A byproduct of the evolutionary process and a shared human emotion, horror films allow us to face our primal fears in the form of monsters.
What Exactly IS Fear?
We’ve all been there; you just get done watching a horror film, and upon getting up from the couch, you stare down the dark hallway to your bathroom, suddenly thinking twice.
“Holy, crap, is it always this dark?” you ask yourself.
Feeling foolish, and reminding yourself that you are a grown person, you descend down the blackened abyss, half expecting a ghoul to pop out from the closet, or a masked killer to be reflected in the mirror you pass. You reach the bathroom, and quickly flick on the bathroom light, shutting out the darkness…
Fear. It’s primal. It’s powerful. Just like love, it can make us act, think, and say some pretty extreme things. It has the potential to control our thoughts and manipulate our emotions, but if kept in check, serves as protective instinct.
Tens of thousands of years ago, humans had little to no protection from nature’s fury, or the ever-present threat of a nocturnal predator. Predators who were not only equipped with claws and sharp teeth, but could spot us in the pitch blackness of night, and could make their move before we even knew what happened. We had young to protect, food to hunt, fires to build, and weather to brave. It was a dangerous world we found ourselves a part of, and the instincts we developed as a result are still present in us today.
Neuropsychologist Christoff Koch’s research found that the right amygdala, which is the portion of the brain associated with fear learning, responded more decidedly to pictures of animals, than it did to people, places, or things. Though the animals pose no immediate threat to the person, the brain still processed the image of the animal as more of a threat than the images of weapons or dangerous people. No doubt, this explains why the gnashing of sharp teeth, and claws, or a pair of glowing eyes and a deep growl out in the distant dark still cause our hair to stand on end.
Fear is a response to anything we feel might threaten our chances of survival, and like anything, it takes many different forms for different people.
Everyone is afraid of something, and the spectrum of effect it has on people’s lives ranges from minor annoyances to full blown phobias that come with debilitating symptoms. Irrational or not, our fears can consume us if we allow them, and the way we have evolved to deal with our most primal fears is through a fight or flight response. We must quickly assess whether we are equipped to fight the threat, or if we should just save ourselves by running away.
No longer consumed with the immediate threats of a primitive existence, and enjoying conveniences of the modern world, we find ourselves with instincts that seem displaced, but are present, nevertheless, on heightened alert. Many times, merely the sight or the mention of something unfamiliar triggers a response simply because we do not understand it, and ultimately do not know if it exists to harm us or not. After all, the dark was, and still is, only frightening because we do not know what lurks within it.
The problem is that when we perceive something as dangerous when it’s actually not, fleeing will keep us in ignorance, while fighting will keep us hostile towards our own kind if we allow ourselves to be ignorant as to the nature of unfamiliar territory.
So, how do we purge ourselves of these negative emotions? How do we work out thousands of years of evolutionary instinct without actually putting ourselves directly in harm’s way?
For many of us, the answer lies in testing our physical limitations with skydiving, bungie jumping, surfing, etc. But there are also those of us who turn to more subtle forms of adrenaline pumping goodness — like watching horror films. That’s how and why horror works. It taps into our primordial fear responses, allowing us to test our limits through the safety of the silver screen or the written page. The “monsters” that we confront in these stories are merely ghoulish representations of our own worst fears.
And if it’s a tale being relayed by a master storyteller, it’s sure to be a visceral, enlightening, and stimulating experience that should challenge our views on the world, ourselves, and how we treat one another as a species.
Horror Reflects Who We Are – THE MAKING OF MONSTERS
While horror can be, at times, hard to watch, depending on your tolerance for tension and some gore, it also seems impossible to look away from or simply ignore. This is why time and time again, we are brought back to films depicting even the most extreme situations a protagonist can undergo.
Horror teaches us that monsters are always made. The monsters we face onscreen and through the page are usually in some way a sympathetic character who was once either human or had some humanity left in them, and through a series of unfortunate circumstances, becomes the victim of some awful plight.
Hordes of mindless zombies roam the streets, and we know that at one point, they were just like us; remnants of human qualities barely visible but still there in tattered clothing and half eaten limbs. A werewolf is a man by day, but monster by the light of the full moon, terrorizing some unsuspecting countryside. Vampires tap into our fear of blood by slowly sucking the life force from our most vulnerable veins, and making us one of them.
Viruses. Science gone wrong. Serial Killers. Apocalypse. No matter what form the threat takes in a story, the goal is always the same; stay alive. Survive.
George Romero’s classic, Dawn of the Dead, explores the idea of the zombie using clever social satire — and, of course, a lot of gore. A group of survivors hide out in a shopping mall, which at first feel is the perfect place for refuge. It allows them to take advantage of all the material comforts the shopping center has to offer. But this, of course, doesn’t last long, as their stronghold is eventually overrun. They realize that no amount of comfort or feigned ignorance can give reprieve from such an immediate threat.
We do this in the real world; we distract ourselves from the horrors we see unfolding before our very eyes, all over the world, and retreat to the quiet safety of whatever we find comforting; shopping, drinking, cleaning, renovating, being creative, getting high, etc. But sooner or later, the horror of reality creeps in, and we realize that some things cannot be so easily ignored.
Wes Craven brings every parent’s worst nightmare to life in a raw and unforgiving experience called The Last House on the Left. The horror of this film, comes not in the form of inhuman monsters, or the undead, but in the idea that the average human can be capable of monstrous deeds towards completely innocent victims.
These monsters have lost all their human qualities on the inside, while maintaining the appearance of one of us. This makes them terrifying on a whole different level, in that they are harder to identify. But as the story tragically unfolds we see the true “evil” that our species is capable of, and it’s hard to watch, let alone, come to terms with. As the viewer, however, we are left with some degree of satisfaction, in that the second half of the film deals with the parents’ blood soaked revenge on their daughter’s killers.
In Hellraiser, Clive Barker shows us, through artistic body horror, how our reckless curiosities and desire for stimulation can be our own worst enemy. The puzzle box is generally sought out by those who have become desensitized to the usual extreme forms of stimuli and desire an even more acute experience. If one is unfortunate enough to solve it, the results are shown in the appearance of demonic entities whose purpose is to appease whatever unwitting human happened to summon them — and provide them with transformation through extreme forms of torture.
Shirley Jackson illustrates how a sprawling gothic mansion with a sordid past can be metaphorically linked to the memories and guilt tormenting a fragile mind in her Gothic masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House. (The new Netflix series of the same name further explores this idea in tragic and heartbreaking ways, but that is a whole other article.)
Whoever the doomed character might be, as we witness their grotesque transformations, we are reminded of how tragedy and trauma can transform us as people, into something we never thought we could be, sometimes, making us capable of actions we never even considered previously; addiction, desperation, needless death, victimization. A downward spiral.
Good horror can be entertaining, at most, but great horror can teach us about ourselves, and provide graphic metaphors for anything from culture shock and the frightening prospect of losing our own humanity, to our fear of being preyed upon like so many defenseless and vulnerable creatures.
FACING OUR FEARS – BEAT THE MONSTER!
One thing is for certain; in order to ultimately defeat the monster in any story, one must ultimately turn and face it. We must face our deepest fears in order to understand and overcome them. It seems we can never outrun them anyway; somehow Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees always catch up with us, though we are breathless from sprinting, and their patient strides are slow and relentless.
But in the end, we know this is the only way…we must stare the creature in the eyes, we must pull back the curtain, open the door, to see what lurks behind, unseen. We must defeat the evil or die trying.
But in fighting the monster, also comes the risk of becoming one yourself. One bite, and you are now, albeit unwillingly, just another monster. The fear of losing what makes us human, or a loss of free will, are always threats at the back of our minds. It isn’t until we are directly confronted with a terror so completely capable of stripping us of all we are made of, that we remember who we are, what makes us human, and why we prefer to keep it that way.
Horror reminds us of this without actually putting us in harm’s way. You could say it’s a kind of survival exercise for our baser instincts, and one that is usually followed by a euphoric adrenaline rush. We wonder if we would make the right choices, speculate on how frightened we’d actually be, and calculate our chances for survival.
Though we may not be facing werewolves and demons in the real world, they still represent something primal that we know we should fear. It is indeed a dangerous and cruel world, full of proverbial monsters, like illness, war, greed, hate, and the hunger for power. For an unfortunate group of us, it’s a world of innocent victims, where extremism is born in the smoke of bombs, dead children and the desire for revenge.
Perhaps man himself is just another maker of monsters, in his own right.
And maybe the ultimate horror is in making that very realization.
Scary movie, anyone?