Book Review: The Frighteners, by Peter Laws

An exploration of our fascination with the macabre. Is morbid culture really an assault on decency? Can we blame an increase in gory movies and violent video games for a rise in depravity across the world?

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Why are so many of us intrigued by the macabre? Is morbid culture really an assault on decency? Can we blame an increase in gory movies and violent video games for a rise in depravity across the world?

Peter Laws, UK’s ‘sinister minister’, dissects the evidence for and against as he explores these and other dark questions in his latest book, The Frighteners. Laws is a favourite with readers of cult classic mag Fortean Times and is popular for his articles as well as his highly entertaining monthly column on horror films. The man’s a fan as well as an expert. He’s also clergyman.

Don’t however, be tempted to dismiss this book as stuffy or trivial. Moving far beyond superficial titillation, Laws presents a meaty investigation of his key ideas, and he’s done the research to back up his assertion that humans are hardwired to love the things they’re afraid of. Across ten chapters, he covers a range of diverse topics including slasher films, contemporary society’s avoidance of death, and children’s use of play as a means of making sense of traumatic events. He delves into zombie culture and probes our fascination with true-crime collectibles, drawing parallels with historic practices such as the collection of religious relics. These connections to ‘dark history’ add a satisfying depth to Laws’ treatment of his chosen themes.

There’s practical investigation in addition to the theory. Laws travels the world to interview members of the subcultures he writes about, and he reports on his participation in the BBC documentary, Meet the Humans. With a group of equally willing victims he was ‘wired for fright’ in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the allure of fear. He shares his experience of being restrained and subjected to a series of scary situations and electric shocks, all while under the observation of TV medical celebrity Michael Mosley and a team of technicians. The outcome? A revealing insight into the synergies between pain, panic and pleasure.

Laws visits Transylvania as a birthday treat, looks at lycanthropy and questions the role of the media and our demand for grim TV content. The book features many references to the works of genre creators (think Stephen King and George Romero) as well as scholars, and there are comprehensive notes to assist those readers who wish to venture further.

Engrossing – not gross – The Frighteners is a surprisingly upbeat and reassuring celebration of self-acceptance. It challenges us to open our minds to the darkness that intrigues us all.

Reviewed by Jo Vabolis
Twitter: @JoVabolis

Rating out of 10: 10

Distributed by: Icon Books via Allen & Unwin
Released: May 2018
RRP: $24.99 hardcover

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