A Theory on Fear

Art by pishchanska.deviantart.com

First of all, Happy Halloween! With the season and all, I have been indulging in some creepy pastimes. Being the painfully inquisitive person that I am (no, seriously, people hate my incessant question-asking), I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the source of my giddy pleasure with a well done horror movie or a book that gives me bone-deep chills. Why am I drawn to this genre? What is the meaning behind it? How does it benefit people for me to write about it?

While listening to Stephen King’s Danse Macabre on audio book, I laughed out loud, furrowed my brow in confusion to some of his references, and nodded my head with his salient points as I drove to and from work. But mostly, it really got me thinking about the core fear that all horror taps. In Danse Macabre, King claims that

“Horror appeals to us because it says, in a symbolic way, things we would be afraid to say out straight…it offers us a chance to exercise (that’s right; not exorcise but exercise) emotions which society demands we keep closely in hand. The horror film is an invitation to indulge in deviant, antisocial behavior by proxy—to commit gratuitous acts of violence, indulge our puerile dreams of power, to give in to our most craven fears. Perhaps more than anything else, the horror story or horror movie says it’s okay to join the mob, to become the total tribal being, to destroy the outsider.”

This justification for horror is a fine argument as to why the genre’s valuable, but it doesn’t seem like enough. Aside from a voyeur enjoyment, there is some living, breathing code at the core of every horror story, some universal language that speaks to us all, even if our fears all differ.

This might be reductive, but what if the basis of ALL of these fears track back to one: fear of the ego’s destruction, the dissolution of self? If you go by Descartes’s philosophy, that thinking necessitates your existence, then would not I, as a signifier for ego, be the most vital, precious thing to me? It’s a logical necessity, leading into and from ‘I think, therefore I am’, just as the ouroboros consumes its tail. Nature even granted us endowments of self-preservation (fight-or-flight) which help us to avoid obliteration and validate that fundamental fear of any self-aware being. The horror genre allows us to indulge in our most basic fear: the end of me. Whether that is by seeing ourselves in a hooded figure, face entirely blacked out—nonexistent as it were—stalking our every move (in the movie When a Stranger Calls, the psycho ventriloquist killer’s face is painted black), or a masked, single-minded murderer (Jason, Michael Meyers), because for one to turn into that murderer is to lose his or her self to the mindless repetitive action of an automaton. And to be on the receiving end of that killer’s ax/knife/machete/shank, well, I don’t need to explain how that relates to the fear of the self’s obliteration, right? Other horror stories that play into the root of all fear are being trapped in the bottom of a canyon, not another soul around for hundreds of miles, starving, dehydrating, essentially eroding out there in the elements along with the wind-shaped rock formations (127 Hours), or learning that your house  wants to destroy/consume you (The Haunting, a movie based on Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Amityville Horror, Mark Z. Danielewski’s literary horror novel, House of Leaves).

Eleanor being tormented by Hill House in The Haunting, 1999

When you indulge in these horrors, and, facing the possibility of the ego’s destruction, see that you survive, it reaffirms your instinct toward self-preservation, therefore helping you attain a kind of self-actualization as a self-aware being.

In Alien, a sci-fi horror, Ellen Ripley must sacrifice everything to ensure the alien doesn’t get back to earth. In this case, her heroic archetype is raised above the most basic fear of the ego’s destruction, because she puts the preservation of humanity above her own life. In cases like this, the horror of the thing becomes more of a thriller because we are swept away by the hero’s heroics. But I still think it’s there, that fear of destruction, waiting with a partially open maw, acid drool sliming off jagged teeth.

Alien: Isolation, the game
from Alien: Isolation, the game

King explores four recurring archetypes in horror in Danse Macabre: The Vampire (Dracula), the Beast Within (Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde) the Creature Without a Name (Frankenstein), and the Ghost (The Turn of the Screw.) He says pretty much every monster in horror comes down, in some form, to these four archetypes. King argues that we fear monstrosities because they represent a lack of order. But even fear of things that upset order finds its roots in fear of the ego’s destruction. To know is to be (getting Cartesian again), so anything that disrupts what you’ve come to know disrupts your sense of self, your perspective. Anything lacking order poses the threat of a systematic destruction of the self by overturning its previously held convictions and ideologies, whether you try to outrun that threat or face it head on. Even the fear of the unknown is a fear of ill-preparation to deal with something in order to control it and thereby reign over it so that it does not threaten you. And we’re not just talking basic fear of dying here, we’re talking about fear of dying by whatever means—fear of madness, fear of extinction. You name it, we got it. Because it’s all encapsulated in that one seemingly maintainable and certainly natural fear.

My novels, which arc over many genres, have this common ground. There is always some element of horror present in my work, the whisper of the innermost source of all fear: the dissolution of the self. My main characters all face the threat of their death in some way or another, of the body, mind, and soul. In my completed work, What’s Inside, and my 2014 NaNoWriMo project, Mad Dance on Roseridge, I explore the horror of madness, a strain of that fear. In The Prey and the Predator and its sequel, The Seer, I explore the primitive draw to power that many a villain has followed, but what happens when the protagonist turns to power as a result of these threats? Worse, what happens when she acts on it all to save him or herself from destruction at the hands of the villain?

So the question is, if everything traces back to fear of an event that we have a biological repulsion to, why in god’s name would we be so drawn to it? The answer: A horror film gives you the same almost terrified exhilaration of imminent destruction that we get riding a roller coaster or walking through a haunted house. It arouses; that is, these events put people in a “state of heightened activity in both our mind and body that makes us more alert”. Not only do we “[use] fictional (and sometimes supernatural) events to help us understand our own deepest real fears”, as King claims in his “What’s Scary: A Forenote to the 2010 Edition,” we also write about it to universally appeal or read it to relate to others.

What do you think? Is my fear theory whack? Are fears each separate in their own right? Is all horror, depending on genre and tropes, tapping into something different for each person? Or could all fears, in some way, necessarily root from the fear of the ego’s destruction?

4 thoughts on “A Theory on Fear”


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