Nothing To Fear


A study by psychologist Adah Maurer in 1965* showed that childhood fear of ‘wild animals and spooks and the supernatural’ peaks at age 6, and has largely disappeared by age 11 and 12, to be replaced with a fear of ‘people’ (ie, bad people). The study suggests that what we fear as young children is improbable, fanciful events, such as being mauled by a bear or seeing a ghost. What we fear as older children is starting to reflect our more adult understanding of the world: there probably isn’t really a bear outside, or a monster under the bed, but there could easily be a bad man nearby. The six year old fears live on in masquerade form as Halloween.

Mainstream horror  – vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts – puts these six year old fantasies centre stage. Far from being an attempt to scare us, it is an attempt to soothe us, to tell us that everything is alright. By deliberately relocating the object of fear from a real life possibility (such as, for instance, lonely death), to a carnival of grotesques, familiar since early childhood, it seeks to persuade us that our fears, really, have no validity. We are playing with our outgrown terrors, inventing colourful and exotic versions of fears we have long since overcome. Practising, perhaps. Pretending.

Recently, horror has embraced simpler, gorier, sillier scenarios: the Saw franchise for instance, and The Human Centipede. But again, these are pantomimes of fear, tongue firmly in cheek (literally, in the case of The Human Centipede). Horror fiction, no matter how extreme it strives to be, cannot of course compete with the visceral, sickening jolt of real life – what you can see on the news any day of the week – and makes no attempt to do so.  Most of the time it is content to stay in safe, comfortable territory, with clearly defined, clearly identifiable monsters, and rules for how they can be defeated. These monsters have become set, made rigid and inflexible and harmless through constant re-use. They are nursery figures, unchanging, well-understood, unthreatening. If we fear what we don’t understand, then we have nothing to fear from this kind of horror fiction, because we understand it all too well. We should do: we lived it (when we were six). Mainstream horror doggedly lumbers on, preferring to become a kind of heritage spectacle of creaky old tropes.

This is perhaps why it is so easy, and so tempting, to parody it. The history of horror parodies is as long and respectable as the genre itself: as early as 1824, a mere 6 years after the original, a spoof called Frankenstitch was a popular hit in London. Jane Austen parodied Gothic romance, the 18th Century’s version of horror, in Northanger Abbey (1818). Horror has danced uneasily hand in hand with parodies of itself since its inception. Southpark: The Ungrounded, a spoof of the Twilight  franchise, is a notable recent example. The teen slasher phenomenon has always had a knowing sense of its own absurdity, and is happy to parody itself.

I would hope it doesn’t need saying that some horror fiction is excellent, and is the result of a serious-minded attempt to grapple with fundamental human issues: fear of contagion, shame, defeat, disgrace, loss of status, loneliness. Spend any time at all in the genre and you will find work of depth, brilliance, daring and originality. But such writing will always be marginal to the genre, and for the most part mainstream horror fiction is content to be unreflective, undemanding and uninvolving. Everyone will have authors and stories they champion: for the record, I would defend Stephen King’s Apt Pupil to my last breath as a great piece of writing, of any kind. But it would be hard to claim, on current evidence (Human Centipede, Twilight, The Walking Dead) that this is a genre that is currently in robust good health, bursting with new ideas. Box office may be great: creatively, though, what you hear is the sound of bottoms of barrels being scraped, again and again. In troubled times, people seek the familiar, and that’s what these old stories deliver. Not fear, but actually the opposite of fear: certainty.

The fundamental problem, I think, is one of shape. A monster story really only has one way to go. It doesn’t matter whether vampire, mutated lizard or psychotic torturer: a monster is a monster is a monster. They will attempt to harm us, we will be partially defeated by them, then we will mount some kind of fightback. We will succeed, but they will come back in the final frame. Ready for their sequel. There just isn’t much else a monster story can give you, because monsters, by definition, are not human and so do not share human characteristics. They remain stubbornly ‘other’, unavailable for psychological inspection, in much the same way that a plank of wood is. What motivates a zombie? What motivates a psychopathic torturer? Questions in fiction are always ‘why’ questions: why did he do that, why did she think this? But mainstream horror fiction takes away the possibility of these ‘why’ questions by removing the very quality that would make them germane: psychology. A ghoul or a vampire or a psychopath hasn’t got any psychology, because if they had they would become human, and if they were human they would be messy, complicated, unpredictable. Real. Horrifying, in fact.

If you have only got one story shape at your disposal, things are going to get repetitive fast. Once you’ve been on one ghost train, the next one is not likely to hold too much in the way of surprise. Mainstream horror fiction is, seemingly, condemned to endlessly re-enact the same few tattered nursery fantasies, never quite being able to render them as anything other than fancy dress outfits, put on in a spirit either of nostalgia or kitsch or affectionate mockery. But what any of this has got to do with fear – real fear, the kind of incapacitating, debilitating anguish that grips us all sometimes in the middle of the night –  is far from obvious. For that, you will need to look outside of the genre. Because mainstream horror fiction doesn’t appear to want to scare us at all, but rather to reassure us.

Unless you’re six, of course, in which case you probably shouldn’t be watching it.

(*Maurer, A: What Children Fear, Journal of Genetic Psychology, Vol 106, pp265-277)

6 thoughts on “Nothing To Fear

  1. Interesting post. Early “horror” stories, such as the Grimm tales, often dress up the very real danger (strangers, wolves, greed) so as to make a point.

    Personally, the most frightening films I have seen in the past 10 years have been the Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. In these films, for the most part, things are not explained. Most terrifyingly, we don’t see anything, thus we are taken out of the comforting aspect of horror films which you describe, and left with only our imagination. Therein lies the real horror.

    • Yeah. I agree. I think for me there is just a very definite split, between ‘realistic’ and ‘fantasy’. Much horror is ‘fantasy’, and it’s this element that I find unsatisfactory. I wrote some horror novels a long, long time ago, and studiously avoided any element of ‘fantasy’. They did not sell well. The market seems to militate in favour of the fantastic, and my guess is because it is completely unthreatening. Easily digested.

      • I’m planning (after the book I’m finishing) to write a novella that will be a rationalist’s ghost story. With a reductive materialist and scientific protagonist, I hope to somehow manage some scary writing – the fantasy element will have to come solely from his mind. I’m looking forward to it. Any tips?

      • Ghost stories very often feature a rationalist, who pooh-poohs the whole thing, until he too starts to hear the scratching at the window… Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a good example of this kind of ghost story, although her rationalist, a doctor, doesn’t come to any conclusion. M R James’s protagonists tend to be crusty old academics who refuse to believe (or understand) what is happening, until it is too late… Just for the record, my favourite ghost story isn’t a ghost story at all: Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel. It is a stunning reinvention of the whole genre. It’s not about believing or not believing, but just knowing how tiresome, banal and annoying the dead truly are. Best book I’ve read these last ten years. (Crikey!) I think the point in any ghost story needs to be that the ghost must want something, otherwise it’s just a special effect. In a way, a good ghost story is always some kind of rehash of the empiricism/rationalism split in philosophy: what should you believe, what your senses tell you or what you know by reason to be true? For a rationalist writer, such as myself, the only way out of this is to make the protagonist mentally ill, so the reader doesn’t know if he believes it or not, because neither does he, and it ceases to matter.

  2. That’s great, thanks. I know that a pleasure of ghost stories is the rationalist getting his ideal comeuppance. And I appreciate your lean towards mental illness, that helps address the fantasy element you mention above. I’m thinking of a social ill, a gap in the collective consiousness, which I’ll exploit to dwell on the horror … the horror!

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