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Our fascination with horror narratives is one of the greatest mysteries in popular culture. If you think about it, horror films are characterized by their grotesque scenes of death, disease, torture, deformity, and monstrosity.  The best entries in the genre are those flicks that make us feel uncomfortable and squirm in our seats. The basic criterion of success is simple: the more frightening, the better. In spite of their nightmarish content, we can’t get enough of them. Clearly, horror is one of the most profitable and enduring genres in the history of motion pictures.


Over the past 40 years, many academics and philosophers have debated about what lies beneath our morbid attraction for the horror genre. Some of the approaches considered so far include psychological, cultural, sociological, political, and philosophical frameworks. And still, the reason for the enormous popularity of horror films remains elusive and hard to pin down.


A few related questions worth considering: Why are we afraid of the imagery and iconography that characterizes the horror genre? For example, why are we frightened when we watch The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979), Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978), or The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)? Are we equally afraid of demons, vampires, zombies, and ghosts? And if so, why are we afraid of these entities, even though they are completely fictional constructions? Is there a more fundamental reason that makes these movies so terrifying?


If you think about it, these are difficult questions. Just consider how The Exorcist, Salem’s Lot, Dawn of the Dead, and The Shining are so different from each other. These films greatly differ in terms of aesthetic sensibilities, budgets, histrionics, visuals, special effects, gore content, narrative structure, characters, and subtextual political ideologies. And then again, these four horror classics continue to provide viewers with a terrifying viewing experience.


According to the legendary horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “Fear is the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind”. Interestingly enough, modern science supports Lovecraft’s view. The physiological response associated with fear appears to be a genetic mechanism produced by natural selection in an evolutionary process—fear is just part of our intrinsic human nature.


The rationale behind this idea is quite simple. Early hominids, or members of any other animal species for that matter, had a greater chance to survive and reproduce if they were able to quickly recognize a dangerous situation. The identification of peril took shape in the form of a physiological response that corresponds to the emotion of fear. As such, engraved into our genetic code are the ancestral fears that were associated with deadly hazards. Even in our cozy urban environments we continue to be conditioned to be afraid of fire, snakes, creepy insects, and large animals with big claws and teeth.


The emotion of fear is quite well understood as a neurobiological process. The physiological enabler of fear is known to be the amygdala, a group of neurons which are part of the limbic system. A characteristic feature of nearly all complex vertebrate organisms, the amygdala is located in the medial temporal lobes of the brain. Recent studies reported in the scientific literature have confirmed that the emotion of fear is accompanied by strong activity in the amygdala. 


But if fear is an emotion that is very well understood in terms of neurophysiology, biochemistry, natural selection, and evolution, then, why are we so afraid of completely fictional entities such as demons, zombies, vampires, or ghosts? Clearly, these entities created by the human imagination could never have posed a danger to early humans. And then again, being terrified by these creatures appears to be a universal emotion nowadays.


It should be clear that our fear of supernatural entities has to be an allegory for real dangers confronted by our primitive ancestors. These allegories have long been constructed within the realms of the arts, myths, and religions. That is, horror films and religions have been crafted as safe venues to negotiate and articulate our anxieties, fears, and obsessions. In particular, we can observe that these cultural products are strikingly similar in their preoccupation to understand the meaning of death and what awaits us in the afterworld.


From an evolutionary perspective, as consciousness emerged as the result of complex neurological process, early humans began to appreciate death as the potential outcome of a dangerous situation. Arguably, our natural instinct to relate danger with fear became deeply entangled with the knowledge of the possibility of dying. As a consequence, our genetically imprinted fears for real, threatening circumstances were associated with the philosophical conceptions of life and death, and we became afraid of dying.


Indeed, humans appear to be the only species in the natural history of the world that are able to understand death as the consequence of an insurmountable threat. No other earthly creature but Man is known to be self-aware and afraid of its inevitable death. Since ancient times, regardless of the cultural and social climate, mankind has been preoccupied and even terrified about all types of matters that surround death: bodily disintegration, the survival of the soul, the conscious experience of dying, premature burials, posthumous indignities, or of merely being forgotten after death.


If you think about it, nearly all horror films deal with fears associated with the processes of biological death and the hope for a spiritual afterlife. In regard to the films mentioned above, for instance, the theological horrors found in The Exorcist resonate with our fears concerning a hellish afterlife with eternal pain and suffering; the vampires in Salem’s Lot represent the terrifying prospect of a corrupt reunion with our dear departed ones; the zombies in Dawn of the Dead are allegories to our fears for improper burial rituals and the ultimate fate of our earthly remains; and the ghosts in The Shining suggests an uncertain fate for our minds and souls after we die.


Even horror films without supernatural creatures deal with our fear of death. Films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005) are terrifying because we are confronted with the prospect of an untimely, painful, and tortuous death. On their part, movies in the vein of Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), they resonate with our primordial fear of threatening animals that may harm us. Finally, flicks such as The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) and The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986) are metaphors for our fears of death and bodily disintegration due to terminal illness and advanced aging.


In this regard we observe a telling cyclic duality. In as much as horror films reflect our fear of death, our actual conception and consumption of death, real or imaginary, is constantly changing through the influence of the media. As a consequence, several presentations and representations of death that were considered morbid a few years ago today are regarded as mainstream.


Consider for example, how we watch gruesome scenes featuring anatomically correct corpses in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2009) during prime time on national television. Had these very same scenes been in a horror movie 20 years ago, they would have been enough to motivate the Motion Picture Association of America to impose a severe X rating. By the same token, let us recall that James Whale’s Frankenstein was threatened with censorship upon its original release in 1931 because of its depiction of cadavers and body parts, while today it is considered a pretty “safe” film.


It’s important to note that modern cultural products such as natural history museums, religions, and horror films, give us conflicting signals about our understanding and appreciation of death and the afterlife. Indeed, natural history museums showcase fossils, stuffed animals, and organs in formaldehyde to present the viewer with the idea of mortality as a natural and unavoidable biological process.


The theory of evolution conveys the idea that death is a necessary component in the biological processes that led to the extraordinary biodiversity we know today. In other words, the wonderful natural world that surrounds us is due to organisms dying, thereby creating room for new ones.


Modern science, of course, does not support the possibility of life after death. Those who claim near death experiences as proof of an afterlife completely ignore the complex biochemical dynamics of the brain under stressful conditions. Consciousness and propositional knowledge have definite roots in physiological processes that occur in the cerebral cortex. Therefore, the concept of an ethereal conscious experience without an underlying physical mechanism is completely unimaginable.


On the other hand, nearly all religious ceremonies and beliefs delve into the promise of an afterlife. The power of organized religion as a force of social control lies in its clever use of a moral dichotomy to establish our fate once we die. If we follow religious dogma without hesitation and without questioning its flawed logical foundations, then we are promised a glamorous heaven of eternal happiness. And if not, then we will be eternally punished in Hell. By manipulating mankind’s fear of death, organized religion clearly emerges as the most ruthless and totalitarian authority institution in the history of the world. 


In this regard, it is perhaps ironic that religion has been the source of thousands of paintings featuring macabre iconography. But then again, this should not be that big of a surprise. After all, a core element of the ideological foundations of spiritual beliefs is the eternal fight between the forces of good and evil, and the damnation of mankind in the afterworld.


The harsh reality is that everybody dies and there is no evidence of an afterlife. And recognizing that this is true is the ultimate existential horror. Horror films are scary because they showcase the reality of our inevitable deaths and our complete misunderstanding and denial as to what is supposed to happen afterwards. We can appreciate that horror films function as symbolic safety barriers that help us confront the certainty of biological death as an unavoidable physiological process against the unsubstantiated theological belief of a spiritual afterlife.


Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


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