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.

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We spend most of our time and energy chasing success, such that we have little left over for thinking and feeling, being and relating. As a result, we fail in the deepest possible way. We fail as human beings. This book explores what it means to be successful, and how, if at all, true success can be achieved.

An extraordinarily wide ranging mix of psychology and philosophy covering most of human behaviour from madness to happiness and the meaning of life, and encountering ghosts and death on the way … Brilliant. Neel Burton has already won several prizes … and this volume deserves another. —The British Medical Association Book Awards

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown everything up into the air, straining our coping mechanisms and forcing us to re-examine our assumptions, priorities, and whole way of living. But in crisis there is also great opportunity, and this very timely book lights us the way. —Dr Chris Chopdar, clinical psychiatrist

Burton guides the reader to unlearn, rediscover, and return to wholeness. It is a journey out of Plato’s cave… —The International Review of Books

Burton is never short of an interesting and sharp judgment. —Prof Peter Toohey, Psychology Today

I’ve read many Neel Burton books. He’s a wonderful writer and able to immerse you lightly in pretty heavy stuff. —Adrian Bailey, Vine Voice

Burton’s writing blends deep knowledge of his subject with lively anecdote and a genuine concern for how we might draw on the insights of psychology and philosophy to live a better life. Highly recommended! —Gareth Southwell, philosopher and writer

★★★★★ This book saved my life. —Amazon.com reviewer

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The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (detail).

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) tries to discover what is ‘the supreme good for man’, that is, what is the best way to lead our life and give it meaning.

For Aristotle, a thing is most clearly and easily understood by looking at its end, purpose, or goal. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what a knife is; the goal of medicine is good health, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what medicine is, or, at least, ought to be.

Now, if one persists with this, it soon becomes apparent that some goals are subordinate to other goals, which are themselves subordinate to yet other goals. For example, a medical student’s goal may be to qualify as a doctor, but this goal is subordinate to her goal to heal the sick, which is itself subordinate to her goal to make a living by doing something useful. This could go on and on, but unless the medical student has a goal that is an end-in-itself, nothing that she does is actually worth doing.

What, asks Aristotle, is this goal that is an end-in-itself? What, in other words, is the final purpose of everything that we do?

The answer, says Aristotle, is happiness.

And of this nature happiness is mostly thought to be, for this we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honour, pleasure, intellect, in fact every excellence we choose for their own sakes, it is true, but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever.

Why did we get dressed this morning? Why do we go to the dentist? Why do we go on a diet? Why am I writing this article? Why are you reading it? Because we want to be happy, simple as that.

That the meaning of life is happiness may seem moot, but it is something that most of us forget somewhere along the way. Oxford and Cambridge are infamous for their fiendish admission interviews, and one question that is sometimes asked is, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ So, when I prepare prospective doctors for their medical school interviews, I frequently put this question to them. When they flounder, as invariably they do, I ask them, ‘Well, tell me, why are you here?’

Our exchange might go something like this:

“What do you mean, why am I here?”

“Well, why are you sitting here with me, prepping for your interviews, when you could be outside enjoying the sunshine?”

“Because I want to do well in my interviews.”

“Why do you want to do well in your interviews?”

“Because I want to get into medical school.”

“Why do you want to get into medical school?”

“Because I want to become a doctor.”

“Why do you want to put yourself through all that trouble?”

And so on. 

But the one thing that the students never tell me is the truth, which is:

“I am sitting here, putting myself through all this, because I want to be happy, and this is the best way I have found of becoming or remaining so.”

Somewhere along the road, the students lost the wood for the trees, even though they are only at the beginning of their journey. With the passing of the years, their short-sightedness will only get worse—unless, of course, they read and remember their Aristotle.

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The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio (1603).

According to the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855), a person can, deep down, lead one of three lives: the esthetic life, the ethical life, or the religious life.

A person leading the æsthetic life aims solely at satisfying her desires. If, for example, it is heroin that she craves, she will do whatever it takes to get hold of her next fix. If heroin happens to be cheap and legal, this need not involve any illegal or immoral behaviour on her part. But if  heroin happens to be expensive or illegal, as is generally the case, she may have to resort to lying, stealing, and much worse. To satisfy her desires, which, by definition, she insists upon doing, the æsthete constantly has to adapt to the circumstances in which she finds herself, and, as a result, cannot lay claim to a consistent, coherent self.

The person leading the ethical life, in complete contrast to the æsthete, behaves according to categorical and immutable moral principles such as ‘do not lie’ and ‘do not steal’, regardless of the circumstances, however attenuating, in which she happens to find herself. Because the moralist has a consistent, coherent self, she leads a higher type of life than that of the æsthete.

But the highest type of life is the religious life, which has something in common with both the ethical life and the æsthetic life. Like the ethical life, the religious life recognizes and respects the authority of moral principles; but like the æsthetic life, it is sensitive to the circumstances. In acquiescing to universal moral principles yet attending to particularities, the religious life opens the door to moral indeterminacy, that is, to ambiguity, uncertainty, and anxiety. Anxiety, says Kierkegaard, is the dizziness of freedom.

A paradigm of the religious life is that of the biblical patriarch Abraham, as epitomized by the episode of the Sacrifice of Isaac.

According to Genesis 22, God said unto Abraham:

Take now thy son, thine only only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

Unlike the æsthete, Abraham is acutely aware of, and attentive to, moral principles such as, ‘Thou shalt not kill’—which is, of course, one of the ten commandments. But unlike the moralist, he is also willing or able to look beyond these moral principles, and in the end resigns himself to obeying God’s command.

But as he is about to slay his sole heir, born of a miracle, an angel appears and stays his hand:

Abraham, Abraham … Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

At this moment, a ram appears in a thicket, and Abraham seizes it and sacrifices it in Isaac’s stead. He then names the place of the sacrifice Jehovahjireh, which translates from the Hebrew as, ‘The Lord will provide.’

The teaching of the Sacrifice of Isaac is that the conquest of doubt and anxiety, and hence the exercise of freedom, requires something of a leap of faith. It is in making this leap, not only once but over and over again, that a person, in the words of Kierkegaard, ‘relates himself to himself’ and is able to rise into a thinking, deciding, living being.

In the Milgram experiment, conducted in 1961 during the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann [one of the major organizers of the Holocaust], an experimenter ordered a ‘teacher’, the test subject, to deliver what the latter believed to be painful shocks to a ‘learner’. The experimenter informed the teacher and learner that they would be participating in a study on learning and memory in different situations, and asked them to draw lots to determine their roles, with the lots rigged so that the test subject invariably ended up as the teacher.

The teacher and the learner were entered into adjacent rooms from which they could hear but not see each other. The teacher was instructed to deliver a shock to the learner for every wrong answer that he gave, and, after each wrong answer, to increase the intensity of the shock by 15 volts, from 15 to 450 volts. The shock button, instead of delivering a shock, activated a tape recording of increasingly alarmed and alarming reactions from the learner. After a certain number of shocks, the learner began to bang on the wall and, eventually, fell silent.

If the teacher indicated that he wanted to end the experiment, the experimenter gave him up to four increasingly stern verbal prods. If, after the fourth prod, the teacher still wanted to end the experiment, the experiment was terminated. Otherwise, the experiment ran until the teacher had delivered the maximum shock of 450 volts three times in succession.

In the first set of experiments, 26 out of 40 test subjects delivered the massive 450-volt shock, and all 40 test subjects delivered shocks of at least 300 volts.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt called this propensity to do evil without oneself being evil ‘the banality of evil’. Being Jewish, Arendt fled Germany in the wake of Hitler’s rise. Some thirty years later, she witnessed and reported on Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. In the resulting book, she remarks that Eichmann, though lacking in empathy, did not come across as a fanatic or psychopath, but as a ‘terrifyingly normal’ person, a bland bureaucrat who lacked skills and education and an ability to think for himself. Eichmann had simply been pursuing his idea of success, diligently climbing the rungs of the Nazi hierarchy. From his perspective, he had done no more than ‘obey orders’, even, ‘obey the law’—not unlike Kierkegaard’s unquestioning moralist.

Eichmann was a ‘joiner’ who, all his life, had joined, or sought to join, various outfits and organizations in a bid to be a part of something bigger than himself, to define himself, to belong. But then he got swept up by history and landed where he landed.

Arendt’s thesis has attracted no small measure of criticism and controversy. Although she never sought to excuse or exonerate Eichmann, she may have been mistaken or misled about his character and motives. Regardless, in the final analysis, Eichmann’s values, his careerism, his nationalism, his antisemitism, were not truly his own as a self-determining being, but borrowed from the movements and society from which he arose, even though he and millions of others paid the ultimate price for them.

Whenever you’re about to engage in something with an ethical dimension, always ask yourself, “Is this who I wanted to be on the best day of my life?”

Neel Burton is author of The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide

References:

  • Kierkegaard, S (1843), Fear and Trembling.
  • Kierkegaard, S (1849), Sickness unto Death.
  • Milgram, S (1963): Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67(4):371–8.
  • Arendt, H (1963), Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

There is an old Japanese story about a monk and a samurai. 

One day, a Zen monk was going from temple to temple, following the shaded path along a babbling brook, when he fell upon a bedraggled and badly bruised samurai.

‘Whatever happened to you?’ asked the monk.

‘We were conveying our lord’s treasure when we were set upon by bandits. But I played dead and was the only one of my company to survive. As I lay on the ground with my eyes shut, a question kept turning in my mind. Tell me, little monk, what is the difference between heaven and hell?’

‘What samurai plays dead while his companions are slain! Shame on you! You ought to have fought to the death. Look at the sight of you, a disgrace to your class, your master, and every one of your ancestors. You are not worthy of the food that you eat or the air that you breathe, let alone of my hard-won wisdom!’

At all this, the samurai puffed up with rage and appeared to double in size as he drew out his sword, swung it over his head, and brought it down onto the monk.

But just before being struck, the monk changed his tone and composure, and calmly said, ‘This is hell.’

The samurai dropped his sword. Filled with shame and remorse, he fell to his knees with a clatter of armour: ‘Thank you for risking your life simply to teach a stranger a lesson’ he said, his eyes wet with tears. ‘Please, if you could, forgive me for threatening you.’

‘And that’ said the monk, ‘is heaven.’

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions