The following is a brief exploration of why some find horror and violence in fiction cathartic. While I don’t go into explicit detail, certain topics and tropes found in Horror fiction and other genres will be mentioned.
I have a vivid memory from when I was a young teen, about reading a story that involved several truly horrific and highly detailed torture scenes. Though it was well over ten years ago now, it scared me so much that I can still remember it with terrible clarity. Without going into detail, these scenes would have put Ramsey Bolton’s treatment of Theon Greyjoy to shame – body mutilation, psychological torture, forced cannibalism…I was unable to finish reading the work.
At the time, I couldn’t understand how anyone could stomach writing about something in such explicit detail, let alone reading it. Of course, I am far from innocent when it comes to the treatment of my own characters, and anyone who has read The Harmatia Cycle will know that I do not shy away from putting Rufus, Zachary and the others into truly horrific situations. This, I do, for the purpose of the plot, in order to create conflict.
But never, in all my goriest scenes, have I ever gone into the same explicit detail as that one writer from my childhood.
And it got me thinking – why? Why would someone write something like that?
A few years later, I began studying Greek Tragedy as part of my A Levels, and I was introduced to the concept of Catharsis. Catharsis comes from engaging with an activity or media that releases strong emotions, resulting in an overall sense of calm, refreshment or relief. For example, having a good old cry when you’re stressed or screaming into a pillow when you’re angry can be cathartic. Similarly, watching Tragedy, or Horror, or anything that incites strong emotion can be cathartic too.
Now, this was something that, internally, I was vaguely aware of, but this was the first time that I really got to engage with it on a deeper, more meaningful level. Catharsis is one of those fundamentals that exists within our lives—it ticks along in the background, and is something we all engage with. Media and stories, in particular, provide very safe ways for people to relieve stress and deal with trauma. Think, have you ever listened to a sad song because you actually need to feel sad for a while?
Learning about this, got me thinking about that story I read. Now, I have never been a fan of Horror, nor am I particularly fond of Tragedy—I don’t like being jump-scared or body-horror, and I crave happy endings. Hearing about movies like ‘Saw’ honestly make me come out in a cold sweat, and I have never had the desire to watch ‘Atonement’. I don’t mind characters suffering and going through hardship, but I don’t really get a sense of the catharsis unless there is some kind of recovery at the end, in one shape or another. These things are very particular to me, and go hand in hand with my personal life experiences. Once I became aware of why, and what things gave me a sense of catharsis, I began to see them everywhere in all the media I consumed and created. In-fact, I realised that the sense of catharsis was actually the main component behind all of my artistic preferences and tastes.
I remember now, how my friends would constantly complain that I never knew how to play or sing anything happy—most of the music I performed and composed was sad. (This is still the case.) I also remember my mother complaining about how much I wrote about death, and sadness, and magic. (Also, still the case.) I can map the reasoning behind all of these things, and it leads right back to catharsis. Making myself cry with sadness over a tortured character, and then feeling my heart swell as that character finds inner peace, acceptance and joy makes me feel great. Using emo music to momentarily over-dramatize the grievance of my day, and let my angst soar for the duration of the song, makes me feel better. Simple.
But while it is beguiling to me that anyone would voluntarily watch “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” I also understand that for some people, horror is cathartic in the same way. Indeed, for many, it’s funny. And that humour is based around one very particular thing. It’s fictional.
The safest possible way to deal with your emotions is through the medium of fantasy. You watch “House of Wax” and can laugh or enjoy the thrill, because you know it’s just “actors”, playing parts, and not actual people being horrifically murdered. You can laugh as the obnoxious lawyer gets eaten on the toilet by a T-Rex in Jurassic Park, because it’s not real.
So we go back to the horrific story I read when I was a child—a story which, on reflection, was appropriately detailed for a piece of horror. And now, I can understand it for what it is. The writer wasn’t some kind of monster that was scribbling down their dark, sadistic fantasy about capturing and torturing a person. No, consciously or not—this was a piece of cathartic writing.
And just as I examined why I found certain things cathartic, I began to wonder why someone else would find relief in this kind of materiel. At first, I considered it might be a release of darker emotions—violent, but un-actionable feelings that bubble away in the psyche. The kind of thing that makes you fantasize about punching someone when they’ve really made you angry.
And then I realised if that was the case, then why was it told from the victim’s POV? In-fact, almost all of the Horror fiction I’ve ever had the courage to look at follows the victim’s story. Surely, if the point was to explore the release of violent desires for cathartic or comedic purposes, it would look at the pain from an external perspective—like the lawyer getting eaten in Jurassic Park. (Note the difference between that scene, framed externally, and the one with the children, from their POV as they hide in the kitchen from the raptors.)
That means the catharsis comes from the victim’s experience. The hero who must saw off their own foot to escape from the crocodile enclosure is going through all the pain, the horror and the fear for the reader. And the reader gets to experience these fears, these horrors in a safe environment. They are both brought in and distanced from the events. And at the end, once the book is done, it is closed and the reader is safe.
But why would they want to experience fear and horror, I asked myself, rather hypocritically as I sat next to a pile of ghost stories and closed a Youtube video about cryptid sightings. Well, for the same reason I want to occasionally wail out a sad song. Because those emotions are already boiling away inside of us, and sometimes they need out. On a personal level, watching or reading horror or dystopia would only exacerbate my fear and my anxiety without any reprieve, just as for others listening to endlessly sad songs would lead to a depressive episode, rather than any kind of relief. It can all depend on the person, on the content, or even just on the day. The woman who fears walking down the street at night, gets to safely explore that fear by reading about a crazy man with knives for hands, luring people into the sewers and liquidising their eyes. Meanwhile, the man who fears emasculation and being overpowered, gets to safely deal with those feelings by watching a man-eating Alien torment a crew of space-engineers in what I can only describe as an extended rape metaphor.
I remember an old friend of mine, who had serious phobia about anything eye-related, writing about her character getting blinded.
“Why?” I asked, as she curled over her laptop, staring at her own words in vague horror.
“Because it’s the worst thing I can think of,” she replied.
Later, my mother would pose a similar sentiment to me, about why the parents of my characters were either awfully abusive or dead?
Because the idea of not having parents—real, loving parents—was one of the worst things I could think of.
Now a-days, anyone who reads my work can’t fail to notice the theme of absent or dead mothers. Unfortunately, the worst thing I could think of happened. I lost my mother, and so have the majority of my characters. Where once, they were a vessel to explore my fear, now they explore my trauma. And here’s where another, darker and sadder aspect of cathartic writing rears its head—something which has made me hyper aware of what I read these days, and how I judge it.
Sometimes, people aren’t writing in order to explore their fears or feelings—sometimes, they’re writing to explore their experiences. Violence, grief, trauma—for some, the idea of putting these things to paper is terrifying. It would empower the trauma and trigger negatives memories or feelings. For others, however, re-enacting the trauma through fiction provides a therapeutic opportunity to process what happened, and all of the complexities that come with it.
You might ask – why would someone want to relive their trauma in this way, or take it further? Why wouldn’t they try to rewrite it instead? And many do—they write the narrative they wished for, rather than the one they got. But for me, the catharsis comes in letting my characters experience the pain and grief I often forced myself to downsize and hide, and gives me the chance to have a conversation about the uncomfortable parts of my particular trauma. Writing about it allows me to separate the complexity of my own experiences, and look at it from an outside perspective, which instantly made me more forgiving. I look at the protagonist of my children’s book, and instead of berating her struggles, I want to take her hands and say, “Hey, it’s OK that you’re not 100% together. You just lost one of the most significant figures in your life.”
I could never say that to myself.
It feels like being forgiven.
Ultimately, what this all boils down to is an invitation for self-consideration and reflection. Being aware of my own response to materiel, and why I seek certain things has given me greater understanding of my own needs, and more consideration to the needs of others. I used to be quite snobbish and suspicious when it came to Horror, and side-eyed anyone who enjoyed it “too much”. I thought: “Anyone who actively puts on a movie about teenagers getting killed by a guy who looks like he kissed the inside of a blender, is either a sadist, or just putting themselves through it to look cool.” Because I didn’t get anything out of it, I never bothered to consider the deeper cathartic implications for others. I was throwing stones and judgements without thought or consideration, and at times I was also shaming and blaming myself for the content I reached for.
“Why do you have to be such a baby, Madeleine? It doesn’t always have to have a happy ending. It would be more realistic if you killed this character.”
“You’re being depressing—stop listening to this emo rubbish and put on some real music. Who cares if it doesn’t ‘speak to you’, everyone says it’s better.”
In conclusion, I still don’t like horror. Dystopia makes me anxious. Tragedies usually leave me feeling empty and lonely and unfulfilled. So I know not to reach for that content.
But was the author of that body-horror filled, dystopian tragedy that I read a sadistic monster? Probably not. They were just dealing with their own thing, and I really hope, wherever they are now, that the content they safely create and consume is giving them the catharsis they need.
And if you’re one of those people who relaxes by watching straight to DVD movies about scantily clad teenagers screaming for two hours, as they try to out-maneuver a machete wielding hillbilly riding a giant python, then go for it.