Why do we read books that scare us?

As Halloween approached, I’ve been thinking about scary books and why we read them.  With all the horror in the news, my work colleagues have been increasingly asking for “lighter” book recommendations (I’ve been recommending Less).

I’ve written several posts with recommendations of good horror reading recommendations of good horror reading, but in this post I’m thinking about WHY we read to scare ourselves.  I don’t care for horror films, but I’ve read all kinds of horror.  I read most of Stephen King’s books in my teens.  And yet I don’t like excessive violence, I hate any kind of torture, and crime fiction doesn’t do much for me.  So given how many books I can choose from, why do I read books that scare me?

I suppose we all have different reasons for what we like to read, but there are some psychological reasons to read scary stories.  Scary stories allow children to process really difficult subjects in a safer way.  For adults, scary books give us a sense of adrenaline, a sense of facing the extreme and coming out on the other side.  As readers, we may be thinking of how much we can take – scary books, then, are a challenge, but a safe one.

I think the best kinds of horror deal with our real-life fears (for example, in many of Stephen King’s books, the humans are much more scary than anything magical).  For readers who are prone to anxiety and worry, horror stories give us a release for our anxiety while reminding us we’re not alone in being scared.  Scary novels also give us a sense of perspective on our own lives, which may seem dull at times but are (for many of us anyway) thankfully safe.

Reading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State last month, a book that scared me to my core, got me thinking of different types of scary books and why we read them.  Horror and fantasy may be terrifying but also allow us to explore interesting new worlds and experience strange and unusual types of scariness. But then there are books about real life experiences, like the Holocaust, genocide in Croatia, the Vietnam War, and the U.S. history of slavery and lynching.  Why do we choose to read books like that?

One reason we read books about horrific events is to be informed.  I feel some responsibility to know about these things that have occurred, both things in my country and in other parts of the world.

But it’s more than just being informed.  Books like Untamed State give us a first-person view of horrifying experiences, sometimes from a writer who’s experienced them herself.  Historical fiction helps us to “see” these events in a way that we can’t with nonfiction. Plus, these books often leave readers with a sense of hope – knowing that someone could survive something unbelievably horrifying and put themselves back together means that we can all face the incomprehensible.  And sometimes books like this share really enlightening ways to cope with even the mundane things we have to worry about.

It’s also hard to process recent events, especially those that touch us directly.  I still haven’t seen good fiction that depicts the events of 9/11, for example (though it may be out there).  And thinking about recent terrorism like school shootings and yesterday’s synagogue shooting, I don’t know how to think about it or what I could possibly say that matters.  Maybe fiction about real events gives us enough time to really process the events and make meaning of them.

So on this year’s Halloween, as the world continues to be terrifying, do you read books that terrify you?  If so, what kinds of books scare you, and why?

12 Responses to “Why do we read books that scare us?”

  1. Emily

    Awesome post! I definitely agree with your point about Stephen King – he draws on our real fears, and exploring (and hopefully overcoming) these fears can be really interesting. I’ve only read one of his books – The Shining – but I really loved it and definitely want to lay my hands on a few more.

    Reply
      • curlygeek04

        That’s a great example of a king book that isn’t really scary. There’s a lot of great history in that book. My own favorite is The Stand.

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    I don’t like books that call up feelings of being scared and helpless without any compensating emotion. I personally get no pleasure out of that. But as you point out, we can feel admiration for the survivor of horrific events, or hope that we can create change if we are able to face difficult realities. I think this is a really important thing to practice right now, when there are so many real-life horror stories going on around us. Maybe just having those feelings of fear and terror and realizing “Hey, I am here, having these feelings — they don’t utterly possess me” is a first step.

    I never thought about the topic so much before, this not being one of my preferred genres — thanks for the detailed exploration.

    Reply
  3. JaneGS

    Fascinating post–I’ve wondered this myself, and while I agree about books enabling you to experience something you might not otherwise, I usually steer clear of really disturbing books. I’ve found they upset my psyche too much–not that I want a Hallmark reading experience, drama and conflict are real, but truly horrific is not for me.

    Reply
    • curlygeek04

      Thanks Jane, I do try to avoid books that are really upsetting but often I find they are worth the read. I also like to balance heavier reads with fluffier reads.

      Reply
  4. Audrey Kalman

    By far the most frightening book I ever read was one about the Holocaust. I was about 12 or 13 and it was illustrated. I have never forgotten it. Traditional horror like Stephen King (whom I love) really doesn’t bother me.

    Reply
    • curlygeek04

      Books about the Holocaust are definitely what come to mind in terms of terrifying reading, especially those that get into a lot of detail about the concentration camps. Which one are you thinking of, or which do you recommend? One that really scared me was Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers, which I read and loved years ago. Another was Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein because it’s about the medical experimentation at Ravensbruck. Terrifying to see what human beings are capable of.

      Reply

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