THAT MOPEY GUY IS US, FOLKS
Horror and comedy are similar modes in the sense that no two people necessarily have the same personal definition of what is scary or funny. So, the joke that cracks you up may leave me standing there, unhilarified. Likewise, the stuff I find scary-as-eff might seem like a bunch of utter nonsense to you.
Sure, there are universal fears. It’s hard to imagine any human who wouldn’t be frightened by a rampaging grizzly bear or an earthquake. Here’s the abstract from “The Malicious Serpent: Snakes as a Prototypical Stimulus for an Evolved Module of Fear” from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/:
As reptiles, snakes may have signified deadly threats in the environment of early mammals. We review findings suggesting that snakes remain special stimuli for humans. Intense snake fear is prevalent in both humans and other primates. Humans and monkeys learn snake fear more easily than fear of most other stimuli through direct or vicarious conditioning. Neither the elicitation nor the conditioning of snake fear in humans requires that snakes be consciously perceived; rather, both processes can occur with masked stimuli. Humans tend to perceive illusory correlations between snakes and aversive stimuli, and their attention is automatically captured by snakes in complex visual displays. Together, these and other findings delineate an evolved fear module in the brain. This module is selectively and automatically activated by once-threatening stimuli, is relatively encapsulated from cognition, and derives from specialized neural circuitry.
Studies have even shown that the human brain can detect snakes in the environment PRE-CONSCIOUSLY, meaning we see that shit even before we know we saw it. That’s how effing scared of snakes we are as a species.
Aside from those kinds of
…universal fears, we are all over the map as far as what scares each of us individually. I heard a forensic entomologist on the radio recently, talking with great glee about her job–which involves researching the various kinds of maggots and beetles and blowflies that grow in dead, rotting bodies so that she can determine when someone died in a murder case. WTF?! After 15 minutes of that particular job, I’d go screaming into the night, but she LOVES it! Some people are scared of heights, some go parachuting for fun, etc.
So, we’ve got our quirky psychological fears which form like phobias, from specific painful experiences in our individual pasts. We have “universal” fears, which are hard-wired into
…our brains after countless centuries of evolution. And then we have cultural fears.
It has been said that you can learn a lot about a society by looking at its shared fears. Perfect examples of this are the big-ass Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, which (it’s also been said) hinge on the post-Hiroshima cultural anxiety of large-scale atomic destruction. This is why I always assume when watching Giallo movies, a la Suspiria or Deep Red, that Italians must REALLY be scared of being confused!
I was 7 years old when The Exorcist came out, and even from a one digit age vantage, it was apparent how much of a cultural phenomenon it was at the time. I believe it was rated X when it first came to theaters, which added an even bigger feeling of transgression to it. My mom and dad went to see it one night and I remember quite well how pale and sweaty old pops looked upon returning home. I found out years later that the film had hit him really hard and he had several sleepless nights after seeing it.
I’ve watched The Exorcist several times now (the first was in my early 20s during a thunderstorm and BOY did that leave an impression!). Four or five more viewings have lessened the terror aspect to the point where I mostly just geek out about the many inspired directorial and acting choices it boasts. Watching it that many times has also revealed to me what I think was so scary to people when it first came out:
You know how the unholy trinity of the Vietnam War, the Manson Family murders, and Woodstock are looked at popularly as markers for the end of American innocence in the 20th century? My take on what hit people so hard about The Exorcist is that it showed, mythopoetically, the breakdown of the two main institutions that had dominated American life for so long: The Family and The Church. It mirrored what everyone was feeling on some level, that the bedrock was no longer stable–horrible things could happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone.
In the movie, when poor Reagan is possessed, nobody knows what to do. The medical community is the first to throw up their hands. Her mother is willing to try anything because she feels so completely powerless. And when the church finally steps in, the demon makes quick work of the old, wise Exorcist, leaving the mopey guy who’s lost his faith to figure out something QUICK.
In 1974, when it was released, I would argue that the movie acted almost like a public act of exorcism. A public vomiting up of all the bitter pills that we’d swallowed since WWII, but never talked about as a group. And what better way to do that than in the guise of a silly horror movie!
What I’m getting at is this–maybe cultural fears are really more like an infection that makes everyone in the particular society a little sick. Maybe they have less to do with the personal psychology of how we develop fears as individuals, and are more like viruses that appear now and then to show us where we’re deviating from balance. In the same way that our brains are constantly on the lookout for
Is it a coincidence that modern Japanese horror films are filled with dread about technology, when Japan is probably the single most technologically-driven country on earth? Maybe not. Maybe those long-haired brunette ghouls crawling from the TVs and cell phones in all those J horror movies of the past 15 years were called up from the collective unconscious to create a fear symbol that could enter the culture and give voice to something that was otherwise hard to talk about in a public forum.
Or perhaps I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THE HELL I’M TALKING ABOUT! Ha ha ha! This is what happens when I decide to try offroading one of these posts. Good lord!
Tune in tomorrow, and I promise to keep things focused on a movie or a book or something…