We’re back, and we’re mulling over a topic suggested to us by good friend of the Good Friends, Tore Nielsen: what is the appeal of horror? Apparently this is a huge subject, and even pinning down what exactly we mean by horror took as long as some of our shorter episodes. Paul has worked tirelessly to edit all this rambling down to a reasonable length, but I fear this may be the episode that finally breaks him.

Blind Dead

Eight hours of cutting out “ums” takes its toll on a man.

Our discussion veers all over the place, like a teenage camper trying to escape an axe-wielding maniac. We take in films, television, books and games in our attempt to try to work out what appeals to us about horror, as well as looking at our own personal reactions to fear, violence and the uncanny. As usual, we come to three entirely different conclusions, but unlike other episodes, none of us are wrong in our opinions. Not that I hold grudges. Oh no.


It’s all right, Carole. We’ll make them pay one day.

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18 comments on “The Appeal of Horror

  1. I’m with Scott. I’m not scared by horror films. Some I find too visceral but I wouldn’t say it’s fear, more disgust.

    • There definitely are films that disgust me, although this is usually triggered by scatology or vomit more than gore. I have a weak stomach for stuff like that.

      There are also a few films I wish I hadn’t seen because of sadism or cruelty. The animal torture in Cannibal Holocaust deeply upset me, and I find the original Last House on the Left difficult to watch because of the almost gleeful treatment of rape.

  2. Rcaugust Nov 25, 2015

    Great episode; I am scared by horror films and you identify, perfectly, why I avoid them. The ideas recur, the images come back to frighten me. I remember the Michael Keaton film White Noise flashing into my mind any time the radio stuttered. But I love horror games and horror stories; I wonder if it is the degree of control you have over your own ingestion of horror in the latter two cases. You can put down a book, turn off a game. In the cinema, you are merely in passive receipt of the film and its narrative. Having said all that, I’m still scared when I see them on tv. Clearly I’m just a coward!

    • That’s a good point about control, and one I think varies from person to person. For me, the fact that I have some control in video games actually makes things worse, because it draws me in more.

      Also, if I were scared by horror films the way you and some other listeners are, I probably wouldn’t watch them! Not having a film let go of you after you’ve finished watching it is an unnerving thing. I’ve had similar experiences with films like Threads and Come and See, but the feeling that wouldn’t leave me was more one of upset and disquiet than outright fear. That’s bad enough!

  3. Trevor Nov 28, 2015

    I enjoyed this episode as well. Horror is a strange thing. I do not like scary movies! But I love the Universal Monsters, Hammer Horror, 50’s and 60’s b movie horror and EC comics. I rented the remake of The Hills Have Eyes when it came out. I found it to be disturbing. I saw Hostel. That was horrible. I feel worse as a human for having watched this stuff! Horror, as a genre, for me is more about an artistic aesthetic. Does that make sense? Gentleman Horror. Ha-ha.

    • We all have our personal tastes and limits.

      My interest in horror was shaped by early exposure to Dennis Gifford’s book, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, which came out in 1973. Gifford was a fan of what he saw as a more genteel type of horror film, especially the classic Universal monster movies. Interestingly, he found the comparative gore of Hammer Films to be beyond the pale, and railed against what he saw as the degeneration of horror in the hands of this younger generation of film makers.

      I imagine that the ideas and images we encounter in media when young set some kind of baseline for what is normal or right. As these shift with the tastes and morals of new generations, it can sometimes be unsettling. There are definitely horror films that I dislike because they are largely plotless exercises in unpleasantness, and I wonder whether I would still feel that way if I’d encountered them at a younger age.

  4. My love of horror is pretty tightly connected with my love of short fiction. As a kid I was a bit of a ‘fraidy-cat. The other kids in my school would talk about watching Friday the 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street. I would lose sleep over melting Nazi faces in Indiana Jones. Slasher horror would have made me piss myself (if only metaphorically).

    I found that I could read about horror fine though. Well, I say fine. I did lose sleep over some stories. M. R. James’ Lost Hearts is one I distinctly remember. The apparition in that bathroom was absolutely in OUR bathroom, at least until I looked.

    “His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once beheld myself in the famous vaults of St Michan’s Church in Dublin, which possesses the horrid property of preserving corpses from decay for centuries. A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.”

    It did not stop me though, even if some stories gave me pause, Ray Bradbury’s The Man Upstairs made me leave horror behind for almost six months. It was not a bogey-man fear either, in the sense that I was not afraid that Mr. Koberman from the story would come after me. I was afraid that the world really was subtly wrong in a way which allowed things like Mr. Koberman to exist. The story opened me to the idea that tactile sensory input could be conveyed through text. Similarly Edgar Allan Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar made me imagine the sounds of the dead man’s lolling tongue.

    These were the things that dragged me in too. I wanted to see the wrong thing. Realism might deal with the kind of banal problems I had, with arguing parents, bullying and so forth. They always show a small world though. While it could show the unpleasant realities, realism seemed unable to show the wrongness and the absurdity itself. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” as Howard says. I would add that the greatest catalyst is that nothing can be known, or be made to make sense. The strongest fear is alienation, and horror fiction told me that alienation was real. Besides it was thrilling as fuck.

    Unlike novels, horror short stories were deeply intense. They focused my emotions on the feelings and the sensory input of a story, rather than the slow built-up of plot in novels. Short stories could affect me deeply in a single sitting, while a novel felt more like work. It felt like you had to trudge through a narrative and an attempt at painting the world. Potentially fascinating, but often at the cost of immediacy.

    Later on in my life I hardened my heart and started watching horror film too. I found that there were movies which could make me imagine beyond what was shown, could make me whoop with surprise and revulsion. I haven’t looked back since, except to check for axe-men.

    • A lot of this resonates deeply with me. Short stories were also my favourite medium for horror when I was young, although this was more to do with availability than anything else. I was in my late teens before home video became popular, so most of my childhood exposure to horror films came from either television or the rare film I could convince my parents to take me to see at the cinema.

      Happily I discovered the joy of horror short stories at a young age. My mother, seeing that I had a morbid imagination, introduced me to Edgar Allen Poe and the more adult stories of Roald Dahl when I was around 9 or 10. Shortly after that, I started picking up the occasional Pan Book of Horror Stories at jumble sales, and discovering collections in the school library that contained stories by writers Lovecraft, MR James and J Sheridan Le Fanu. Discovering Harlan Ellison a few years later bridged the gap between my love of horror and growing interest in science fiction, and Karl Edward Wagner did much the same with sword & sorcery.

      As horror films became more accessible to me, however, I became obsessed with them. I never lost my love of horror fiction, and especially short stories, and still read them regularly, if not quite as voraciously.

      I agree exactly with what you say about the power of short stories as a medium. There are definitely horror novels that pack a hell of a punch (having recently reread TED Klein’s The Ceremonies and Thomas Tessier’s Finishing Touches, I was pleased to discover they were both still able to unnerve me), but the short story seems to be the purest expression of nightmare.

  5. One of the scariest films I have ever seen was Jumanji . I enjoy horror more in the sense of stuff being inferred or reffered to not explicitly ‘ look at this isnt it horrible , scary , gross ,terrifying etc .

    • Horror definitely doesn’t need to be visceral to get under your skin. When I was young, I found bloodless films like The Changeling and The Haunting to be much more disturbing than more violent fare, largely because they made my imagination complicit in frightening me.

  6. Anthony Lee-Dudley Dec 2, 2015

    It can be odd, what stays with you as a ‘scary’ horror film experience!

    I remember watching Doc Savage:Man of Bronze (With Ron Ely) and being shaken by the green glowing snakes that writhed through the air towards their victims. I also remember laying awake at night staring at the corner of my bedroom thinking about them so much, that I could ‘see’ the glowing green beasties starting to form before my eyes!

    Now of course I know it is the glowing green worms in people’s eyes I need to be frightened of.

    • It’s amazing the things that freak us out. I remember being terrified by some TV adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass in the early 1970s. The details are largely lost to me, but it involved some object or entity that would simply wipe things out of existence. The idea of someone suddenly not being there any more hit me hard. I couldn’t help visualising it happening to me and everyone I loved, no matter how much this upset me. It may have been the closest I came to understanding death as a young child.

  7. Anthony Lee-Dudley Dec 3, 2015

    It’s almost like stories should be used as some sort of comparative way of explaining difficult concepts …. Who’d a thunk it ! ?

  8. Anthony Lee-Dudley Dec 3, 2015

    Another thing that scared me as a child (and still do as an adult, but in a different way!) are churches … I couldn’t believe people wanted to go to these eerie buildings full of strange pictures, and even stranger people!

    I also stared at my reflection in a mirror for a very long time once and became convinced that it was someone else staring back! After that I always found mirrors in horror to be genuinely disquieting.

    • Mirrors scared me as a child too. I was always afraid that I’d catch sight of something horrible sneaking up behind me and be too paralysed with fear to run away from it.

  9. Anthony Lee-Dudley Dec 4, 2015

    My school friends were proper cruel when I mentioned my mirror issues to them ….

  10. Cearlan - Norman Logan Dec 6, 2015

    As stated above – horror is much more powerful when it’s implied as opposed to revealed. In this way I find books to be, on the whole, more satisfying than schlock-horror such as Hostel or Saw.

    My first ‘scare’ came from reading James Herbert’ ‘The Rats’ Going back to the days when we had an outside toilet with an attached but unused coal bunker. It was late at night and I was using the loo and reading my book, specifically the part where the rats over-ran a tube train. When suddenly I heard a scratching sound from the coal bunker, followed by more and more scratching sounds … I never ran so fast and I’m not afraid to admit a slight yelp escaped my lips 😉

    As for other formats … I still get a shiver down my spine when I enter a ‘dungeon’ in the Bethesda’s ‘Elder Scrolls’ series strangely enough.

    As ever an excellent episode guys, from one of the best Call of Cthulhu related podcasts

    • Thank you!

      James Herbert’s early novels were wonderful stuff for young horror fans, and I can’t imagine a better way of reading them than in the dark, surrounded by strange scratching noises. 🙂

      I’m right there with you about the Elder Scrolls dungeons. They’re about the highest level of spookiness I can stand in a video game. The Fallout series can be even worse sometimes, especially the Dunwich Building in Fallout 3.

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