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My first experience with horror occurred when I was maybe six or seven years old. They were airing The Exorcist on television and I heard my mother talking about it. I’m not sure why, but I felt compelled to watch it with her. Perhaps because she spoke about it in a hushed whisper, like it was something secret and shameful and unquestionably adult. I pestered and cajoled and whined until she finally agreed to let me watch. It was edited for television, so possibly she thought anything too traumatic would be cut out, but truthfully I grew up with very little restriction on what I watched or read.

I started the film with great excitement, and I made it about as far as Linda Blair floating above her bed before I literally cowered behind the sofa. At that point my mother sent me to bed. I won’t lie, even though the film frightened me that much, I was hesitant to go to bed and pretty much had to be forced.

Why? Am I a glutton for punishment? At the time, I doubt I could have articulated my feelings, but in retrospect I think I can put some of them into words. I had watched a lot of movies already at that young age, and while I enjoyed them, they had made no lasting impression on me. They were colorful diversions that came and went but didn’t really make an impact. With The Exorcist, that movie had impact! It made an impression, one that has stayed with me all my life. That’s powerful storytelling.

After that, I specifically sought out horror films, seeking that same powerful impact. Not all horror films gave it to me. Like any genre, there is good and bad to be found. However, I was rapidly becoming a horror addict. The Exorcist initially grabbed me by the balls and made me notice the genre, but what kept me coming back?

For most of my youth, I didn’t even ask that question. I just knew I liked it and that was enough for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve given it a bit more thought. I’ve reached several conclusions.

First, and perhaps most obvious, horror is exciting. It gets the adrenaline pumping, it creates that delicious feeling of suspense, and it provides delightful jump scares that frighten you then leave you laughing at yourself. Even in the terror, there’s something fun in that.

Second, horror is a playground of the imagination. Literally anything is possible, there are no limits or taboos that can’t be broken. Humans, by our nature, are imaginative creatures, and horror can be a wonderful outlet for that.

Third, and perhaps most importantly for me, horror when done right is an exercise in empathy. I know, there was an article out a while back that suggested horror fans lacked empathy, but that has not been my experience at all. True horror, in my opinion, relies on empathy to work. As a watcher or a reader, I become invested in characters, grow to care about them, feel their joy and pain, put myself in their shoes…and thus when horrible things begin to happen to them, I actually feel something. It is my empathy for the characters that creates the suspense that is essential to effective horror. I wrote an essay about this very subject for Apex magazine: http://www.apex-magazine.com/how-horror-made-me-more-empathetic/

So yes, I freely and openly admit to being a horror fan. It’s not because I’m a twisted person or a masochist or that I lack empathy. I enjoy horror because I’m a person who appreciates imaginative fiction that builds suspense, and I recognize that well-done horror actually strengthens and encourages empathy for our fellow human beings.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of.