Horror-struck: Virginia Tech instructor shares the history and appeal of scary stories
October 28, 2022
Shaun Baker’s interest in scary movies started when, as child, he would sneak in to watch bootlegged horror movies on videotapes with his cousin.
Today, Baker researches the intersection of youth and horror as an advanced instructor in the Department of English at Virginia Tech.
“It’s just sort of a life-long interest of mine,” said Baker ’10. “And I think part of my research interest in horror and children’s literature is because obviously I was way too young when I got interested horror. I’m really interested in the childhood experience and how media shapes them and helps them build their identity.”
With Halloween on the horizon, Baker took a few minutes to share his thoughts on the history of the horror genre, its appeal, some misconceptions, and how parents might best navigate such content with their children.
What are the origins of sharing scary stories?
“Stephen King wrote a book called 'Danse Macabre,' which highlighted his research into and philosophy on the genre of horror. In it he describes the folkloric tradition of horror. We’ve been telling scary stories around the campfire probably since we were cavemen. Some tales just for entertainment, but others had this side effect of like, you hear this scary story so now you know not to go into those bushes where there are poisonous spiders. A lot of folklore, and even urban legends, are about preparing you for some experience.”
Baker also said pretty much every movie monster can be traced to Dracula, Frankenstein, or Jekyll and Hyde.
“Those are our literary forebearers, but even they are based on ideas from folklore, in myth, and in religions. You’re talking about the revenant dead. You’re talking about the resurrected dead. You’re talking about the duality of man and the fear of our darkest impulses. How far do we have to go back before we don’t have stories about the fear of invaders, the fear of the other, the fear there’s someone who looks like someone you love, but isn’t? Those are certainly concepts that go back a very, very long way.
"So, just like Shakespeare is iterating on folklore, history, and stories that had been told dozens of times before him, most horror writers are doing the same.”
What is the appeal of the horror genre and scary stories?
“I tend to think in terms of horror for children, but also for adults as well, the appeal of it is like an inoculation against things that are actually scary.
"King views experiencing scary stories as making a basket where you take all your real-world fears – the fear of starvation and homelessness and war and all these very real things - you take those out of your mind, and you replace them for a little time with monsters and ghosts and vampires and zombies and all this other stuff so you can experience the emotion of fear in a safe way.
"And it’s the same thing with all kinds of fiction. We want to explore romance. We want to explore themes of patriotism, loss, and love. We watch movies that make us cry. We watch movies that make us laugh. It’s like it allows a muscle to be flexed that’s not being worked out so much without the risk of doing it in real life.”
What are some misconceptions about the genre?
“I think there’s certainly misconceptions regarding the type of person who would be interested in horror. I see that a lot where people think, ‘Don’t y you have to kind of be messed up a little bit to enjoy something like that?’ But I don’t think that’s true at all.
"I also think there’s the misconception that horror is exploitative. Being in academia for as long as I have, there are inevitable battles about what kinds of texts are worthy of study. What kinds of texts are worthy of aesthetic appreciation. With horror, it’s almost like the subject matter shades people’s opinions to the point that they’re not willing to engage with it on a level with which they would engage with other types of art.
"We’re at a point right now where, if the story is of a certain age, people are willing to appreciate its aesthetic qualities, like Frankenstein or Dracula. But are we willing to give time to other master works of horror fiction? Something like a low budget spatter movie from the 1970s. Maybe it doesn’t have the same aesthetic qualities that you would use as a criterion of judgment for some other great film from the '70s, like 'The Godfather,' but to be able to control a whole group of people’s emotions and to have them react in certain way, that takes artistry.
"I just think the bigger misconception of horror is that it’s low brow and not worthy of aesthetic or academic appreciation.”
What advice can you share for toeing the line between spooky and scary?
“For children, a lot of times it’s really about parents understanding their own child’s limitations more than anything. And understanding your own limitations too. Knowing if there are certain lines that you just don’t want to cross. For example, I’ve noticed for a lot of people, their no-go is exorcist-type movies because I think there’s a deep-seeded belief that’s more likely to happen than a monster movie. I have a lot of friends who are like that. So you just have to understand your own boundaries.”
What are your favorite works from this genre?
“My favorite horror movie is Alien — we even named our daughter after Sigourney Weaver's character—her middle name is Ripley. My favorite horror novel is 'At the Mountains of Madness' by H.P. Lovecraft. My favorite horror novel for children is 'The Graveyard Book' by Neil Gaiman.”