This “threat-detection and handling system” has been deeply ingrained in our nervous system over hundreds of thousands of years (or however long we’ve been at this thing). Professor Clasen says it far better than I can: “Human attention is preferentially engaged by evolutionary recurrent, fear-relevant stimuli”. So, we’re wired to be frightened by snakes, large animals with fangs, and so on. Some psychologists also suspect we’re hard wired to fear being judged negatively by others. For our unlucky ancestors, being judged unworthy meant banishment from the clan or tribe. Banishment, in turn, meant death. Today, this fear translates into other modern fears of being judged negatively: public speaking, social anxiety, dating anxiety.
All by way of saying, we are preprogrammed to display emotional states of fear and anxiety to certain stimuli, because this reaction faired our ancestors well. However, we can’t go around with this vague response without it being adapted for our current culture. Therefore, the management system is constantly subjected to shaping and refinement to fit the local environment.
Now, as you may have guessed, horror stories fit nicely into threat-detection system. Monsters ghosts, serial killers, zombies, werewolves, vampires all qualify as something that we should react to in order to save our lives. Our reaction is unproductive, however, because books and movies are not a major threat to our survival. However, we have the reaction, the jolt anyway, and get to laugh about it later because, after all, we survived and that really couldn’t happen to us. (By the way, versions of these monsters have been around forever. So, they are part of our psyche – whether they exist or not. We are on the lookout for these things – we’re programmed to do it…)
More on this topic in the next blog…