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Finding comfort in horror

Contributed by
May 13, 2020

We've all heard the words on repeat for months now. Uncertain times. Unprecedented times. Troubled times. A handful of adjectives attempting to describe the all-of-this of all of this.

But there aren't really words for it. There are some experiences and sensations words can't describe until they're over, hindsight filling in the blanks like paint-by-number. But we still don't know when hindsight will happen. We're in this thing until we're not anymore. So we attempt to dull the senses, or we take comfort in the familiar, the soft, the warm, covering ourselves with blankets of nostalgia, bread, and beautiful until we can look up and see something beyond the real and horrifying.

Or, we immerse ourselves in terror and dread. That works, too.

For the past few months, I've found distraction in a seemingly unlikely area: the horror podcast. As a horror fan, these audio dives into creepypastas and original stories of the macabre have long been a source of entertainment. But over the past few months, they've taken on a new and necessary layer.

I think these stories are saving me.

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There exist myriad studies delving into why horror is enjoyable for certain individuals. In a paper for the Journal of Media Psychology, Dr. Glenn Walters identifies three primary factors that make horror appealing: tension, relevance, and unrealism. Essentially, our bodies respond to the shock and awe present in the work, and our emotions react to the personal stakes we have in whatever we're watching, a shared fear or experience similar to our own. And then safety is found in the lack of realism. We know what we're witnessing is pretend, make-believe.

And right now, when real life is so frightening, there is solace in pretend terror, in temporary fear made manifest out of someone's imagination rather than our inescapable reality.

My own solace has come in the form of The No-Sleep Podcast and Creepy, two podcasts producing audio versions of creepypasta stories from Reddit, as well as The Magnus Archives, a series of stories from the fictional, titular archives of the Magnus Institute, dedicated to studying the strange. Among their many pluses is the (mostly) lack of narrative throughline. These are largely standalone stories that exist on their own and do not necessitate ordered listening, allowing listeners to come and go as they please, to skip what doesn't feel right, and — very, very often — let me drift to sleep on my pillow of fabricated dread rather than the organic, fresh-brewed existential dread we've all gotten so used to.

For those of us who suffer from anxiety and depression, in some strange ways it feels like our whole lives have built to this, preparing our minds and bodies for the unthinkable and impossible to predict. My brain and body have forced me to experience unyielding fear and terror my whole life. A low-level panic and under-the-skin quaking is my most familiar waking sensation. But it wasn't real outside of the very real-feeling clicks and ticks of my own mind. Now it is. So I turn back to the comfort of a kind of terror I'm used to: the kind that's "all in my head." This kind simply starts in my ears and pulses inward rather than from my brain out. And I'm thankful for that.

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Forget "uncertain," "unprecedented," "troubled." Things are weird. They're scary. And we don't know if things will ever be "normal" again, or if they ever were in the first place. We deserve to — we have to — find comfort where we can. Maybe it's a New Girl rewatch, maybe it's singing along with the Mamma Mia movies, maybe it's baking and eating sourdough until you pass out from a yeast-induced carb overload and dream of the next loaf you'll make. It's all OK. It's all a form of grasping at safety and calm where we can find it.

Mine just comes in the form of the nightmares I find as a welcome respite from the days as we know them, and their soothing monstrosities of the human mind. Thank you for that, horror.

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