Mathias Clasen
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I really don't like to watch horror films alone. That stuff is terrifying, you know. I'm sure many of you recognize this situation. You put on a horror film, you turn down the lights, turn up the volume, and sit back. You're watching as monsters come creeping out of the dark in search of prey. Your heart goes out to the poor characters in the film, and you start squirming in your seat as the monsters get closer. Your pulse accelerates, your palms get sweaty, and your hair stands on end. This is when you begin to throw nervous glances into the corners of the room. What was that sound? Surely it didn't come from the television? Was that movement in the shadows? The horror that's on the screen bleeds in through your system and into the surroundings. The world around you turns threatening and scary. You cover your eyes, but it doesn't help. Pretty soon, you'll have to switch off. But even though you shut off the film, your heart keeps hammering away. You'll probably have nightmares tonight. Still, maybe you ought to put the film back on. You are kind of curious, after all. That's my Saturday night in a nutshell. (Laughter) Anybody else ever been in that situation? Of all the strange things that humans do, watching horror films has got to be one of the strangest. It's also a really interesting behavior, scientifically speaking. As a horror researcher, I have thought about it a lot. Why do we do it? Why do we watch horror films and read horror novels and play horror video games? And why are there so many spooky creatures in our worlds of make-believe? And what is horror? Horror is a kind of entertainment that's designed to spook people, to make them scream and shiver with fear and break out in a cold sweat. Think Stephen King and "Paranormal Activity" and "The Exorcist." It's a consistently popular and profitable genre. Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books worldwide. In the last 20 years, in the United States, horror films grossed close to 8 billion dollars. It's weird. It's weird because horror is by definition designed to make its audience feel bad. A good horror film inspires negative emotion. It makes us feel disgust and dread and terror and anxiety and fear. Let me ask you - how many of you seek out horror films from time to time? Show of hands, please. Raise your hand if you sometimes seek out horror. Okay, that's about half. That matches my own research. Along with some colleagues, I'm looking into the personality profile of horror fans, and we're finding that more than half, or about 54%, answer in the affirmative in response to the statement "I tend to enjoy horror media." Only 29% say they don't agree with this statement, and the remaining 17% can't make up their mind. (Laughter) You know, they're probably the ones who would die first in a horror film. (Laughter) Next would be the ones who say they don't like horror. (Laughter) Anyway, people really do tend to like the kind of entertainment that's designed to make them feel bad. Why is that the case? And how does horror even work? Those are the kinds of questions I've been researching, and here is what I've found out. Horror, in whatever medium, from films and literature to video games and virtual reality, works by exploiting an ancient and evolved set of biological defense mechanisms. Let's call it the "evolved fear system." If we want to understand how that system works and why it became part of human nature, we have to look at the evolutionary history of our species. Now, our evolutionary ancestors found themselves in a world that was full of danger. There was the threat from predators and creepy-crawlies and invisible microorganisms or disease, and the threat from other humans. In response to those dangers, our ancestors gradually evolved a fear system that would keep them alert and alive. In other words, our species evolved to be hypervigilant and highly fearful because being hypervigilant and highly fearful kept our ancestors alive in a dangerous world. The world may now be less dangerous than it was in ancestral times, at least in terms of predation: we're not in any immediate danger of being attacked by a saber-toothed cat on our way home from work. But we are no less vigilant and no less fearful than our evolutionary ancestors. And horror entertainment takes advantage of that aspect of human nature. So horror entertainment works by transporting us imaginatively into virtual worlds that are full of danger. In horror films and literature, we follow and mirror protagonists as they confront terrifying threats. Take Stephen King's "The Shining," for example. Here, we follow a family who is snowed in at a haunted hotel. In the novel's most famous scene, the young boy, Danny, goes into room 217. He walks nervously around the room and into the bathroom where a hotel guest killed herself some years before. The hotel is now supposed to be empty of guests, but to Danny's surprise, there is somebody in the bathtub - or some thing. To Danny's horror, it's a corpse. It's the corpse of the woman who killed herself. She's lying there,

bloated and purple and with glassy, wide eyes. She's rotting like meat festering in the trash. And then she starts to get up. King provides a detailed and really vivid description of this moving corpse, and as readers, we are forced to hold that image in our minds. That's bad enough. But we're also given a detailed description of Danny's response to the situation. We learn that he tries to scream and wets himself. We are made to mirror his fear and revulsion, and that strengthens our own responses to the horrible image. Our fear and revulsion become mixed with sympathetic anxiety for a character in danger. It's a strong emotional cocktail. Interactive and live-action media turn the screw on horror entertainment. Horror video games, for example, make you feel as if you're the protagonist in a digital world populated by monsters. In a haunted attraction, visitors walk through scary sets populated by scare actors. Here's a picture from Dystopia Haunted House, Denmark's scariest haunt. What you see is a couple of visitors who were confronted by a big guy with a machete. He's called "Le Chef," and you can take a guess at what's on the menu here. (Laughter) Around 5,000 people pay for this every Halloween, and around 300 visitors never make it all the way through the haunt. (Laughter) They have to abort their visit because it's too scary. They have fainted from fear, and they have wet themselves in terror. Why do they do it? Why do people pay good money to experience true fear and genuine terror like the people in this picture? They do it because they have an evolved appetite for vicarious experience with threat scenarios. And those scenarios, our horror entertainment, work because they are structured to target the evolved fear system. Just consider the monsters that populate our horror entertainment, from scary folk tales to haunted attractions. Such monsters are universal in the human imagination, and the most horrifying ones reflect ancestral threats. Just think of the enormous white shark from "Jaws." You know - (Hums "Jaws" theme song) doo doo; doo doo; doo doo. The threat depicted here is the threat from an enormous, man-eating predator. That kind of threat really captures our attention and sparks our imagination by engaging the evolved fear system. Now, the film itself is pretty unrealistic, but that doesn't matter. Horror monsters don't have to be realistic to frighten us; they have to engage the evolved fear system. They have to have qualities that match or overmatch those of ancestral dangers. And the white shark in "Jaws" has that in spades. It's like an ancestral predator on speed - faster, bigger, stronger, and much more dangerous. Media psychologists have documented how thousands of people were traumatized by "Jaws." Many viewers even became afraid of swimming in pools and freshwater lakes after watching the film. (Laughter) Consider another well-known and highly unrealistic monster: the zombie. Now, zombies don't exist in the real world, and we have no archaeological evidence to suggest that they ever did. But every well-raised child is able to mimic the behavior of a zombie. You know, their groaning, (Zombie groans) the outstretched but limp arms, and the classic stumbling walk. The monster has really infected our popular culture in a big way. A zombie is a terrifying concept because it effectively targets the evolved fear system. In fact, the zombie targets the fear system from two angles because it combines the threat of predation with the threat of contagion. A zombie is a predator - it wants to eat you. It is also contagious - it will infect you with its disease. It is visibly decomposing, creeping with rotten pathogens. I mean, look at the poor creature. (Laughter) Shoo. (Laughter) (Applause) You can tell that these horror monsters engage the evolved fear system from the behavioral and physiological effects of the good horror film. You know, the goose bumps and the hammering heart and the screams. These are all evolved defensive reactions. Goose bumps are a relic from a distant past, when we were covered in fur. The goose bumps, or piloerection, would make our fur stand on end and so make us look bigger to scare off an attacker. Cats do the same thing, by the way. Our hearts beat faster to pump blood to the big muscle groups so that we're ready for fight or flight. And screams send a signal to other people - a signal for them to help or get the hell away. Horror taps into the evolved fear system, but that's not all. Horror can help us calibrate that system. It's like when you take your car to the mechanic for a checkup. The mechanic carefully goes through all the vital parts of the car, and he or she will make sure that the airbags and the anti-lock braking system work. Hopefully, you'll never need them, because you don't want to get into a situation that requires an airbag to deploy, but you certainly want them to work. Same with the fear system. Through exposure to horror, you give it a test run, make sure it works properly, and keep it nicely tuned. Horror lets us learn what it feels like to be truly afraid, and it lets us learn how to handle negative emotions. It lets us maintain and refine coping skills that we may apply in critical situations in our own lives. There isn't yet much experimental research into this, but we do have some support from psychological science. One study suggests that hardcore horror fans require more extreme stimulation than do less avid fans, which means that the hardcore fans build up some resistance to fear-provoking stimuli, with exposure. Other research suggests that by exposing ourselves to horror, we build a sense of mastery, which may be transferred to our own lives. In this way, horror can help us find and even expand our limits for how much negative stimulation we can handle. I'm not sure I'd be standing here today if I hadn't forced myself to watch all those horror films in the name of science. Sure, my heart is hammering and my palms are a little sweaty, but you guys are a lot less scary than Pennywise the Dancing Clown. (Laughter) So horror can help us calibrate the fear system, and horror can help us refine our coping skills. That's why so many of us are drawn to the genre even if we don't like to watch horror films alone. The next time you are terrified of a novel, a film, a video game, or in a haunt, just remember that you are, in fact, tapping into and calibrating an ancient biological defense system. Never mind the fear and the screams and the nightmares - who's up for a horror film tonight? Thank you. (Applause)