It’s not uncommon to see people who are not into Horror question why it exists. Even people who are into Horror find themselves questioning it at times. On the surface, it does seem strange. Fear is a negative emotion that is uncomfortable and it is a basic instinct to avoid things that cause fear. Why would anyone seek it out?
It may seem to be an oxymoron, but for many people, it can be therapeutic. A common technique in psychotherapy for dealing with both anxiety disorders and past mental trauma is called Exposure Therapy. In this method, the source of someone’s fears is presented to them in a controlled format. This allows the person to confront their fears and slowly expose themselves to more and more of the source of their fear until they are no longer controlled by the emotion.
Storytelling is merely a handy method of conducting such controlled exposure. While the psychological benefits are greatest with those experiencing severe trauma or anxiety, many other people will find themselves benefiting from the same process. Even if their status is mild enough that it doesn’t require a therapist, the ability to confront their fears can help people. This can apply to situations where someone has experienced some sort of threat manifesting in real life and must process the result of that, but it can also help those who just feel nervous about some sort of perceived threat in the world.
However, there is another, more primal, reason people may seek out fear. When we experience fear, our bodies enter what is sometimes called Fight-or-Flight Mode. What is happening during this physical response is our body is preparing to either fight off or flee from whatever threat is causing us to feel fear. This is primarily achieved by flooding the bloodstream with adrenaline and all of the effects that come with that natural drug.
There are many people who are adrenaline junkies. For these people, they’ve learned to enjoy the feeling of adrenaline in their system. It makes sense, after all, heroin and morphine both work by mimicking adrenaline and those are well known to be highly addicting drugs. Adrenaline is just typically safer to acquire since it just needs some sort of controlled exposure to pain or fear to trigger it. Some adrenaline junkies get their fix through physical activity and some through exposure to real dangers. However, if they can stimulate the emotion of fear through controlled interaction with a source of fear and no actual danger, they can enjoy the adrenaline high without facing a real danger.
So, the same book or movie that is providing a therapeutic method of processing to one person can be providing a drug-like high to the person next to them. In some cases, both results may be happening in the same person. This means that while there are two distinct reasons why people enjoy Horror, those reasons can’t be used to break down the genre. Any Horror work in any medium that is successful at producing fear (which any good Horror work should be) will be capable of achieving both goals depending on the person who consumes the material. Two very disparate reasons for seeking out the content that are almost impossible for a content creator to intentionally target one over the other.