St. Valentine of Terni, a third-century Roman saint, was known as the patron saint of lovers. He had the reputation of healing the sick and is said to have restored the sight of Julia, the daughter of Asterius his jailer.
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.
Established in England in 1851, at the height of popular interest in anatomy, Dr Joseph Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum was intended to show the “wondrous” structure of the body and to warn of the harmful consequences to the health of abuses that “distort or defile” its “beautiful structure”.
By the middle of the eighteenth-century, medical science in Britain was rapidly evolving. Surgeons had split from the Worshipful Company of Barbers as a professional guild in 1745, forming the Company of Surgeons. This was the forerunner of the Royal College of Surgeons, which was created by Royal Charter in 1800, and the reason we do not call hospital consultants “Doctor” — barber-surgeons held no medical degree.