What is it about horror that fascinates us? What is it about being scared that is like a drug? For many Brits of a certain age, that fear began young: cowering behind the sofa at the appearance of the Daleks or the Cybermen on Doctor Who. Children seem to love being scared and my childhood memories of television are littered with terrifying programmes such as Children of the Stones, Under the Mountain, The Tripods, Dramarama (some were spooky) and countless others who titles I can’t remember but have images of events that took place.
One is really irritating me that I cannot remember what it was called. There was a witch in a cave that presided over a labyrinth. The walls of the labyrinth were about 6 inches high but in order to get into a magical world, the protagonist (I think a girl of about 12 years old) had to follow the path through it.
All of these were scary and all of them were aimed at children. Some of them are still disturbing these days, I can still recommend Children of the Stones having bought it on DVD a few years ago and still finding it eerie- if a little dated.
As adults, most of us still like being scared but for me the horror genre of the last 20-30 years has really been short on scares. I cannot remember the last horror book that actually scared me, if there was ever one. Don’t get me wrong, I do like the genre. I’ve read quite a lot of Stephen King and I think that James Herbert is an amazing writer… but that is mostly because of how he engages social issues (anybody who thinks that ‘The Rats’ is just about mutant killer rats needs to re-read the first 100 pages or so). I have read a couple of novels by Dean Koontz; I find his style is generally lacking in the sort of substance that I look for. Furthermore, his work is more about shocks than plot; the written equivalent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Fine if you like that sort of thing but I don’t.
In film, the situation has been even worse. After the 1970s, horror became less about scares and more about effects. That was until an ultra low-budget film recorded on a handycam became the first internet sensation riding a wave of hype and word of mouth promotion. But love or hate The Blair Witch Project, it cannot be denied that it re-invigorated an exhausted genre and brought back the scares. Since then, horror has generally taken a step away from effects-laden gorefests and tried to get back to basics. This is no better demonstrated than in the overwhelming success of the sort of films that we have seen since 2000: [REC], Insidious, Sunshine, 28 Days Later (and its sequel 28 Weeks Later), Dawn of the Dead, Paranormal and many more.
We also have the influence of Japanese horror to thank for this greater emphasis on scares. Though many of them have been unnecessarily re-made by Hollywood, clearly international cinema has helped to give horror a new lease of life.
I’ve never understood what it is about people that we want to feel terrified and the success of those films mentioned above shows that it is scares, not gore, that is important to most horror fans. Perhaps it is the adrenaline rush? The only film that ever gave me that feeling was The Blair Witch Project, I came out of the cinema with a buzz akin to getting off of a white knuckle ride. Or is it something else? I open the floor to you readers…
So, putting aside all waffle here is a list of my top 10 favourite horror novels:
1. The Stand – Stephen King
2. Dracula – Bram Stoker
3. The Rats – James Herbert
4. The Mist – Stephen King
5. I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
6. The Passage – Justin Cronin
7. Haunted – James Herbert
8. Zombie Apocalypse! Stephen Jones (ed)
9. Needful Things – Stephen King
10. ’48 – James Herbert
Looking at the list above I realise just how narrow my horror reading has been to date. I had a fascination with Stephen King through most of my teenage years before moving on to James Herbert. So far I have really only stuck with the safe bets of King, Herbert and Barker.
And my top 10 favourite horror films:
2. The Thing (1980)
3. The Blair Witch Project
4. The Shining
5. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
6. Ring (Japanese version)
7. The Exorcist
9. The Omen
10. 28 Days Later