Horror might not be the first genre people think of when they’re looking for comfort. By its very nature, it’s meant to evoke unease and dread, if not outright fear. It’s meant to discomfort, rather than soothe. Horror can be cathartic though. Knowing the monster exists only on the page or screen, and seeing that monster defeated, can provide welcome relief from real world horrors. But what if you don’t want to be put through the emotional wringer to reach that catharsis? Is there such a thing as cozy horror? At very least, these three works prove that horror genre tropes can effectively be used to promote kindness and love, rather than setting out to evoke fear.
John Wiswell’s short story, “Open House on Haunted Hill,” won the 2020 Nebula Award for the Best Short Story, and it’s a perfect example of cozy horror. Flipping the trope of the haunted house that wants to expel or harm its occupants, 133 Poisonwood is a haunted house that only wants to be loved, to be a good home to a family and keep them safe within its walls.
While a thread of loss runs through the story, grief and the horror of death aren’t the focus. Ana mourns her mother and longs to see her ghost; Ana’s exhausted father is trying to do the best he can to raise his daughter and just keep everything together. 133 Poisonwood recognizes the hurt in its potential occupants, but rather than exploiting that pain to drive them away, it explicitly creates the space they need to heal. Wiswell’s closing lines say it perfectly.
The house doesn’t need him to believe in anything but himself and his daughter. It isn’t here for the gratitude. It can try to support him as well as he supports Ana. If anything is as patient as a parent, it’s a haunting.
In another context, the idea of a patient haunting might be used evoke despair, wearing down its characters with dread. Here, it is used to lift them up, leading to a genuinely sweet and, yes, comforting ending.
Sanctuary by Andi C. Buchanan similarly flips the haunted house trope, centering on a chosen family of queer, neurodivergent people who have made their house a haven for ghosts. They don’t merely share the space with its former occupants, but deliberately seek out lost souls, protecting them from intrusive ghost hunters who are like nosy paparazzi for the dead.
There’s a satisfying mystery for the living occupants of the house to solve as the ghosts are threatened by something unknown, but even with the element of danger, unsettling the reader is not the goal. The heart of the novel is the character dynamics and the relationships between the housemates, both living and dead. Sanctuary is about respect, communication, and meeting people on their own terms. Some living members of the household prefer non-verbal communication, as do some of the ghosts, and there’s never any pressure for anyone to change who they are for anyone else’s sake. The housemates make space for each other, recognizing that they all have different needs. They’ve chosen each other as family and they’re committed to make that family work.
Like “Open House on Haunted Hill,” Sanctuary never strays into the saccharine, or presents a world without problems. It recognizes the messy, imperfect nature of life (and death), and that relationships take work and constant care. Even in a respectful environment, people will still get things wrong. Comfort levels can shift, and what someone needs one day may not be what they need the next. Compassion and consent are ongoing conversations, not a one-and-done thing. While horrific things do happen in the novel, and the characters do face danger, like Wiswell’s story, Buchanan uses elements of horror as the raw materials to build a kinder haunted house to hold the characters while they learn from each other, work together to solve problems, and grow.
Last, but certainly not least, is the cozy horror of Gravity Falls, a near-perfect two season animated series created by Alex Hirsch. The show focuses on pre-teen twins Dipper and Mable Pines, who are spending the summer with their Great Uncle Stan. Grunkle Stan runs the Mystery Shack, a roadside tourist trap, which is partly a kitschy souvenir shop, partly a museum of hoaxes, and partly a repository for the genuinely weird. Like The X-Files, the show combines monster-of-the-week episodes with a deeper mythology feeding into a central mystery for the characters to unravel.
Hirsch expertly blends comedy and horror. Some of the monsters are silly, but some are truly threatening cosmic horrors. Like Wiswell’s story and Buchanan’s novel, the building blocks of horror are used to tell stories about kindness and learning to see the world from someone else’s point of view. Ultimately, Gravity Falls is about family and love.
In addition to the blood family of the Pines, there’s an extended cast of found and chosen family surrounding the Mystery Shack. They care for each other, and repeatedly choose each other over the temptation of power, or the urge to give into despair when all seems lost. The characters don’t always see eye-to-eye, but at the end of the day, they have each other’s backs. In many ways, Gravity Falls seems designed to refute the “fear of the other” brand of horror typified by writers like H.P. Lovecraft. Monstrousness is in the actions and choices people make, not an inherent quality growing out of who and what they are. Gravity Falls chooses love and uses it to turn back the tide of darkness, literally stopping the apocalypse with caring and kindness. Like Mabel Pines herself, the show has a huge heart, making it a very cozy kind of horror indeed.
The next time you’re in the market for comforting horror, but don’t want to run a gauntlet of stress and despair along the way, give these cozy horror titles a try. “Open House on Haunted Hill,” Sanctuary, and Gravity Falls might just be the haunted hug you need.
[photo: MGM Television]
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