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Monday, October 25, 2021

31 Days of Horror: Day 25: Why I Love Horror by Emily Hughes

I am pretty sure some of you had wondered once of twice during the month why I hadn't posted about Tor Nightfire at all. Well that is because I had planned to save mentioning this publisher and their amazing blog until the end of the month so that I could promote this blog as your best resource to stay up to date in the genre all the year through.

Tomorrow I will have a post all about using the Tor Nightfire blog as a resource, but first, I wanted to give a day to the amazing human who oversees that resource, Emily Hughes, and give her a chance to tell us why she loves Horror. For Hughes, it is all about how she feels the fear, and she explains it in a way that you, the reader, can feel it too. 

Take it away Emily.


Why I Love Horror

by Emily Hughes

My therapist tells me from time to time that I really need to get out of my head. 

It’s a little jarring, maybe, to hear the person who’s supposed to help you better understand your own psyche to tell you to take a break from it, but he’s not wrong. I’m an inveterate overthinker, an anxious little rabbit with a deep-seated suspicion that I can avert catastrophe by just thinking hard enough about all the terrible things that might happen. It hasn’t worked thus far (or, I don’t know, maybe it has - I’m still here, after all), but habit is a powerful thing.

What he’s actually asking me to do is move my consciousness out of the grey pudding in my skull and into my body, paying attention to where certain feelings and experiences manifest. He’ll tell me to track where in the body I feel anxiety, anger, fear. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, it’s not dissimilar to the body scan meditation many teachers will guide you through in savasana at the end of the session (that savasana translates to “corpse pose” is neither here nor there, though I like the resonance). 

But I find it much more difficult to follow this exercise when I’m on my own, with no chaperone to talk me through it. My brain is too loud; my thoughts and worries drown out whatever it is my body is trying to tell me. I can’t manage to send my awareness to my stomach or shoulders when my mind is doing its gerbil-on-a-squeaky-wheel routine. That’s where horror comes in.

Horror is a genre that’s geared more at the body than the brain - because we experience fear physically, in the nervous system. Think of the words we use to describe something frightening: visceral, hair-raising, heart-pounding, spine-tingling, gut-wrenching, bone-chilling. It’s a sort of emotional synesthesia - input in the mind becomes output in the corporeal form. And if there’s a better mindfulness exercise than being well and truly scared shitless, I’ve yet to find it.

Horror forces me to feel, to pay close attention to how my body is processing what I’m reading or watching. The way the muscles in my back tense, starting at the base of the spine and rippling upwards. Eyebrows creeping up my forehead, shoulders bunching around my ears, goosebumps radiating outward along my arms and legs. Reading a scene of body horror, I might reflexively protect that same part of my own body. Watching a slasher movie where the killer is in the house, I’ll turn my body towards the darkened doorway, on my guard. When I’m frightened, I’m not thinking about my to-do list, or the birthday card I need to send, or whether a loved one is still mad at me over a years-old fight. I am fully in the moment, and fully in my body.

When I think of the reading experiences most formative to me as a horror lover, I can feel the echoes of those physical sensations in the memories themselves. I think of 10-year-old Emily in her bedroom, glued to a John Bellairs book, drawn in first by the eerie Edward Gorey illustration on the jacket and enticed to stay by the occult mysteries within, back pressed to my bedroom wall for protection. 24 years old, reading the gut-wrenching subway tunnel scene in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One while riding the 4 train home from work, glancing suspiciously at my fellow commuters, stomach clenched tight. 26 and working in sales at a publishing house when an editor who’d heard I liked “the weird shit” asked me to read her newest acquisition - Josh Malerman’s Bird Box - which I did in one breathless afternoon in my cubicle, disregarding the work I needed to do, wanting to whip my head around at every sound from a nearby office but finding myself too scared to do so. (I woke up with a sore neck the next day.) 32 and bent double on the couch at 2am as I devoured The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher in a single sitting, terrified to look out the darkened window on the off-chance something might be looking back.

When I’m especially stressed, I have nightmares about zombies (and, occasionally, ex-boyfriends - but I repeat myself). The physical sensation of fear I have in those dreams lingers upon waking - or, rather, it slides seamlessly into the physical sensation of stress, of responsibilities bearing down on me, of uncompleted tasks shambling along behind me, slow but inevitable. It’s an oft-repeated truth among horror lovers that “rehearsing” fear responses in a highly controlled fictional setting helps us work through the things that really bother us, mentally and emotionally - Stephen Graham Jones wrote about this for the New York Times just last week - and that’s absolutely been true for me. (A couple dozen viewings of Jaws will do wonders for a kid with a paralyzing fear of sharks.) 

The physical aspect of all this, though, is underappreciated. The parts of the brain activated by fear are the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the pre-frontal cortex, but that’s only part of the picture - the amygdala triggers physical responses ranging from pupil dilation to increased blood flow to heightened senses. It’s a full-body affair. And in a controlled setting, the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus mitigate the experience, telling you you’re not in any immediate physical danger. Knowing that, I, at least, can focus on the feeling, can be in my body right here, right now. 

The body keeps the score, yes, but it also keeps the scare. 


Emily Hughes wants to talk to you about scary books. As the site editor for, she's dedicated to bringing the good word about horror to the masses. You can find her writing at, Electric Lit, Thrillist, and Brooklyn Magazine. Formerly the editor of Unbound Worlds, she now writes an occasional newsletter about horror fiction and tweets bad puns @emilyhughes.

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