Fiction Becoming More Horrifying? I’m Not So Sure

Posted: March 25, 2013 in Reflections, Scary Stuff
Tags: , , ,

A friend of mine sent me a link on Facebook. The link led me to an article about a study that suggested in a one-sentence introduction and three slightly-longer but very neat paragraphs that fiction books are becoming scarier. What did the study base this assessment on? The leaders of the study perused a Google book database for words relating to six human emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy and sadness. One of the interesting things they found in the data set they got was that words relating to fear seemed to be on the rise, while disgust fell sharply and the other four emotions leveled off.

The obvious conclusion, according to these researchers, is that fiction is becoming much more horrifying.

I disagree. Here’s why:

First off, that Google database only represents 4% of books published between 1900 and 2000, and that’s not including self-published books or books published as serials in magazines. If you’re only including 4% of any population, even a collection of books, it’s not very representative of it. Second, the study was based on words signifying emotions. Just because a type of emotion shows up in a story more and more often doesn’t mean you can classify it as horror or romance or whatever. Perhaps the story in question might be a novel about a guy with agoraphobia who feels all sorts of fear when it comes to leaving his apartment. That’s more literary than horror, mind you.

And third, my own personal experience tells me that horror is not necessarily on the rise. Even today, there are many publishing houses, agencies, and magazines that refuse to deal in horror, even when they deal in science fiction or fantasy, horror’s friendlier and kinder genre sisters. Those that do deal in horror, particularly magazines, are either exclusively into horror, or they only deal with a certain type of horror, one that either crosses over into sci-fi or fantasy or, while still scary, is tame enough that readers won’t be turned off by reading it. If horror’s on the rise, there should be a response in the publishing industry towards it, but I’m still waiting to see this response.

And yes, there’s been a rise in TV shows catering to horror fans, so one in literature may seem only logical. Not so much: contrary to the opinion of some, I don’t believe that a love of horror stories just arose out of the television-watching audience. Those horror fans were always there, they just had to content themselves with books or movies (bad or good, you take what you can get with these films), simply because horror wasn’t really available on TV. Ryan Falchuk, creator of American Horror Story, said he was taking a monumental risk, bigger than what he’d been taking with Glee, by trying to put a horror show on TV, even if it was on a cable channel like FX. Luckily the investment paid off, but there was always the chance things could’ve gone sideways, and that chance might’ve put off some producers. The creation of shows like The Following or Bates Motel are mostly trying to capitalize on the success of AHS, and other shows with supernatural/horror themes that came before AHS–Vampire Diaries, True Blood, or Teen Wolf–may have horror elements, but they have plenty of measures of comedy and romance and drama to keep more mainstream viewers interested in the show, just like with Buffy and Angel of ages past.

So while a rise in words evoking the emotion fear might mean a rise in scary literature, I’m more suspicious based on all the evidence I’ve listed above. If there happens to be a rise in horror though, and I’m just not seeing it, then splendid! I hope people buy my books when they come out.

Oh, and before I include a link to the article about the study below, I’d like to mention one line of the article that really annoyed me. The author of the article said that terrifying people is easy. Ex-squeeze me? Terrifying people is damn hard! Look at all the movies out there that rely on jumps and nudity to thrill and terrify audiences, and see how they fail miserably. It’s dificult to really scare people, and there’s an art to it that even I haven’t fully mastered. Keep that in mind the next time you find yourself watching or reading a very chilling tale and you think about they make these sorts of stories so terrifying.

Anyway, here’s the link to the article. Enjoy:

  1. alicebrook1502 says:

    Just the fact they included only 4% clearly makes this “study” utter b****cks. I’m surprised it got published. I actually got angry over this. How can they claim such a thing by including only 4 damn percent?!

    • I’m right with you there. Like I said, it’s totally underrepresented. Not even ten percent is enough to speak for a population. I’m sure they were working with as much data as they could find, but it’s still pretty crazy that 4% can represent an entire population.

  2. ZombiePlace says:

    I’d like to add a fourth point here.

    Did anyone read Dante’s Inferno? Now that’s some scary stuff. There is a lot of scary “fiction” in the history books. Also, some really freaky real stories.

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