Creepy & Paranormal As Cultural Control
How horror content provides us comfort, ending, participation and answers
Post-pandemic, the predominant cultural genre hasn’t actually been feel-good comedy: Ted Lasso, Schitt’s Creek, Abbott Elementary, etc. That’s just been the easier narrative to explain.
Instead, it’s been horror.
In 2021, the horror genre gained 13% market share of the box office, its highest control since ‘95. For the very first time horror ticket sales beat out comedies, dramas, and thrillers.
For context: In 2014, horror only had a 2.4% share of the box office. And its sudden growth hasn’t been because of more horror releases. Comedies have historically been released on a 3:1 ratio to horror films.
There’s a newfound attraction.
Outside of the box office, over in streaming land, this attraction sustains. Horror staples now include: Lovecraft Country, Chucky, Resident Evil, Yellowjackets, Stranger Things, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Handmaid’s Tale, What We Do In The Shadows, Atlanta, and who could forget: Squid Game. While it’s harder to quantify these series’ ratings now protected by platforms, the genre’s current influence is glaring.
Further, since 2020 views to r/Horror on Reddit have grown nearly double. Views to r/LiminalSpace are up +77%, and both r/ParanormalEncounters and r/HighStrangeness are up more than +2X since the pandemic struck in 2020.
So why has horror, and specifically the supernatural’s pull become so strong, and further, essential to survive this moment?
When we watch uncomfortable or fear-inducing content through a screen, we’re doing so though a barrier — a safe distance. This psychological safety is incredibly freeing... even if it may not feel that way in the moment.
We can thrill ourselves, heighten our emotions and intensify arousal all with safety and control.
Put another way, we can trigger our evolutionary fight-or-flight response, releasing thrilling neurotransmitters: adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, however with the reassurance that our lives are not actually in danger. Never are we in complete control over what makes us anxious. Here, we are.
Similar, watching horror allows us to also explore morbid curiosities, again all while knowing nothing is actually at stake. Secure examination.
We can overcome and master our fears.
Pushing our emotional limits and exploring dark matters ultimately provides us a sense of twisted, adventurous accomplishment.
Horror content is ironically therapeutic.
In a moment when reality is already — and increasingly grim — we can immerse ourselves in the dark to test and soothe ourselves.
Second, horror content — more often than not — provides an ending.
The killer is caught, the main character survives, the world is returned to equilibrium.
In our moment of radical uncertainty, watching resolution provides our craved reassurance.
Second-hand closure relieves us.
Faced with our own daily horrors, horror content’s expected, bow-wrapped resolutions give us hope. Hang in there. We may also get a conclusion to our dread too.
But the flip side is true too: When the creepy is unresolved — ambient and continual — it normalizes our real lived experiences. It assures us that loose ends are in fact just a part of life. A lack of resolution provides equal assurance: this is more common than it may feel.
The parallel rise in vibes, magic, manifests, and “giving” auras round out our preoccupation with the open and ethereal.
Entertainment has always been a two way mirror. Our reality informs content, and content informs culture. And in our cultural moment fueled by permacrisis, of course the defining genre is going to be horror.
We seek out this content to observe a reflection and make sense of our zeitgeist. It’s why Contagion (2011) became our COVID-19 must-watch film.
An “Inviting” Format
Horror is a unique genre in that scary is scary is scary.
Horror lends itself incredibly well to all formats. For something to be scary, it doesn’t have to be just visual. It can be auditory. It can be a video game. It can be words. Or it can just be a place.
Horror’s power is agnostic to medium.
For this reason, it’s very easy to feel its effects, and further to join in and create our own content.
On Reddit, r/NoSleep, r/OddlyTerrifying and r/CreepyPasta are among the most subscribed subreddits across the platform’s +100,000 active communities, allowing all to easily share their own eerie content.
The barriers to entry for the spooky are low. It’s easier to make a two sentence horror story than it is to create a two sentence standup bit.
As a result, r/TwoSentenceHorror currently averages +20M views a month, magnitudes larger than its counterpart r/TwoSentenceComedy.
Meanwhile, views to r/HorrorLit reach +1M a month, with 60% of these viewers under 30, signaling the bright future of this dark, welcoming genre.
Making our own scary content provides control over the uncomfortable ideas we conjure. We now own them.
And deeper, the paranormal is a genre which invites theory, creativity, and curiosity — all elements which lend themselves incredibly well to online discussion... and therefore spread.
Today, any content which empowers the ability to dissect and discuss, fuels the flames of fandom, and gives fervent fans what they ultimately want: an invitation to participate and community.
The paranormal is an explanation for the unexplainable.
During a moment of so much “How is this happening?”, our attraction toward strangeness becomes a solution to make sense of our confusing, uncanny zeitgeist.
Sometimes the bizarre makes more sense than reality.
And we’re increasingly accepting the odd as an answer.
Views to r/LowStakesConspiracy have grown +74% YoY, a community theorizing around “off phenomena” with equal parts humor and desperation for a shared cultural understanding.
Meanwhile, views to r/Aliens are up +50% since 2020, with views to r/UFOs up +3X. As background: two-fifths of Americans now believe extraterrestrials are behind UFO spottings, up from just one-third only a couple years ago.
Adopting a supernatural explanation is a flex of control.
When so much is out of control, theory is a refreshing reclaim of self-sovereignty. Our own explanation beats the one that isn’t even given. Power is taken back.
Choosing to believe in ghosts is not as much about haunting spirits, as it is an opportunity to author our own answers in an overwhelming, unexplainable environment.
The belief that loved ones may exist onwards is encouraging, not threatening.
And the belief that “we’re not alone,” provides solace during a moment when loneliness is an epidemic.
But at the end of the day, the fact that we even need to rely upon the occult or extraterrestrial to soothe our anxiety and explain today’s chaos is the scariest bit of it all.
The silver lining here is that our collective creativity, adaptability and faith are winning out.
Ambiguity is refreshingly welcomed.
We’re honoring — not dismissing — experiences.
This is no escape, but an attempt to get closer.
How ironic: fiction is solving for our reality.
All is not lost.
We’re finding a way.
Great work as usual! Reminds me of Sontag's Imagination of Disaster
Great read! Reminds me of the “Elevated Horror” debate I’ve seen online, in which those typically not considered horror fans prefer so-called “Elevated Horror” because they’re more often allegories of trauma rather than ghosts and monsters. But like you point out, I think the horror genre as a whole can help process fear.