As I listen to reruns of The Walking Dead, waiting for the premier of the new season to start, I’m reminded of a friend who recently asked me how I can watch shows like that. And we’re not talking just The Walking Dead. I love all sorts of stories (TV, movies, and books) where really horrible stuff happens; horror, suspense, crime fiction, thrillers. The darker the better. “But with so many terrifying things going on in the world,” my friend asked, “why would you invite more death, depravity, and ugliness into your life?” She isn’t the first one to question my love of all things sinister, and I’m sure she won’t be the last. I usually stick with “I don’t know” as my response, but today I’m offering a real explanation.
Obviously, I’m not the only person entertained by these kinds of stories. The Walking Dead, Criminal Minds, Bones, CSI, Dexter . . . this list could go on . . . would not be have found the popularity they have if I were the only fan. Stephen King certainly wouldn’t be a household name. People would not watch Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street over and over if those movies didn’t hold some appeal. So why do we enjoy them? Why are we entertained by blood, guts, ghastly crimes, and horrifying situations?
I don’t think there is a simple one-sized-fits-all answer. I think it’s as varied as the story being told and the individual who is listening/watching/reading, but here are some of the reasons I love them:
When the story has a clearly defined good vs. evil plot, you’re allowed to face evil with the safety of knowing the good side will win. It’s kind of like riding a roller coaster. You get the adrenaline rush of facing your fears, all while knowing your train is going to eventually bring you safely back to the loading platform. You can face the psychotic serial killer along with the main character, knowing the killer will be caught and justice served. In a world where so many things don’t make sense and awful things happen to good people for seemingly no rhyme or reason, it’s nice to sink into a story where you know the mysteries will be solved and the bad guy will not get away. And with these types of stories, the more vicious the evil, the harder the fight, the sweeter the victory.
Then you have the stories that aren’t so well delineated, where black and white blend into shades of gray. What I love most about these kinds of plots is exploration of our own fallible humanity. They show the good guys struggling to make the right decisions, but are just as likely to show the villain struggling and failing to make the right decisions. At times these stories can be difficult to watch because they force us to consider difficult circumstances and even more difficult self-truths. Yet, by questioning ourselves about how we would handle whatever challenges the characters are facing, we come to know ourselves better. In a way, it’s like a roadmap to understanding our own nature, to our own strengths and weaknesses.
Occasionally, a well-written suspense/thriller will trigger something within my own psyche . . . some hidden mental wound that I’ve spent too long avoiding. I don’t intentionally seek this out, and I certainly wouldn’t consider this entertaining, but sometimes the resulting catharsis is much more necessary than the escape I thought I needed.
Which brings me to the biggest (and simplest) reason of why I love these dreadful tales: Escape. A respite from the real world is, I believe, one of the main reasons most people read genre fiction and watch TV and movies. For me, a story that is light and too “feel good” doesn’t get me into that sweet zone of suspending my disbelief. No one’s life is that charmed. But give me characters I can truly believe in, throw them into horrific circumstances, amp up the stakes so I really care, and suddenly I’m hooked on their journey, their struggles, their triumphs. Doesn’t get any better than that, so bring on the dark and sinister!