The first Stephen King novel I read, Christine, was chilling, weird, creepy, and strange. But I loved it. The second, Carrie, was even less normal, and I was enthralled by it, too. How could these horror stories of a possessed, homicidal car and a supernatural, misunderstood, vengefully murderous teen be a story for anyone other than pre-pubescent boys?
That is exactly what Stephen King sets out to explain through humor and metaphor—in a startlingly ironic way—in his essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies.”
Stephen King approaches the subject of why people want to read such freaky absurdity from the angle of horror movies. From this position, he jumps right into his thesis: “When we pay our four or five bucks and seat ourselves at tenth-row center in a theater showing a horror movie, we are daring the nightmare.” In other words, Mr. King says that horror movies are humankind’s method for touching on the baser side of its collective soul.
He illustrates this point most effectively with the gruesome metaphor, which seems to become central to his argument of the thesis: The horror film has become the modern version of the public lynching. (…) The potential lyncher is in all of us (excluding saints, past and present; but then, most saints have been crazy in their own ways), and every now and then, he has to be let loose to scream and roll around in the grass.
In other words, according to Mr. King, the viewers of horror movies are delighting in the pain and agony depicted in the characters—with buttered popcorn, no less—in much the same way that the French proletariat watched the beheadings of the aristocracy during the French Revolution. This disturbing allegory is an attention-grabber; it ironically rivets the reader’s attention in exactly the same way Mr. King describes the pull of horror stories.
This irony shows up again when he sardonically quotes the dead baby joke: “‘What’s the difference between a truckload of bowling balls and a truckload of dead babies’ (You can’t unload the truckload of bowling balls with a pitchfork.)” This macabre joke serves two purposes: it provides an example of human nature’s desire to laugh at the pain of others, while simultaneously reiterating the same point by actually entertaining the reader!
Of course, Mr. King is a horror writer himself, so there does seem to be some bias in his argument; that is, he is defending his own art. Staying away from facts, Mr. King gathers his main points from his own opinions and theories. This tactic is very effective, however, for Mr. King’s acute mind seems to pick out logical—and frighteningly accurate— observations of human nature. For example, he says people go to horror flicks to prove “that we are not afraid”, “to establish our feelings of essential normality”, “to have fun”, and to vent our insane side. Mr. King’s bias because of experience has another side to it; the sizeable talent for being creative he has honed through decades of writing makes every point interesting. Each idea is able to hit home in the mind and heart in a way that traditional commentary would not. Mr. King says that everyone has an insane side, just in differing amounts—or as he termed, “sanity becomes a matter of degree.” He reinforces this statement with the modern-day examples of the extremely insane Jack the Ripper and the Cleveland Torso Murderer, saying that if you are that insane, then society will “clap you away in the funny farm.” These real life examples are well known; and even those who have not heard about these psychopaths understand Mr. King’s allusion to very insane people. Next, he provides a contrast to the extreme lunatic with the everyday insane—and quite comical—examples of relatively normal idiosyncrasies: nose-pickers and those who talk to themselves.
These real life examples are well known or—in the case of the more normal nose-picker—commonplace; even those who have not heard about the two psychopaths understand Mr. King’s allusion to very insane people. This use of routine examples makes his audience comfortable with the text—and, in turn, the theme of the essay—by giving them something to relate to.
Mr. King again takes the opportunity to throw a mite of humor in when he mentions that “neither of those two amateur-night surgeons,” Jack the Ripper and the Cleveland Torso Murderer, “were ever caught, heh-heh-heh.”
Mr. King begins his conclusion with a few sentences that very nearly restate his thesis: “The mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, or most base instincts let fee, our nastiest fantasies realized.” This restatement adequately summarizes the main points of the whole essay, and also provides a good connection to the beginning of the essay. This connection facilitates the flow from the thesis through the essay by providing a destination for the transitory paragraphs in the middle.
Metaphorically, if the main body of the essay is a bridge, then the thesis and its ultimate echo are the riverbanks on either side—without both banks, the bridge would not go anywhere. Without Mr. King’s apt conclusion, his arguments for why people love horror would seem to wander.
The end of Mr. King’s conclusion contains examples of all the persuasive tactics he used in his essay; indeed, it is a conclusion of rhetorical pattern as much as opinion.
To wrap up the essay, Mr. King again uses his most-often used idiom—metaphor:
"For myself, I like to see the most aggressive of [horror movies and stories] (…) as lifting a trapdoor in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath."
Finally, Mr. King ties the alligator metaphor to an allusion to The Beatles’ classic song “All You Need Is Love”, providing a final reference to pop-culture.
"It was Lennon and McCartney who said that all you need is love, and I would agree with that. As long as you keep the gators fed."
Mr. King’s essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” is a relief to read; for while before I read the essay I felt guilty about reading such gory literature—not to mention immature, now I have an excuse.