With Halloween just around the corner, Louise Dolphin suggests that maybe we have an inherent desire to be scared
When planning our inter-railing route after third year, my friends and I were determined to get off the beaten track, so we mapped a route through Eastern Europe. Undoubtedly, the most exciting stop was going to be Transylvania; a place inextricably linked, in the English language, to vampires, mystery and magic.
Upon arriving at Dracula’s Castle on a suitably misty July morning, I was deeply disappointed by our tour guide mentioning that, not only is there no evidence that Bram Stoker knew anything about the castle when writing Dracula, but more importantly, the surrounding area has only tenuous associations with Vlad the Impaler, the alleged inspiration for Count Dracula.
Strolling through the castle, half-heartedly viewing art, furniture and ornaments collected by Queen Marie of Romania, I pondered my disappointment. What had I hoped to see? Why was I drawn to a place where I expected a gruesome and terrifying monster to have lived? And why, did I feel a twinge of excitement and adrenaline alongside the anticipated horror? To a broader extent, I wondered, is horror alluring?
In his book On Monsters, Stephen Asma explores how every era has expressed different fascinations with monsters. Medieval Christians had demons, while the Gilded Age called their version “human freaks”. The face of monsters may vary by age or culture, but their universal dimension is constant. Monsters personify an endangerment of our sense of security in the world.
H.P. Lovecraft, the father of modern horror fiction claimed, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Thoughts of drowning, injury and death induce fear in us, but are natural occurrences.
On the other hand, for Lovecraft, horror involves the disturbance of cosmic law. Something in the horror experience resonates with a profound, instinctual awe of the unknown; a cosmic fear. Arguably, the most iconic horror monsters are not the slimy toothed beasts of the natural world, but illusory, mythical fiends like werewolves, zombies, vampires and ghosts.
In the modern world, we encounter such fiends in horror films. Dr. Brendan Rooney researches psychological engagement with horror and disgusting films. He emphasises emotional arousal as a central function of film entertainment; suggesting that a good film is one that elicits strong emotions, even when they are negative.
Dr. Rooney claims that viewers’ curiosity and interest draws them to horror films to experience feeling intense negative emotions in a safe environment. Things like horror films, ghost stories and Halloween offer people an opportunity to control and play with feelings of fear.
This may explain why I was drawn to a place like Dracula’s Castle. Our motives for seeking out horror include need for excitement; desire to feel intense emotions, and distraction from everyday life. But what about the paradox of why humans are attracted to, and simultaneously repulsed by the grotesque?
Sigmund Freud addressed this notion of concurrent attraction and repulsion in his concept of the uncanny. He argued that the uncanny unconsciously reminds us of our own forbidden and repressed impulses, perceived as a threatening force by our super-ego, which fears punishment if societal norms are violated.
In a similar vein, Stephen King believes that horror’s job is to deliberately appeal to the nasty or uncivilised side of us. King believes that most of us keep our uncivilised selves, our Mr. Hydes, under wraps, but “the potential lyncher is in almost all of us… and every now and then, he has to be let loose to scream and roll around in the grass.”
By feeding these nasty instincts, conceptualised as alligators by Stephen King, we keep them at bay. “Lennon and McCartney… said that all you need is love, and I would agree with that. As long as you keep the gators fed.”
With Halloween upon us again, have a ponder about what it means to you to indulge in horror-laden fantasy. Curious crowds swarm to places like Bran Castle, Loch Ness, Loftus Hall, and The Hellfire Club. Perhaps we are drawn to the seductive illicitness of horror, and the intense emotional reaction it instils.
Perhaps we also seek horror in a safe environment in order to overcome repressive constraints. Possibly, as King suggests, we crave horror to feed the “hungry alligators” of our civilised minds.