“We do not realize that ‘normal’ behavior needs to be explained at all.” —Laura Cosmides “Monsters today seem to be everywhere, and they cannot be destroyed. ” —Stephen Prince
I. Context and Argument
Stephen King’s popular essay “Why We Crave Horror”typifies a contemporary approach to thinking about the genre. Although King offers several explanations for why we go to horror films (for “psychic relief,” to “exercise” our fears, and to keep “the gators” of our “base instincts” in check), he does not pursue these possibilities beyond the idea stage, which makes them like the single, flickering light bulbs hanging in the otherwise pitch-black room that lies deep within the human psyche: The light briefly illuminates the room but never its corners, its deepest reaches; nor does it shine long enough for us to see with whom or what we are sharing the darkness. But if the goal is to add to our understanding of what is happening with us each time we watch a horror film — why, for instance, the body freezes, the muscles tighten, the eyes widen and the breath, blood, and heart race — it might help to look elsewhere.
This is not a judgment of the King of Horror’s critical awareness so much as it is an illustration of how we tend to take for granted why we behave in the ways that we do. Of particular interest here are film audiences that view and scholars who study horror films, the majority of whom seem to have bypassed the most fundamental question of why audiences fear what they fear. Instead, scholars appear to have focused on elaborate artistic frameworks and social theories intended to delineate the cultural heuristics of horror. Certainly, from a scholarly perspective, film is richly stratified and has accommodated various inquires and explorations. But the burgeoning science of evolutionary psychology holds special promise because it delves beyond existing layers and thus taps into the origin of the human psyche, which Laura Cosmides and John Tooby, in their essay “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,” describe as “a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems” (1). Put simply, evolutionary psychology offers a biological explanation, linked to our deep history, for why viewers respond to and are predictably more afraid of some things than others.
A cursory examination of current commentary on this genre (a good example of which is Stephen Prince’s 2004 collection The Horror Film) suggests there is no shortage of cultural analyses of film, specifically those that stem from the social sciences and the humanities. Indeed, many film scholars seem to share Steven Jay Schneider’s conclusion that “the horror film’s oft-noted propensity for redundancy, sequelization, and overkill has found its fictional correlates in the world of academia” (qtd. in Prince 131). Despite the promise of this observation and the suggestion that his essay will cover new ground, Schneider’s essay remains firmly situated in-house. That is, although the essay offers a kind of critique of the prevailing approaches to horror, it does so without any outside or transdisciplinary reference that might be used to add a new and vital dimension to the study of the genre.
The general absence of evolutionary analyses becomes all the more conspicuous when, in the introduction to his collection, Prince writes: “But only horror goes straight to the deepest unease at the core of human existence. And because it does so, the genre corresponds more profoundly with our contemporary sense of the world than do the others” (3). First, I am unconvinced that horror films go any deeper into our core than other genres, since all genres would likely yield interesting results if approached with evolutionary questions in mind. But that Prince (and others, as we shall see) talks about the “core of human existence” without once mentioning biology suggests that his approach to behavior — what film scholar Noel Carroll might describe as a “thought experiment” — might benefit from looking at work being done in the sciences. Joanne Cantor and Mary Beth Oliver deftly articulate this quandary in their essay “Developmental Differences in Responses to Horror” (also found in Prince). I quote the passage in full:
To anyone who has felt the intense feelings that horror films can generate, it might seem ridiculous to pose the question of why such feelings occur. However, if we look at the film-viewing situation in a detached fashion, the fright response seems a bit absurd, particularly as far as adults are concerned. Typically, people watch horror films by choice, for purposes of entertainment. Under these circumstances, they understand full well that what is being depicted is not actually happening — no threatening agent will leap off the screen and attack them. Moreover, in many cases, they know that what they are seeing is the product of someone’s imagination and never actually happened; often, they know that it never could happen. Objectively speaking, then, the viewer is not in any danger. Why, then, does the fright reaction occur so intensely and so reliably? (225)
By noting that audiences might consider their “intense feelings” as “ridiculous” or “absurd,” Cantor and Oliver succeed in justifying the need for their inquiry. But they also inadvertently reveal the social and intellectual bias against and misunderstanding of what are typically described as irrational feelings. From a normative perspective, irrational fears are considered abnormal because they are unrealistic. If all we were talking about is the reality of the filmic moment — say, when we see through the eyes of the great white shark in Jaws as it stalks its first victim—then yes, our fear could be described as irrational. But our fears are rooted in a genetic reality that extends thousands of years beyond the screen and into the primordial past, a notion that cultural approaches to horror, which only focus on the immediate reality, do not address.
In fact, the majority of authors in Prince’s collection appears stumped by what an equally perplexed Carroll described 14 years earlier as “the paradox of fiction,” which he says is “very relevant to any discussion of art-horror, for we wonder how we can be horrified by what we know does not exist” (87). One way to address Carroll and his successors’ assumptions about reality, knowing, and existence is to distinguish between environmental or proximate causes and evolutionary or ultimate causes, what biologist John Alcock refers to as “evolved physiological systems whose proximate development requires both genetic and environmental inputs” (Triumph 130). For example, in the November 2009 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior, D. H. Rakison found that women are more fearful of spiders than are men. What causes women to be especially fearful of spiders? The proximate cause, according to Rakison, might be the higher levels of estrogen interacting with the female nervous system. Rakison then points to the ultimate cause by noting how, over evolutionary history, women have been the primary caretakers for small children. In this role, extra caution in dealing with potentially poisonous child biters is adaptive, selecting for those women whose internal proximate mechanisms motivated them to be more fearful of these potential child harmers. Thus, in their attempt to answer the question of why we fear what we know is not real, Carroll, Cantor, Oliver, Prince, and the rest limit the definition of knowing by fixating on environmental inputs rather than asking how these inputs trigger evolved mechanisms that promoted survival-enhancing responses in the past (and perhaps the present). Unlike many existing frameworks, evolutionary psychology is a deep framework that proceeds on the basis that modern hominids emerged about 200,000 years ago and since that time evolved a complex of psychological responses, including fears, anxieties, and aversions, that helped them stay alive and reproduce.
Insofar as modern humans are descended from and related to these early humans, we still carry our ancestor’ baggage in our genetic make-up, in which case, their fears are our fears. Each of us is a culmination of genetic events that happened over tens of thousands of years in an environment very different from the one most of us inhabit presently. This helps to explain why many of our fears, and perhaps especially our fear of horror films, appear irrational and incongruous. While there is no arguing that our “contemporary sense of the world” informs our responses to horror films, evolutionary psychology posits those responses as innate characteristics of the human species. If plausible, this theory should allow us to predict and explain the horror genre’s (including subgenres, e.g., the natural horror film and slasher film) most common and frightening elements.
In order to give legitimacy to this inquiry, I needed a data set or sample of films. Thanks to the popularity of the genre, I had no trouble finding a random, representative sample, in this case, of the top ten horror films. Although my sample is just that, a sample, I invite the reader to view any horror film or horror film list (for instance, a list of the highest-grossing or worst horror films) to see if my thesis doesn’t prove plausible. That said, all the lists I examined contained eight or more of the following films: The Exorcist, The Shining, The Ring, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th, Alien, Nightmare on Elm Street, Jaws, and The Grudge. As I predicted, when viewing these films with adaptive questions in mind, I found a typology of antagonists; recurring, complementary visual and auditory elements; and typical settings. However unrealistic these characteristics may appear, they still inspire the greatest unease in contemporary audiences because throughout the history of the human species they signaled threats to survival.
II. “Unclouded by Conscience”1: Horror Film Antagonists
In their essay “Fear and Fitness: An Evolutionary Analysis of Anxiety Disorders,” Marks and Nesse argue that “Stimuli that came to be feared are mostly ancient threats: snakes, spiders, heights, storms, thunder, lightning, darkness, blood, strangers, social scrutiny, separation and leaving the home range” (255). Of these stimuli, which together read like a checklist of horror film characteristics, none is more integral to the genre than the stranger. Whether the stranger remains unknown (e.g., Michael Myers in Halloween) or becomes unknown (e.g., Jack Torrance in The Shining), he moves among us and activates our fears.
Though Prince is coming from a different perspective, he complements Marks and Neese’s argument when he writes: “Audiences never tire of being frightened because they never stop feeling frightened about their fellow human beings and the world they collectively inhabit. What must be done to remain human? This is the great question that horror films pose, and it is a question that gets asked again and again because it can never be answered” (3). Part of how Prince reaffirms the most evolutionarily salient horror film antagonist — the human stranger — is by contrasting him (and sometimes her) with his socially desirable counterpart. After all, it is always nice when we can live our lives without worrying about other people’s ill intentions. Fortunately, we succeed at living peaceably much of the time. But that doesn’t change the fact that human beings (strangers and non-strangers alike) have always represented the most profound threat to the mortality of other humans.
Evolution takes thousands of generations to occur, in which case our prepared behavioral predispositions have remained relatively static over time. We can therefore gain insight into our evolved history by looking at current studies and statistical analyses of human behavior. That human males are by far the most violent gender is clearly supported by the evidence. In its analysis of homicide statistics from 1996 to 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 65.3% of all homicides were perpetrated by males against male victims, while male homicides of females accounted for 22.7%. This same report found that “of those children killed by someone other than their parents, 81% were killed by males.” Similarly, in its recent report The Global Burden of Armed Violence, the Geneva Declaration found that “Across cultures, most acts of violence are committed by men . . . and men between the ages of 15 and 29 are twice as likely to die from armed violence as the rest of the male population” (109).
This age range, which surely has many correlates (e.g., the age range of men enlisting in the armed forces, as well the age range of men who view horror films), closely corresponds to the time when most males are competing for mates and resources. In his chapter on “Adaptations to Dangers from Humans,” David M. Buss writes:
Dangers from other humans had a powerful effect on the survival of individuals in the past and the evolutionary history of our species. Conflict between individuals over limited resources was the source of selection pressures for the evolution of strategies to win resources. One set of strategies for besting rivals in competition for resources is to directly inflict costs on them. These cost-inflicting strategies are what make other humans dangerous. (Handbook 244)
Buss does not specifically cite males as the more dangerous and violent gender, and clearly women also participate in the competition for mates and resources. But given the unique challenges faced in hunter-gatherer societies, we know that males generally were and still are the perpetrators of the blood work. To the extent that male humans have been the most deadly of all other animals over the course of human history, it makes evolutionary sense that they should figure as the most common and terrifying horror film antagonist. The list of films I compiled supports this conclusion: Out of 10 antagonists, eight are human. Moreover, as a representative sample, my list’s findings are also reflected by other lists as well. I examined several Top 10, Top 50, and Top 100 horror film and horror villain lists and found that roughly 70% to 90% of antagonists are human. (The remaining antagonists are non-human animals, e.g., the shark in Jaws; and parasitical or alien organisms, e.g., Alien.)
We are said to be in the technological age, but who would argue that a Transformer is considerably less frightening than, say, The Tall Man in the 1979 cult horror classic Phantasm? Unlike the ancient fears that originated in our deep history, we do not “easily develop fear of evolutionarily recent dangers. Few fear motor cars, guns, cigarettes, or alcohol, despite knowing that these now kill far more people than do snakes, spiders, or sharks.” Like the Transformer, these “modern perils” have not “been present long enough to materially alter our genetic endowment” (Marks and Nesse 255). This is why they fail to inspire deep-seated fear. Conversely, human antagonists may be viewed as combinations or composites of several elements we find frightening. These elements still resonate with us today precisely because they served as survival-relevant cues in our past.
Jason of Friday the 13th, Leatherface of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Michael Myers of Halloween are terrifying for several evolutionarily significant reasons. First, they are all very large and physically powerful males. Surely male size and strength would have been important cues to rival males and potential mates in the ancestral environment, but even today, large, powerful males enjoy, at the very least, a commanding physical presence. Similarly, female antagonists (Sumara of The Ring, Regan of The Exorcist, and Kayako of The Grudge) are usually endowed with extraordinary physical power, which they use to dispatch their victims. Audiences of The Exorcist may recall the conversation between Lt. Kinderman and Father Karras, when Kinderman, suspicious of the circumstances of Burk’s death, suggested that “a very powerful man [had] turned Burk’s head completely around, so that it was facing backward.” Add this to the fact that Reagan, in an equivocally masculine voice, identified herself as “the devil himself.” Notwithstanding these somewhat plastic gender differences, it has always made good survival sense to be vigilant around large and powerful individuals.
Another significant characteristic of human antagonists is that they are generally uncommunicative. With few exceptions,2 the majority of antagonists have dispensed with speaking and facial expression, which they accomplish either by wearing masks or as the result of physical trauma, as in the case of Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, whose face was burned into a horrific complexion. Sumara of The Ring is terrifying for several reasons (her unnatural gait; the decomposed, oxygen-deprived color of her skin), but I would argue that what we find most frightening is that we cannot see her face behind her long, black hair. As an adult, Michael Myers would don a white, expressionless mask, from which issued the sound of his breathing. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) described the child Michael Myers as having a “blank, pale, emotionless face.” Jason wouldn’t don his hockey mask until one of the later sequels, but his mask is strikingly similar to Michael Myers’ and Leatherface’s masks. They are all unreadable.
However antagonists do away with facial and auditory signals, they prevent us from assessing their intentions, which inspires anxiety and fear. As a social species, humans evolved a sophisticated ability to interpret the facial expressions of their fellow human beings. In a context where danger may be imminent, if we cannot see or “read” the face of the potential threat, we cannot acquire information to decide how to respond. Equally if not more important would have been the facial signals of our cohorts, which may alert us to a threat we ourselves have not yet detected. Despite its cost, this state of indecision or flux has its own survival benefits by readying us for any necessary action, that is, assuming it is not already too late.
Perhaps no scene better illustrates the distressing effects of this reactionary limbo than when Michael Myers appears in the doorway of the bedroom in which a post-coital Lynda van der Klok files her nails as she waits for her lover to return with some beer. Myers is covered by a white sheet and wearing Lynda’s dead lover’s glasses. As is generally the case in horror films, we do a lot of our experiencing through the cues provided by protagonists and victims (our cohort proxies). In this scene, the audience knows that Myers is under the sheet, which may seem to invite the question of how the events about to unfold still succeed in frightening us. One answer is that we respond to Lynda’s increasing agitation (facial and verbal) when Myers doesn’t answer her questions, which (in addition to determining the whereabouts of her beer) would confirm the identity of the person beneath the sheet. In the end, Lynda ignored these cues (or actually, the absence of them) to her peril.
A subtle but no less effective example occurs in Kubrick’s The Shining when Jack Torrance and Delbert Grady — the infamous caretaker — are in the restroom. For most of the scene, Grady is filmed so that all we see is his profile, which is how Kubrick withholds information and imbues this comparatively benign scene with tension. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is not until Jack explicitly inquires into Grady’s identity that Kubrick allows us to see Grady’s entire face. Viewers may recall the strange, fleeting relief they felt at that sight.
Eyes are arguably the most communicative feature of the face and function as indicators of human motivations and intentions. By concealing their eyes, whether behind a mask or their hair, antagonists effectively sever that crucial line of communication and further augment our distress. After describing Myers’ “emotionless” face, Dr. Loomis commented on his “black eyes.” In Jaws, Quint mentioned the “black eyes” of the sharks when recounting the tragedy of the Indianapolis. Black eyes are a common and frightening motif in horror films. But why? One potential adaptive explanation of our fear of them is that they are without human feeling. At least one other related possibility is that we associate black eyes with the dilated eyes of predators as they stalked us in the dark of ancestral night. Shark3 or human, both have a long history of predation.
III. Auditory and Visual Elements
Horror films also use evolutionarily resonant auditory and visual techniques to augment our anxiousness. One is by reducing the time we have to interpret visual cues. Thus, anxiousness and fear are inspired by what we see, as well as by how long we get to see it. With sight as our primary sense, we process information very rapidly. Indeed, if we hope to detect and avoid danger, which may present itself in an instant, the sooner we can identify a threat, the better. We should therefore expect to have evolved a processing system that works precisely because it needs less time, not more, to draw conclusions. However, by giving us too little time, many films seem to fall below this threshold. The final shot in Blair Witch Project, when Mike is standing in the corner, facing the wall,comes to mind. A notable example taken from our list of films is in The Ring, specifically, the shot of Sumara’s first victim, the girl in the closet who, encountering Sumara, was literally scared to death. The speed of the shot does not permit us to fully decipher the girl’s face, but it appears long enough to inspire inchoate anxiety that helps to establish the film’s mood. Later, the film returns to the shot. This time it is held and we have more time4 than we need to fathom the contorted and hideous effects of Sumara’s wrath.
In contrast to the expressionless faces of many of our antagonists, which inspire fear by virtue of what they don’t communicate, the hideous or distorted face is frightening because it communicates volumes of survival-relevant information. Cantor and Oliver touch on this difference in their discussion of Distortions of Natural Forms: “Distortions and deformities naturally (emphasis added)produce fear, anxiety, and negative affect in general. Hebb observed that even baby chimpanzees exhibit fear responses to deformities, and argued that such responses are spontaneous, in that they do not require conditioning” (226). By mentioning nature and the inter-specific fear responses we share with other primates, Cantor and Oliver suggest they are about to cross the disciplinary divide between social science and biology. But, alas, that never happens.5
Regardless of this shortfall, and the apparent oversight that all fear responses are in some sense spontaneous,Cantor and Oliver are right to point out that we respond negatively to distortion. Two of the more memorable and disturbing examples of this tendency are Reagan’s 360-degree head rotation in The Exorcist and the spider-walk-down-the-stairs scene in The Exorcist. Takashi Shimizu, the director of The Grudge, capitalizes on our response to the unnatural in the scene when Kayako drags herself down the stairs like a broken arachnid. We know that audiences find these distortions disturbing, but why? The idea of distortion implies a departure from an established aesthetic. Therefore, we must first understand the basis of the aesthetic in order to understand why these scenes represent departures.
In his book Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, David M. Buss offers one possible explanation: “The presence of facial and bodily symmetry is an important health cue, reflecting an individual’s ability to withstand environmental and genetic stressors”6 (122). Humans and other primates respond negatively to the absence of symmetry because it may signal poor health, the presence of parasites, or disease. This aversion to disease is so powerful in chimpanzees that they will sometimes kill polio-afflicted members of their troop, perhaps because they perceive these individuals as potential disease carriers. Clearly, the grotesque, blighted appearance of Reagan’s face, Sumara’s zombie gait, and Kayako’s spider-like anatomy exemplify the power of our own aversion to deviations from nature. This aversion is not merely visual, however.
According to Buss, the “human attention bias toward ancestral dangers occurs in another fascinating phenomenon: our perception of sounds” (New Science 96). Our films offer broad support for this conclusion: They are not just visually disturbing; they are sonically disturbing as well. Although we are primarily visual animals, we rely heavily on our auditory system to gather and process information. Just as there are survival-relevant visual cues, so too are there survival-relevant auditory cues. For instance, in his book Animal Behavior, John Alcock examines various hypotheses for why animals scream. One possibility is that “screams evolved to warn others of danger, which they might do because fear screams typically contain high and low frequencies of sound, features that enable other animals to locate the source of the sound easily” (209). Thus, high- and low-frequency sounds — sounds made below or above the mean — hold special significance for and are made by many animals, including pigs, birds, rabbits, and humans. For human makers and hearers, the scream has multiple adaptive functions. One is to alert nearby humans in hopes of enlisting their help. Another is to alert other predators to the scene, which may possibly create an opportunity for escape by interfering with the predator already on the scene.
In either case, the point is that for those hearing them, high-pitched sounds generally inspire negative responses, ranging from vigilance to alarm to full-blown fear. Horror film soundtracks should, then, be characterized by high-frequency, distress-inducing sounds that enhance our visual sense of dread. And, in fact, they do. As a rule, horror films employ high-pitched musical scores, but more often it is the film’s use of individual sound effects that inspires the greatest unease in viewers. Perhaps no horror film more effectively uses sound to arouse fear than The Exorcist. In his chapter “The Exorcist Massage Parlor,” Wilson Bryan Key notes how the film’s director “Friedkin openly admitted he had used several natural sound effects in the movie’s auditory background. One of these, he explained, was the sound of angry, agitated bees.”
Ultimately, how we respond to a high-frequency sound is determined by the situation: A siren, screeching tires, a scream, a downed power line, and angry bees all make sounds that command our attention, but each sound elicits a context-specific response. Key continues: “Virtually all humans (some much more strongly than others)7 respond with hysteria, fear, and intense anxiety to the sound of angry, buzzing bees, even if they have never in their lives experienced the actual sound” (110). Because of its evolutionary significance, the sound of angry bees does not only get our attention, it evokes anxiety and even terror.
As with visual input, certain variables affect how we experience auditory input. Marsha Kinder and Beverle Houston identify these variables when, commenting on The Exorcist, they write: “The sound track is extremely loud, providing a cacophony of noises that keeps the audience tense and edgy” (qtd. in Waller 46). Although Kinder and Houston explicitly refer to the volume of sound, by extension they are also referring to the duration of sound. Again, the question is why these sounds make audiences “tense and edgy.” On a basic level, the louder the sound, the greater urgency it suggests. Our anxiousness increases when the sound is sustained, e.g., the sound of screaming. The sound and the volume of the sound are unsettling, but at least one other effect of a loud, sustained sound is that it interferes with our ability to detect sounds in the environment, such as the approach of a predator. The sound of the generator early in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one example, as are the deafening, planetary wind in Alien and the storm in Friday the 13th.
Viewers will probably agree, there comes a point when we just want the screaming or loud sound to stop. Why? One reason is because being subjected to sustained screaming (or any loud sound, for that matter) is physically and mentally exhausting. Of course, it doesn’t help (or hurt, from the filmmaker’s perspective) that we are an essentially captive audience as moviegoers. In the ancestral environment, it seems unlikely that humans would have remained idle for long when hearing loud, sustained sounds, whether the sound was of thunder, bees, or screaming. Perhaps this voluntary, filmic stasis (Hey, I paid my $10. Scream on! I’m staying!), which would seem contrary to our natural impulse to act (whether to seek shelter from the storm, flee from the bees, or assist the screamer), has something to do with our negative response.
Humans are biologically conservative and therefore resist unnecessary energy expenditures. Just as we are taxed by sustained exposure to sounds above the sonic mean, so too are we taxed by sounds that fall below it. This underutilized technique was used to frightening effect in The Grudge, when Karen returns to the house and is standing in the foyer. She (we) then hears barely audible talking coming from the upstairs, which we later learn is Peter talking to the boy, Toshio. Compared to the film’s visual effects (Yoka’s mandible, for instance), this auditory effect is very subtle, but its subtlety is what makes it frightening. For during those moments before we know who is talking, we must strain, unsuccessfully, to decipher what is being said by whom.
The audience’s inability to gather enough auditory information in a potentially dangerous environment causes distress. Perhaps that is why, despite the risk of doing so, Karen ascends the stairs and moves closer to the sound. Whether we are talking about uncommunicative antagonists, or about the type or duration of a visual or auditory effect, it seems that the bane of the horror film is to manipulate our perception of high-stakes survival information. This information does not occur in a vacuum, however, which brings us to the discussion of setting.
IV. “Camp Blood”8: Horror Film Settings
The degree to which visual and auditory elements succeed in frightening us depends in large part on the setting in which they occur. For while it would certainly be frightening to see our antagonists anywhere, the fact is they are more frightening in particular settings because the settings themselves elicit feelings of aversion. Why we respond unfavorably or favorably to certain environments is the subject of the savanna hypothesis, which “states that selection has favored preferences, motivations, and decision rules to explore and settle in environments abundant with resources needed to sustain life while simultaneously avoiding environments lacking resources and posing risks to survival” (Buss 90). In his book The Experience of Landscape, Jay Appleton proposes a complementary theory known as habitat theory, which also seeks to explain our habitat preferences and aversions. Both theories argue that the degree to which we find a landscape habitable or beautiful (or hostile or ugly) depends on whether we perceive the environment as resource-rich, offering shelter, and minimizing risks to survival, including exposure to weather, predators, and hostile humans. These theories also involve some balancing: An environment that is resource-rich may attract predators as well as other humans. This variation of possible responses also applies to horror film settings, which, although featuring competing environmental cues, are generally inhospitable.
The horror films used for this essay therefore represent a continuum of more or less hostile settings, the extreme of which is the scene in Alien when Parker, Kane, and Lambert leave the relative safety of the Nostromo to investigate the warning signal from an abandoned space craft. Although brief, this venture from ship to ship stimulates our aversion to environments that do not appear to support life. Insofar as the landscape they must navigate is completely devoid of life, it could be considered one of the most hostile and disturbing horror film settings. Similarly, our anxiousness is compounded by the disorienting darkness and the violent storm. In addition to concealing predators, the darkness might also hide hazardous environmental features, such as chasms or precipices. Unlike many of the animals in our past that preyed on humans, our eyes do not function well in low light. For us, night has always been an anxious time of vulnerability, especially in situations where we are in an unfamiliar environment and without shelter.
In the majority of the films cited in this article, many of the most frightening scenes occur at dusk (the time when the rogue great white in Jaws typically hunts) or in the dead of night. But even scenes that occur during the day are often shrouded in shadow or other visual impediments. A key tenet of habitat theory and the savanna hypothesis is how visibility affects our responses to particular environments. One major determinant of light levels and visibility is vegetation. Buss cites a study of tree preferences done by Gordon Orians. For the study, Orians took a series of photographs of trees:
The trees selected for inclusion in the study varied in four qualities — canopy shape, canopy density, trunk height, and branching pattern. Participants from [Australia, Argentina, and the United States] showed similar judgments. All showed strong preferences for savanna-like trees — those forming a moderately dense canopy and trunks that separated in two near the ground. Participants also tended to dislike skimpy and dense canopies. (90)
One implication of Orians’ study is that humans, as a result of evolved preferences, tend to dislike dense vegetation because it impedes visibility of resources and hazards, as well as navigability. But by focusing on tree types, specifically trees that bifurcate close to the ground, Orians’ study also suggests that we prefer savanna like trees because they can be climbed for food and used as shelter from predators and the elements. Thus, we can see how the deep woods of Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which are dark even in the middle of the day, exploit our aversion to dense vegetation. Granted, our negative feelings toward these settings are somewhat tempered by the presence of shelter. For any animal, the ability to find and create shelter is a crucial element of survival. For humans, shelter is both a symbol and place of safety, whether it is in a major city (The Grudge, The Ring, and The Exorcist) or surrounded by woods or water (The Shining and Jaws). However, horror films in general and their antagonists in particular violate the primal sanctity of the shelter and thereby deprive protagonists, victims, and audiences of its safety. The shelter is inverted, and that does not sit well with a species for whom shelter has always been a fundamental means of survival.
In horror films, the audience’s anxiousness at having lost the psychological comfort of the shelter does not end with the invasion of the antagonist; rather, it begins with it. For, once inside, we find that the interior setting of the shelter mirrors the hazardous exterior setting or physical environment. Although not by heavy vegetation, visibility in the interior setting is still reduced by shadow and darkness. To the extent that a mysterious environment may hold the promise of prospects, a sense of mystery can sometimes be positive. But in horror films, where we know dangers are lurking, mystery compounds our dread. One of the best examples of this aversive sense of mystery is when Kubrick uses tracking shots to follow Danny Torrance on his big wheel. Because the camera is positioned behind and slightly above Danny, the audience sees less than and after Danny, e.g., we see his reaction to the butchered twins before we see the twins themselves. These sequences are effective for several evolutionary significant reasons, including the close-ups of Danny’s terrified face at the sight of the butchered twins and the alteration of high and low sounds as he rides over the carpets and wood floors. But by restricting our ability to see what is ahead and around the next corner, these tracking shots further erode our sense of security.
King concludes his essay “Why We Crave Horror” by citing perhaps one of the most important reasons for watching horror films, and that is to keep the gators “down there” and himself “up here.” Perhaps it is time to bring up the gators and to look at them in the new, deep light of evolutionary psychology. For despite the fact that horror films are only reel productions of the human mind, our fear of their antagonists and settings is real in the most profound sense. If we accept that humans have an evolved history, then evolutionary psychology might be one of the best tools we have to improve our understanding of film theory and viewer response. Larry, the Mayor of Amity (the beach town in Jaws), got it both right and wrong when, in response to the Chief’s urging to close the beach after the first suspected shark attack, he said “I don’t think you understand the gut reaction people have to these things . . . it’s all psychological.”
Of course the Chief did understand, and that was the whole point: He knew a predator, the embodiment of our fears, was stalking the shallows and the deeps of the primal scene. When avoiding the shark was no longer an option, the Chief, Quint, and Hooper set out to confront, in Hooper’s words, this “miracle of evolution.” If we think of these events in analogous terms—that is, in terms of reflecting how we typically think of our fear of horror films as cultural paradoxes—Prince’s observation that “monsters are everywhere” assumes a whole new dimension. This dimension suggests that however much cultures may vary and change, the evolutionary history of our fears persists. In the final scene of Halloween, a shot, stabbed, and skewered Michael Myers falls from the upper-story window. We see him there, sprawled and motionless on the ground. Part of us wants him to be dead. Part of us knows he will never die.
Alcock, John. Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach. 7th ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2001.
The Triumph of Sociobiology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Buss, David M. Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson Education, 2008. 90-122.
The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005.
Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Cosmides, Laura, and John Tooby Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer. Center for Evolutionary Psychology. March 23, 2006. Accessed June 28, 2009.http://philosophy.wisc.edu/shapiro/EvPsych%20Primer.pdf
Key, Wilson Bryan. Media Sexploitation. New York: Signet, 1976.
Marks, Issac M., and Randolph M. Nesse. Fear and Fitness: An Evolutionary Analysis of Anxiety Disorders June 29, 2009. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~nesse/Articles/Fear&Fitness-Ethol&Sociobiol-1994.PDF
Prince, Stephen, ed. The Horror Film. Piscataway, NJ; Rutgers University Press, 2004. 3-226.
Rakison, D. H. “Does Women’s Greater Fear of Snakes and Spiders Originate in Infancy?” Evolution and Human Behavior. 30(6), 438-444, Nov. 2009.
Sosis, Richard, Howard C. Kress, James S. Boster. “Scars for War: Evaluating Alternative Signaling Explanations for Cross-Cultural Variance in Ritual Costs. Evolution and Human Behavior 28(4), May 2007. Accessed June 29, 2009. http://www.ehbonline.org/article/S1090-5138(07)00024-4/abstract
Waller, Gregory Albert, ed. American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
- In Alien,an incredulous Ripley asks Ash’s dismembered head if he admires the alien. Ash replies that he does, and then he offers an apt description of antagonists in general: He says the alien is admirable because it is “a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, and delusions of morality.” What could be more frightening from a human perspective? [↩]
- Dr. Hannibal Lecter is one such exception. Might his uniqueness still have adaptive significance? Early in The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Chilton tells Agent Starling that the man in the cell next to Lecter’s died after he swallowed his own tongue. The tongue is of course an important language-shaping organ, but that it is also intended to symbolize the power of language to “inflict costs” is suggested by a further detail: Shortly before the man’s death, another inmate reported that he heard Lecter “whispering.” The implication is that Lecter killed the inmate with language. In The Mating Mind, Geoffrey Miller argues that the brain is also a sexual organ and that its most sophisticated products (literature, music, art, etc.) are like a peacock’s tail insofar as they indicate fitness. Thus, while it is true we fear Lecter’s physical power, we likely also fear his intelligence: Being out-thought is often an antecedent to being killed. [↩]
- I do not wish to resurrect stereotypes of the shark as a bloodthirsty killer of humans. Obviously, great white and other sharks have been known to kill humans, but I wonder if our fear of them doesn’t actually stem from our prehuman history, that is, before life emerged from the ocean and became terrestrial. [↩]
- If we can have too little time to gather information, we can have too much time, as well. A shot that is held in excess of the time needed to detect a threat creates apprehension by delimiting possible responses, specifically the impulse to flee. [↩]
- In fairness to Cantor and Oliver, the reason they do not pursue this line of inquiry is because the purpose of their essay is to advance a “conditioning explanation” that outlines the elements of “what may be considered the essence of the horror film.” But how can we talk about the essence of the horror film without also talking about the essence of the animals watching them? And then there is the curious use of the adjective even, as if Cantor and Oliver were surprised by Hebb’s finding that one of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, shares our fears. [↩]
- An interesting parallel to Buss’ argument is the scene in Jaws when Quint and Hooper compare their scars and share the stories of how they got them. In their essay “Scars for War: Evaluating Alternative Signaling Explanations for Cross-cultural Variance in Ritual Costs,” Sosis, Kress, and Boster “show that whether wars are fought within cultural groups or against other cultural groups is an important determinant of whether or not male rites result in permanent visible marks, such as ritual scars. We argue that costly male rites signal commitment and promote solidarity among males who must organize for warfare” (234). Thus, scars might help to communicate fitness by signaling to others (males and females alike) that the bearer has withstood “environmental stressors.” [↩]
- Fear responses are also affected by such factors as age, gender, and physiology. [↩]
- Townspeople referred to Camp Crystal Lake, the setting of Friday the 13th, as Camp Blood. [↩]