Hardwired for Fear: Why We Love to be Scared

Race With the Devil


Can you feel it? That buzz in the air, as the temperatures start to fall and the leaves on the trees begin to decay? You can smell wood smoke on the breeze, wafting forth as the clouds part, revealing the witches moon and ensconcing Halloween firmly within the framework of the season. That tremor in the atmosphere, like the itch on a junkie’s skin, is the longing after and, ultimately, the thrill of fear.

That word, longing. Seems like a strange choice, right? Because who really longs after fear? Who is insane enough to actually, and in deep earnest, want to be scared? Well, as the season progresses, it begins to become obvious that a lot of us do. And while some of us are of that leaning year-round, as Halloween draws near, so too do the unwashed masses of once a year horror fans start to flow out of the woodwork like roaches from a rotting corpse, seeking as their sustenance not putrid flesh, but slow creeping fear. But what is it that draws us, both heavy and light-weight fans, to the chill of darkness and dread that creeps up the spine at the telling or reading of a well penned horror tale?

Well, science will tell you it’s a perfectly natural occurrence, a direct relative of the fight or flight instinct that all creatures are imbued with. When we survive a scary experience, especially a particularly intense one, a flood of neurochemicals with an opiate-like effect is released, bringing with it a sense of mild to acute euphoria. The response to a well told story, or a scary movie, that moment when you bury your face in your hands or a loved one’s shoulder and shriek with terror commingled with glee is much the same response, as is the sense of satisfaction at the commencement of a great horror novel. But I also believe that fear is a fickle bitch and there’s much more to it than just neurochemical science.

I think most horror grows from within, from our sense of identity and the fear of a complete loss of life and ultimately, and most terrifying of all, of self. This absurd human tendency to cling to life causes us to create outlandish religions that provide us with a fantasy framework upon which we can build a false sense of continuity, to comfort ourselves with a misguided belief in an afterlife. An extension of self beyond the corporeal. It’s what superstition stems from, what caused Salemites to “not suffer a wytch to lyve.” It’s what allows us to see ghosts and firmly place our belief in the fact that they are the living souls of those who have passed before. They scare us, yes, but I think they comfort us too. These things that I think of as “energetic memorabilia” afford us the comfort of believing that we too will continue, that we’ll strive to find meaning and purpose beyond the thin veil between life and death, attempting to achieve the very same things we failed to find in life. That, in essence, there is no such thing as true death as it applies to humanity.

But, beyond the longing to believe in an extended contract on life, there is also an existential dread of what lies beyond the pale glow of the living. It fills us with a deep and abiding terror of the soul, but also, on the outer edges of the psyche, provides us with these cheap but entertaining thrills we know as horror, be it in film, fiction, or the inexplicable depths of human imagining. Horror is a very visceral, personal thing that grows from many roots and to understand what draws so many of us to the horrific, particularly as it pertains to literature and film, requires a deeper look at the raw bleeding ends of some of those roots.

When I was a kid, I used to go camping with my uncles every summer. I remember fishing in the day time or traipsing through the forest with my cousins, searching for the ever present adventure that always seems just around the corner in every childhood moment. But what I remember most is drowsy after dinner hours around the campfire, my uncles and aunts drinking beer and telling stories designed to regale and warn of the dangers, not just of the forest around us, but life in general, of dangers mostly human that lurk in life’s dark corners. Afterwards, as we faded off in our separate sleeping bags, my cousin John and I would rejoice in trying to scare each other, feeling more delighted than precautioned by the dark exaggerations our elders had bestowed upon us. And those, I think, are the threads that link the true anchor of human fear to that flood of neurochemical euphoria I mentioned before. Because unlike a real, physical threat, imagined terrors, fictions if you will, instead of causing a sense of caution or wariness, raise a thrill, a small chill of blissful, almost inexplicable glee.

If you wanted to exercise extreme due diligence in studying the subject of fear as a storytelling conceit, you could reach all the way back into the dark days of prehistory when humankind was telling of the dangers of living and surviving in the primitive world, painting their terrifying experiences and heroic exploits on cave walls and cliff sides, but I’m not going to go that far back. Because nowhere is it more prevalent than in the classic traditional fairy tales and folklore that so many of us grew up with, the Grimm Brothers’ twisted fables of sex, violence, magic, and horror beyond imagining. The stories you’re likely used to when it comes to the esteemed siblings’ flights of fantasy, dark though they may be, shouldn’t be confused with the ones I’m talking about here. The original Folklore and Fairie Tales of the Brothers Grimm was presented as nonfiction and intended for adults, and the stories within were dark and violent as fuck, presented as a scholarly study of the folklore and legends of the time, legends that predate most of the well-known horror fiction produced by such luminaries as Stoker and Shelley and others of their class, both before and since. They are tales born of the spoken word, told to children at bedtime for the sole purpose of scaring the crap out of them, making them think twice before venturing into the tangled forest, whether that be a real forest or the chaotic knots of human interaction and, like those campfire stories I mentioned above, having an unexpected galvanizing effect on the imaginations of the young and impressionable.

The tales I’m talking about are likely familiar to most of us but, in their original forms, they’re anything but familiar or lighthearted. We all remember ‘The Frog King’, in which the lovely princess kisses the frog and evokes the miraculous change from amphibian to handsome noble. But did you know that, in its first incarnation, it wasn’t a kiss at all? The metamorphosis took place as a direct result of the princess getting pissed off and throwing the frog violently against a wall. And then, rather than marrying and living happily ever after, they had premarital sex all through that night. And then there’s the timeless, Disney adapted story of ‘Cinderella’, that feel good, happily ever after story in which the wicked stepsisters cut off their own toes and heels in order to fit the prized slipper. And heaven forbid you find yourself in the role of a child in the original printings of those stories. The Grimms had an alarming habit of inflicting the worst of the violence on the young. In Snow White, the wicked queen—also Snow White’s mother—at first wishes for and then ends up despising her daughter’s beauty, thus, when Snow is only seven years old, she sends the huntsman to kill her in the woods and return with her lungs and liver as proof of the deed. That story also ends with the wicked queen being forced to walk barefoot over red-hot coals until she dies.

Those stories, and the fireside lore that brought them into being in the first place, are merely the alpha to today’s omega, the tip of a massive, deep, and abysmally dark iceberg that has grown into the monsters we know and love today. Literature has embraced and expounded repeatedly on the tropes and terrors of past conceits, the tales growing ever darker and, to some degree, more jaded, just as we as a species have done, maturing and staring into the abyss of life and turning on the broken wheel that has become human society. I could go on, regaling you with horror upon horror and never run out of source material from the well of lore and fairy tales, but you get the picture. The point is simply this. Those tales, originally designed not as a source of entertainment but as one of academia, intended for the purpose of adult study and enlightenment, became instead a selection of thrilling, dark tidbits that enthralled adults. These stories, in their watered-down versions—rewritten by the Brothers Grimm themselves and, to a large degree, Disney—have stood the test of time and continue to delight and entertain the young and the old to this very day. And that rapt attention we gave to fireside tales and the grim lore of the dark and middle ages has spilled heavily into modern literature and the human psyche, giving us a window into the dark fantasies of our modern horror masters, allowing us to look away from the problems of a fucked up world and the worries of our own day to day existence.

So, as you make your Halloween plans this year, getting costumes together, carving pumpkins—or corpses, such as the case may be—will you embrace the literature of madness and terror? There is a deep abiding darkness in the tangle of that rhetorical forest, just barely sensed beyond the twisted boles of the trees, a nearly unimaginable evil that lurks and waits to visit its atrocities upon your unwary soul. It’s horrifying, but oddly alluring, and it’s right behind you.

The question is, will you turn and look at it? Will you embrace the fear?



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