HORROR MONTH: What is Horror?

Are you, hapless surfers of the internet, prepared for a month of monsters, blood and deep, dark terror? Are you ready for….


Those of you who’ve been slinking around here for a while know that I love Halloween. I love celebrating the dark and the bad, at least once a year. Usually I do a villain theme month, because their Halloween costumes are much more popular. And who gets remembered from our favorite Halloween silver “screamers”? Not the idiot teenagers, but the giant, hulking monsters carrying pointy things. This year, I decided to go a bit more directly thematic and really get down into the nitty-gritty of Halloween. So I present to you: horror month!

But what is horror?

Everyone “knows” what horror is intuitively, but what is it on a psychological level?

“Fear” is one of the most basic emotions, to the point where there’s argument as to whether or not it’s an actual emotion and not something along the lines of an instinct. Emotions are not just feelings in big scary psychology land: emotions are associated with behavioral and physiological states. There are many different theories of emotion, and I don’t think anyone else wants to hear about all of them. The basic low-down on fear is that it’s a  motivational state aroused by specific stimuli that give rise to defensive behaviors or escape.

Where fear comes from is a great mystery of psychology, and many of the sub disciplines of psychology have their own theories. Fear has some roots in specific structures in the brain, and of course, specific neuro-chemicals like adrenaline that trigger the fight/flight response. There is also evidence that fear can be taught. One of the most famous pieces of evidence that fear can be taught is the Little Albert experiment, in which John B. Watson taught a small child to fear everything white and fluffy–including things as innocuous as a teddy bear or a bunny rabbit. Fear is believed to have an evolutionary component. Evolutionary psychologists believe that fear kept people away from potential dangers, like snakes and spiders and heights.

Psychologists have found that horror films create actual feelings of fear in people, trigger same reactions as an actually potentially dangerous stimuli (ie: a snake). So why do people like horror, since it triggers this fear response? Well…it’s all in perspective. Horror movies released for a wide audience work because, for whatever reason, people have similar fears (like ghosts, or being stabbed to death by Michael Myers. No? Just me? Okay). Humans are hard-wired to be tuned to fear and danger. According to evolutionary psychologists, it’s how we adapted and survived to new environments. Here’s the kicker: evidence suggests that different people secrete and respond to different chemicals in response to fear. Fear typically releases, as mentioned above, adrenaline (think fight/flight/freeze response) as well as dopamine. Some people are more sensitive to dopamine. Dopamine is the happy neurochemical, and secretes in many situations, including, fun fact, when people eat chocolate. Do people more sensitive to dopamine like horror movies better, or people less sensitive to dopamine? I couldn’t find any research suggesting which way it went, but if you can, feel free to let me know in the comments.

There are some more humanistic and social psychology theories to do with why people like horror movies. Some psychologists suggest that horror movies provide a safe environment to experiment with their deep dark fears, and that surviving these fears gives people a sense of confidence.

This must be those dopamine people, because after a horror movie I’m looking in all the shadows to make sure no ghosts are hiding in my room. After I watched the The Fourth Kind, I couldn’t sleep because I was pretty sure aliens were coming to butt probe me. That’s books too. Suffer the Children? I couldn’t look at a kid for a month.

I digress.

I think the social psychologists have one of the best theories as to why people like horror: it creates a social bonding experience. People are social creatures: we like dealing with our fears together. This has roots in the other theories I mentioned above, I believe. People get a sense of confidence from showing that they conquered their fears in front of their friends. In the olden times, if someone saw a big scary snake they probably called their friends to come help them kill that sucker. Humans use other humans to deal with their fear.

I need to digress again and give you some anecdotal evidence. I remember when I went to see the first Paranormal Activity film in the theater on Halloween. I was late too, so I had even less of an idea what was going on. Everyone in that theater was in sync. We laughed at the boringness of 90% of the movie together, and stood in shock together when that scary demon lady jumped at the camera (spoilers?). And then, right as the credits were rolling, we heard little drops on the floor and the saddest voice in the world sigh “oh, my skittles.”

The whole theater burst out laughing. We were united.

If you’re a writer or an artist or a filmmaker, you’re probably saying “all this is well and good Kelsey, but what’s the scariest? How do I make my audience pee themselves?”

That’s a loaded question, hypothetical artsy fartsy people. Everyone is scared of similar things, yeah, but in different ways. I think, if you really want to freak people out, you need to violate the laws of nature. All my research has suggested that, if you want people to be afraid, throw in a spider or a snake or something. But if you want people to really fear horror to their core, make that spider giant. People are very imaginative, but like the natural world to have rules and order. Yes, this includes our fictional universes (see: Tolkien). This is because the human mind loves to categorize and sort things. Things that violate the laws of nature are scary because our brain doesn’t know how to sort it. It calls into question everything we’ve already sorted/

You need some theories on how this works? More theories? Okay! People who actually don’t want to scare people (I know, what?) with their art or robotic creations consider the Uncanny Valley Hypothesis, put forward by Masahiro Mori. The Uncanny Valley Hypothesis suggests that the closer something comes to human, but doesn’t quite get there (ie: violates laws of nature of what a human should look like) will repulse and horrify people. This theory has been applied to robots, zombies, computer animation, and moving stuffed animals.

If you can name me one horror story that doesn’t violate the laws of nature, I’ll give you a prize.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s