Real Monsters and Imagined Horror Stories Evolved

Mathias Clasen
Mathias Clasen

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.

For example, researchers studying emotion have found horror films very effective for ecologically valid emotion elicitation in laboratory experiments on fear. In particular, researchers have found clips from ‘The Shining’ (1980) and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991) useful as fear-eliciting stimuli (Gross & Levenson, 1995; Rottenberg, Ray, & Gross, 2007).

We can draw two conclusions from this research: Horror movies cause predictable, reliable emotional states across subjects (people do not interpret what they watch arbitrarily), and horror films engender actual emotions of fear and anxiety, not simulacra or perversions of these emotions.

Evidence is also forthcoming from an intriguing study of a woman with neurological impairment (Feinstein, Adolphs, Damasio, & Tranel, 2011a). This patient, famous in neurological literature as SM, suffers from focal bilateral amygdala lesions. She is, in other words, fearless because of localized brain damage.

In a recent experiment, a team of researchers subjected the woman to a variety of fear-inducing situations. They took her to a pet shop and exposed her to snakes and tarantulas, they dragged her on a tour of a haunted house, and they had her watch clips from a number of well-known horror films.

In the pet store, SM was “spontaneously drawn to the snake terrariums.” She asked repeatedly if she could touch or hold even large, dangerous snakes, and “also attempted to touch a tarantula, but had to be stopped because of the high risk of being bitten” (Feinstein et al., 2011a, pp. 34–35). When they visited Waverly Hills Sanatorium, a commercially run “haunted attraction” in Kentucky, SM showed no fear but reported “a high level of excitement and enthusiasm” (p. 35):

“The hidden monsters attempted to scare SM numerous times, but to no avail. She reacted to the monsters by smiling, laughing, or trying to talk to them. In contrast, their scare tactics typically elicited loud screams of fright from the other members of the group. More than showing a lack of fear, SM exhibited an unusual inclination to approach and touch the monsters. Ironically, SM scared one of the monsters when she poked it in the head because she was ‘curious’ as to what it would feel like. (Feinstein et al., 2011a, p. 35)”

The team exposed SM to clips of varying length from a number of horror films, including ‘The Ring’ (2002), ‘The Shining’ (1980), ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999), ‘Halloween’ (1978), ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991), and ‘Se7en’ (1995; Feinstein, Adolphs, Damasio, & Tranel, 2011b, p. 9), all of which induced high levels of fear in healthy control subjects. As the authors note,

“SM exhibited no fear responses and reported experiencing little to no fear across the entire battery of fear-inducing films. Nonetheless, she found the fear films to be exciting and entertaining, and in one case, she inquired about the name of the movie so she could rent it from the video store later that day. (Feinstein et al., 2011a, p. 35)”

It is striking that patient SM not only lacked fear but also displayed high interest in fearful situations and objects.

As the research team argued, “fear-inducing stimuli are still capable of eliciting changes in attention and arousal through structures other than the amygdala” (Feinstein et al., 2011a, p. 37). Horror monsters are not only terrifying, they are captivating.

“What scares me is what scares you. We’re all afraid of the same things. That’s why horror is such a powerful genre,” according to veteran horror filmmaker John Carpenter (as cited in McCarty & McLaughlin, 2006). His observation has the ring of common sense, and is in fact borne out by research on the topic. People do tend to fear similar things simply because we are similarly constructed.

A long process of evolution gave us minds that are on the lookout for certain kinds of dangers in the environment, dangers that are sometimes hopelessly atavistic. The same process gave us endlessly creative imaginations, and these two capacities together give rise to a multitude of fictional monsters.

The primary function of a fictional monster is to be salient. It can fulfil that function by being dangerous because humans are hard-wired to pay attention to dangerous agents, but the monster becomes even more interesting by being unnatural.

Cognitive research on religion has produced evidence that counterintuitive agents, particularly minimally counterintuitive agents such as ghosts and bleeding statues, are more salient, easier to remember, and more likely to be faithfully transmitted than ordinary or completely bizarre agents (Boyer, 2001; J. L. Barrett, 2004; Norenzayan, Atran, Faulkner, & Schaller, 2006; see Grodal, 2009, on the application of this finding to supernatural film).

Indeed, monsters appear in stories, myths, and artwork all over the world. As David Gilmore (2003) has documented through extensive anthropological research, “people everywhere and at all times have been haunted by ogres, cannibal giants, metamorphs, werewolves, vampires, and so on” (p. ix). Likewise, according to Stephen Asma (2009), the “monster archetype seems to appear in every culture’s artwork” (p. 282).

Psychology goes a long way toward explaining our fascination with made-up monsters and the underlying structure of monsters as unnatural, dangerous agents.

Horror monsters are usually supercharged predators with counterintuitive traits, well designed to capture and hold our attention. They are tailored to have a specific effect on the human mind, and the reason they succeed is that there are regularities in human cognitive architecture that make sense only in the light of our evolutionary history.

Nonetheless, a cultural component is necessary to understand particular monsters and the historical development of the horror genre.

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