Primal Fear: The Science Behind Why Your Favourite Horror Films Scare the Pants Off You
At some point in our lives, cinema gives each and every one of us a bad case of the willies. Whether it’s jumpscares from banshees shrieking from the dark, or explosions of offal gore-tastic enough to make a butcher wince, we’ve all experienced those fleeting, thrilling moments of adrenaline that make horror cinema so popular. And they’re great, these moments – we scream, we cower and we sigh in relief once they’ve passed. However – these are cheap thrills. Jumpscares and gore make for fun cinema, but the very best horror films, the frights that linger, keeping us awake for days and weeks after. Those frights come from somewhere much deeper.
On a dark and stormy night 114 years ago, German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch published the essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” Within this piece, he laid out the notion of ‘the uncanny’; that hard-to-articulate, lurching, hair-on-end feeling we get when something just isn’t quite right. Jentsch theorised the sensation arises from ambiguity – with our senses impaired in a dark house, for example, we may struggle to identify a tall, dark shape in our hallway. This unsettles us, naturally, until we can figure out what’s actually going on. Either it’s an anorak slung over a bannister, in which case all is well. Or it’s an axe murderer, in which case, oh noooooo. In the case of the latter, uncanny fear is replaced with a more knowable fear: fear for personal safety (the sort of fear present in jumpscares and gore and whatnot).
Jentsch believed that if we wish to create a feeling of unease, we need only to create ‘intellectual uncertainty’ in the viewer (or reader – not many horror flicks in 1906) by planting seeds of doubt over whether a character is indeed really human, or an object is quite as lifeless as it first appears. A horror film can take the holy-shit-o-meter a notch higher still if, when finally hitting us with the big spooky reveal, we realise the malevolent being has been hidden in view the whole time. If we can’t trust our own senses, how can we ever be safe? For a great example of this, check out the Crooked Man scene from The Conjuring 2. It’s just a dog, right? RIGHT?
In 1919, Sigmund Freud got his twisted mitts on Jentsch’s uncanny theory and took it further. He proposed there were two types of uncanny fear: repressed thoughts from childhood (naturally), and surmounted beliefs and instincts once held by either the individual or humanity as a whole. So, for example, a common horror trope (see: The Exorcist, The Ring, 28 Days Later, IT and hundreds more) is for a character to suddenly begin moving erratically, contorting into inhuman shapes. Realistically, a little girl in a nightie jerking around and dropping C-bombs is far less of a threat to us than, say, a mugger. So why is it so damn horrifying?
For the answer we must pirouette back through the annals of history; about a million years should do it. If in the tribe belonging to our ancient ancestors, a fur-clad caveperson suddenly dropped to the ground, frothing and writhing and screaming, our ancestors had two choices. One: stick around and see what happens. Two: sprint madly away. Now – if the reason for the sudden fit was the onset of rabies or similar, the ancestor who ran would be far likelier to survive and pass on their genes than the ancestor who decided to stay behind and hang out. Thus, when we witness inexplicable human behaviour – screaming, scurrying, contorting, gnashing, writhing – there appears a little voice, buried deep in the ancient part of our brains, urging us: get out of there.
This is the reason for the uncanny valley effect, discovered by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori: as computer-generated images increase in likeness, our empathy and familiarity with them goes up. The Simpsons and The Incredibles are not scary. However, when a CG image approaches the brink of photorealism, there comes a point when our empathy drops off a cliff, and we instead are filled with unease and dread. Cases in point: those dead-eyed freaks in Polar Express and the awful kid in Mars Needs Moms.
This is the ancient part of our brain shaking us, insisting that something is amiss. We recognise the image as human… but a human with something deeply wrong going on behind the scenes.
Remember Alien? Remember when Ash attacks Ripley and the ship’s crew clobber him with a baseball bat? Ash crumples beneath the blow and begins thrashing around the ship like a wasp in an upturned pint glass. He spews white liquid and emits a high-pitched buzzing sound; it is awful to witness, and undoubtedly scarred a generation of underage cinemagoers. In this scene, we have the uncanny at its peak: an evil is hidden in plain sight, its apparent humanity rapidly disappearing, revealing it as the soulless, malevolent automaton it always was.
Freud wasn’t done there, however.
Here’s a hypothetical scare-fest: you’ve had a friend over for dinner. At the end of the night, you bid them farewell, and watch them drive away. You go back inside and sit on the sofa. Then, from in the bathroom, you hear the toilet flush and the tap run. The door handle twists, and from within emerges your friend, cheerful, smiling, asking if you’d like another drink. They head into the kitchen to look in the fridge. You freeze, heart racing, skin crawling. You are horrified, undoubtedly. But … why? There’s no threat of violence… is there?
Freud was the first to highlight the uncanniness of the double. He believed that repetition is disturbing because it implies that events are being controlled remotely rather than occurring randomly. We are being manipulated and watched, and at any moment a great veil might be pulled back and reveal to us the awful, inescapable truth that we are trapped in an infinite cycle.
I remember listening to The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” as a kid and feeling inexplicably anxious at the repeated, phasing refrain: number nine… number nine… number nine… number nine… I still shudder a little when I listen. The trailer for the excellent, powerfully disturbing series Chernobyl uses repetition to a similar, dreadful effect in the endless, distorted bleating of the tannoy.
Repetition, doubles, repressed thoughts, surmounted beliefs and primal fears: while the best horror films draw from these harbingers of dread, one stands head and shoulders above the rest. Everything – everything – in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
The film was created in deliberate accordance with Freud’s The Uncanny. The endlessly duplicating pattern on the carpet running through the Overlook Hotel. The Grady twins. The reams of typed pages repeating “all work and no play.” The hedge maze, and the maze of the hotel itself. The woman in 237, simultaneously animate and inanimate. Jack Torrence’s fate, mirrored in that of the previous caretaker. The Oedipal violence between father and son. And, of course, Jack’s photograph hung in the hallway of the hotel, leaving us with the sinking feeling that all of this was meant to happen – that it had happened before, and may yet happen again. The Shining may seem tame compared to modern horror cinema, but thanks to its exploitation of the uncanny and our primal, ancient fears, the macabre atmosphere in every single scene remains unparalleled to this day.
So the next time you’re sitting in a crowded cinema, fingers digging into the armrests, weeping gently, desperately hoping your date won’t glance over and witness your glistening cheeks and taut, fearful mug, you’ll know exactly who to thank: Ernst Jentsch, Masahiro Mori, and the inevitable, the inescapable… Sigmund Freud.
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