The Psychology of Horror

By: Claire Cepuran

We have spent a lot of class time discussing the recurring themes of horror, particularly of the ghost story. One thing that has been clearly established is that while styles and details may change over time, the basic elements of what makes a terrifying horror story haven’t changed all that much. If Thurnley Abbey, written one hundred years ago, remains as scary as a very modern story like Slenderman, clearly there is something in human nature that determines these very specific fears. I was interested in looking at what the reason might be for the timelessness and appeal both of the genre, and of the many elements that never seem to change. I came across an article by Christian Jarrett in The Psychologist, published by the British Psychological Society. It provides a really interesting introduction to the subject.

dracThe article covers two main points: why recurring monsters (like vampires, werewolves, zombies, or ghosts) might be so scary, and why people find horror so appealing in the first place. Jarrett relies largely on human evolution to explain why we fear the things we do; people instinctually fear predators, and monsters like vampires or zombies play on this fear of being eaten. He also ties in the idea of the “uncanny valley,” which we discussed briefly in class- basically that things are all the more frightening when they are just a little off. Vampires, zombies, ghosts, and werewolves are very human-like but have glaring attributes that make them alarmingly unhuman. For this reason these humanlike creatures are more frightening than a typical animal predator.

slendThese factors came into play in many materials we covered in class. Any story involving stalking, like Slenderman or Penpal, is scary because it evokes the feeling of being hunted by a predator. Slenderman also fits into the “uncanny valley” because of his strange body type; Hyde in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has this uncanniness about him in that he just seems “off” in a way that no one can put their finger on. All of the disfigured teens in Black Hole are equally uncanny, and the list goes on.

The other aspect of the article explained why people find horror enjoyable even though it is designed specifically to be unpleasant. The author touched on the fact that the relief experienced at the end of a story or film may be appealing, which is logical. The theory I found more interesting was that people enjoy seeing characters punished for wrongdoing. The author used the example of punishment for sexual promiscuity, which we saw in Black Hole as an STD and in It Follows as an actual monster. I think this also ties in very well with stories featuring the devil; Connie in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is punished for her promiscuity, Gary in The Man in the Black Suit for his curiosity. Josiah Worth wants to punish any and all personal faults in Horrorstör.

The article isn’t too long and the author just provides an overview of several ideas, but it’s a great first taste for anyone who is curious about the psychological side of horror, and there are many studies cited for additional reading on the subject. Here’s the link to the article.

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