Why do educated people fall for this stuff?
I recently read a scholarly article by Mathias Clasen entitled “Monsters Evolve: A Biocultural Approach to Horror Stories” which was published in the Review of General Psychology in 2012. (Full disclosure: I became aware of this article from the web site “This is Horror” which was citing a blog by the Huffington Post-UK which in turn was citing the Clasen article. Got that?) In this article, Professor Clasen attempts to answer these very questions, and I must say he does so in a most fascinating manner. I was rather skeptical before reading the piece; only because I expected some regurgitated psychobabble we’ve seen many times in the past on this topic. I was pleasantly surprised.
Professor Clasen posits a biocultural model whereby our reaction to and fascination with horror stories is the result of an evolutionary process combined with cultural adaptation. Let me try and summarize some of the main points:
According to Professor Clasen, we have a cognitive “architecture” designed for the management of danger. Our own evolution involved developing various adaptive survival strategies to cope with and survive threatening situations. Those strategies that weren’t helpful died out with our unlucky ancestors who died trying to use them.
As result of human evolution and evolutionary psychology, all of us are born with a wide range of adaptive strategies designed to help us survive and surmount a wide range of dangers. In simplest terms, we are all aware of the nearly instantaneous a flight or fight response at the slightest hint of danger.
The flight or fight response served our ancestors well when a rustling sound in the nearby bushes could be a saber-toothed tiger or an angry mammoth. Of course, these same reactions are less helpful today – we often don’t face life or death fears like our ancestors did at a moment’s notice. Nonetheless, we still have these intense reactions, and typically in the face of considerably milder dangers or no danger at all (for instance, in anticipation of giving a speech, taking a test, being alone, unhappy with our physical appearance). Unfortunately, these very reactions are the physiological basis of anxiety disorders – when we perceive threat and danger in harmless situations and react with fear and avoidance.
So, what has all of this to do with horror stories? Well the best is yet to come. Sadly, I’ve gone on much too long. I will resume this discussion in the next blog.