What horror taught me about being human

Magazine editor explains why we’re drawn to the macabre.


When people want to know what’s new and horrifying, they turn to Rue Morgue. Since 1997, it has been the authority on the world’s scariest movies, art, comics and more. But Rue Morgue goes beyond slasher flicks and special effects to the borders of the genre, “to see how far and wide its tentacles spread,” as editor-in-chief Dave Alexander, BA ’03, puts it.

Alexander slept little during his UAlberta days, but it wasn’t because the movies he consumed kept him up. He did quadruple duty as a film studies student, Gateway student newspaper editor, freelance writer and video-store clerk. It wasn’t until he took a Hitchcock class that his childhood love of monsters and horror (encouraged by his parents, especially his dad, who loved dressing up and scaring neighbours at Halloween) was rekindled, inspiring him to write about the genre and move to Toronto to join Rue Morgue in 2005.

The magazine is known to explore the genre’s psychological underpinnings and why, ultimately, we’re drawn to our most unpleasant emotions. “There are a lot of subtle things that are going on when you watch a horror film,” Alexander says. Here are a few of them:

1. It’s rooted in our earliest ancestry

Why are Homo sapiens the only hominid alive? A lust for power, according to some evolutionary psychology theories, says Alexander. “Those of us humans living now are the descendants of humans that were the most violent, powerful entities, who killed off the weaker ones in a survival-of-the-fittest model,” he says. “So we find ways to purge these tendencies within a safe space. We go skydiving. We watch Ultimate Fighting. We ride roller-coasters. We watch horror movies.”

2. Death and gore reaffirm our health

Alexander doesn’t collect Victorian-era death photographs just because they’re rare and hauntingly beautiful. “It subtly reminds me that we live in a good age. The closer we get to death without being harmed, the more our own sense of vitality is affirmed.” It’s a similar attraction to gore and the grotesque, he says, pointing to people’s curiosity with sideshow attraction “The Elephant Man” John (Joseph) Merrick, whose tragic life became a movie in 1980. “He’s monstrous, and yet he’s affirming that you’re healthy. Watching a slasher movie with a big body count has the same effect.”

3. It plays into our survival instinct

Don’t go in the basement! Don’t break up the group! We’ve all hopelessly shouted advice at doomed characters, but what’s behind that interactivity? Slasher flicks are like educational films teaching us “survival mechanisms,” Alexander says. “We’re playing this game where we’re putting ourselves in that narrative and discussing how we’re smarter and would survive it.”


4. Horror themes respond to generational anxiety

There’s a direct line between the bodily deformities of First World War casualties and the subsequent popularity of monster shows. “Every generation carries its own fears. Just look back through history to see how horror films mirror them at a given time.” As more of us moved to the suburbs, for example, so did Michael Myers, villain of the Halloween movies, and his psychopathic cohorts. Today’s fears? The digital age has influenced cautionary tales about bullying and rogue technology, while Islamic terrorism has inspired so-called torture porn. “The fear of being alone, tortured and treated like a piece of meat by a foreigner is terrifying to anyone. But when it’s also happening in the news, it speaks to a generation.”

5. Bedrock fears spawn the best scares

“Horror fans suffer through a lot of garbage to get to the gems,” Alexander says. Take, for example, movies edited with jump cuts and sudden noises for cheap scares. “It’s like being in a carnival funhouse; it’s not really about storytelling anymore.” Good scares tap our most basic fears: being alone, getting lost, total darkness, loss of a loved one or of bodily control. Or genuine evil, which Alexander says we crave more as societies are further secularized. “Those are the horrors that stick with us, like The Exorcist.”