Monsters Evolve: A Biocultural Approach to Horror Stories

Mathias Clasen
Mathias Clasen

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.

By taking into account evolved cognitive architecture, a biocultural approach offsets the tendency toward cultural determinism inherent in the widespread socio-constructivist approach to horror (e.g., Kendrick, 1992; Skal, 2001). Human cognition has been fine-tuned by natural selection to deal with dangers in the environment, and horror fiction depends crucially on this mental machinery.

Horror fiction is a multimillion-dollar industry. For the past decade and a half, horror films have enjoyed a market share of about 5% (not counting the closely related, sometimes overlapping genres of thriller and suspense films; ‘The Numbers — Top-Grossing Genres’, 2011).

The horror film ‘Paranormal Activity’ (2007), produced for a measly $15,000, has grossed close to $200,000,000 worldwide (‘Paranormal Activity’, 2011), despite its thin storyline and dubious premise of an angry demon from Hell.

In literature, Stephen King and his fellow horror mongers continue to thrill audiences around the planet with stories of the grotesque and macabre. Video games manifestly designed to maximally spook players, such as ‘Silent Hill’, are a thriving enterprise.

The fact of the matter is that creepy stories of ghosts, monsters, crazed killers, and otherworldly hauntings continue to draw flocks of thrill-seekers to the comfortable half-darkness of cinemas and the shelves labelled “horror” in bookstores and libraries worldwide.

The well-told horror story can send a shudder down the spine of even the most obstinate rationalist. Why is it that educated, enlightened persons are susceptible to being frightened by fictional tales about supernatural monsters, and why are many people attracted to such stories? Why does commercial horror fiction travel so well across cultural borders? Apparently, even the glare of scientific progress and general enlightenment are insufficient to kill off the supernatural menaces that stalk us in the stories we consume.

Something about vampires, zombies, ghosts, werewolves, and chainsaw-wielding maniacs makes them uniquely interesting to many people. But the ubiquity of such monsters in fiction certainly cannot be a reflection of reality — let alone the reality of twentieth-first-century citizens in industrial countries. The likelihood of being assaulted by a homicidal maniac in a hockey mask is only marginally greater than the likelihood of being assaulted by a thirsty vampire or a hungry zombie.

I argue that horror stories do not reflect empirical reality but rather the psychology of our species. The sustained generation and consumption of horror fiction over space and time suggest that a species-typical cognitive architecture for dealing with danger is brought into play by such stories.

In this article, I provide a brief sketch of cognitive architecture designed for danger management and analyse the correspondence between this mental machinery and the structure of horror fiction and horror monsters.

Before we turn to the current profusion of monsters in popular entertainment, we need to take a look at our past. The Homo line diverged from that of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, about 5 to 7 million years ago, and a long process of natural selection further whittled away at our species and gave rise to anatomically modern humans some 200,000 years ago (Wade, 2007).

It means that we all have human nature in common, that is, a set of genetically transmitted traits and dispositions common to all members of the species Homo sapiens sapiens. All organisms evolve in an adaptive relationship with their environments. Organisms that are better suited to their physical, ecological, or social environments leave more offspring, increasing their genetic representation in future generations. All living humans are thus descended from a very long line of well-adapted organisms, none of whom failed at the exacting tasks of surviving and reproducing. Coping with dangers is a major challenge in the evolutionary process.

Today, as in our prehistorical evolutionary past, human beings are born into the world with a suite of adaptations designed for managing a wide array of dangers.

Imagine this. You are alone, at night, walking in the woods. From somewhere, suddenly, come a sound, a rustling, and something that sounds like growling. These auditory cues, perhaps implying lethal danger from a predator, generate in you a precautionary neurophysiological reaction. Attention is sharply focused on the potential threat, all thoughts of the upcoming ‘Sex and the City’ marathon or soccer match forgotten.

Your pulse climbs, you start sweating, your mouth dries out, energy is directed to the big muscles and away from the digestive system: These various responses are jointly mobilized by the emotion of fear (Tooby & Cosmides, 2000). Your body prepares for confrontation or flight, pending further evidence. It could be a false alarm, but given that reacting to a false alarm is vastly less catastrophic than failing to react to a lethal threat, responding with a heightened state of emergency is a safe bargain and hence the baseline response (Marks & Nesse, 1994).

Now imagine this. You are alone, at night, watching a Japanese horror movie on cable. From somewhere, suddenly, comes a little pale girl with long black hair. Similar physiological changes take place in your body, even though there is no physical danger. But we scare easily — jumping at shadows is simply the safer bargain — and even virtual danger scenarios such as horror fiction capitalize on this tendency.

Like all other animals, humans are equipped with evolved machinery that enables them to deal with possible dangers to their survival, and emotions are crucial parts of the machinery. In humans, fear is mediated by highly conserved, ancient circuits in the brain. In fact, humans and rats respond to sudden danger in much the same way (LeDoux, 1996, pp. 130–131). Emotions are functional systems that guide behaviour, deeply embedded in mammalian brains (and perhaps other classes of animals as well). Fear and anxiety are adaptations to dangerous environments. They help us stay clear of things that could be harmful to us.

Life in ancestral environments was dangerous. We know from the archaeological record that humans and our hominid ancestors were frequently prey to other animals and also to fellow humans. So, for example, we find skulls of hominins with puncture marks that match perfectly the teeth of large feline predators (Hart & Sussman, 2008).

The vast majority of our species’ evolutionary history was spent living in small bands of hunter-gatherer societies, and we know from anthropological studies of modern-day hunter-gatherer societies that such existence is dangerous.

Among Ache’ foragers in Paraguay, 6% of all deaths are the result of poisonous snakebites, making this the single most common lethal accident. Among adult males, snakebites account for 14% of all deaths, and jaguar attacks for another 8%. Death by the hands of other humans is even higher than deaths due to animal predation: External warfare accounts for 36% of deaths among adult males. Violence generally is responsible for 55% of all Ache’ deaths (Hill & Furtado, 1996, pp. 162–163).

We would expect this kind of precarious existence to have left deep grooves in human nature. And indeed, experimental psychologists have provided a wealth of evidence for the kind of dedicated threat-detection and handling system that this selective regime would shape.

Humans’ attention is preferentially engaged by evolutionarily recurrent, fear-relevant stimuli. So, for example, test subjects are faster at detecting an image of a snake among a mass of flowers than they are at detecting a flower among a mass of snakes (Öhman, Flykt, & Esteves, 2001), the hypothesis being that the danger from poisonous snakebites exerts a selection pressure for fast detection of serpents.

Summing up previous research, Arne Öhman (2000) wrote that “responses of fear and anxiety originate in an alarm system shaped by evolution to protect creatures from impending danger. This system is biased to discover threat, and it results in a sympathetically dominated response as a support of potential flight or fight. (p. 587)”

The fear response is controlled by the autonomic nervous system and so is largely impervious to higher-order cognitive control, and the system is biased, that is, hyper-responsive and prone to erring on the side of caution. Thus, Öhman and Mineka (2001) posit a dedicated fear module that directs attention toward potential threats, causes appropriate emotional states, and produces behavioural outputs that are, on average and statistically speaking, adaptive (see also Boyer & Bergstrom, 2011; Boyer & Lie’nard, 2006; Eilam, Izhar, & Mort, 2011; Lie’nard, 2011; Neuberg, Kenrick, & Schaller, 2011; and Woody & Szechtman, 2011).

Humans, like other animals, are born with preprogrammed instructions for what kind of dangers might exist in the world, and experience (firsthand or vicarious) fills in the picture.

Being born with an abstract predator template — for example, a template specifying large animals with sharp teeth and forward-facing eyes — and an instruction to pay attention to such predators gets the job done (H. C. Barrett, 2005). Evolved danger-management systems require calibration, a useful design feature because different biotopes offer somewhat different threats. In one environment, it may be useful to be on the lookout for wolves; in another, crocodiles; in yet another, mountain lions.

This substrate of genetically prepared learning gives a “nonrandom distribution of fears” (Marks & Nesse, 1994, p. 255). It is vastly easier to acquire fear of spiders or large animals than to acquire fear of saturated fats or cars, despite the fact that cardiovascular disease and automotive accidents are more likely to kill us by several orders of magnitude. This distribution is reflected in horror stories that feature fearsome monsters.

Modern-day horror stories, by flinging us into virtual universes that brim with lurking dangers and aggressive predators, send us on a journey backward in time, to the dark days in human phylogeny when the setting sun signified grave danger and real monsters could very well be gathering just outside the fragile circle of light cast by the bonfire.

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