The anxiety and fear that many are experiencing in these days of pandemic and urban rioting have emerged from a sense that things are falling apart. New data released by Mental Health America reveal that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, there has been what they called a “staggering” increase in levels of depression, anxiety, psychosis, and suicidality.
According to Census Bureau statistics, 24 percent of 42,000 respondents reported significant symptoms of major depressive disorder, and 20 percent reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Among young adults—those ages 18 to 29—42 percent reported anxiety, and 36 percent reported depression. These self-reported depression and anxiety levels are double those uncovered in 2014. We know that things are not as they should be, but we often feel powerless to improve them.
Still, some are more resilient than others. And although there are several explanations for why some are better able to cope with the chaos, including family supports, strong religious faith, and access to reliable sources of information, there is a unique line of research revealing that consumers of fiction and films focused on horror, pandemics, and “prepping” tended to cope better with the kinds of crises we have experienced in 2020.
A new study cited by the American Psychological Association titled “Pandemic Practice: Horror Fans and Morbidly Curious Individuals are More Psychologically Resilient During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” found that fans of horror films exhibited greater resilience during the pandemic and that fans of “prepper genres,” including alien-invasion, apocalyptic, and zombie films, exhibited both greater resilience and preparedness. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to frightening fictions—both film and novels—allow audiences to “practice” effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations. Other studies have revealed that horror fiction and films can create an adrenaline rush that mobilizes the immune system and boosts white blood cells’ activity.
Stephen King would not be surprised. In his non-fiction book on the uses of horror, Danse Macabre, King writes that “a good horror story is one that functions on a symbolic level, using fictional (and sometimes supernatural) events to help us understand our own deepest real fears.” In some ways, the horror genre operates like fairy tales, revealing truths about ourselves and the world. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim writes in his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, “the fantastical, sometimes cruel, but always deeply significant narrative strands of the classic fairy tales can aid in the greatest human task, that of finding meaning for one’s life.” Those who are familiar with fairy tales understand that these stories speak to us in the language of symbols—not the reality of everyday life. We know that the fairy tales of our childhood and the monsters, zombies, and aliens in today’s horror novels are not real, yet the real events in our lives become important through the symbolic meaning that is attached to such tales.
These stories are important when our major challenge is to bring some order to the inner chaos of our minds. The best stories of horror—like the best fairy tales—document the moral imperative that there exists a condition, and that if the condition is broken, then chaos and confusion emerge—sometimes death.
In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learned in the nursery…The things I believed most in then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.” Chesterton sees fairy tales as “entirely reasonable things…mirrors of inner experience, not of reality.” As such, the message of the fairy tale—like the message of the best novels of horror—operate in the unconscious, offering us solutions to problems we may not even acknowledge to ourselves. The best stories address the existential predicament.
In fact, the best stories reassure, give hope for the future and hold out the promise of a happy ending for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Some of us seek out stories that give us a place to put our fears. Stories that frighten give us a way to explore the things that truly frighten us. The classic fairy tale gave the child an intuitive, subconscious understanding of his own nature and of what his future may hold if he is able to develop his positive potential. The child senses from fairy tales that to be a human being in this world means having to accept difficult challenges, but also encountering wondrous adventures and triumphing over adversity. As Chesterton suggests, children already know there are dragons in this world. The task of the fairy tale is to help children realize that the dragons can be conquered.
The best horror stories operate in exactly the same way. We already know that the world is full of fearful things. The list of the evils of 2020 grows longer by the day: the death of an unarmed black man in police custody; the young father—a Broadway star—who dies from COVID after suffering for months alone in the hospital without his wife and baby daughter by his side; the black police captain—a 38-year veteran of the St. Louis police department—who was shot and killed while attempting to protect a neighborhood store; the 6-year-old child caught in the crossfire of gang warfare in her grandmother’s Chicago front yard; and the thousands of elderly men and women dying alone in nursing homes throughout the country. Many of us have lost loved ones to the deadly pandemic. Some have seen our churches burned and vandalized.
Although we know that stories of horror can create stress and anxiety for readers, we also know that once the source for the evil is revealed and named in these stories, it can become conquered. For example, Stephen King’s 1978 book The Stand gives readers a dramatic choice between good and evil in his story of a patient who escapes from a testing facility carrying a mutated strain of super-flu that could kill the entire population of the world within days. Two leaders emerge, and survivors have to choose between following an elderly black woman named Mother Abigail, who urges the survivors to build a community to worship God in Colorado, and a Satanic creature named Randall Flagg, who encourages chaos and violence as the path to power.
In some ways horror fiction functions, as King suggests, as a “thermometer” because it tells us where we are as a society. We learn something about how we respond to fear, anxiety, and dread, but we also learn something about the world in terms of morality and the darker aspects of existence. Books like The Stand tell us how we can pull together and rise above our racial biases and do what we need to do in order to survive.
There are a number of helpful lessons that the readers of the horror genre can learn. First, the work of many authors within the genre, including Michael Crichton, suggest that biological threats are often the result of hubris—the desire to use science to control human life. This is true with Crichton’s Jurassic Park series and his later work, Prey, in which nanotech goes rogue. Similarly, both Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness (1989) and Devoted (2020) feature man-made disasters created in the belief that nature can be controlled and used for human purposes. For Crichton and Koontz—like Mary Shelley before them—the real monsters are not the creations but the human creators.
Second, there are always heroic figures to fight evil and villains who typically try to save themselves by devaluing the lives of others. For example, in Devoted, while a half dozen humans (and a courageous dog) risk their lives to fight the evil entrepreneurial scientists trying to create an all-powerful transhuman species, the villainous bio-tech entrepreneur has such disregard for the lives of his own team that he is willing to sacrifice them all in order to save himself and his dream for the future of a nebulous “humanity.” Similarly, in The Rain, the well-timed Danish series now streaming on Netflix, the evil scientists who claim to be “saving humanity” from a deadly virus by experimenting on innocents explain: “Everyone cannot survive…the effort to save mankind will cost lives.” The theme of killing innocent individuals for the “good of the species” was perfected by the Nazis and is a common theme in many horror stories.
Perhaps the most important function of horror fiction is that we find hope of survival in these stories. We begin to believe that we can conquer the demons—and the very real threats posed by the anarchy in the street and virus at our doorsteps. We choose these stories because we want to learn about ourselves and how we will react to these other-worldly challenges. We know that the stories will frighten us, but we also know that we can learn something from them. Carl Jung believed horror “tapped into primordial archetypes buried deep in our collective subconscious.” Aristotle believed in catharsis, and it is possible that reading horror fiction is a way of purging negative emotions and intensifying positive feelings when the hero triumphs over evil in the end.
These days of COVID and urban chaos remind us that what we took for granted in the past—sharing a meal with our elderly loved ones, attending daily Masses, shopping at stores that stayed open with stocked selves, and being able to walk safely on the streets of some of our biggest cities—are no longer available to many of us. Some have begun to experience a sense of despair as they see that the institutions they thought they could depend on in the past—churches, health-care systems, law enforcement, and our political systems—all seem to be collapsing in front of our eyes.
But as Christians know, despair is never an option. For those of us who find an escape in reading these scariest of stories, we are often inspired by these tales of struggle and survival. We know that the stories are not “real,” but the best of them provide reassurance that if we too are willing to fight for what is good and true and beautiful, irrespective of results, we will succeed.
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