Peter Laws’s The Frighteners: A Journey Through Our Cultural Fascination with the Macabre is the kind of book I was predisposed not to like. There is Laws’s chatty, hands-free-mike, from-the-pulpit style (his writing out of “nah” being his most unwelcome tic). Then there is his “sinister minister” persona—the apparent discontinuity of this ordained Baptist minister from Britain who is also somehow so committed to the macabre that he posts horror-movie reviews on YouTube, speaks at horror conventions, and writes horror fiction with Garth Marenghi-esque titles like Purged and Unleashed, as if no one has ever before read a John Donne sermon. (Okay, maybe a lot of people haven’t lately, but I’m permitted my annoyance.) And above all, there is his pie-in-the-sky optimism.

But The Frighteners is one of a few recent nonfiction works attempting in earnest—and with some success—to get at the heart of horror, a genre that rarely stays very long in the realm of the respectable yet one that has never wanted for a curious audience.

Laws examines the most popular tropes of horror (zombies, werewolves, vampires, haunted houses, and serial killers) and its general themes (violence, mortality, and trauma) by exploring corners of the world they infiltrate. He tours Transylvania, tries to survive a simulated zombie outbreak, talks with a woman whose boyfriend made her a coffin (“I keep it in the lounge”), peruses collections of murder memorabilia, and walks through the Capuchin Crypt in Rome—where the skeletal remains of thousands of monks have been arranged with morbid artistry. Laws argues that an attraction to, or at least curiosity about, the scary and the strange is, if not universal, at least very common: “Millions of us spend an inordinate amount of time and money pondering the violent demise of real victims,” Laws writes. “We might not pay for killer collectibles, but we sure like to follow the antics of these murderers.” (Hello, person who shelled out $200 to attend a live taping of the podcast My Favorite Murder.)

In the chapter “The Beast Within,” covering werewolves and vampires, Laws’s observational empathy goes into high gear when he visits a “furry” convention in a hotel in Birmingham, England. “Some of them seem wary of me,” he writes—and with good reason, as the subculture has been the subject of derision and disgust. Media reports depict “furring” as a “sex craze” and its practitioners as “sick” and “perverts.” “But I’m not here to expose any animal sexing,” Laws writes—rather, he is looking “to find out how the once dreaded inner beast is being embraced by this subculture.” Quite innocently, as far as he sees: Men and women frolic through the hotel in full costume or just wearing dog ears around their heads. It appears to Laws to be a gathering of “bespoke, alternative personas”—or “fursonas”—that these people “develop both online and off.” Many furries, one tells Laws, “aren’t really good at social interaction,” and donning a mask, even a figurative one, helps.

By “dreaded inner beast,” Laws refers to the Victorian fear—an offshoot of Darwinism, though Darwin himself did not support it—that civilized man will degrade into a baser, beastly form. “Darwinism made people turn their fearful focus further inward. What if the monster out there was really the beast in here?” Out of this milieu, Laws continues, came The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s quickly written accidental classic of “the horrors of human duality.” And here Laws offers a valuable insight:

The Victorians saw this as a chilling literary example of degeneration. Yet, do we really think this book, and other Gothic double stories, were successful because of the clean-living Jekyll? Nah . . . It’s Hyde that really drew the crowds. . . . Hyde certainly was wild and scary, but wasn’t he the one who got to have all the fun?

Some of what Laws covers has an air of “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” For instance, our itch for art that is relevant to the zeitgeist. “Unusual times demand unusual pictures,” reads an advertisement for a Bela Lugosi movie that Laws discusses: “Americans were in the thick of a tumbling economy and exploding unemployment. White Zombie debuted in 1932 . . . a year that historian Frederick Lewis Allen describes as ‘the cruelest [year]’ of the Great Depression.”

Spencer Tracy as the title character(s) in ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1941)
Spencer Tracy as the title character(s) in ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1941). Bettmann / Getty

But some things do change. Even if the elements of horror don’t change much over time, their moral weight is always shifting. Laws’s reverse-engineering of Jekyll and Hyde puts into perspective how contemporary filmmakers and audiences see monsters. “Themes of generational trauma, inherited mental illness, and the guilt and fear that accompany them have been popular in horror this year,” Katie Rife writes in her AV Club review of the new Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. In fact, trauma and mental illness have always been staples of horror; what has shifted recently is their source. To borrow from an observation of Eve Tushnet’s: Horror classics from the last few decades tended to link the characters’ trauma or mental illness to other people (like the repressed anger and hurt of Carrie White in Carrie or the entity who lives “in the weak and the wounded” in Session 9). “Humans are the real monsters” is a popular interpretative line in horror. Increasingly, though, the trauma in the horror genre arises from within—and rather than fight against it externally, it must be overcome internally. The old saying could be refashioned as “We create our own monsters—good and bad.”

The Frighteners is notably reliant on the first-person plural—as if Laws is writing on behalf of everyone, as secret and not-so-secret horror fans. “We’ve become experts at hiding the realities of mortality.” “Through crime dramas, horror films and Halloween scare attractions, we engage in only the type of memento mori we can handle.” “Both we and zombies are hopelessly addicted to consumption.” “Because despite how it looks, we’re just like everybody else. We love and adore life. We laugh. We care. It doesn’t matter whether we’re into faith or not. Many of us aren’t, actually. Yet we still detest real-life violence and know the difference between real and fake blood.”

Despite how it looks . . .” Though faith is mostly an incidental element here, an extension of his own journey, Reverend Laws is preaching to a congregation of “shadow-watchers.” But rather than seeking to convert new congregants, he wants to tell the vast unaware that they are already members.

Darryl Jones’s Sleeping with the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror covers many of the same themes and tropes as Laws’s book, but it’s ultimately very different. As a professor of English literature at Trinity College Dublin—with such research interests as “Welsh nationalist horror”—Jones’s designs are more hermeneutic than homiletic. Moreover, Jones favors a confrontational reading of horror over Laws’s cathartic one. “While the products of horror can often be readily incorporated into capitalism,” Jones writes, “part of the power of horror lies in its transgressive nature. It can be . . . an avant-garde art form, whose function is to shock us out of our respectability and complacency.”

This divide between scary stuff intended to be popular and scary stuff intended to shock audiences into new ways of thought has long been present in horror. Films like Halloween, still frightening 40 years later even without the use of jump scares and high-tech special effects, and Dawn of the Dead use their techniques to articulate shared fears that may never have been expressed clearly but are on some deep level widely shared. That is why they are so popular—and so often and so egregiously imitated. A film like Takashi Miike’s Audition, however, has no such intentions, preferring instead to upend viewers’ expectations and challenge their tolerance levels if not their thinking. On this point, Jones quotes the horror writer-director Clive Barker: “The kind of horror which is all suggestion and undertow . . . doesn’t do a thing for me. . . . I like imagining horrors in detail.”

The scope of Sleeping with the Lights On is, surprisingly for such a small book, vast. Jones mines horror as far back as ancient Greece. He brings into the mix not just Burke’s aesthetics of the sublime but also Hobbes’s Leviathan, the crucifixion, and multiple versions of Faust. Many of his broader conclusions—like the notion that the serial killer is “our great modern demon” and the assertion that H. P. Lovecraft was, “by any traditional literary standards, the author of some of the worst prose ever committed to print”—are pretty much horror-fan conventional wisdom.

Still, Jones offers some welcome elucidation on a few old favorites, like Dracula and Frankenstein. He reminds us that Bram Stoker’s novel differs from today’s culturally omnipresent vampire fiction. It is “one of the major novels of Victorian London. Reading Dracula, we encounter a city of immigrants and suburbs, gentlemen’s clubs, lawyers, banks, docks, graveyards, and lunatic asylums.” Moreover, Stoker’s book offers a “reverse colonization” narrative wherein “the British Empire is vulnerable to invasion and infection.”

Conversely, Jones brings Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein closer to the present. “Our Victor Frankenstein is not a mad scientist as such, but a computer geek. Brilliant, callow, nihilistic, and plutocratic, this figure is emblematic, or even symptomatic, in modern popular culture, from Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark to Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network . . . to Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina.”

More noteworthy, though, is how Jones makes extra time for works of horror from recent decades that have not received wide critical attention. This includes “body horror” as pioneered by Barker and David Cronenberg, the grotesque retro pastiches of Rob Zombie, the Asian horror boom of the 1990s (and then the remake boom of the 2000s), the cyber-horror of Unfriended, and the Internet meme Slender Man. Much of this is restricted to an afterword, but he presents well the kaleidoscopic array of tones, themes, and media through which the genre’s recent entries have been produced.

What if, despite the dark flowering of the horror genre, the mainstream continues to treat it unseriously? No matter—for as Jones notes, “some of the finest horror . . . comes from the margins. It arises out of the peripheral, the regional, the provincial, the neglected, the discarded . . . occluded identities insist on their presence.”

Horror’s most fascinating attribute is its ability to push boundaries of theme, style, and format while also being wildly popular. In fact “horror” sometimes acts like a magic word that can make intimidating art seem instantly more accessible. (At least it worked for a friend who was having trouble coming around to David Lynch.) Laws and Jones take different stands on this. While Jones is worried about the “corporatization” of some subgenres of horror, on the grounds that they might lose their authenticity and be drained of their power, Laws is, if not less concerned, at least more nuanced:

We humans are insecure, and so we can’t resist the type of tribal dominance games our ancestors used to play. . . . We just have different signifiers now—the bigger house, the cooler car, the slicker Facebook photos. To find success in these modern games of significance is hard work, and we often fail to match up. But there’s always a pixelated zombie waiting to let us shoot them, meaning there are still arenas in which even the weakest among us can be heroes for a while.

Whatever the merits of either book’s insights, each proves at least three things. First, that thinking about horror is fun, with not a few intellectual calories; but, second, not as fun as actually watching or reading horror itself; and, third, that whether we live in a time of social harmony or social discontent, the horror genre is secure.