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<   No. 3363   2014-12-21   >

Comic #3363

1 {photo of a spooky castle}
1 Caption: Horror

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As I begin writing this, it is early morning and I am on the train to work. I woke up early, emerging from a dream which, while I hesitate to call it a nightmare, was eerie and frightening enough to leave me with a sense of dread after waking. The dream was of a haunted house with a ghostly presence in one of the rooms, and it felt like a variation on the theme of my favourite scary movie, The Ring.

The Ring (no spoilers, in case you haven't seen it) is an American remake of an original Japanese film, Ringu (a loan word from English which literally just means "ring"). I've watched both versions, and their various sequels and prequels, several times. Some people might prefer the original Japanese film, but I think the remake has some significant advantages and much prefer it. It is, in my opinion, the scariest film I have ever seen, which oddly enough is what endears it so much to me. I actually have to ration my watching of it, as the images in the film tend to haunt me for a few days after a viewing, giving me short bouts of irrational fear during the night when all is dark. I know there are no ghosts or monsters in my home, but I get this chill up my spine and an illogical desire to check behind me and in dark corners as I get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Boo. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike image, by Ivan Zanolla.

What is it about horror that attracts us? Why do so many of us like being frightened by a creepy movie, or a scary amusement park ride? Why do we seek out this emotion of fear, which is in most contexts seen as a feeling to be avoided if you can? I am of course not the first person to ask these questions, and the answers I propose here are informed not only by my personal experience and musings, but also by some reading I have done of works by authors more qualified than me.

Although fear and terror are perceived as undesirable or negative emotions, they generate a physical reaction in us which can be thrilling and, in hindsight, exciting and fun. Fear primes our bodies with adrenalin, gets our hearts pumping, and heightens our senses and alertness, all of which feel good when disassociated with any bad outcomes. The key to getting this visceral thrill is to be scared of something while at the same time knowing deep down that you are in fact safe. Your logical mind can hold onto the comfort of safety while the rest of your body experiences the physical reactions of danger.

Say hi to Jack. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike image, by Pietro Izzo.

This happens on a roller coaster or thrill ride, which triggers fears of heights and falling, but safely in the knowledge that you're in no real danger. Likewise, when watching a movie about terrifying ghosts or monsters, you can feel the sweaty palms and elevated heart rate of fear, but logically you know that you're in no danger in your cinema seat or lounge room sofa. And the same can be said for reading a horror story - the power of written fiction to get into your mind and produce an emotional response is not to be underestimated, but once again you are actually safe from the dangers you are imagining in your head.

Psychologists and fiction writers distinguish the two distinct feelings of terror and horror. Terror is said to be the anticipatory fear when you feel that something terrible is about to happen. It is the suspense created before revealing the true nature of the awful things which await and lurk unseen. Horror, on the other hand, is said to be the shock and revulsion engendered when the anticipated fear is revealed, and one can see exactly how awful and revolting and confrontingly dangerous it is. These are somewhat more tightly defined than casual use of these words, but the distinction is useful to make when discussing horror literature and imagery.

Out in the forest. Creative Commons Attribution image, by Kristy Hom.

In our common culture we have a library of horrifying images, tropes, and archetypes. Think of the standard monsters of myth and fiction: vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts, crazed slashers, and so on. Then there are the creepy castles, the raging thunderstorms, the dissection labs, the foggy alien ships. By mixing and matching these elements, a writer can create a scenario familiar enough to elicit the fears of the well-known archetypes, while preserving the sense of mystery and the unknown which builds on uneasiness to produce true terror.

All of these things are predicated on the primal emotion of fear. For something to be terrifying, i.e. to elicit the suspenseful anticipation of terror, or horrifying, i.e. to produce the gut reaction of horror, it needs to build on a fear. And the classic monsters and tropes of horror fiction fit into this framework - indeed we can often identify a specific fear which they feed on. (Credit where credit is due: I first ran across this sort of analysis of horror in Ken Hite's marvellous third edition of the roleplaying source book GURPS Horror. I have adapted his categories somewhat.)

Zombie. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike image, by Rachel Cobcroft.

Fear of Death. Death is the great unknown, which we all must face without any idea of what it feels like or what might (or might not) happen afterwards. It is associated with pain, trauma, and sadness, and is perhaps the most obvious primal fear. And death haunts us in our horror stories, sometimes literally, as the undead: zombies, ghosts, animated skeletons. Ghouls are sometimes portrayed as undead, and sometimes as mortal creatures who feast disrespectfully on the remains of the recently dead. All these creatures trigger our fear of death, and embody the horror that we might perhaps turn into one of them when our own time comes. Vampires are also generally considered undead, but being the supreme monsters they are, they also embody several other fears, as we shall see.

Fear of Disease. The non-undead sort of ghouls prey on this fear - that there is something unclean about eating human bodies. Zombies with rotting limbs and festering sores are here too, but also any obviously disease-ridden animals or creatures. Rats and cockroaches cover disease too, and show that horror doesn't need to come from physically large creatures.

Werewolf. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial image, by Thomas Hawk.

Fear of Contagion. This is closely related to the fear of disease, but it reflects more the fear that you will catch the same condition from a threatening entity. This is the realm of werewolves, with their infectious bites that turn victims into similarly cursed beings. Vampires make another appearance here, as they too can pass on their curse if you fall prey to them. Anything which turns people into monsters, which can then go on to infect other people, fits the bill. Think plagues of infected creatures all trying to spread their fate to as many others as they can.

Fear of Madness. Losing your mind, and being unable to command your own actions, or to recognise loved ones, or to even remember what horrible things you might have done. Werewolves and other shape changers who suffer a personality split hit strongly on this fear. This is the horror of good Dr Jekyll turning into the uncontrollable Mr Hyde. Of losing your sanity because of the terrible things you have seen, like Renfield.

Madness. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial image, by Dima Bushkov.

Fear of Mutilation. Having your body physically traumatised or dismembered is both shocking and gory, and the basis of innumerable slasher films. One of the enduring images of horror from my childhood is catching a fragment of a movie in which some poor victim is tied to four strong horses and quartered while screaming horribly.[1] This is also the realm of more subtle works which invoke the fear of being cut up, such as Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Fear of Seduction. Related to madness, this is the fear of finding a monster so attractive that you cannot help but be drawn closer to its dangers. It is the lure of the succubus, and of the Sirens. It also adds to the horror of the vampire - painting an irresistible allure onto an already terrifying creature just adds to the mystique and the danger. This is the fear of not being able to recognise a danger for what it is, and blundering blindly, even willingly, into it.

Things under the bed
Things under the bed. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike image, by Jenavieve.

Fear of the Unknown. This is the terror of what hides under the bed, of what lurks in the dark. This is an anticipatory fear, and feeds much more into terror (as defined above) then into the horror of revelation.

Fear of Being Devoured. Human beings are frail compared to many of the animals we share our planet with, especially some from the African plains where we evolved. Being wary around large creatures with large teeth and the strength to take bites out of us is sensible, but it also serves as a basis for fear and horror. This manifests in the giant animal monster genre, in B-grade films about mutant alligators, man-eating grizzly bears, and tornadoes that dump sharks on a city. Many monsters of classical myth trigger this fear. The modern epitome is the shark from Jaws. And this fear sometimes shows up in a slightly abstracted manner. The horror of the Doomsday Machine from the original Star Trek episode of the same name is not merely that it destroys everyone and everything in its path, but that it devours it.

Beware teeth
Beware teeth.

Fear of An Uncaring Universe. Many of us like to believe that we live in a universe with some purpose, some meaning to it, one which has been deliberately moulded to be somewhat beneficial to our existence and our happiness. But what if it isn't? What if the universe simply doesn't care about humanity and we are mere inconsequential motes of dust to other, greater beings that inhabit it? Here lies the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft's wilder imaginings. It treats humanity as ants or bacteria, that a greater being might squash or wash away by the billions without even noticing.

Fear of Technology. High tech is frightening to many people, either because they don't fully understand it, or conversely because they understand all too well what it can do in the wrong hands. High tech horror gives us the atomic mutant, such as Godzilla, the cyborgs, and the killer robots.

I have not attempted to give anything like a complete listing of fears and associated horrors here, as anyone could easily expand such a list with something new. Rather, consider this a set of examples, from which to go and explore the darker recesses of your own mind and figure out what scares you, and why it is so fascinating. And if you ever feel the need to craft horror fiction or games or films, hopefully you have a stronger theoretical underpinning to draw on. And for further reading I highly recommend GURPS Horror, either Ken Hite's original third edition of the title, or the updated fourth edition, even if you never intend to use it as a gaming resource.

Title image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial by Daniel Lee.

[1] I have never been able to discover what movie this might have been. It must have existed in the 1970s. The quartering scene wasn't shown with graphic gore. The horses were whipped and the camera cut to another shot, leaving the viewer to imagine the ghastly result.

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