks so much for doing this lovely long post on horror, I'm going to link to it on my next post. I think it deserves a whole lot more readers (not that I have more readers than you, I just want more people to come read yours!).

I've been having nightmares this week (which I am going to post about, it being RIP time), even though I've barely started denting my RIP pile. So I don't know if I'm already being influenced by the books, or if something about this year is affecting me. I write them down so I can use them in my stories. Do you do this with your scarier dreams too?

I find it interesting that we both received comments from others on why do we read horror, while we were growing up. I did too, and I think I just said, I enjoy it. I have to be careful, and don't read the slasher novels - most are pointless anyway and trite and badly written - I like ghost stories and plot and thought out horror, like MR James, and King, and Straub do.

I read for the same reasons you do, the frisson of fear that runs down my spine. I think this happens when the image in the story reaches some primitive part of us that is always afraid of the dark - that ancestral memory we all have of hunkering down by the fire because things were moving out there in the dark. I don't think it's a primitive urge to want to read horror, though, I just think our awareness of horror is as old as mankind is.There have always been ghosts, and there always will be.

I think I'd better stop now, this is a really long comment! Almost a post! lol thanks for doing this, I love talking horror, and it's fun to do this during RIP too.

Emily Barton said...

Stefanie, why do teenagers do things like watch The Amityville Horror while baby sitting? I remember watching Salem's Lot while baby sitting. It was a huge mistake. I'm not good with horror or violent movies just before bed time: they always give me nightmares, which they didn't when I was younger. Reading scary things just before bed seems to be fine, though (except In Cold Blood. That book just affected me, somehow, both consciously and subconsciously).

Litlove, that's funny! I think our own imaginations are sometimes what we most have to fear.

Susan, lol. Now you see why I wrote my own blog post instead of commenting on yours. Thanks for linking to me and trying to get people to read me (I'm pretty sure getting others to read this blog is a hopeless cause, but I admire your gallantry).

Emily Barton said...

Susan, forgot to answer that, yes, I do try to use nightmares in stories, when I can remember them. I'm not always very good about writing them down.