The Psychology of Horror


H.P Lovecraft once claimed “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. It this, I think, which is part of why horror is so embedded in our cultural consciousness. The idea of the dark has never been what frightened us, it’s what could be lurking in the dark that captures our imagination. If you take any horror story and find the general menace within it, you’ll see it reflected in a wider societal context.

For example, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out has been hailed as one of the greatest horrors of our generation. However, when you examine the actual horror elements contained within it, it becomes evident that the true fear of this film lies in the relevance it has to society. Jordan Peele has said that he considers the film a “documentary”, particularly when it comes to the idea of race relations in the U.S. The horror of Get Out lies in the idea that these insidious beliefs exist here and now in a society that we claim is progressive. Reality is the true menace of the film, even if it has been exaggerated with preternatural aspects.

This is a concept which goes back to classic Gothic horrors such as Frankenstein and Dracula. In a society that feared science’s rapid advancement, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein preys on the idea of a man who believes he is God because of this. In a society wary of burgeoning female sexuality, Dracula plays with the idea of what a woman free of Victorian ideals would be like and why they fear it so. Fundamentally, horror plays with our own social anxieties: the idea that a killer lives on our street, that our society is fostering terrifying experiences, that the people we know aren’t who they seem.

Horror, for all it is dismissed as mindless gore, is not simply a genre that taps into the primal adrenaline rush that accompanies fear. It acts as a way to comment upon key societal anxieties, allowing us to process them in a space in which we have a distinct barrier between fiction and reality.

[Rebecca Gault – she/her – @rebeccagault7]

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