Looking back, I think the first horror movie I saw at the cinema must have been The Omega Man, the 1971 version of I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s tale of modern-day vampires. I was only nine at the time, which was probably below the age certification for that film, though I think back then the ticket sellers at my local cinema weren’t always too bothered about checking and enforcing such matters. For a long time, The Omega Man remained my favourite film. I still love the scene where Charleton Heston sits alone in a cinema watching the documentary film of the 1969 Woodstock festival, listening to hippies talking about a world of peace and love, a wonderful juxtaposition with the world we know Heston is now living in – bereft of human beings during the daytime and besieged by malevolent vampires at night.
A little later I saw Jaws (1975). This was still a time when your ticket enabled you to enter at any point during the film and then stay for the next showing (hence the saying “This is where we came in”). Thus, my introduction to the film was seeing Quint disappearing into the mouth of the shark, without any of the dramatic build-up to this point, which is arguably more fear-inducing than the final scenes.
Both I Am Legend (the book) and Jaws (the film) are among the works included in a selective review of American horror fiction discussed in the 2017 book Why Horror Seduces, by Mathias Clasen, Associate Professor of Literature and Media at Aarhus University. Before we get to this review, though, Clasen addresses the wider questions of what horror is, how it works, and how it has been and should be studied. Horror is notoriously hard to define other than in terms of the reactions that a work of fiction elicits from the viewer or reader. Whilst some theorists date the origins of horror to the advent of Gothic fiction in the nineteenth century, Clasen agrees with one of the genre’s most celebrated practitioners, Lovecraft, who wrote that “the horror tale is as old as human thought and speech themselves”.
Survey research shows that most people enjoy horror but, like Goldilocks’ porridge, it needs to be just right – it doesn’t work if it fails to provoke unease or a fear reaction, and likewise most people don’t want horror to be too frightening. But why do we want to be frightened at all by a work of fiction? Enter a plethora of theorists who want to tell us that the stories we love are actually about something other than an entity or situation that is scaring the crap out of us. There are Freudian, feminist, queer, Lacanian, Marxist, race studies, post-colonial and post-structuralist readings of horror fiction. Sometimes, a critical interpretation is simultaneously based on several of these approaches.
Whilst acknowledging that works of fiction may include multiple themes, and also expressing pleasure that the horror genre is taken seriously by these writers, Clasen believes that their various theoretical approaches invariably miss what is at the core of horror fiction. He is especially scathing, albeit in a polite fashion, about the psychoanalytic approaches to horror, which are so divorced from empirical evidence that they enable the shark in Jaws to be interpreted as both “a greatly enlarged, marauding penis” (Peter Biskind) and a “vagina dentata” (Jane Caputi), a giant vagina with teeth.
Critical interpretations are sometimes at odds with the explicitly expressed intentions of writers or directors. Thus, one Lacanian reading of The Shining insists that the novel is really about repressed homoerotic and Oedipal desires, despite author Stephen King’s insistence that the story is based on his own battle with alcohol. The early slasher movies provoked a range of critical reactions. One critic insisted that these films were a means for young people to assuage their guilt about their own hedonistic lifestyles, a claim that had no evidential basis whatsoever. Others claimed that slasher movies were inherently misogynistic, depicting their female victims as being punished for their sexually active lifestyles. Yet, content analysis of slasher films has shown that men are just as likely as women to be victims. In Halloween, the character of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is supposedly spared death because she adheres to socially conservative norms, overlooking the fact that Michael Myers is actually trying to kill her and thereby causing her to be terrified. Furthermore, writer/director John Carpenter explicitly rejects the moralistic interpretation: Laurie Strode survives because she is the only character to detect and adequately respond to the danger.
Carpenter’s explanation is aligned with Clasen’s own interpretation of how horror works and why we are drawn to it. The human capacity for emotion, he points out, is a product of evolution. Fear and anxiety are the most primal of emotions, as these help shape our responses to immediate and anticipated threats, respectively (more on the topic of evolution and emotions can be found in Randolph Nesse’s new book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings). Potentially threatening stimuli, such as strange noises in the house at night, tend to grab our attention, even if in fact there is no danger. It is better to be anxious about something that turns out to be harmless than to be unconcerned about something truly dangerous. Organisms that do not respond to potential threats are fairly quickly removed from the gene pool. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, those threats included environmental hazards, non-human predators, other people (in the form of physical danger, loss of status, and potentially lethal social ostracization), and diseases in the form of invisible pathogens, bacteria and viruses (hence certain stimuli, such as excrement and rotting meat, universally lead to feelings of disgust).
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors faced regular challenges to their survival on a scale that most of us will never experience. Even contemporary hunter-gatherers mostly live shorter lives than the rest of us. Horror fiction enables us to experience emotional reactions to potentially threatening stimuli within a safe environment. As Clasen puts it (p.147):
The best works of horror have the capacity to change us for life – to sensitize us to danger, to let us develop crucial coping skills, to enhance our capacity for empathy, to qualify our understanding of evil, to enrich our emotional repertoire, to calibrate our moral sense, and to expand our imaginations into realms of the dark and disturbing.
In his review of several works of American horror fiction, Clasen not only skewers the inadequacy of many previous critical approaches to horror, but spells out precisely the behavioural challenges that are posed to the characters in these works. For example, a staple ingredient of many zombie films is the tension between acting self-interestedly versus cooperating with others to fight the encroaching threat (zombies themselves arouse feelings of disgust associated with contagion). Often goodness and selfishness are embodied in different characters, yet in some works of fiction they may represent a conflict within a single character. One such example is Jack Torrance in The Shining. His failing literary career represents a loss of status, which he hopes to address by focusing on his writing whilst at the Overlook Hotel. When it becomes clear that there is some kind of threat to his son, Danny, feelings of parental concern are aroused. However, the hotel itself – once the home to various gangsters and corrupt politicians – exerts an evil influence on Jack, a recovering alcoholic, poisoning him against his own son.
Elsewhere, in Rosemary’s Baby author Ira Levin “successfully targeted evolved fears of intimate betrayal, contamination of the body, and persecution by metaphysical forces of evil” (p.91), whilst The Blair Witch Project plays upon our tendency to attribute negative value to a place where something bad has happened, a tendency which is adaptive because it makes people avoid dangerous places. As Clasen notes (p.143):
The same psychological phenomenon is at work when people shun houses in which murders or other particularly violent or grisly forms of crime have taken place.
Although Clasen himself says that there is far more we don’t know about how horror fiction works than what we do know, the evolutionary psychology approach would appear to offer a far more promising prospect for our understanding than any other approach that has so far been proposed. It is also an approach which should be far more satisfying to those of us who enjoy horror fiction, because it is in line with our intuitive understanding that we like horror because we simply enjoy the thrill of being scared whilst knowing that we are not really in danger.