A Theory of Horror

The horror… the horror…

What scares the daylights out of us?

Horror arises from our recognition of discontinuities and mistaken expectations, and some of these kinds of realizations are more disturbing than others. Our brains evolved over millions of years and one of the things that has allowed us to survive for so long is our ability to emotively feel or rationally sense safety and danger. This skill greatly relies on context clues and assumptions of continuity to make good guesses about what is going on in a situation and what will happen next (TED talk by Lisa Barrett). Whenever a guess our brain makes turns out to be mistaken we are startled, which is our brain telling us to reevaluate everything and to be more careful – adrenaline kicks in and our metabolism shifts, our senses sharpen, and our mind races. Astonishment at a lack of understanding something is a foundational element of learning and discovery, and as Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska puts it while discussing “the generative power of not-knowing”, “whatever [creative] inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.'”

My theory is that the healthy response of astonishment and discovery can be compromised and turned into a sense of horror. This occurs when our fight or flight response is activated and our creative inspiration and lower brain functions are then allowed to run wild trying to make sense of things without the full capacity of the higher brain functions (see this article that describes the brain’s stress response), these take longer to activate (the prefrontal cortex is a higher function that responds to the lower functions), and they can hyperfocus (the anterior cingulate cortex is responsible for handling the prefrontal cortex’s information and focusing on things that need to be addressed), and when distracted by misdirections from reality (like with a really well done movie or book that immerses the viewer and suspends disbelief in the fantasy), it can further the sense of horror, as reality diverges from the guesses our brain has built and operates from. We are fundamentally horrified by discontinuities or realizations that astonish us when they deeply threaten our understanding of reality, and especially when they threaten to topple closely held and foundational beliefs or models. Some of the most base models of reality are the ones we build to understand:

  • Time and space
  • Conscious experience
  • Motherhood
  • Childhood
  • The home
  • Social standing and identity

The integral nature of these models to our lives is why we are so frightened by being lost, either geographically or temporally (either for long amounts of time or literally having lost track or control of time somehow), of insanity or significant deceptions, and of the loss or compromise by evil forces of our mothers, babies and children, homes, and reputations.

The scariest movie I can think of would be one that involves involuntary time travel of children who get lost somewhere, lose their homes and their mothers, and are not in full control of their minds. This is why the original Jumanji movie was so scary (and why the new one fails to rise above John Hughes drama/body swap comedy expectations), and this is why cheap horror movies so often resort to ancient haunted houses, possessed children, and insane mothers so much – these things cause us to question our own sense of security and comfort.

And this effect isn’t just limited to horror stories, it affects our everyday lives as we filter everything we experience through our constructed models of reality that we use to make predictions. I think this is where the heavy reluctance to question one’s worldview or to embrace skepticism and healthy doubt come from. We have spent so much effort learning about the world that any contradictory information needs to not be true, or needs to just be an anomaly rather than an indication of a flawed model and impending danger (a Psychology Today summary of research regarding worldview shifts corroborates this, and goes into further detail). This reluctance to reevaluate reality (thereby avoiding experiencing uncertainty, guilt, etc.) manifests itself most clearly in the Culture Wars (blog post), where sides form behind entrenched ideologies and the otherwise skeptic strongholds of science get co-opted (blog post) and even abused for economic gain (Merchants of Doubt book/documentary).

But there is another, more personal form by which horror infects daily life. When we begin to deconstruct our models of reality, or when we have our illusion of control forcibly dismantled – willingly or unwillingly – we risk descending into horror. This is best exemplified by Colonel Kurtz’s dying words in Apocalypse Now:

This man has experienced and been the cause of the miseries of the war in Vietnam, but that isn’t what drives him to experience horror, in fact he embraces the perpetual warfare that he uses to flirt with death and descend further into madness. Kurtz’s horror arises from being sent on a mission by the United States and being confronted with contradiction after contradiction, eroding his capitalist-imperialist American worldview and his faith in the system that sent him into Vietnam and gave him meaning in the first place. We get to see this exact same process take place as we watch Captain Willard for hours, witnessing his continuous grappling with the war, until he meets Kurtz, nearly as his horrified equal by then, just without having had as much time to stare into the horror of it all and descend as far into madness himself.

I know that I have experienced this kind of horror myself, starting with my early doubts about Christianity as a child and gradually expanding as I further worked to throw off my dependence on certainty when I first studied science in high-school and college. I’ve since learned to embrace uncertainty (blog post), largely through rebuilding my understanding of the relationship between science and Christianity (blog post), but the realization of our nation’s long and pervasive history of injustice and white supremacy again threatened my model of reality, and has taken a lot of effort to learn the truth and embrace a positive outlook for the future (blog post summarizing one instance of coping with racism and finding hope).

Horror then is this sense of loss, uncertainty and fear that comes both from quick scares in horror stories and in tearing down a worldview and working frantically to find and understand the real truth. Horror is emotionally and physically exhausting, which is probably why I, along with a lot of other people, do not like watching horror movies but don’t terribly mind thrillers that have minimal psychological impact. We feel pain when our models of reality or society are broken, which makes sense as a biological defense mechanism, and as such we do everything in our power to minimize the pain. This is why I spend so much effort trying to know everything I can about anything and everything, and why I waste so much time worrying about what other people think about me, and why I get so upset when I loose control of my emotions, or my body, or even my car.

The best horror stories and the most disturbing realizations cut us down to our cores, and as a result, our defensive practices against such horror can be the most drastic and unhealthy without even realizing that we are engaging in them. Therefore it is necessary that we be committed to taking healthy looks at our worldviews and the gaps they contain, our expectations from ourselves in our work and daily lives, our relationships with others and ourselves, and our social identifications and their contexts. Without such considerations it is all to easy to be blindsided by revelations and get thrown headfirst into horror.

It isn’t easy to respond healthily to threatening uncertainties, and it can take a long time to come to terms with the contradictions and disappointments we encounter, but it is key to living well. An intentionally uncertainty-based attitude provides avenues for so much improvement, the benefits can easily outweigh the costs. Shouldn’t we prefer to defeat the possibility of random attacks of horror by facing them head on and under our own surveillance? Obviously we don’t have to go through anything by ourselves, there are friends and family, support groups and trained professionals, and when appropriate, therapy and medical care. We should not be afraid of uncertainty, for without it we are at the mercy of circumstance or the prevailing winds of dogma, and that is no way to live life.


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