Pop culture librarian Rob Weiner says horror serves a purpose in our lives.
Not so very long ago, there were zombies at Texas Tech University.
You could barely walk across campus without having to dodge a battalion of zombie hunters, outfitted with green arm bands and Nerf guns, chasing down and stunning green-head-banded zombies to contain the spread.
Researchers in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics and the College of Education were running a simulation of how long it would take for zombies to take over. The appropriately named Lab for the Analysis of Zombie Activity and Research into Undead Simulations was better known by its acronym, LAZARUS – a Biblical character raised from the dead.
And yet, popular TV shows like “The Walking Dead” vividly depict just how horrifying a zombie apocalypse would be. Why would we so willingly adopt such gruesome images into our culture and even find them entertaining?
“Horror serves a purpose in our lives,” says Rob Weiner, a pop culture librarian with Texas Tech University Libraries. “It's a way for us to live vicariously through horrifying things, hopefully without ever actually having to experience them.
“And monsters are cool; monsters are fun. But horror can also be very subtle. I find those movies that make you think, that are psychologically horrifying, also very interesting.”
Weiner has taught courses in the Honors College focused on zombies and horror. But as he points out, there's a lot of real horror in the world.
“Why would we want to watch or read about horror in a fictional context, or even be fascinated with things like serial killers? We gravitate toward horror because it provides a way for us to get out of ourselves and experience a part of something else,” he said. “It allows us to feel something scary from the safety of our movie seat. It's cathartic.”
Monsters provide audiences a certain psychological distance – they're a convenient source to experience that thrill, and yet, at the end, we know the events are not possible in reality.
Of course, not all horror is fictional.
“I think real-world horror fascinates us just as much because there's always that ‘what if' factor: what if it happens to us?” Weiner said. “These are things that could happen and did happen to other people. So, we always have to keep our humanity in mind and realize the things that happen in true crime events happened to real people who had hopes and dreams, just like all of us do.”
As a genre, horror is not limited to stories that leave us horrified. Weiner says that umbrella also covers terror and suspense.
“Suspense is the cousin to horror, in a way,” he noted. “You're on the edge of your seat, wondering what's going to happen, so you're experiencing that adrenaline rush, but it's not exactly horror. True horror has a sense of disgust mixed into it.”
Terror and mystery films, particularly those about ghosts or demon possessions, are spiking in popularity now. But such cycles have been happening for years.
In the early 1980s, a trend toward slasher films, like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and the “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween” series, brought us characters who live on even today: Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. In the 2000s, zombies abounded in films like “28 Days Later,” “I Am Legend” and “Resident Evil.” In the last decade, it was vampires, with TV shows like “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries.” Series like the “Twilight Saga and “Hotel Transylvania” made vampires accessible to even younger audiences.
“We see trends – at some point, vampires are popular, or mummies, or werewolves,” Weiner said. “Then you have things like creepy clowns, which continue to scare and fascinate us all the time.”
While horror is available anytime through books, music, movies and video games, Halloween is an especially enjoyable time because we adopt horror into more of our daily lives, Weiner said.
“Dressing up for Halloween and all of that, it's fun,” he said. “Again, it's a cathartic experience, so it gives people something to gravitate toward and a sense of escapism. It gives a sense of community, ‘Hey, I like this thing; you like this thing. Let's play Humans vs. Zombies.'”
Rob Weiner's Horror Picks
“I'm a big fan of Italian horror of the 1970s, and I'm a big fan of the classic Universal horror of the 1930s and '40s,” he said. “I think it's important to tell a good story in horror, because even if the special effects are lacking, a good story can still convey something that resonates and sticks with you. But a lot of bad horror still can be fun.”
A few of Weiner's favorites:
- “Zombie” (1979): Strangers searching for a young woman's missing father arrive at a tropical island where a doctor desperately seeks the cause and cure of a recent epidemic of the undead.
- “Versus” (2000): There are 666 portals that connect this world to the other side. These are concealed from all human beings. Somewhere in Japan exists the 444th portal: The forest of resurrection.
- “Session 9” (2001): Tensions rise within an asbestos cleaning crew as they work in an abandoned mental hospital with a horrific past.
- “Pontypool” (2008): A radio host interprets the possible outbreak of a deadly virus which infects the small Ontario town he is stationed in.