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TGIF: Trying to understand the appeal of fright

Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

I happily welcome the adorable young children dressed as Elsa and Anna from “Frozen” — or dressed in any other costume — who knock on our doors each Halloween. I do enjoy the trick-or-treat tradition, but I typically avoid most other aspects of the event.

The pandemic has complicated the usual assortment of Halloween spook houses and scary parties, so thrill-seekers must be content this year with the catalog of previous horror movies because production of new ones had to be shelved. Many fine folks — perhaps even you — relish the prospect of being scared to the point of accidentally losing control of certain bodily functions.

I’ve been doing some reading about the appeal of horror movies, and after clicking through a dozen or so articles explaining why people like them, it seems I know less about the subject than before. Fortunately, I found a couple of scientific essays that also address why certain people don’t like them, the category in which I happen to fall.

This practice of self-examination occurs every year around this time, because my disenchantment with the traditions of October 31 don’t quite sink to the level of my disdain of horror movies. However, it seems the two categories go hand-in-hand.

Many of our adult practices and preferences can be traced to our childhood, so I’ll reflect on that first. For a child, the entire purpose — the bottom line — of Halloween is collecting as much candy, from as many houses, in as little time, as you possibly can.

Please understand, I’m not an adventurous eater by any means. I was extremely picky about food as a child, and in many ways I still am. I have found myself venturing out more in my later years, and I’ve found some “new” items I actually like. Where has this been all my life?

Candy was, and remains, much the same. My mother, who was a dental assistant before getting married, was adamant about the harm to your teeth that sugar found in candy could do, and my experience with drilling cavities at the dentist convinced me that any enjoyment wasn’t worth the consequences.

If you’re not in it for the candy, why even bother with Halloween? I recall making the rounds on several years and bringing back a full bag of goodies. I would sort out a few Dum-Dums and Hershey’s Kisses before letting my parents pick over the rest.

Horror films are on a different level. Learned physiologists who have posted articles online offer several reasons why people might enjoy them.

As a genre, horror movies often pick up on concerns that face society. Films about nuclear radiation empowering monsters such as Godzilla came about in the 1950s. Exploration of outer space prompted a series of space alien flicks. Films in the “Friday the 13th” franchise tapped into fears of random acts of violence and serial killings. Defeating such threats on the big screen helps assure us that these particular dangers can be overcome.

Fortunately, I’m told that while there might be tragedy along the way, most horror movies have a hero who saves the day. I love happy endings.

Then there’s the thrill factor. People who watch horror movies experience a boost in the heart rate and other physical reactions that many enjoy.

Others, however, aren’t wired that way. Their brains might not release enough hormones to override the terror of what’s being seen. Or, maybe certain people just can’t stomach the sight of blood — even if it’s only stage blood and special effects.

For many years, I’ve heard comments to the effect that real life is scary enough these days without having to generate fictitious scenarios to keep us awake at night. That’s not wrong. But when horror movies resolve in the manner we hope to see, the audience is assured that sanity will ultimately prevail even when all seems lost. It’s an optimism we can take with us into the real world.

Meanwhile, have a happy — and above all, a safe — Halloween.

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at tgifcolumn@yahoo.com.