Horror Psychology | Realms of Horror (Part 5: The Synthesis)

This is the conclusion of my Realms of Horror series. Here I will talk about how all the Realms can be brought together to better understand horror psychology as a holistic experience of all three realms.

Photo by reynermedia

Photo by reynermedia

The synthesis

Noel Carroll is an aesthetic philosopher that has sought to undertake the development of a philosophy of horror and in his work hits on a blending of the three aforementioned elements of the horror experience. Key to Carroll’s argument is the use of the concept of disgust. About this emotion in relation to the experience of horror Carroll (1987) said the following:

The character’s affective reaction to the monstrous in horror stories is not merely a matter of fear, i.e., of being frightened by something that threatens danger. Rather, threat is compounded by revulsion, nausea, and disgust. The monster is so unwholesome that its very touch causes shudders. And this corresponds as well with the tendency in horror novels and stories to describe monsters in terms of, and associate them with, filth, decay, deterioration, slime, and so on (p.55)

In this quote we start to see how Carroll relates horror to the biological, however he does not leave it there. Carroll (1987) expounds further on disgust, explaining that this disgust largely comes from the idea of impurity, and citing Mary Douglas’s cultural study of impurity, we detect impurity when we believe something is a category error (Carroll, 1987, p. 55).  He says “we initially speculate that an object or being is impure if it is categorically interstitial, categorically contradictory, categorically incomplete, or formless” (Carroll, 1987, p. 55). Here we see the combination of the mental and cultural along with the previous mentioned biology. The mental and biological aspect blend is represented in the notion of mental categorization of the monsters and their ambiguity creating disgust; this is not all the different from the categorization techniques mentioned in the work of Pezzulo that was presented earlier.

In particular Pezzulo (2013) argues that because we are embodied, when something presents itself as ambiguous, such as the category errors monsters present to us (or being in the dark), we will follow our internal bodily feelings rather than sensory input. The mind treats internal feelings as more reliable, or at least more concrete, than the sensory ambiguity in front of us. The social zeitgeist gets weaved into the theory through the idea of what is considered impure. Carroll (1987), citing Douglas’ work, talks about how examples of impurity are culturally bound, such as the kosher laws laid down in the Old Testament determined what food was considered unclean because of the categorization error. I would add that this maps even more onto the model of a three part horror experience when one looks at how some of this changed over time. The taboo/disgust/morality of eating non-kosher things changed for the early Christian church (which was largely Jewish at the time) with Peter’s vision as recorded in the New Testament, in which he is commanded to eat unclean things, and even among some branches of the modern Judaism. What is horrific can change over time, in bodily sense and mental state.

To conclude I have demonstrated that there is evidence to point to the fact that the emotional experience of horror is a holistic mind-body experience. But what comes along with this understanding? The answer to that question lies in exploring the whole of the emotional experience of horror fans. This paper has focused on the ideas of horror as they pertain to horror in the artistic sense, however I believe that there are ramification for dealing with real world horror. The key to this idea is integration. It appears to me, but remains to be proven experimentally, that horror fans are better able to synthesize their experiences better than most. They view the horror experience in its fullest context, and recognize it for what it is, not a deviant social experience, or isolating a panic response in the experience of the body, or sequestering the anxiety all in the mind. They are opened up to a larger world of experience.

What remains to be seen is if this ability of horror fans is something they have developed or something that was innate. If it is, as I intuit through my own experience as a horror fan, it is a developed trait that can be grown by exposure to artistic horror then it is something can be cultivated in others through exposure. If the theory pans out then there are definite therapeutic aspects that might be developed by exploring the full holistic experience of horror, in treating things like chronic anxiety, panic disorders, or any other disorder in which strong emotions of fear, anxiety, or dread get isolated into one realm or another.

 

Well that concludes this series of posts. Any thoughts or comments?

References

Clasen, M. (2012). Monsters evolve: A biocultural approach to horror stories. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 222–229.

Crane, J. L. (1994). Terror and everyday life. Thousand Oaks: Sage publications.

Dubuc, B. (2002). The evolutionary layers of the human brain. Retrieved from http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_05/d_05_cr/d_05_cr_her/d_05_cr_her.html

Hoffner, C. A., & Levine, K. J. (2005). Enjoyment of Mediated Fright and Violence: A Meta-Analysis. Media Psychology, 7(2), 207–237.

Lovecraft, H. P. (2011). H.P. Lovecraft Complete Fiction. Barnes & Noble.

Maddrey, J. (Producer), & Monument, A. (Director). (2009). Nightmares in red, white and blue: The evolution of American horror film. [DVD]. USA: Lux Digital Pictures.

Morgan, J. (1998). Toward an Organic Theory of the Gothic: Conceptualizing Horror. Journal of Popular Culture, 32(3), 59.

Mundorf, N., Weaver, J., & Zillmann, D. (1989). Effects of gender roles and self perceptions on affective reactions to horror films. Sex Roles20, 655-673.

Pezzulo, G. (2013). Why do you fear the bogeyman? An embodied predictive coding model of perceptual inference. Cognitive, affective & behavioral neuroscience, Dec, not paginated.

Straube, T., Preissler, S., Lipka, J., Hewig, J., Mentzel, H.-J., & Miltner, W. H. R. (2010). Neural representation of anxiety and personality during exposure to anxiety-provoking and neutral scenes from scary movies. Human Brain Mapping, 31(1), 36–47.

Tamborini, R., Stiff, J., & Heidel, C. (1990). Reacting to graphic horror: A model of empathy and emotional behavior. Communication Research, 17(5), 616.

Zillmann, D., Weaver, J. B., Mundorf, N., & Aust, C. F. (1986). Effects of an opposite-gender companion’s affect to horror on distress, delight, and attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(3), 586–594.

Horror Psychology| Realms of Horror (Part 4: The Social)

In this fourth installment about the realms of horror we will look at the social aspects of the horror experience

photo by Elena Gatti

photo by Elena Gatti

 

Horror in the Social

The third realm of the horror experience that I will talk about in this paper is horror as it is experienced in the social realm. There are many aspects of the social realm that affect the experience of horror, far too many to discuss them all here(for further treatment on horror in the social I would refer the reader to studies like Clasen,2012; Zillmann, Weaver, Mundorf, & Aust,1986; and Mundorf, Weaver, & Zillmann, 1989, for a good primer). We react as social beings to a horror experience, and here I will show an exemplar of how the social zeitgeist affects what kinds of things are considered horrific to members of a society at large.

Like many of the monsters that make up its stories, horror has had many faces over time. It started with the gothic novels and weird tales of horror’s early days, then moved into the iconographic B horror movies made famous by Universal Studios; from there it was on to giant, irradiated, this-that-and-the-other that brought us through the 1950’s. The 60’s and 70’s brought us Hitchcock, Jaws, the advent of Stephen King with Carrie and the subsequent film, and the Exorcist. Then the game changed. The 80’s brought with it the Slasher sub-genre, in the forms of Halloween, Nightmare on Elm St. and Friday the 13th. Horror became “excessive”, and with this shift “older forms of horrific imagery and storytelling [had] vanished” (Crane, 1994). Gone are the days when Karloff’s iconic Frankenstein’s monster or giant puppet ants could scare audiences. Horror aficionados seemed to have developed a taste for blood and gore, and wanted more of it, and 30 years later this thirst has not been slaked.

The inevitable question is, Why? Why do horror audiences seek to experience something that in all rights should be unpleasant? Critics of the genre were quick to assume the worst; condemning horror audiences “along these lines, either you identify with the slasher—you’d like to have a razor sharp, foot-long machete in your hand as well—or you identify with the worthless victim whose spectacular dismemberment becomes the death you too merit” (Crane, 1994, p.3). This argument essentially boils down to that there is a mental deficiency of one kind or another in horror fans, and has been taken up by many researchers as the quintessential answer (cf. Hoffner & Levine, 2005; Straube et. al, 2010; Tamborini, Stiff and Heidel, 1990; Tudor, 1997). All of these researchers have utilized an operational definition of horror based on it violence alone. This seems fair enough given the trend in horror film and literature, but it is never explained why other genres that depict violence seem to get a social stamp of approval and horror does not.

One researcher in particular, Jonathan Crane, looks into this very question, and attempts to explore the need for the brinkmanship portrayal of violence in the genre. In regards to the social acceptance of horror violence, Crane (1994) said “It is not violence per se that render the contemporary horror film a distasteful read. It is the nihilistic content in which the violence occurs that makes the horror film irredeemable. Violence in the contemporary shocker is never redemptive, revelatory, logical, or climactic (it does not resolve conflicts)” (p.4).  While this answer explains the social stigma of horror and it unacceptability it still does not answer why people would want to experience this.  Crane’s argument is that horror is an answer to our zeitgeist. The nihilism espoused in horror violence is a response to the way the future is presented to us. The future is presented as the “end times…heralded by a diverse set of calamitous phenomena” and that “the future belongs to nothing and no one. The only possible future is one lived by resigned individuals whose sole link to one another is the sure knowledge that we are all equally damned.” (Crane, 1994, p.6)  He makes the argument that when the possibility of being shot while at your local school or fast-food restaurant are all too real, or that the very food you eat is going to kill you; then it is no wonder why films of yester-year are not scary any more. With this in mind Crane (1994) sums up his argument by stating:

“Only the contemporary horror film comes close to the terror of everyday life. The horrific constructs available do not offer any possibilities beyond that of being able to confront terror. The engagement with such images is neither cathartic nor reassuring; it is simply demonstrates that one’s sight if nothing else, still clearly registers the world. Watching a horror film is a reality check” (emphasis in original p. 8).

While I do not share the nihilistic view point of Crane, he is however an exemplar of the kind of thinking towards horror that again invokes Capra’s (2014) argument for an understanding of the system. Horror does not occur in a vacuum, and to understand the horror experience we need to understand the environment it came from. Just as the giant irradiated ants from Them have ceased to be frightening to us today,but they were scary in the 50’s, because the social zeitgeist is not the same, shows how social context is important to the horror experience.

Thus far it has been demonstrated that there are distinct elements to the horror experience, however each of the above areas and their respective examples try to explain horror as contained in one area, it is my position however, that the horror experience is in reality a synthesis of these three. This synthesis of the mind, body, and social realms not only brings the horror experience into an emotional focus, but this synthesis can bring a greater level of understanding about oneself and the world around them. Interestingly this synthesis in relation to horror has been argued for, for some time, but has not really been explored by psychologists, rather it has been by literature critics and philosophers. The next section will outline an exemplar of these ideas of synthesis.

Horror Psychology | Realms of Horror (Part 3: The Psychological)

Continuing our exploration of the realms of horror we move from the biological into the psychological elements of the horror experience.

photo by JustCallMe_♥Bethy♥_

photo by JustCallMe_♥Bethy♥_

Horror of the Mind

Famous horror director John Carpenter placed horror stories into two camps, the division turning on a central axis of the location of evil. There is the horror out there, in the dark, the Other; that is where evil lies. The other camp is that evil is in here, in our hearts, we have me the enemy and he is us (Maddrey & Monument, 2009). Carpenter’s ideas map well on to the ideas presented so far in this series. The “horror out there” is arguably the horror that is found in horror of the body. It is something outside of us that seeks to violate the body. The “horror in here” tells a very different story. What if it is our very minds that are monstrous or Other to us? What happens when your mind works against you? In horror this is often manifest in the psychotic murderers, example such as Jack in The Shining, Norman in Psycho, or the many instantiations of the eponymous Jekyll and Hyde are typical. (Sound familiar? see Horror of Personality)So how does this reflect in the experience of horror? Well it could be understood in a very similar way to the internal struggles of the aforementioned characters, with the struggle taking place in our own minds to what we believe is true about the world around us.

In a recent article, Pezzulo (2013) put forward an interesting idea about why we are more afraid of the presence of a “bogeyman” when it is dark and usually after some kind of scary movie or other experience that brought us into a nervous state. Pezzulo argues that it has to do with the way our mind makes decisions about what to believe based on perceptual inferences. He argues, in particular, this has to do with the fact that we are embodied, which has some ramification for the argument of this series of posts, but will not be taken up until part 5, but in regards to the mental aspect it involves the confusion of old stimuli with new stimuli, and thus creating a faulty belief. In other words our minds are working against us.

Pezzulo (2013) gives the following hypothetical situation to illustrate his point. Imagine you are in bed and you hear a strange sound at your window. For simplicity’s sake there are two possible causes that enter your mind; either it’s the wind or it’s a thief/murder/etc. The more logical answer is probably that the wind is blowing the branches against the window. This seems straight forward, and under normal circumstance is going to be the scenario that your mind is going to believe, but  the author further complicates the scenario further to show his point. Imagine that before bed you watched a horror movie about a shark, or had minor car accident. This will leave the body in a heightened or aroused state. So when you hear the sound at the window your mind now has more pieces of evidence to weigh. The sound is now paired with the heightened bodily arousal and the mind erroneously pairs this arousal with the sound. This pairing creates the belief and experienced reality of a bogeyman a much greater possibility. To explain why this happens Pezzulo(2013) states:

Why use your high heart rate as evidence for the wind-versus-thief competition, given that it is due to the car accident or the horror movie? Although this specific example might seem straightforward, even in this simple case, establishing the right causal structure of a given problem is hard. One reason is that the interoceptive flow can have a long duration, and body states tend to change more slowly than sensory events. Evidence has indicated that subjective emotional responses tend to persist longer than the emotional stimulation periods (Garrett & Maddock, 2001). Similarly, a horror movie can generate an arousal state that persists after the end of the movie, and this makes more complex the attribution of a body state that you sense now to an event (the horror movie) that ended hours before. In general, estimating the right causal relations between hypotheses and sources of evidence is far from trivial; it can be considered a central problem of cognitive development and cognitive processing (Tenenbaum, Kemp, Griffiths, & Goodman, 2011).(p.5)

The most unsettling implication that Pezzulo puts forward for horror psychology is what happens when the all one has to go on is the emotional evidence as the only qualifier for something to exist in our minds. The bogey man in particular is a cross-cultural phenomenon whose single marker of presence in all cultures is the sense of terror that it creates, and nearly everyone has been exposed to the idea. So when a child (or adult) suddenly finds themselves terrified and there are no other stimuli, like sounds or shadows that could be ascribed to other things like the wind, only the emotion, the mind is left with Bogey Man as the only viable option. This is why checking in the closet and under the bed really don’t settle the fear of the child, as the emotional fear is still there and has no knowable external cause. In other words if there is nothing under the bed or in the closet and I am still feeling this dread then the only reason is that he is still here. For all intents and purposes of the child’s psychological reality the bogey man is real.

Pezzulo (2013) defends this theory with the use of Baysian analysis, which is beyond the scope of this post to explain and would refer the reader to the original source for a more in depth treatment. From this we can now draw the line back to the overall experience of horror. From the personal story I shared at the beginning we can see how I was affected by this very phenomenon described above. There was nothing fundamentally scary about my cat jumping off my TV it had happened dozens of times before, under normal circumstance I would not have given it a second thought. But, because of the emotional state the movie had left me in I was emotionally primed to read a more fantastic scenario into the event than the actual physical events justified.

Horror Psychology | Realms of Horror (Part 2: The Biological)

Last time I set the stage for exploring different realms of the horror psychology, the biological, the psychological and the social. In this post we will explore the biological realm of the horror.

Picture by Ben Salter

Picture by Ben Salter

Horror in the Body

20th century horror author and pioneer H.P Lovecraft’s most oft quoted phrase begins with the following line “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear” (Lovecraft, 2011) Physiologically and evolutionarily speaking he was correct. The limbic system, the area of the brain that contains the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls much of what we think of as the fight-flight-freeze fear response, is one of the defining differences between mammals and reptiles.(Dubuc, 2002).  This idea that horror is an emotion whose locus is the body is the mark of some of the earliest forms of horror, and its use still marks horror today. Examples of this would be Shelly’s Frankenstein, Stoker’s Dracula, or any of M.R. James’ ghost stories. All of these tales are still alive and well today and all of them deal with a horror of the organic being. Frankenstein is a literally the story of creating a horrific body, Dracula deals with the horrors that come out of the urges and fluids of a body, and the ghost stories show us the horror of what happens with the loss of a body.

This idea of organic horror, especially gothic horror, has been explored by literature professor Jack Morgan.  He states that “Tales of terror turn upon threats to the body’s coherence, the failure of physiological adjustment and adaptation,  the all too possible victory of the morbid forces” (Morgan, 1998 p. 63-64). Furthermore Morgan says “that in horror the ‘dieingness,’ as it were, of the human world is imaged forth, ritually recapitulated” (Morgan, 1998 p.64)  Morgan offers a position that has some interesting applications, for him, horror is found when the body ceases to be coherent, when there is a failure to adapt or change, ending in death.

This idea of the necessity of the human organism to adapt and maintain is similar to the idea found in Capra’s(2014) work dealing with the concepts of morphogenesis and homeostasis.  To briefly explicate, morphogenesis is the process by which an organism changes itself to adapt to the environmental context that it finds itself in. It is basically how the body and the environment interact. And homeostasis is the process by which an organism regulates itself so that its internal state remains constant, in other words how the body reacts to environment (Capra, 2014). Capra (2014) is arguing for a systems understanding how any organism, and the biological functions within the organism, are fundamentally tied to the environment that it finds itself in.

I would contend that body-in-horror is what happens when an organism suddenly finds itself isolated or alienated from the system it finds itself in; unable to adapt and waging a losing battle in trying to maintain homeostasis. One famous example of this idea in horror is Ridley Scott’s famous film Alien. In the story the hero, Ripley, is trapped with the alien monster in a spaceship orbiting an uninhabitable planet. The vacuum of space is uninhabitable, thus the need for the spaceship, a technological, rather than biological adaptation, but an adaptation none the less. However, the horror of the situation is that the ship is now also made uninhabitable by the presence of the alien. Ripley now finds herself alienated (pun fully intended) from the system and is trying to survive (homeostasis) in an environment that was once familiar but now holds something deeply sinister, and incompatible for maintaining the coherence of her organic body.

Another idea that stems into the body being a necessary agent of the experience of horror is the found in Freud. When Freud turned to horror he attempted to capture the word that best embodied the physical sensation that are felt when one is confronted with a terrible situation. He settled on the German word, Unheimlich, the Uncanny (Freud, 2003). Freud would position this as a feeling in the body dealing with uncertainty which deals, in part, with the power of others toward the destruction of one’s organs. For Freud this was indicative of the castration complex, stating “that it is the threat of being castrated in especial which excited a peculiarly violent and obscure emotion, ant that this emotion is what first gives the idea of losing other organs its intense colouring” (Freud, 2003). Perhaps it is useful for this discussion to position Freud’s theory, in a more Lacanian manner, and see castration as not as an actual threat to male genitalia, but rather seeing the phallus and “damage” to it as a stripping of power. From this one could rework Freud’s understanding of the uncanny as a sudden incomprehensible theft of power by a situation/circumstance in which one previously felt safe or in control.

To illustrate let us go back to our discussion of Alien. Ripley is aboard her spaceship, which was once home, and now it is not, although nothing about the environment has changed, her power has been removed from her by the creature, removing her ability to maintain homeostasis. She now falls under Morgan’s definition of having horror with an inability to adapt or adjust; she now faces the possibility or corporeal destruction and death. Like the thoughts of bodily death that went through my head when my cat jumped towards me, one can see that one part of the horror experience is body based. However it is not sufficient to explain the horror experience, let us now turn to the part of the experience that occupies the mind.

To be continued…coming up next the psychological realm…

Horror Psychology | Realms of Horror (Part 1)

I am currently in the summer lull following the first year of my PhD program and I have suddenly found myself with a lot more time on my hands, which means some time to work on this poor neglected blog. While this blog has not received the attention that I would have liked it to, I have no not stopped writing on horror. Very rarely do I post my academic writing about horror psychology on the site, as it can have too much jargon and often lacks the casual tone that I use here. However, I had a chance to write a slightly less formal paper this last semester and I thought that I would share it here, broken into 5 pieces for readability, as I feel it has a lot to say about the the realms of influence that horror psychology has on the world. (On an academic note you will find the cited sources listed at the end of the 5th part).

Scream by Alejandro Groenewold

Scream by Alejandro Groenewold https://flic.kr/p/aDTLaY

 

Realms of Horror:The biological, psychological and social aspects of the horror experience

When I was  seventeen years old I went to see The Ring, a film about a cursed video tape in which the viewer has only seven days to live after watching it. The killer in the film is the ghost of a girl who comes out of a television and is completely unstoppable. This film experience sticks out in my mind because of three factors: First was the social nature of this particular horror experience, in which I was distinctly aware of not only myself, but of me as being part of a larger group, the reactions of my female friends sitting next me, the “audience commentary” that was being shouted while the film was in progress. I remember the cognitive dissonance I felt by the film’s climax, when everything I thought I knew was going to happen was flipped on its head, when the ghost was not soundly defeated. However, the part of this particular memory that stands out to me the most was what happened when I got home. When I arrived home everyone was asleep, and I returned to my room to discover the door closed and the sound of my TV having been left on. My apprehension to open the door was huge, all of the mental disruption and emotion suddenly returned. When I built up the courage to open the door and did so all I saw was a large black object leaping from the TV straight at me. Panic washed over my body and I can think of few other times where I have felt like I was experiencing the eminence of my own physical demise. The only thing going through my mind was “It was all real and now I am dead!”  While the reality of the situation was that my black cat had been trapped in my room most of the afternoon and had been sleeping on the TV and literally leapt at the chance to escape as soon as the door opened, my experience that night was a multifaceted event that took place in three realms, the social, psychological and physical, to add up to that evening’s climax of horror.

This story illustrates how the experience of horror is not merely physiological response or a psychological flash in the pan, but rather an experience that requires the interaction of psyche (both the mental and social aspects) and our physical bodies. It is important to note here that this paper, by in large, is dealing with the experience of horror as it is portrayed artistically, not as it is experienced in times of disaster, war, crime, etc.  This paper will explore the idea that horror is bio/psycho/social experience. I will explore how horror is accounted for in the current research as it is located in the body, the mind, and the social spheres. The paper will then illustrate how a synthesis of these ideas has been brought together by theorists outside the realm of psychology to explain horror in a much broader sense; I will then posit ways in which such a synthesis can be brought into psychology and perhaps even have valuable use as a therapeutic tool.

To be continued… coming up next the biological realm of horror…

 

Lovecraft Quotes | Striking at Shadows

There are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths, and now and then some evil soul breaks a passage through. When that happens, the man who knows must strike before reckoning the consequences – H.P. Lovecraft The Thing on the Doorstep

I love this quote from one of the creepier stories that Lovecraft wrote, and I find it so pertinent to my ideas on the psychology of horror. The interesting thing about horror is that it surrounds us on a daily basis, those black zones of shadow are quite tangible for those who know where to look. But what does it mean for those “who know” to strike them down?  In the context of the quote it meant dealing with the monster regardless of later repercussions. In the context of horror psychology I think this deals with what we do  internally when we come across a horror. The scariest part of any horror is not necessarily the monster, it is living on after the monster is struck down, knowing that you have been irrevocably changed by it. I think of the likes of soldiers, police, first-responders, etc. who must act quickly in situations that can be quite horrific, and having to later make meaning and sense out of world that just had the sense pulled out from under them after it is all over. I am still trying to determine if the ability to deal with that, sort of re-calibrate the world, in light of the thing that just crawled out of the shadow, be that what it may, is learned or innate. From what I have gathered I think it can be taught. What do you think?

Hollywood Horror Movies | The Conjuring

I waited a while to write this post in hopes that I would get a chance to see this movie again before I wrote about it, but alas the the time and the budget of a graduate student can only stretch so far. So I will attempt to write this about some of the things that struck me about this movie and what horror psychology is at play in this movie that made it so scary.

First lets talk about what type of horror this movie is. This is one that I haven’t covered yet in my Types of Horror series, but would fall under what would be be called the Horror of the Other. Under this type of horror falls the ideas of possession and the quintessential ghost story (think M.R. James). Essentially the horror of the Other is when meaning breaks down because one comes to discover that their idea of Self and is not the contained individual they thought they were, but rather they have what philosopher Charles Taylor called a “porous” self. We are open to forces outside of us, often beyond our control, and as is the case in the The Conjuring, are demonic. The thought that one becomes nothing more than a puppet is truly terrifying. The Conjuring really drives this point home with the little side story of the haunted doll Annabelle.

Annabelle. This was one of the creepiest parts in the whole movie for me. This one is much creepier than the real life Annabelle Photo from Box Office Mojo

Annabelle. This was one of the creepiest parts in the whole movie for me. This doll is much creepier than the real life Annabelle though (yes it actually exists!).                                           Photo from Box Office Mojo

In the story we are told that the doll is not actually what the demon wants to inhabit, but rather it is just a conduit. It will then use that to take the next step and gain further control in the world to spread more misery and suffering. This is exactly what happens to the mother of our family stuck in the haunted house. The demon Bathsheba merely wants to posses long enough to kill children and then its host.  It is interesting to note that another type of horror is then taken on, after the possession is in place, and that is the horror of personality. The monster is no longer out there, as it was for so much of the movie, but now it is “in here with me”. This bring us back around to the horror of personality, things that are supposed to be incorruptible are viciously maimed and nearly destroyed, such as hearth and home, but most especially motherhood and a mother’s bond to her child.

The demonic possession is part of what makes this movie scary, but I think what really tips the scales for us is the cognitive dissonance that it creates with some of our base rules of the universe. The strongest of these is the violation about what is deserved for being good or bad. This movie was very different from other haunted house movies in that you are genuinely meant to like all of the characters. This isn’t like the Shining, where Jack is already so full of flaws that it is easy to see how he turns monstrous, nor The Haunting where each of the characters seems to have some unlikable element to them, or Amityville Horror (another Warren Case) where we realize how much of a douche the dad really is. We don’t even have the randy and promiscuous teenagers of the slasher films, who always seem to die mid-coitus to have some kind of justified suffering. The family in this movie is a good archetypal nuclear family, with no large character flaws. What makes this movie leave you with the dirt-taste in your mouth is that they just don’t deserve any of what happened. This upsets us, it throws off what we have come to expect from horror movies, (although we saw used with great success in the Exorcist as well).

However what makes this one of the great Hollywood horror movie for me (and it has moved up into my top 3) was that it could not do what it did without the rich and full history of all the other horror movies as a backdrop. There were tributes left and right to all of the great horror movies.Even the title cards were a harking back to movies like Rosemary’s Baby or the Omen. Going back to practical effects, and basic story telling is what brought this movie in. It made us scared of the dark again. It played on simple fears like, what bumps under our bed, creepy basements, what is in the closet, or my 3 year old’s personal favorite what is hiding in the darkest shadow in the room.

The_Conjuring_Wardrobe

Nope…Nope…Nope. This part still freaks me out
Photo from trailer.

This was one of best horror movies I have seen in a long time and it really brought back the elemental experience of horror that I had as a kid and thought I would never quite get back. It was an excellent piece of work, and a great addition to any horror movie library. Lets hope the success that this movie saw in the box office will give producers faith in really well done horror movies as a viable project. I am looking at you Del Toro I still have my fingers crossed from ATMOM.

Horror Psychology| “Based on a True Story”

My inspiration for this horror psychology post came because I went to see The Conjuring opening weekend. I was very impressed. With this blog I really haven’t done movie reviews in the normal sense and I am not going to start now, but there is a reason that it is now the 10th most grossing horror movie of all time and just knocked The Haunting down to 11th place, and moved into my top 3. The simple reason to this was 1 practical effects, they win over CGI every time, and 2 great story telling. Any way that is neither here nor there as far as what this post is about. I will write my usual analysis of the movie later. What this post is about is the tagline on this movie.

Conjuring title with Tagline

I have never really thought twice about the little phrases like this one that appear on movies.Sure, when I see it I usually go look up to see just how much the movie has fictionalized, but I am never expecting to find something earth-shattering (I think I was jaded though after Mothman Prophecies, yeah the bridge really did fall, but the Mothman had not been seen in decades. Lame! ) Anyway, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine on Facebook about the movie and why she was really nervous to go see it. We had a very interesting conversation, but what was most interesting was the fact that part of what really scared her was the tag line. As she explained it, horror movies don’t bother her all that much except when they say they are based on  true story. The reason being is that with all the others she can always tell herself that it is just a fantasy, but when they say they are true it becomes something different. Dread enters the picture. Dread of the idea that if even only some of the things she sees happened to real people then some of it could really happen to her.

This idea stuck with me ,I think often when we engage in horror we knowingly enter a darker realm.A lot of the time though the sheer exaggeration of it all helps us to understand that this hyper exposure is not real. But what happens when it does become real? This is a fascinating area of horror psychology. What is going on inside a person when the things  you always took for fantasy transgress or even violently tear their way into ones reality? How does one deal with that, is it as simple as the kind of re-configuring that goes one when one experiences existential dread that happen much more subtly  in the presence of “art-horror”? Personally I think it would be a lot more traumatic, having seen people experience this, such as when my brother freaked out when on a daytime-recon of an area I was going to be investigating for a haunting, and we heard disembodied voices. It raises a question within myself, why didn’t I freak out? That experience was definitely a first for me as well, but it did not have the marked effect that it had on my brother. I think I have stumbled upon one my new horror psychology topics, good thing too as I now have a dissertation topic to start thinking about.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever had an experience where fantasy has transgressed into reality? What happened and how did you handle it? What about the tag lines like  “Based on a true story”, does that cause you to have different emotions or thoughts about the story? And as always question are welcome.

Types of Horror | Everyday Horror

In interesting thing about human psychology is that we actually attend to very little of what is going on around us. The brain simply edits all of our perceptions on the fly. It takes what it finds to be important and filters out the rest. For the most part this keeps us alive and happy. There is a darker side to this though. One of the most intriguing things about studying horror is that you begin to see it everywhere, skulking about in every corner of our lives. Like a glamour we are blind to it either willfully or unwittingly. I am not talking about the horrors of war, violent crimes, or the general mill of human travesties. These things are terrible, and to a degree we pass over those too with a blind-eye. No, the horror I am talking about is what happens when come to some very strange realizations that things you thought were innocent or mundane are actually quite horrific.  Here are a couple to wet your whistle:

Oil

Oil Gusher-original by John Trost

Oil Gusher-original by John Trost


You might wonder to yourself what is so horrific about oil. Keeping the environmentalism aspect out of it, I want you to stop and think. We live in a world where oil has made so many modern marvels possible. It gives us light, heats our houses, provided transportation, and it’s were all the plastic that makes up most of our gizmos and gadgets comes from. Oil is responsible for our way of life. But what you have not stopped to think about is the reality of oil’s original form. We live on a world built upon and powered by the dead!

Toy Story

How can there possibly be anything in this jolly movie about childhood that makes your mom cry when she sees it because it reminds her of her babies that are now grown-up (yeah this is my mom)? Never mind all the movies in the  series lack an adult-gaze that leaves you puzzled, if not disturbed. The everyday horror in this one is this scene right here.

Have you really ever stopped to think about what this meant for Sid? I mean yeah we root for the toys in the moment, but this kid just had his world-view rocked. If toys are now sentient, what else might be sentient? Think about the consequences that would occur from this. Here is a kid who obviously has some psychological issues, fire-starting, bullying, toy mutilation, consistent behavioral regulation problem (kicked-out of camp earlier this year) then you add on a paranoid belief that his toys are alive and are out to get him. This kid would get slapped with an early-onset schizophrenia disorder and wind up on anti-psychotics the rest of his life, for a belief, that in reality, is true. Does this fate sound familiar? To any self-respecting Lovecraft fan it should.

These are just a couple of every day horror moments. What are some every day horror moments that you can think of or experience?

Horror Psychology|Daring the Nightmare

The doomsday clock is ticking as I get closer and closer to needing to get my thesis on horror done. The experiment is finished, the results have been computed (as disappointing as they were) and it is now time to get writing, but I can’t. I have been in a funk for the last 10 days or so and I feel like I have lost a little something. My passion, drive, Lacanian phantasm; Who knows? So I decided that I have ignored by blog a little too much these last few months and I needed to write something that wasn’t necessarily academic.

Today I read an article by Matt Cardin, who runs a fantastic blog about the dark side of creativity and human nature called the Teeming Brain. If you like horror you need to be reading this blog. Today he posted this article in which he shares a quote about why it is that horror fans enjoy horror and it says

 “It’s the same reason we climb a cliff and put our foot out over the open air and pull back. We’re daring the nightmare. You never feel more alive than in that moment.” -Benjamin Percy (emphasis added)

Daring the nightmare. Psychology has been trying to understand nightmares since Freud first postulated the interpretation of dreams. But what does it mean to dare the nightmare? To me it seemed like there were two ways to take it. You can take it in the context that the author put it, much like young children will dare one another to got and stand on the porch of an abandoned, and therefore certainly haunted, house. One gets as close to the edge of reason as can be safely done, brushes with horror, and then pulls away. I think many casual horror fans are like this. It is a test of courage, usually a social one, to prove ones,at least in the case of little boys at a “haunted house”, testicular fortitude. How much gross, how much shock, how much ichor can I stand before one has to turn away?

I feel however that there is one more way in which ones goes about daring the nightmare, one simply turns the tables of dare. You walk into nightmare’s realm with a boom-stick in your hands, crying out “Have at thee”. This is daring the nightmare, challenging it to bring on its worst onslaught of irrational and insane rules of engagement. But why would you do this to yourself? Why engage in horror this way? I don’t know if I have an answer to that. Horror authors have said a lot on this idea: King, Ligotti, Lovecraft, M.R.James and few others, but I don’t know if they are right either.

I started out this project of horror psychology actively avoiding the questions about  the Why of horror, and trying to first establish the question What is horror. However, what I have found is that in horror psychology, just as in horror itself, all the lines are blurry and the regular rules do not seem to apply. I think that I have arrived to the conclusion that in horror psychology, when one dares the nightmare, you find out what horror is; you find out what scares you; what absolutely petrifies you, and you know that it could never have been anything else. All that is left is to ask why. Why this and not that? If we always knew what it was we would find why did we bother going to seek it?  For now I must dare the nightmare that is getting my thesis done. A prospect that sometimes leaves me truly horror struck.

What are your thoughts?   What do you think it means to dare the nightmare? Do you think the What and the Why are blurred or are they separate?