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Telling Scary Stories: “Cannot Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me”

Telling Scary Stories: “Cannot Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me”
© Photograph by Ann Pashko

Ordinary people rarely get lost in the woods during wild witch-hunts. Nevertheless, this is basically the plot line of the stupendously successful horror film ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999), which was produced for $35,000 and grossed almost a quarter of a billion US dollars worldwide. Why would anyone pay good money to sit in for an hour and a half on such a film? Why would anyone care?

The horror genre continues to draw large audiences in literature, film, and interactive entertainment. It might seem strange that vicarious fear and anxiety are sought out by many people, maybe especially when considering the relative safety of modern urban environments. As William James pointed out in 1892, the “progress from brute to man is characterised by nothing so much as by the decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear” (James 1920, p. 408).

To understand the present, we must know the past and the forces that hammered and twisted our species into shape. One problem reliably faced by our forebears in the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” — the hypothetical, statistical conglomerate of selective pressures which shaped Homo sapiens — was that of predators. Even if modern, civilised existence offers little in the way of true peril, our species grew up in a dangerous world. We have evolved specialised neural machinery dedicated to the problem of danger detection and handling — adaptations that were essentially established far back in our pre-hominid past — and it is my contention that this has far-reaching consequences for the study of horror fiction, consequences that are largely unexplored. In this essay, I propose a theoretical framework for a bio-cultural approach to horror fiction, an approach which is vertically integrated with the evolutionary social sciences (cf. Gottschall 2003).

Horror fiction is the kind of narrative art which is designed to scare and/or disturb its audience. Thus, horror fiction is defined effectively and not according to, for example, a specific setting, like the Western. The affect caused by horror ranges from wild-eyed fear to low-level anxiety or Angst. Cinematic horror is better at engendering powerful fear and startle responses, whereas literary horror usually aims for a quieter sort of unsettlement. Horror can also figure as an element in a narrative not otherwise regarded as a “horror story,” an observation which has been used by several critics to validate the genre, asserting that most, if not all, of our great writers, have written horror stories or stories with fear-inspiring passages (cf., e.g., Winter 1989, p. 12; Sullivan 1986, p. vii).

To understand the nature of horror, it is essential to recognize that horror fiction is evolved from earlier, recognizably similar kinds of stories; that horror is not, exclusively, a cultural or social construction but rather a predictable product of an evolved human nature (even as individual works of horror are strongly modulated by cultural context). Horror is what happens when Homo sapiens meets the world; it is a “natural” genre, not merely the chance product of an unusual mind or a specific set of cultural circumstances.

As the American writer and critic, H. P. Lovecraft asserted, “the horror-tale is as old as human thought and speech themselves.” This, he said, is “naturally [to be] expected of a form so closely connected with primal emotion.” In his slim history of the genre, Lovecraft found the roots of the modern horror story in “the earliest folklore of all races” and charted its development from folk — and fairy tales via the Gothic novel to the modern tale of terror (Lovecraft 1973, p. 17). This conception stands in stark contrast to the widespread historicist notion that horror fiction came into miraculous being with the publication of Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ in 1764, the first Gothic romance. In this view, the birth of the horror story is seen as a symptomatic by-product of the Enlightenment.

There is some truth to the historicist view, however. Even as horror stories through time and space display several static features (e.g., a relatively limited monster gallery), they should also be seen in their cultural context, since a work of horror is always, to an extent, a translation of locally and historically contingent, and usually salient, anxieties. Also, yet horror varies within a narrow range: like languages, horror stories are cultural variations on a limited, biologically constrained set of “rules.”

There is a striking disconnect between the plots of most horror stories and the lives of ordinary people. We rarely get possessed by demons (‘The Exorcist’), get chopped up by chainsaw-wielding maniacs (‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’), or are preyed upon by animated corpses (‘Night of the Living Dead’), and yet stories featuring such unlikely events attract large audiences.

This disconnect is baffling only until one dons a pair of evolutionary glasses. As Benson Saler and Charles A. Ziegler remark, “since monsters, in one form or another, were an omnipresent feature of our evolutionary past, tales about slaying monsters […] have a salience and relevance for us that represent a heritage from our Paleolithic ancestors” (Saler and Ziegler 2005, p. 224).

As Brett Cooke observes, “no one wants to read a novel on tax preparation” (Cooke 1998, p. 50). “There are limits to our interests,” as he points out, “and this is reflected in viable art.” Cooke invokes the concept of “differential interest” to explain why humans are generally more interested in certain themes than others, and he predicts that once a “biothematics” — an investigation into the sort of themes that perennially interest readers — is more fully developed, “topoi will accord with central principles of sociobiology” (p. 51). Thus, adaptationist literary study predicts that themes associated with or derived from the concerns of inclusive fitness (e.g., mate selection, survival, reproduction, kin relations) are likely to be overrepresented in narrative art, especially in popular fiction.

It certainly seems that horror fiction is obsessed with a few themes of keen adaptive importance. Horror stories are so often about identifying and negotiating monstrous threats, about surviving in a universe brimming with hostile forces. Horror is a very “primal” genre, a genre intimately concerned with life and death and the struggle for existence.

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