Happy Halloween to all you spooksters out there! I’ve been wanting to take some time out and talk inanely about what “horror” means to me for a while now, and everyone finally rolled their eyes and gestured for me to go ahead. Alex described the concept to me very succinctly a short while ago by saying that “horror is the fear of a loss of agency.” I thought that was an incredibly profound and direct way of looking at what causes the sense of horror and prompted me to get this piece hammered out. If you’ve ever wondered why it was that someone liked a type of horror you think sucks, or if you’re just curious about my thoughts on what makes things scary and why, buckle up. If this isn’t your thing…well it’s only Halloween once a year so buckle up anyway because we’re about to dive in.
Body Horror – The fear of our own mortality.
Anyone who is afraid of the sight of blood or has felt squeamish at the thought of how their body truly works will be intimately familiar with this type of horror. Body horror, in essence, is the utilization of humanity’s natural disgust response to affect the reader or viewer in a physical way. When a person flinches as someone is stabbed by a murderer or feel sick to their stomach at the description of a parasitic infestation, they are reacting to a type of body horror. This is one of the most fundamental and easy to access types of fear reactions in people, as there is very little build up required. Describing the “gory details” can force people to react, even without a great deal of empathy for the characters, which is part of why this type of horror is so frequently associated with lower quality stories, or if not lower quality, then lower effort.
In her research paper on disgust, “Disgust As An Adaptive System For Disease Avoidance Behavior,” Valerie Curtis states that “Disgust is a fundamental part of human nature.” She points out that Charles Darwin was the first thinker to propose the universality of disgust, and builds upon their reasoning that the feeling of disgust originally arose in order to protect us from parasites and other disease vectors. This idea goes a long way to explain some of the most common themes in body horror. Witnessing bodily torture, parasites crawling under the skin, decaying bodies, these are all common tropes and frequently used within horror to elicit a physical response in the viewer or reader. It’s not hard to make the connection between these “scary” ideas and the fact that they act as disease vectors, that we are programmed to our core with a deep and unavoidable abhorrence for the reminder that our bodies are frail and easily disrupted systems that are keeping “us” alive.
Paranormal – The fear of our lack of understanding
I still remember the first time I was exposed to the idea of solipsism. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, solipsism is the theory that an individual can only ever be completely sure of their own inner self. At a surface level that seems like a fairly obvious insight, but once the idea is picked at some troubling questions can emerge. How can anyone be sure that what they’re seeing is reality? What evidence do we have that our perception of the world is shared by anyone else? The feeling of uncertainty and dread that tends to follow from an examination of this idea is at the core of what drives paranormal horror.
Humans by our physical nature are restricted to an infinitesimally limited view and understanding of the universe we operate within. Limited to our (fairly poor) senses, we can see a fraction of the colors that exist, smell almost nothing, hear a tiny range of frequencies, and touch only what we imagine to be physical. On top of all that we have a mushy organ that tries to interpret all of this information and build a cohesive narrative out of it. The understanding of how limited and non-comprehensive our experience of reality is can lead to the obvious question of “what are we missing?” It is this question that lives at the heart of paranormal horror. It is the attempt to tap into that sort of fugue state of existential dread at the realization of how much reality we miss as we go through our lives and that if we’re missing so much, there must be something we aren’t even aware that we’re missing. Whether that takes the form of ghosts, demons, or simply a house that really doesn’t like being lived in doesn’t matter as much as the idea behind why these forces are scary. We are unable to experience their true nature and it is horrifying for us to be reminded of our limitations and frailties.
Psychological – The fear we create for ourselves
I bet you’re thinking that this is a silly way to categorize horror. “All horror is psychological,” you say, “it’s all in your head.” You’re right, but so is everything else and that’s not even what I was going to say, so maybe you should let me finish. The nerve of people these days.
Why is it that so many people, myself included, can much more comfortably read horror than experience it in other types of media? I have an active and vivid imagination, so I can assure you that it is not due to some lack of ability to see horrifying things in my mind’s eye. It has to do with the atmosphere of horror and how that atmosphere is used to affect the person consuming said horror. It is important to note that all horror relies on atmosphere and as such there is always some attention paid to ensuring that atmosphere has horrific elements.Creators within the audiovisual space have a more expansive toolkit, and have the ability to evoke a terror response in a number of different ways. By coordinating different techniques, including auditory cues and sharp visual jump cuts, creators can trigger the flight or fight response within their viewers in order to cultivate a more subconscious atmosphere for the horror to thrive within. It is these involuntary responses that makes horror movies and games, at least for me, much more physically affecting and difficult to enjoy. In this sense the jump scare and spooky music are acting as a laugh track, placed there to ensure that even someone not paying attention to anything knows “this is the scary part.”
In contrast, horror in literature is stripped of these tools that are always so near to hand in film. Psychological horror in the written word must make careful use of writing technique, prose, and word choice to slowly drip feed the atmosphere to the reader. If done right, the writer can build empathy for the character and their situation, having the horror burrow further into the reader’s mind. There’s no payoff in seeing the “monsters” in The Shadow Over Innsmouth if you hadn’t spent the previous pages of the story exploring the town through the main character’s eyes, whereas a scary prosthetic or animatronic monster can frighten people at any point in a film with the right music and editing. It is the careful push and pull of giving the reader just enough information to lure them in but not so much that the reveal is spoiled at the climax of the book that is so impressive when authors get it right.
Cosmic Horror – The fear of our own insignificance
Imagine for a moment there was a world ending asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Nothing can stop it and we can’t get away, but it’s not supposed to hit for months. What do you think the overwhelming feeling would be? I doubt “screaming terror” would be the prevailing emotion. I imagine that most people would describe it with one word, “dread.” Dread at the inevitability of destruction due to something that cannot be reasoned with or understood as a motivated actor. Cosmic horror is the elevation of this event from an act of nature we don’t understand, to a god like consciousness we don’t understand. It is the exploration of the idea that the asteroid has motivations of its own, and chose to head this way, but not for any reason we could claim to understand.
Humans have spent all of our recorded history at the top of what we think of as the food chain here on Earth, but there was a far greater amount of time when modern man was just another species hiding in the dark from predators and struggling against extinction. The idea of a threat to your existence that threatens not out of personal enmity but instead its fundamental nature is one that has a significant amount of historical significance to humans, and it is easy to see that stories recalling this feeling can impact us so deeply to this day. The concept that a Cthulhu or the Worm Gods or Hastur could unintentionally destroy us all on their way to doing something else and not even notice is powerful, frightening, and reminds us of how insignificant we are in the grand scale of the universe. Cosmic horror beckons every time we look up at night and remember that each point of light is a star bigger than we can begin to comprehend.
In conclusion – So why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we seek out things that will haunt and unsettle us in the small hours of the night and come unbeckoned when we finally fall asleep? I can’t speak for everyone who reads horror but I personally view it as a type of desensitization. Similar to cognitive behavioral therapy for mental illness, horror as a genre allows individuals to seek out, explore, and come to terms with both the things they knew they feared and the ones that were bubbling under the surface. “Face your fears” is a common refrain and piece of life advice because it encourages you to stand up to something that frightens you and grow past it, or at least learn how to not let it control you. Horror allows a safe place to do this standing up at whatever pace works best for the reader. If you can’t do one thing that scares you every day, try to read one thing that scares you instead.
Let me know all of the problems you’ve had with this thought piece about what scares us in the comments and thanks for making it this far.