Guest Author Ray Garton asks, “Is There in Horror No Empathy?”

Today, I’m excited to be hosting a guest blog by horror author Ray Garton on my blog.  For horror readers, Ray needs no introduction.  The Grand Master of Horror award-winning author has written over sixty novels, and has been delivering the graphic, visceral horror goods in his books for thirty years.  His Bram Stoker Award-nominated NYC Times Square set vampire novel, LIVE GIRLS, is one of the great modern vampire novels, take it from me.  Author Dean Koontz said that book is “Gripping, original, and sly. I finished it in one bite.” In his blog, Ray has some interesting things to say about the fascination and appeal of horror for us…

Is There in Horror No Empathy?


Ray Garton

A young woman named Alice Robb recently pissed off most of the horror community (a community of which she seems to be blissfully unaware) with her appallingly unprofessional and uninformed New Republic article “What it Says About You if You Enjoy Horror Movies.”  (You’ll have to Google it because I’m not going to link to clickbait.)

Normally, I would not read an article with that title.  A title like that sets off all of my bullshit alarms at once.  No matter the subject — movies, books, TV shows, cars, pets — people are simply too complex to profile based on one piece of information.  Any article that offers a character analysis of you based on one single thing — like a fondness for horror movies — is the kind of tabloid excrement the National Enquirer and Weekly World News used as filler back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I’m not going to address the outdated research cited or even the fact that Miss Robb appears to be unclear about what a horror movie is or is not (Avatar and The Passion of the Christ are mentioned with movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream).  But I want to touch on the four things Miss Robb claims are more likely to be true of you if you’re a horror movie fan.  From bottom to top:

According to numbers three and four on her list, if you like horror movies, you are more likely to “Be a man” and “Be a man accompanied by a frightened woman.”

At number three I can only laugh.  Female horror fans — and female horror writers and directors and artists and creators of every stripe in the genre — are everywhere.  It is not an exaggeration to say that most of the women I know, of all backgrounds and all ages (from their 20s to their 70s), are devoted fans of horror movies or fiction, or both.  Of course, it’s probably safe to say that, after writing horror fiction professionally for 30 years, I know more serious horror fans of both sexes than the average person, but my point is that anyone who thinks horror is a sausagefest is simply uninformed.  And if that person is writing an article to that effect, that person is also deeply lazy, because it doesn’t take much effort or time to find out how wrong-headed this article is.

A list of women who write horror fiction, for example, would be longer than the line outside the first legal marijuana dispensary on opening day.  (Keep in mind that horror writers are horror fans and typically watch a lot of horror movies.)  A number of those women are writing horror that’s every bit as extreme and graphic and viscerally horrifying as anything written by men, and if you don’t believe me, give writers like Monica O’Rourke, Elizabeth Massie, and Charlee Jacob a try and you’ll see what I mean.

Of the people I’ve known who simply cannot watch horror movies because they find them too upsetting — there are plenty of them and, as a result of this condition, they tend not to go to or watch horror movies — at least half have been men.  Of the women I know who love horror movies, at least half actually prefer those with plenty of bloodshed and evisceration.  The gorier the better.

This is not the result of any kind of scientific process, of course, I’m just referring to my own personal experience.  And my personal experience with horror movie fans makes number three on this list laughable.

Number four cites three-decade-old research to suggest that most men enjoy horror movies more when they are accompanied by a woman who is “distressed by it.”

The mind reels.

Again, it appears that Miss Robb has failed to grasp the concept of the horror genre and the reason for its enduring popularity.  Just as the people who are upset by them don’t watch them, those who watch them do so, in part, to be upset by them.  That’s why we watch horror movies and read horror novels, because we want to be “distressed by it.”  We want to be horrified, frightened, and shocked — while remaining in a safe environment.  That’s also one of the reasons so many people ride roller coasters, or play video games, or watch Nancy Grace.

Miss Robb implicitly suggests that most men who like horror movies are sadistic bastards who enjoy watching women in distress.  We’ve all heard and read the stories, they’re in the news all the time, about women being dragged by the hair into movie theaters to watch horror movies against their will, or tied to chairs at home in front of the TV with their eyelids taped open, forced to watch nothing but horror movies around the clock.  Happens all the time.  And who does it?  Men.  You never hear about men being traumatized because their wives or girlfriends force them to watch bad romantic comedies or something by Tyler Perry.  It’s always men.

But seriously, this is the kind of spiel I used to get from pastors and church ladies when I was growing up an enthusiastic fan of the horror genre.  They used to tell me that watching Night Gallery and Creature Features would turn me into a horrible person and give Satan free reign over my life.  Now Alice Robb is telling me that the only people who really enjoy horror are the kind of men I was told I would become if I kept watching and reading horror.

Horror fans, according to number two, are more likely to “Be aggressive and thrill-seeking.”  It was at this point that I began to wonder if Alice Robb was not, in fact, a real person but a bot and I was reading borderline gibberish.  No such luck.  She’s real, she’s serious, and she appears to be out to get horror fans.  She cites studies from 1985 and 1998 and claims they “give horror-movie junkies something to worry about.”  I think it would be more accurate to say that they give Alice Robb something to gnaw on.

My work has connected me to a lot of horror fans over the years, and a lot of horror writers, too, all of whom, again, started out as and remain horror fans.  I can’t think of a single one to whom “aggressive and thrill-seeking” would apply.  Again, that’s just my own personal observation, not a Gallup poll.  But it segues nicely into number one on Robb’s list:

If you like horror movies, you are more likely to “Lack empathy.”

It’s almost enough to make your head explode.  Horror stories, on the screen or the page, don’t work without empathy.  If an audience doesn’t care about at least one character in a horror movie, doesn’t connect emotionally in some way and want that character, or those characters, to survive the ordeal, then the audience doesn’t care what happens to anyone in the movie or book, and the movie or book fails.  The suspense and scares fall flat because the audience has no investment in the characters involved.  In order for a horror movie to work, it must tap into an audience’s empathy, make the viewers care, and then, as Alfred Hitchcock so wisely advised, make them suffer.

The claim that a fondness for horror movies means one lacks empathy is moronic bloviating.  The horror community, made up of writers, readers, directors, publishers, producers, and so many others, is living proof.  I’ve seen so much generosity, kindness, and empathy in that community that Miss Robb pissed me off, too.  It is made up entirely of people who enjoy and watch horror movies, and it does not lack empathy.  If anything, it has an abundance of it.

In 1985, I went to the Egyptian theater in Hollywood with a group of horror writers to see Re-Animator.  During an especially over-the-top scene, I looked down the row of horror writers, guys who made a living writing stories and books to disturb and frighten, and saw that most either were covering their faces or were bent forward with arms over their heads, too horrified to look.  Rather than a lack of empathy, I think that was an expression of it.

There are no more people who lack empathy or are aggressive among horror movie fans than there are among, say, sports fans.  Well … now that I think about it … horror move fans didn’t set cars on fire and tear up the streets when Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars in 1992, or when Stephen King won the National Book Award in 2003.  Maybe that was a bad example.

This is an old argument regularly dug up by uninformed moralists who have no interest in the truth about the dead horse they’re beating.  Are there sick, disturbed people who enjoy horror movies?  Of course there are.  And if they also shopped at Target and Safeway, it would have no more significance than their fondness for scary flicks.

The horror genre is impolite and politically incorrect and has always been the target of sermonizing zealots and angry, misled activists, and many other groups.  It always will be.  Take comfort in the fact that, when it comes to horror, those groups have always been wrong.

Ray Garton has been writing novels, novellas, short stories, and essays for more than 30 years.  His work spans the genres of horror, crime, suspense, and even comedy.  His titles include Live Girls, Ravenous, The Loveliest Dead, Sex and Violence in Hollywood, Meds, and most recently, Frankenstorm.  His short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies, and have been collected in books like Methods of Madness, Pieces of Hate, and Slivers of Bone.  He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and, in 2006, received the Grand Master of Horror Award.  He lives in northern California with his wife, where he is currently at work on several projects, including a new novel.

Visit his website at

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