[Book Review] Nina Nesseth’s Nightmare Fuel
A look into how our brains experience fear, and why we keep going back to it.
There’s such an interesting tension between horror and non-horror fans when it comes to understanding and embracing fear. I both did and did not grow up fully a fan until I was a teenager, at which point my life was at its most tumultuous to date — so I thought — and I began, after some unconventional sleepover exposure therapy, to go full tilt into exploring the genre. I had always read horror, though often so wrapped in madness and the antiquated language of the likes of people like Poe and Wilde that I never questioned why one version of horror should be more of a warm blanket than another. I frequented cartoons like Scooby-Doo and Courage the Cowardly Dog far before I ever got the courage to look a horror movie in its face. Now, of course, I frequent both almost daily looking to find all kinds of things. After the passing of one of my grandparents I immediately turned to The Taking of Deborah Logan, though in the moment I couldn’t have told you why. In retrospect, of course, it’s obvious almost beyond belief, an atmosphere in which I could cope with that kind of loss from the side, without having to think too directly about my own. The Relic, too, was great for it, though much more emotionally impactful and much less frequented at the moment.
For me now, what once was too terrifying to face is a source of comfort I go to almost without thinking. But once I was on the side of those who propose that anyone who turns on a horror movie for fun must have something going on, because what’s so great about being voluntarily scared out of your mind?
A lot, as it turns out.
Nina Nesseth’s Nightmare Fuel aims to explore not just why we love horror, but what horror is trying to do in the world, and what it does to our brains as we watch. What, chemically and psychologically, is going on when we seek out and experience horror? And why, chemically and psychologically, do we keep returning to it?
When tackling something as complex as why and how horror affects our minds, it’s more than a little necessary to pick and choose your examples and dig into only a few rather than dive deep into the whole range of available options, otherwise you’d end up with a never-ending compendium (which I would happily read, personally, but must be a slog to write solo). In light of that, Nesseth weaves together her choices for horror films and scientific studies that have used horror to try and shape an understanding of how we engage with it and the kind of impact it might have on us. Interestingly, she often engages with the studies she chooses through interrogation. Why were there studies seeking to correlate exposure to violence in media with violent behaviors in children and young adults who watched them? How ethically conducted were these studies? And how scientifically?
Given that most of them were studies aimed seemingly specifically at confirming ideas and biases most people and parents already believed, there is some fun to be had in watching Nesseth deconstruct and debunk some of them, ultimately defanging the specter of horror film as manipulative beast and the harmful stereotype that people with mental illness are violent or dangerous.
She also seeks to understand and point out the connections between what kinds of fictional horror were being produced throughout the decades and what real life fears we were facing, culturally, socially, and politically, through each of those time periods. It is (personally) an endlessly fascinating connection that flies directly in the face both of the arguments that horror has not previously been political and that the use of horror to shape our understanding of anxieties is a niche rather than universal experience.
In chapters like “Putting Fear in Your Ears”, Nesseth aims to deconstruct the elements of horror film that signal to us when we should feel a spike in our mental and emotional states, who we should be connected to in a story and how, and what it means to strip that away. In one example she explains how Halloween minus its score and sound effects left studio executives hollow and unafraid…until those elements were added in. She also explores films that are aware of the tension-building power of sound and silence, and thus toy with both.
“Blood, Gore, and Body Horror” aims to explore the connection between films that depict or imply violence to the body and how we engage with them — one prescient chapter opening example lands Funny Games on a list of movies “without shock-value violence despite lengthy torture sequences, simply because these acts were off-screen”. One of my personal favorite experiments in this regard is watching Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) with people who have never seen it before, or hearing their stories, as they routinely describe it as far more violent than it ever is simply because it feels like it should be, despite most of the major violence being conducted just around the corner. Nesseth also proposes the ways in which body horror can affect us through its different manifestations in a story, through violence within a body, from without a body, or, as one example from Reservoir Dogs shows, through violence to the body conducted offscreen but implied enough that we believe we saw it happen.
While all analytical texts should be taken with a grain of salt no matter the subject, Nightmare Fuel is most interesting in its goal of exploring knowledge and science we already have while proposing ways in which it could improve rather than arguing a certain position of an argument or positioning one kind of horror as superior to another. It’s a fascinating, easily digestible and approachable read spliced together with interviews from some of horror’s touchstone voices about their experiences with the genre and what scares and excites them about it. And overall, a worthy entry to the pantheon of texts aiming to interrogate the apparent contradiction of diving into fear in a world constantly geared toward throwing more of it at our lives. With supplementary lists at the back for every film referenced in each chapter, Nightmare Fuel is sure to spark more than one genre deep dive among casual, serious, and merely curious fans alike.
Nightmare Fuel releases from Tor Nightfire on July 26, 2022. I would like to thank the author and publisher, and NetGalley for the opportunity to receive an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.