When I was a child, madness was the most terrifying affliction I could imagine. The idea that I might not be able to control my own life was bad enough. But to think that I might be controlling it, yet in ways that my conscious mind would never allow, was enough to give me nightmares. The irrational unknown inside me was terrifying.
The notion that I might be someone other than the sane person I thought I saw, when I looked into the mirror, was simply horrific. The idea of losing rationality and, with it, my central core of me, that hub around which my life revolves, has always been more frightening than anything else I can think of.
This sense of horror is not unique to me.
The Fear of Madness and the Irrational.
We still, today, see people who clearly are suffering from recognised psychological disorders, being subjected to ‘exorcisms’ – the result of which can often be death – in parts of the world where science has not lit the darkness of religion. There are many places where to have Tourette Syndrome could be lethal – not because the condition would kill you, but because your neighbours might.
Here in the West, with our arrogant notions of cultural sophistication, the fear is not of the unconscious mind going on the rampage and overwhelming the rational one, but of an external agent doing so. This is typically a demon or other supernatural force; but there is no doubt that the fear of these two phenomena is the same: that of the rational mind being cast down by the irrational.
Supernatural forces do not have to obey the laws of nature any more than mad people have to be rational. Logic, sophistication and rationality are futile in the face of these phenomena; that is what makes them so frightening.
In science fiction, this irrational, terrifying and relentless force is usually alien. Something non-terrestrial, which refuses to obey the rational norms we humans love to think preserve us. From HG Wells’ War of the Worlds to the xenomorphic anti-hero of the Alien films, the terror is relentless and unstoppable. Not only that; it is beyond human resistance.
‘Let’s nuke them from space; it’s the only way to be sure.’ In other words, we fragile humans are powerless against such a monster. If ever it comes upon us, we shall die.
The Fear of Death.
This is the key, I think, to the most intense horror writing. As a boy, when I read HP Lovecraft, my teeth chattered at images of dark tunnels where proto-Shoggoths devoured everything before them. Reading the MR James tale, I shivered as a bundle of animated bed sheets relentlessly pursued the narrator along the beach.
I understood then that the horror lies in complete helplessness before the object of terror and its relentlessness. It will never give up. That is all that we know. We can never defeat the unknown. Life is a matter of keeping it at bay long enough to survive another day.
The fear we experience is of death itself and that is why it is so powerful. Self-preservation is strong in all sentient species; moreover, our mortality is always known to us. Indeed it is the only thing in life that we may be quite certain of: that we shall die.
Yet of death itself we know nothing. We have invented huge pyramids of fantastical thought, through religion and philosophy, to try to rationalise something we don’t know anything at all about. All through human history, the question ‘what is death’ has stalked us, yet we have never been able to answer it. Death remains at once absolutely certain, yet unknown. It is remorseless and relentless; we cannot escape it forever.
A Biological Basis for Terror.
That lovely writer, the late Bruce Chatwyn, speculated on early humans, living in the same caves as bears. He suggested that this might be the reason for our fear of the dark.
While his specific example may not be true, we probably have evolved to fear the dark. It is the time when we are most vulnerable to predators and least able to defend ourselves. Humans are so dependent on sight that when it is least useful is when we are most vulnerable.
It is unlikely that the human tendency need for ‘a good eight hours’ of sleep is an accident. When we are asleep in groups around the campfire, we are less likely to be eaten.
Michael Shermer’s Lunch
Michael Shermer described our propensity to fear the unknown like this: ‘Imagine you’re out in the savannah and you hear a rustling in the grass. You jump up into a tree and find out it’s just the wind. So you feel like a fool. Then again, just suppose you hear a rustling, conclude it’s only the wind and carry on; but it turns out to be a lion. Well, you’re lunch.’ In which case, your genetic line would come to an end. Natural selection predisposes us to fear the unknown.
In other words, we are hardwired to fear that which we cannot know for certain is real. And our subconscious mind is the one provoking that fear. After all, the rational mind is saying ‘Stop that, it’s just the wind,’ while the irrational subconscious is screaming ‘What if it is a lion? Get in the tree!’
The foundation of all good suspense writing – including horror – is that fear. What if the baddy wins? What if the branch gives way or the hero is seen? Where is the monster hiding?
It exploits our instinct for self-preservation, which, along with our sex drive, is the one of the most powerful stimuli we have. Indeed we know that the successful denouement of a suspense-ridden situation is very similar, in the neurological responses it provokes, to the relief of sexual climax.
Real World Experience: the gateway to the unknown.
These are real emotions and feelings derived from the real world and we experience them in it. Pushing ourselves to the limits, doing dangerous things, adventurous sports, driving fast motorcycles, even gambling, all produce the same high, the post-coital release.
Writers exploit this. We bring these real-world fears into your home and let you enjoy them vicariously. You can be terrified white as a sheet, and then put down the book and it’s done with. You won’t fall off the mountain or crash your motorcycle; the baddy will not shoot you and the plane will not crash.
So what makes the difference between the merely suspenseful and the true horror story?
The answer is in the nature of the threat. The risk of falling off a mountain is real and the consequences known; that is why we use the word ‘cliff-hanger’ to describe stories about these. Horror depends not just on the unknown but on the unknowable.
Because these threats cannot be rationalised, they exist in our irrational subconscious – which we already know is capable of breaking through and upsetting our cosy, rational, conscious mind at any time. Threats are more terrifying when they are not definable, rather than less.
Naming your fear.
Being able to name your fear tames it. It may still be real, but you will, instinctively, begin to deal with it. You might, instead of jumping into a tree, plant your assegai and face your fear. You can rationalise it, quantify its risk, develop strategies against it – as humans always have done.
The irrational fear offers no such solace. How can you quantify that which cannot be known? How can you develop a strategy to combat it? Of course you cannot.
The nameless things of fear that horror writers peddle are much more effective at terrifying our readers than the mundane fears of regular suspense. Reading a book about an aeroplane crash might possibly make you pause the next time you have to fly, but it won’t stop you getting to sleep at night. The irrational fears provoked by horror writers, if they are any good, should indeed make you at least a little apprehensive about putting the lights out.
I am an atheist and a rationalist. I have noticed, amongst some other atheists, a real revulsion against horror stories, especially those which make use of supernatural motifs. For a long time I wondered why this was. Surely, if you don’t believe in the supernatural, then it must lose its power to frighten you.
Irrational Inner Terrors
We cannot so easily dismiss our inner terrors, our fear of the rustle in the grass. And I think that many atheists, while stoically rationalist, fear this fear itself, indeed more than any other. The simple fact of not being able to define the fear is terrifying; it eats away at that solid foundation of scepticism, as Pascal’s Wager, that most cynical of proposals – that it might be better to believe in god as an insurance, just in case – does. So persuasive, so logical. Yet so destructive, so compromising of rationality, as well as so completely amoral.
I think these atheists fear that the very foundation of their atheism is threatened, in a similar way, by careless talk of supernatural beings – which their rational minds must tell them cannot possibly exist. Quite literally, they fear that this kind of writing might open the door to the insanity of the irrational subconscious mind. How can they not protest, when they cling so tightly to their rationality, in order to defend themselves against their inner madness. It is a quaint conundrum.
LSD: Irrational Psychotropics
When I was much younger (I am a child of the 1960s) I experimented with LSD, a powerful psychedelic drug. When I was using it, I always stayed inside a citadel that was my rational consciousness. The thrills and highs, the swirling elemental experiences all around me, I enjoyed from within it; but its gate was never broken.
I know, however, from discussions and reading, that others did not do as I did. They threw their citadels open, carelessly allowing the maelstrom around them to take them where it would. I see the same thing in shamans who use similar psychotropic substances; they open themselves up to another world – the supernatural one.
Did I, in some way, miss out? I don’t know. Peter Hammill wrote, of LSD, ‘I don’t make a vital breakthrough and it walks me like a dog upon a lead.’ I could never be led in that way, as Peter was; the citadel of my rationality was never breached.
If I did not open myself to the nameless other, however, I did observe it and, in my own reactions, learned about how humans deal with it; we bolt and bar the doors and shiver inside, clutching whichever talisman would keep us safe. (Mine was a beach-pebble with a hole through it that I wore on a thong around my neck.)
Horror and LSD
Horror is comparable to the LSD experience and reactions are similar. The reader will retreat further into the citadel, clutch the pebble tighter; and the writer will redouble his or her efforts to break down the door and snatch the talisman.
I think for the rationalists and, especially, the atheist ones, the citadel and the pebble are mightily important. They are their shields and bucklers. They are mine too, but I have had the experience of seeing at first hand how vulnerable they are.
I must ask myself, ‘Why did I not open the gate, let go the pebble?’ The answer of course, is fear. And that is why rationalist atheists hate the casual use of the supernatural for artistic effect: they fear it.
That is because no matter how strictly atheist we might be, there is a part of us, our irrational subconscious, that screams ‘What if it’s a lion? Get in the tree!’ This time, however, its sense is ‘What if I’m wrong? What if it is real?’
The irrational subconscious
The rational mind refuses but the irrational subconscious insists. And that is why supernatural horror stories, which are, after all, about things that rational atheists ‘know’ cannot possibly exist, nevertheless scare them witless. Like the Turks at the Siege of Vienna, they undermine the bastions of the citadel.
Religious people do not share the same fear. They may be terrified of the monsters themselves, but they have no fear that they might be real, because they know that they are so. They can name their fear and use the appropriate prophylactic – a prayer, some beads, a cross, a pebble with a hole – to counter it.
Their fear is specific, focussed. It has a name and they can see it, describe it. It is not an existential fear in the way that the rationalist’s fear of the chaotic madness of the subconscious is. Nor does it threaten their very understanding of themselves. It might devour them but it cannot destroy them.
I have Filipino friends who regularly surprise me with the closeness they feel to the supernatural world. This is by no means confined to the devoutly religious. One told me, in all sincerity, how she and her father had to fight off an attack by a manananggal. This is a winged horror of the night that lands on the roofs of houses were there are pregnant women. It sucks out their babies through a long, prehensile, tubular tongue.
My friend described in detail the chilling cries of the beast and how the family reacted. She absolutely believes in the reality of the incident and the threat, and no persuasion will ever shake her.
There is a large housing project in the city of Taguig, part of Metro Manila, called Tenement. In it lives a group of supernatural beings called engkanto. These are similar to the ‘good neighbours’ of Scottish folklore, or perhaps Irish ‘fairies’. (Anyone who thinks fairies are cute little things with wings has not encountered any Scottish ones; ours eat people.)
The engkanto regularly kidnap children and spirit them away to the parallel realm in which they live, there to become engkanto themselves. Which is all well and good as folklore, and makes fine stories for the two blockbusting feature films made about them; but the fact remains that most Filipinos believe that they are real.
More recently, another friend, a scientist, after pooh-poohing manananggal as folk belief, proceeded to tell me how she and her mother had seen a kapre while out walking.
A kapre is a supernatural being that appears as a dark-skinned man sitting in a tree; most just silently observe and they usually smoke cigars. My friend saw no inconsistency between her rejection of the one and acceptance of the other: ‘I saw it with my own eyes,’ she insisted.
Kapre do not exist but my friend is not a fool; she is an intelligent, articulate and educated woman. It shows the power that the irrational mind has, that it could make her believe in the impossible; and better, to see it.
These anecdotes remind me of the yarn in which a southern type asks an old Highland woman if she believes in fairies. ‘Of course not,’ she says. ‘But they’re still there.’
We are not, in the secular West, so distant from these superstitions, despite our conceits. I understand that over half the people in the US still believe that the Earth was created in six days, 6000 years ago and that Noah’s Ark was real. A quarter, the same sources tell me, believe that the sun orbits the Earth.
My own grandmother was a reader of tea-leaves who professed to have the ‘second sight’ and my mother was as superstitious as any Filipino. I never saw my father so shaken as the time he found me and some friends playing with a home-made Ouija board.
Just because our rational mind says one thing does not mean our irrational subconscious agrees and here, of course, is the seam that horror writers mine so enthusiastically.
Fear of the Irrational Unknown.
It should come as little surprise then, to rational atheists, that similarly atheist writers like me delight in exploiting our subconscious fear of the irrational unknown.
As writers, our purpose is to cause effect; to reach out and touch our audience. It makes little difference whether we are writing a torrid sex scene, a hilarious farce or a chilling horror: we are in the business of playing with your minds. Your citadel of rationality is our prize; we are the makers of siege-engines and battering rams.
So naturally we use the tools that are most effective. The fact that one is scared rigid by a story about faceless ghouls doesn’t make one any less atheist, it just makes one human. The monster could be an alien xenomorph, a zombie, a vampire, a shape-shifter…it doesn’t matter. All that is required is that you cannot name it, for it is that which you cannot name that you fear the most.
Fear of gods
Which is of course, why we came to have gods in the first place – why else would the religious call themselves ‘god-fearing’? We placed all that we fear into an unknowable supernatural being and then prostrated ourselves in supplication before it. ’God’ is both a saviour and a scapegoat; but both are falsehoods, because fear resides only within ourselves.
From zombies to mummies to vampires to xenomorphs to deities and demons, our most frightening horrors are all the same. They are incomprehensible, unreasonable, irrational and relentless. We are defenceless against them and that is their power, as well as their attraction. We love to be frightened by them because we love the release that comes at the end of it.
Also published on Medium.