Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is, like Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ a controversial work. However, unlike James’s novella, Gilman’s short story was written intentionally to breed controversy and discussion among readers and critics.
Anyone inquiring into the nature of paranormal experiences and events does so with some apprehension and at some peril to himself. To remain wholly impartial in the face of inexplicable and disturbing phenomena is a difficult achievement, and inevitably one is swayed by one’s own biases which may take the form of a determined scepticism or an equally determined belief in the objective reality of the occult.
For well over a century, psychologists have attempted to understand belief in psychic or paranormal phenomena (e.g. Carpenter, 1873; Jastrow, 1886). In doing so, they have traditionally approached such beliefs as erroneous, and often the product of misattribution of normal (i.e. non-paranormal) experiences. Such experiences have been attributed to malobservation, probability misjudgement, gullibility and wishful thinking, while belief in the paranormal has been associated with low intelligence, marginal social status, inadequate education, and a lack of critical thinking (e.g. Gilovich, 1991; Irwin, 1993; Wiseman and Watt, 2006).
All normally developed humans are equipped with cognitive machinery dedicated to threat detection and handling, machinery that has been assembled and fine-tuned incrementally by a long process of natural selection. We have evidence to suggest that horror fiction runs on the same machinery.
The popularity of horror fiction is puzzling. Why would anyone willingly expose himself or herself to such aversive, outlandish nonsense; what is the appeal of supernatural monsters and moaning ghosts? I argue that a biocultural approach, one that integrates research into evolved psychology with attention to sociohistorical circumstance, is uniquely equipped to answer these questions.