Throughout human history there have been many literary genres to come and go. Some were entertained by the general public while others may have had a critical reception by a marginally smaller audience (or minority). Though what remains the same, across the board of all genres, there is the thirst for imagination as well as the fulfillment of human curiosity. Albeit relatively new, both fantasy and horror (also respectively different) are successful and popular as genres, for they are able to satisfy the basic human emotion of curiosity and are able to cater towards the human imagination. Sigmund Freud explains how children’s role-played imaginative worlds become suppressed adult fantasies and are therefore tended to go through various mediums; literary fantasy being among one of them. Horror has been able to capitalize on the human’s natural curiosity for the unknown, or death, by bringing its audience as close as possible to it. Although the horror and fantasy genres are different with respect to their content, they share many similarities as to why they (and many other genres) are so popular. Their deep psychological impact on human curiosity and imagination has been just as relevant to both sets of their audiences.
Fantasy has been able to entertain a widespread area of different demographics, although still a relatively young literary genre, in comparison to others such as romance, gothic, etc. The reason for its success is partly due to its psychological impact on the human mind; specifically how it is able to play into a human’s desires to re-enact their imaginative sequences. Regardless of who the person is, they still have their own curiosities, desires, and imaginations. In Sigmund Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, he describes how children begin to form curiosities about life, such as adulthood, sexuality, etc. He goes on to mention that for a child to explore his curiosities through imaginative role playing, such as pretending to be an adult in their own fantasy world, would be considered acceptable by society. However, once the child grows up and enters adulthood, no longer shall performing their fantasies be acceptable by society, and thus the adult must then withhold any sort of imaginative performance and keep it inside of them.
Freud goes on to talk about sexual fantasies and fulfilling them through external erotic sources. Stemming from that idea, much like the child pretending to be an adult, in this example the adult can pretend to be another fantastical character – a mage, a wizard, a dwarf, etc – through literary examples such as Lord of the Rings, and etc. Similarly, escapism can be linked to relinquishing one’s curiosity of what it would be like to live in an alternative reality. Escapism is commonly associated with that of those who are depressed and/or sad about the reality that they are living in and need to remedy their symptoms through escape. This is not so much the case here. When a person has the desire to live in an alternative reality, or fantasy, then they can temporarily remove themselves from their reality through fantasy stories. This is where the satisfaction comes in.
The ability for fantasy to (almost naturally) answer the audience’s desire to experience how, where, and what if their fantasy came to life can logically be associated with its popular reception. It is easy to see why fantasy has received such warm receptions from a mass audience, since they can quench their thirst for their curiosities to live in their desirable and imaginative worlds. Indifferent to demographic, the human experiences curiosity on a subconscious and conscious level and thus is organically and logically attracted by the forces of fantasy – whatever their fantasy may be.
Unlike fantasy, horror has been able to satisfy a different psychological facet to the human curiosity: death. Horror has been able to withstand great success and popularity among a large audience, but why is something that promotes gore, blood and death so popular across a large variety of age groups? Aristotle mentions in his book Poetics: Longinus on the Sublime how humans “…enjoy contemplating the most precise images of whose actual sight is painful to [them] such as the forms of the vilest animals and of corpses.” He states that by experiencing such awful imagery through poetry (and other forms of art) the human gets to contemplate the imagery, and by doing so begins to understand them better than they would if they had not experienced it in such a form. Perhaps it is natural curiosity towards the vile which attracts audiences worldwide towards the horror genre. Perhaps it is because humans can often enjoy one’s own misery; often psychoanalytically described with the German word schadenfreude.
It comes from the words schaden (damage, harm), and freude (joy). Misfortune, or death, is often times the center of attention in news media, films, and especially horror stories. At first, images of victims and serial killers are often depressing and sad, though curiously intriguing for the beholder. These images then entice the viewer to further look closely into them, eventually simmering their curiosity with a new emotion of schadenfreude. Indeed, it does not stop there, for Edgar Allan Poe had at one point written “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” His quote may appear misogynistic, yet Poe acknowledges that beyond any sort of objectifying perspective, humans do truly have some sort of curiosity and fascination towards death. The human has to face certain morbid curiosities throughout their lifetime.
These curiosities are successfully endured through literary text, especially Poe’s House of Usher where the final scene brings out the once-thought-to-be dead sister of Usher, constantly entertaining the reader with her morbidity and deathly appearance. Once again, horror pleases the reader’s morbid curiosity by bringing them as close to their psychological subject as possible – and as Aristotle pointed out – leaving them “…contemplating the most precise images whose actual sight is painful to [them.]” Beyond the enjoyment of the thrill for horror stories, readers are often not aware of the true deep psychological effect that the genre is able to spring forward. The human curiosity of the unknown and death has been profitably manipulated by non-literary and literary legends and has been able to make a grandiose impact on today’s diverse audience. After all, if it bleeds it leads.
Although (respectively) different among each other, horror, fantasy, romance, gothic, and a whole wide array of various other genres share similarities in terms of how they are able to carry out their psychological impact and effect on their loyal audiences. Both the horror and fantasy genres are able to entertain the innate human emotion of curiosity towards the unknown in two aspects: wanting to know what it is like to experience something; as well as wanting to have curios questions such as what if, what would, or how, be answered by the stories themselves. The viewer, or reader, may approach fantasy and horror with a curiosity to empathize for a character. They may be curious and have a desire to want to know how it be like to feel a certain way as a certain character.
Thus, with respect to fantasy and genre, they are able to do so depending on what kind of feelings or emotions they would like to experience with particular preference to genre. Part of the reason why any genre is continues to thrive successfully is due to their ability to captivate the audience and have them coming back and asking for more. No matter the genre, their audience will always leave the stories wondering “what if that was to happen in the next chapter? How could ‘so and so’ escape? What would happen if he had just simply went to Mordor in the next few chapters?” If a professor cannot answer their student’s questions, then the students would become frustrated. Let alone, if a story cannot answer its audience’s questions, then the audience can become confused and frustrated as well. It is through these primal curiosities and desires to learn more about a subject that can tie in an audience with their story or genre of favor, fantasy, horror, romanticism or not.
The human mind is deeply complex and has been studied over and over by psychoanalytical doctors and professors of the sciences. The likes of Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, Eric, G, Wilson, and many others have constantly philosophized and studied the effects certain literature has had on certain individual human beings. New information and research on how the brain reacts to certain subject matter garners evidence as to why individuals act and react the way they do. With this new psychological information it is possible to see some of the effects that fantasy and horror genres have respectively had on their audiences. It is also now possible to stipulate as to why so many genres, especially fantasy and horror, have had such critical acclaim and popular reception trailed by a large following of fanatics.
Just like Christopher Columbus, the very basic human emotion of curiosity seduces the readers and audiences to further their exploration of the unknown and to continue their imaginative journey through whatever artistic medium they may choose. The human’s primal obsession with death and deathly images constantly attracts the individual to horror and horror elements on a much deeper subconscious level. Not only does fantasy and horror dig deep into the human psyche and feed their curiosity’s hunger, but so do many other genres in one way or another. Each genre, purposefully or not, is able to tap into and satiate deep human curiosity, be it morbid or fantastical. All in all, curiosity may have killed the cat, but it had also kept it entertained and interested.
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