Stephen King once said, in the original foreword to Night Shift, that “the great appeal of horror fiction…is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths.” With Halloween around the corner, scary stories are everywhere – on TV, on the bookshelves at your local indie, under your bed – but why do we get so excited about stories that give us goosebumps that we turn into something resembling brain-hungry zombies?
Before we get into what exactly happens when we read scary stories, the elephant in the room should be discussed: everyone has at least one fear, meaning there’s a certain universal appeal to fear. You might be afraid of clowns or heights, the dark or being alone, enclosed spaces or spiders. No matter what it is, you’re afraid of something. And horror authors know that. There are books that cover each of our fears.
But that’s why we read scary stories, isn’t it? To exert control over our fears. In horror stories, our nightmares brought to life in a way that we can control. You can emotionally invest in a scary story, but you are still able to pull back from it if it gets to be too much. We usually can't do much about the things that scare us in real life, but when reading about it, we can close the book or turn the page to exhibit some minimal level of control.
Plus, scary stories are just that...scary. Scary stories give us a bit of a thrill, an adrenaline rush from being scared out of our wits, and in some ways, it's fun to read about things that frighten us. We read scary stories, because, in the end, there is a catharsis to it. We read the story, are scared – sometimes to the point of stopping – but then we can move on. The book is over; our fears, while still there, are hidden safely between the pages of the book.
Not actual demons (though you might find those in a scary story or six), but the inner demons that humans face. Reading something that frightens us allows us to really think about our fears and why they scare us; we can drag our fears – kicking and screaming – out of that dark closet and examine them in the light of day (or moonlight, if you prefer). Reading about the thing that scares you the most might allow you to accept that fear and move past it. Scary stories allow you to tame your demons. At least within the pages of a book, until you find them again under your bed.
Back to King, who says we like scary stories because, a lot of the time, the story is about something that could never happen. In that same Night Shift foreword, he says, “The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn't real. I know that, and I also know that if I'm careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”
But the thrill comes from letting ourselves forget for just a moment, making sure our foot is covered completely by the blanket lest we feel the cold hand curling around our foot.