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Why You Should Read Horror All Year ‘Round

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Steph Auteri

Senior Contributor

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more creative work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, under the gum tree, Poets & Writers, and other publications, and she is the Essays Editor for Hippocampus Magazine. Her essay, "The Fear That Lives Next to My Heart," published in Southwest Review, was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2021. She also writes bookish stuff here and at the Feminist Book Club, is the author of A Dirty Word, and is the founder of Guerrilla Sex Ed. When not working, she enjoys yoga, embroidery, singing, cat snuggling, and staring at the birds in her backyard feeder. You can learn more at stephauteri.com and follow her on Insta/Threads at @stephauteri.

It’s early September as I write this — the school year has just begun and it’s still warm enough for butterfly rompers and flip-flops — and already it’s happening. Bags of Halloween candy are sectioned off at the supermarket. Baking influencers in my Instagram feed are frosting ghost-shaped cookies and monster cake pops. Folks are showing off their cauldron-shaped coffee mugs and their mantels covered with sparkly skulls.

On the professional side of things, it seems as if most of the review copies and recently-released books lining my shelves contain ghost stories. Other Terrors. Our Shadows Have Claws. A House with Good Bones.

Not that I’m complaining.

It’s just that fall — and October in particular — isn’t the only time to read horror.

Sure, a slew of horror flicks and anthology series are always released right before Halloween, an occurrence I anticipate each year with ravenous glee. And sure, I usually make a point of blocking off each October for horror, dark fantasy, speculative fiction, and dystopian fiction.

And, yes, sure, the roving and returning spirits at the roots of Halloween have led us to associate this time of year with all manner of witches, demons, and other supernatural baddies, all things that make up our favorite horror tales.

But horror doesn’t have a season.

Or rather, every season is horror season!

If you’re as enamored with horror as I am, I’m probably preaching to the choir. But if you only ever venture into the genre at Halloween time, this post is for you. What follows is my argument for why horror should be enjoyed all year ’round.

Horror Provides Cultural Critique — But Tells It Slant

I’ve written in the past about how horror comics like Victor LaValle’s Destroyer and Infidel help us explore real-life horrors, allowing us to take in stories of societal inequity through metaphor and vivid imagery. But comics aren’t alone in this ability (well, aside from the badass artwork).

So much of horror forces us to explore the nuance that surrounds the most polarizing issues, amplifies the helplessness we feel in the face of societal ills, and leads us to ask ourselves: What would we do in such a situation?

We see this heavy lifting at work in books like adrienne maree brown’s Grievers, a dystopian horror that highlights the imbalances that naturally come to light during a pandemic. Or in Rachel Harrison’s Cackle, which prods us to acknowledge the ways in which we deprioritize female friendships in favor of heterosexual romance. Or in the speculative fiction of Carmen Maria Machado, who explores female sexuality, and the ways in which society seeks to control it, in Her Body and Other Parties.

Issues like these aren’t limited to a single month of the year. We should always be exploring them.

Horror Reveals the Darkness at the Heart of Humanity

Beyond the larger societal inequities horror seeks to interrogate, horror also reveals the potential for darkness within each of us. It shows the moment — as in titles like Bitter Root and Wytches and Burn Our Bodies Down — when humans become the things they hate.

I love psychological horror like this, as it forces us to confront ourselves. In reading such titles, we must hold ourselves accountable for at least some of the horror that exists in our lives. And perhaps in these acts of accountability we can find new, better paths forward.

Fictional Horror Can Provide a Reprieve from Real-Life Horrors

Early on in the pandemic, I wrote a list of horror and speculative fiction I was reading to distract myself from real-life horrors. Well, life hasn’t gotten any less horrific, and I still find it tough to get through the hard-hitting cultural critiques I used to read on a regular basis. At this point, I don’t need a book to tell me that things suck. I already know.

But a comedic horror about demon possession? My body is here for it.

Horror Alllows Us to Work Through Our Fears in a Controlled Environment

As a socially anxious introvert who has lately been grappling with more generalized anxiety disorder, I often find myself consumed by fear. This why I love horror. This genre provides a means to work through my fears… to work through the ways in which trauma has marked me… to work through my everyday anxieties. It’s no accident that the horror stories I most enjoy relate in some way to my real-life fears.

Not only that, but we get to do this work in a safe and controlled environment. If we feel overwhelmed, we can aways close the book, leaving those fears on the page. And at the end of the book, more often than not, we see that those fears can be defeated.

Also, in seeing my fears on the page, I can know that I am not alone.

To have company when facing my fears can be comforting.

And we all know that fear has no season.

Horror Is a Realm of Boundless Possibility

As a child, I imagined that the lines between waking life and dreams/nightmares were blurry. I spent my days searching the house for hidden passageways. I was drawn to witchcraft kits and Ouija boards. I wanted so badly to believe in magic.

As an adult, not much has changed. Right now, I’m reading a whole string of witchy titles and, as I read, I can’t help but wish that witchcraft was a thing I could use to harness my anger. To find power in a place of powerlessness.

Reading horror is, to me, a form of wishing. Of wish fulfillment, even. In horror, the existence of the supernatural plants me firmly in an alternate reality where things remain unexplained by science… and where anything is possible.

At a time when nothing good seems possible, I am desperate for that sense of possibility.

I think we could all use a bit of that magic throughout the year.

Speaking of witchy titles, this list of 100 must-read books about witches really boosted my TBR.