According to Forbes, horror movies gross around $1 billion a year, to say nothing of video games and other media. Not everyone pays for pure, undiluted horror, but many more people are able to enjoy horror hiding in other genres such as myths, fairy tales, fantasy fiction, and the news. The love of horror [Latin, ‘a trembling, a shaking’] is most common in male adolescents and is correlated with personality traits such as thrill-seeking and aggression.

The meat of horror is the monster [Latin, ‘bad omen’], from the great white shark in Jaws to the White Walkers in Game of Thrones, or any powerful, menacing character that would, if it could, threaten us or people like us—which is why the cannibalistic witch in Hansel and Gretel, who seeks to lure children, is far more frightening to children than to their parents, and why, in Ancient Greece, Scylla and Charybdis and the sirens would have been far more frightening to seafarers than to farmers.

An archetypal monster is not only terrifying but also revolting. Adapting the insights on impurity of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, the philosopher Noël Carroll, author of The Philosophy of Horror, argues that monsters often display one or more of four sometimes overlapping forms of impurity: categorical interstitiality, categorical contradictoriness, incompleteness, and formlessness.

Categorical interstitiality is when something is more than one thing. Greek myth is full of interstitial monsters such as the minotaur, the griffin, the chimera, the harpies, and the Gorgon Medusa.

Categorical contradictoriness is when something violates binary classes of existence, in particular, something that is both dead and alive, like the Night King, or something that is both animate and inanimate, like a haunted house or even, at a stretch, the Temple of Doom in Indiana Jones, with all its ancient and elaborate booby traps.

The ability to distinguish between animate and inanimate is acquired at just six months of age and is so basic as to be programmed into language. For example, English restricts the use of the present perfect tense (‘has been’, ‘has seen’) to subjects who are still alive, marking a sharp grammatical divide between the living and the dead.

Incompleteness is when something is missing parts, like limbs or an eye. In antiquity and later, people believed distant lands to be inhabited by headless men called Blemmyes (or akephaloi) with their facial features in their chest, and monopods (or skipods) with a single, central leg ending in a very large foot. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, the man of many twists and turns, blinds the cyclops Polyphemus, a one-eyed man-eating giant. 

Finally, formlessness is when something lacks clear boundaries and therefore, as with interstitiality and contradictoriness, eludes simple categorization. Examples include werewolves, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and the Blob.

Carroll adds that, for extra horrific effect, a monster may be magnified or massified, that is, made larger like Godzilla, or multiplied in number like the army of the dead in Lord of the Rings.

Many monsters also have a trait that Freud called ‘the uncanny’. In 1970, the professor of robotics Masahiro Mori posited the theory of the uncanny valley. He observed that, for the most part, our emotional response towards machines is fairly neutral, while our emotional response towards human beings and objects such as teddy bears is fairly positive. But if something looks almost but not quite human, it arouses negative feelings of eeriness and revulsion: the so-called uncanny valley.

How to explain this phenomenon? It could be that humanoids such as the Joker evoke death or illness. Or that they ‘mess with the mind’ in some way—perhaps by violating norms and expectations, or by being deceptive and difficult to read. The Joker sometimes wears a flower that can shoot deadly venom: that a flower is normally harmless, even delightful, underscores his deeply deceptive nature.

Although they are the main meat, there is more to horror than monsters. Horror also gets to us in other ways, among others, by creating confusion, anguish, paranoia, and a general sense of mental breakdown or psychosis. But if the attempt is too blatant or clumsy, the horror can quickly turn to humour or even ridicule. Indeed, the horror writer R. L. Stine claims that horror always makes him laugh: ‘I always just wanted to be funny. I never really planned to be scary.’

So far, so horrific. But other than incidental humor, what possible appeal could horror hold? Horror excites our imagination and curiosity, notably through the exploration of taboos and the creation of suspense. It also gives us permission to unleash our darker side, that is, our Freudian id or Jungian shadow. Shapeshifters such as werewolves and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde are commonly interpreted, in their different aspects, as the psychic layers of one, same person. Other monsters, often supervillains such as the Joker, are so overrun by their shadow as to be nothing but sheer darkness. These two factors, exploration and expression, are part of the appeal of horror, especially to younger audiences.

Another appeal of horror is that it can have a kind of aphrodisiacal effect, and horror movies have long been a popular choice for early dates. Young people are seeking to establish their identity, and, under the cover of a horror movie, are able to act out gender stereotypes and make the most of the bonding and ‘coziness’ to which fear gives rise. One American study found that males enjoyed horror movies most in the company of a distressed female, while females enjoyed them most in the company of a ‘mastering male’, and that mastery significantly increased the appeal of an initially low-appeal male.

But for most of its devotees, the overwhelming attraction of horror is, of course, the fear to which it gives rise. Fear and disgust are among the six basic emotions identified by the psychologist Paul Ekman, the other four being happiness, sadness, anger, and surprise. As I discuss in Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, basic emotions evolved in response to the ecological challenges faced by our remote ancestors and are so primal as to be ‘hardwired’, with each basic emotion corresponding to a more or less distinct and dedicated neurological circuit.

Still today, specific phobias are generally for the natural dangers that commonly threatened our ancestors, such as spiders (arachnophobia), snakes (ophidiophobia), and blood (hematophobia), even though in the modern world man-made hazards such as motor cars and electric cables are far more likely to strike us down. For most of our evolutionary history, our greatest fear was to fall prey to a predator, to become someone else’s dinner. So when I swim in the sea in Mauritius, I am far more concerned about theoretical sharks than about the very real speedboats, even though I know that a speedboat is far more likely to kill me.

Horror taps into and reawakens that primal fear of falling prey to a predator, and this can serve a number of functions. First, it can help us rehearse for danger, like children do when they chase one another and break our ears with their screams. Second, it can help us confront and process past traumatic experiences by, in some sense, replaying them. Third, and most important of all, it can give us pleasure, if not quite in itself, then at least through the relief and release that follows in its train—and that is sometimes accompanied by laughter.

When I visited the remote Cederberg winery in South Africa, more than 20 miles down a gravel track off the Cape-Namibia Route, I was given the key to a nearby cave complex with Bushmen paintings, which I proceeded to explore on my own, without so much as a telephone signal. I still remember the intense ‘joy-safety’ that I felt upon returning to my car and shutting the door on all the deadly snakes and spiders that I had been imagining.

Negative emotions can become pleasant if their object is a mere simulacrum, which is why people turn not only to horror but also to things like rollercoasters and sadomasochism. And like horror, sadomasochism and rollercoasters can easily descend into laughter.

The psychology and philosophy of magic.

In my last article, on the history of magic, I compared magic to religion and science, but without attempting a precise definition of magic. On the assumption that certain entities can exert a hidden influence on one another, magic is a method of acting in the world through sheer power of will. The notion that the universe is pregnant with subtle connexions is supported by, of all things, the study of mathematics, and it can sometimes seem that maths is at only one remove from magic.

Magic is often considered a gift, such that some people have it to a high degree and others, the muggles, barely at all, perhaps because their will is weak, unsettled, or untrained, or because magic does not run in their family—for like madness, magic is often hereditary. Whatever the case, people without magic are usually portrayed as lacking in cognitive faculties such as insight, intuition, and imagination, and would not see possibility even if it slapped them in the face.

Magic is sometimes divided into white and black, and high and low. Black magic is selfish and does not consider other people, whereas white magic is altruistic or selfless, and seeks in general to maintain or restore the equilibrium of the universe. The magician’s psychological makeup determines what kind of magic, white or black, he or she is able or likely to wield.

Speaking of equilibrium, deflecting objects and especially people from their natural or pre-ordained course is likely to have significant repercussions, which is why, aside from the mental effort and exhaustion, the use of magic is often said to come at a price, either to the magician, his or her client (for want of a better term), or a third party. The equilibrium must, ultimately, be maintained.

The magician is, in effect, a mediator of energies. Low magic involves drawing up energies from the earth, from plants and minerals and so on, and is more the province of common folk. High magic involves drawing down raw, unprocessed energies from the sun and sky, which requires complex ritual and is more the province of an educated or trained elite.

The magician cultivates his or her will through concentration—acquiring charisma in the process—and focuses it through ritual such as ceremony, chant, or spell. Ritual also helps to create the right atmosphere and attitude for magic to take hold. Words in particular can exert a power all of their own. In the language of Ancient Egypt, the sound of a word had a magical power which complemented its meaning, a view of language which we still retain when we talk of ‘spelling’ a word, or visit a psychotherapist. And while words can change the world, getting them wrong, that is, misspelling, can have disastrous consequences.

So far, I’ve been talking as if magic actually works. But does it work, and, if so, how? Unless one broadens the definition of magic to include cognitive faculties such as insight, intuition, and imagination, or simply peak performance, magic does not work, or, at least, not in an immediate, instrumental sense. But magic might work indirectly, by focussing the mind and energies on a particular problem, or through a mechanism akin to the placebo effect or psychoneuroimmunology.

The term ‘placebo effect’ derives from the Latin placare [‘to please’] and refers to the tendency for a remedy to ‘work’ simply because it is expected to do so. In essence, people who associate taking a remedy with improvement may come to expect improvement if they take a remedy, even if the ‘remedy’ in question is no more than an inert substance, or a substance that has no therapeutic effect but only adverse effects that can be interpreted as indicative of a therapeutic effect. It may be that the expectation alone suffices to mimic the effect of the remedy, and brain imaging studies indicate that, in some cases, remedies and their placebos activate the very same mechanisms in the nervous system.

In the UK, the antidepressant fluoxetine is so commonly prescribed that trace quantities have been detected in the water supply. But, as I lay bare in my book, The Meaning of Madness, there is mounting evidence that the most commonly prescribed antidepressants are little more effective than dummy pills which, unlike antidepressants, are free from adverse effects, and cost. So, it might be said that, insofar as antidepressants work, they do so by magic—and, no doubt, would be more effective if accompanied by some kind of incantation.

Remedies that are perceived to be more potent have a stronger placebo effect. Perceptions of potency are influenced by factors such as the remedy’s size, shape, colour, route of administration, and general availability. A brightly coloured injection administered by a silver-haired professor of medicine can be expected to have a much stronger placebo effect, and therefore a much stronger overall effect, than the unremarkable over-the-counter tablet recommended by the teenager next door. This highlights the importance of the psychological, social, and cultural context in which a treatment or intervention is administered, and, more particularly, the significance of the therapeutic act or ritual. If the practitioner, the patient, and their society believe in the magic, then the magic is real by the very force of that shared belief.

No wonder the magician, the priest, and the healer used to be one and the same person—and, in many societies, still is. Like religion, magic may represent a response to anxiety, distress, and a feeling of inadequacy or impotence, especially in the face of natural disaster. And like religion, it may represent a spiritual path, akin, perhaps, to a martial art, which also involves concentrating the mind, channelling instinctual drives, and leveraging forces.

But beyond all that, magic, whether it works or not, is an external projection of the human psyche, an external projection of our internal or psychological truth, which is why it features so prominently in fiction. Fairy tales often begin with a formulation such as, ‘Once upon a time in dreamland’, and magic is that dreamland. Like dreams, magic makes use of condensed symbols, and, like dreams, it is a kind of wish fulfilment.

In the same vein, magic might be compared with mental states such as psychosis and neurosis, which, like dreams, can also involve condensed symbols and wish fulfilment. Sigmund Freud linked magical rituals and spells with neurotic and obsessional thought processes, and there are arguably some parallels with compulsive acts, which are a response to obsessional thoughts or according to rules that must be rigidly applied.

Magic is, arguably, on a spectrum with madness, and magical thinking is especially prominent in schizotypy, or schizotypal personality disorder, which predisposes to schizophrenia, and also shamanism. As discussed in my related article on the history of magic, Plato distinguished between madness resulting from human illness and madness arising from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates says that this divinely inspired madness has four forms: mysticism, inspiration, poetry, and love. Love, according to Socrates, is not a god, as most people think, but a great spirit [daimon] that intermediates between gods and men.

Similarly, in The Sorcerer and his Magic (1963), the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that magic is a mediator between normal thought processes (common sense, reason, science…), which suffer from a marked deficit of meaning, and pathological thought processes, which abound with meaning:

From any non-scientific perspective (and here we can exclude no society), pathological and normal thought processes are complementary rather than opposed. In a universe which it strives to understand but whose dynamics it cannot fully control, normal thought continually seeks the meaning of things which refuse to reveal their significance. So-called pathological thought, on the other hand, overflows with emotional interpretations and overtones, in order to supplement an otherwise deficient reality… We might borrow from linguistics and say that so-called normal thought always suffers from a deficit of meaning, whereas so-called pathological thought (in at least some of its manifestations) disposes of a plethora of meaning. Through collective participation in shamanistic curing, a balance is established between these two complementary situations.

Some of my regular readers may have wondered why I turned my pen to so apparently frivolous a subject as magic. But we now know that magic means much more than it may at first seem. Aside from its links with madness and with healing, it is a mirror of the mind, and even, like love or beauty, and science and religion, a mode of belonging to the world.

The word ‘magic’ derives from the Latin, the Greek, the Old Persian, and, ultimately, the Proto-Indo-European magh, ‘to help, to be able, to be powerful’, from which also derive the words ‘almighty’, ‘maharaja’, ‘main’, ‘may’, and… ‘machine’. We come full circle with Clarke’s Third Law, which states: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

Magic, like religion, is deeply embedded into the human psyche. Though it has, effectively, been banished from the land, still it surfaces in thought and language, in phrases such as ‘I must be cursed’ and ‘He’s under your spell’; in children’s stories and other fiction; and in psychological processes such as undoing, which involves thinking a thought or carrying out an act in an attempt to negate a previous, uncomfortable thought or act.

Examples of undoing include the absent father who periodically returns to spoil and smother his children, and the angry wife who throws a plate at her husband and then tries to ‘make it up’ by smothering him in kisses. The absent father and angry wife are not merely trying to make amends for their behaviour, but also, as if by magic, to ‘erase it from the record’.

Another example of undoing is the man who damages a friend’s prospects and then, a few days later, turns up at his door bearing a small gift. Rituals such as confession and penitence are, at least on some level, socially condoned and codified forms of undoing.

‘Magic’ is difficult to define, and its definition remains a matter of debate and controversy. One way of understanding it is by comparing and contrasting it to religion on the one hand and to science on the other.

Historically, the priest, the physician, the magician, and the scholar might have been one and the same person: the shaman, the sorcerer.

In the West, pre-Socratics such as Pythagoras and Empedocles moonlighted as mystics and miracle workers—or perhaps, since the term ‘philosophy’ is held to have been invented by Pythagoras, moonlighted as philosophers. Pythagoras claimed to have lived four lives and to remember them all in great detail, and once recognized the cry of his dead friend in the yelping of a puppy. After his death, the Pythagoreans deified him, and attributed him with a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates argues that there are, in fact, two kinds of madness: one resulting from human illness, but the other arising from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. This divine form of madness, says Socrates, has four parts: love, poetry, inspiration, and mysticism, which is the particular gift of Dionysus.

While Socrates, in some sense the father of logic, seldom claimed any real knowledge, he did claim to have a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or intuition that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics, or fleeing Athens: ‘This is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic…’

Far from being a thing of the distant past, this trope of the philosopher-sorcerer outlived the sack of Athens and the fall of Rome, and perdured well into the Enlightenment. The economist John Maynard Keynes, upon buying a trove of Isaac Newton’s papers, observed that Newton and the physicists of his time were ‘not the first of the scientists, but the last of the sorcerers’. Other notable later occultists include: Giordano Bruno, Nostradamus, Paracelsus, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Arthur Conan Doyle, yes, the father of Sherlock Holmes.

Yet since antiquity, the West has had an uncomfortable relationship with magic, usually regarding it as something foreign and ‘Eastern’. In Plato’s Meno, Meno compares Socrates to the flat torpedo fish, which torpifies or numbs all those who come near it: ‘And I think that you are very wise in not [leaving Athens], for if you did in other places as you do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a magician.’

For the Greeks as for the Romans, magic represented as improper and potentially subversive expression of religion. After centuries of contra-legislation, in 357 CE, the Christian Roman emperor Constantius II finally banned it outright:

No one shall consult a haruspex, a diviner, or a soothsayer, and wicked confessions made to augurs and prophets must cease. Chaldeans, magicians, and others who are commonly called malefactors on account of the enormity of their crimes shall no longer practice their infamous arts.

The Bible, too, inveighs against magic, in more than a hundred places, for example, picked almost at random:

  • Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. —Exodus 22:18 (KJV)
  • Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God. —Leviticus 19:31 (KJV)
  • But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. —Revelation 21:8 (KJV)

Early Christians, perhaps unconsciously, associated magic with mythopoeic thought, in which all of nature is full of gods and spirits, and therefore with paganism and, by extension, with demons. During the Reformation, Protestants accused the Church of Rome, with its superstitions, relics, and exorcisms, of being more magic than religion—a charge that transferred all the more to non-Christian peoples, and that, notoriously, served as a justification for large-scale persecution, colonization, and Christianization.

Today, magic, like mythopoeic thought, is seen as ‘primitive’, and has largely been relegated to fiction and illusionism. But as a result, people have come to associate magic with delight and wonder; and with the retreat of Christianity, at least from Europe, a growing number are returning to some form of paganism as a path to personal and spiritual development.

So, what exactly is the difference between magic and religion? It is often held that magic is older than religion, or that religion was born out of magic, but it may be that they co-existed, and were not distinguished.

Both magic and religion pertain to the sacred sphere, to things removed from everyday life. But, compared to religion, magic does not split so sharply between the natural and the supernatural, the earthly and the divine, the fallen and the blessed. And whereas magic involves harnessing the world to the will, religion involves subjugating the will to the world. In the words of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (d. 2009), ‘religion consists in a humanization of natural laws, and magic in a naturalization of human actions.’

Hence, magic tends to be about specific problems, and to involve private rites and rituals. Religion, in contrast, tends towards the bigger picture, and to involve communal worship and belonging. ‘Magic’ said the sociologist Emile Durkheim (d. 1917), ‘does not result in binding together those who adhere to it, nor in uniting them into a group leading a common life. There is no Church of magic.’

So, one hypothesis is that, as man gained increasing control over nature, magic, as it came to be called, lost ground to religion, which, being communal and centralized, evolved a hierarchy that sought to suppress those practices that threatened its dogma and dominance.

But now religion is, in its turn, on the decline—in favour of science. What is science? Within academia, there are, in fact, no clear or reliable criteria for distinguishing a science from a non-science. What might be said is that all sciences share certain assumptions which underpin the scientific method—in particular, that there is an objective reality governed by uniform laws, and that this reality can be discovered by systematic observation.

But, as I argue in my book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, every scientific paradigm that has come and gone is now deemed to have been false, inaccurate, or incomplete, and it would be ignorant or arrogant to assume that our current ones might amount to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The philosopher Paul Feyerabend (d. 1994) went so far as to claim that there is no such thing as ‘a’ or ‘the’ scientific method: behind the facade, ‘anything goes’, and, as a form of knowledge, science is no more privileged than magic or religion.

More than that, science has come to occupy the same place in the human psyche as religion once did. Although science began as a liberating movement, it grew dogmatic and repressive, more of an ideology than a rational method that leads to ineluctable progress.

To quote Feyerabend:

Knowledge is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges toward an ideal view; it is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness.

A common trope in fantasy fiction is the ‘thinning’ of magic: magic is fading, or has been banished, from the land, which is caught in a perpetual winter or otherwise in deathly or depressive decline, and the hero is called upon to rescue and restore the life-giving forces of old.

It is easy to draw the parallel with our own world, in which magic has been progressively driven out, first by religion, which over the centuries, became increasingly repressive of magic, and latterly by science with its zero tolerance.

When we read fantasy fiction, it is for the side of the old magic, always, that we root, for a time when the world, when life, had meaning in itself.

In my next article, I will look at the psychology and philosophy of magic.