What is Horror?

bosch hellscape
Image Credit-Wikimedia

Horror isn’t always easy to quantify, but most of us know what it feels like to be horrified in one manner or another. Whether it’s the way we reacted as children the first time we saw a dead baby bird, with its translucent skin and bulbous, unformed eyes, or later on as adults after witnessing some gruesome accident, most of us know horror when we see it. It can also be far more mundane in nature. It can be conjured while roaming the darkened halls of abandoned buildings, especially old mental asylums and hospitals. And who hasn’t felt a shiver up their spine when walking through the woods on a moonless night?

Horror can be elicited through our other senses as well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be visual to scare us. It can be triggered by something as simple as a weird sound in the night or a strange smell on the breeze. If you bit into a piece of unidentifiable meat and it was suggested that the taste you were savoring was actually derived from human sources would you not feel overwhelming disgust and horror (unless you’re a practicing cannibal, of course)?

We can even feel it when reading about the natural world around us. With our big brains we can extrapolate an abundance of horrific notions from the different ways that life thrives on our planet. Consider the life cycle of parasitic wasps, who lay their young in the paralyzed bodies of their victims for them to feed on.  We can imagine what it would be like if those tiny horrors were scaled up in size. I don’t know about you, but the thought of giant parasitic wasps, the size of humans, flying around and impregnating people with their voracious young gives me the creeps all day long. How about those ants in the sweltering jungles near the equator who are susceptible to a fungus that takes over their minds and forces them to attach themselves to the underside of leaves? After a few days they die and a strange protuberance thrusts through their skulls, forming a bulb from which fruiting bodies are released to drift away on the breeze and propagate new colonies of fungus elsewhere. What if something like that could happen to us?

Then there’s all the phobias and social anxieties we suffer from. Germs, contamination, threats of violence, and superstitions can leave us cowering in the corner. No matter how immune you think you are, everyone has a flaw in their mental armour and you can bet that there’s something out there just waiting to exploit yours. When it happens you’ll wonder how you got this far in the first place.

Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and racing thoughts—all part of the fight-or-flight response we’ve been conditioned to obey over the millennia of our collective existences. We have evolved these mechanisms to protect us from harmful situations, but what happens when the harm we imagine within our minds doesn’t really exist? We can’t escape our thoughts, no matter how ridiculous or preposterous they may seem to others. We fear what we fear.

It begs the question: if our goal in life is to live free of anxiety and distress, then why do we subject ourselves on purpose to horrifying ideas? Why do we like movies and books that scare the bejesus out of us? Maybe it’s a way of reconciling the fears we all have. We can cringe for awhile, but then we come out the other side none the worse for wear and we can laugh to ourselves after it’s over.

There’s so many things we can find to be afraid of too—so many fears to stand up to and conquer as we grow older. Chief among these must be the fear of death itself. What greater unknown will we face in our lives, after all? My biggest fear regarding death is that there’s nothing beyond it, and the thought of ceasing to exist altogether terrifies me more than anything else. I suspect that many others share this fear with me.

Everyone fears death or, more precisely, what may or may not lie beyond death’s door. Anyone who says they aren’t fearful is lying. Until you’re on your death bed it’s easy to act brave and talk big. Just wait until it’s your turn, though. Since no one has ever come back from the great beyond to tell us what lies on the other side, none of us can say with any conviction that it’s anything good. Many of the world’s western religions create motivation to be good by convincing us that we’ll suffer eternal torment from demons in a lake fire if we’re bad. If we’re really good we get to go to heaven, but is that even a good thing? Imagine the horror of being reduced to an invisible, incorporeal thing roaming a foreign plane of existence far removed from all that was once familiar? Eastern religions believe in different kinds of punishment and reward, like those espousing reincarnation and karma. Maybe if you’re cruel and you walk all over people in this life, you’ll come back as a lowly bug that lives out its life in fear of being trampled underfoot at any moment. Kafka knew something about that.

Regardless of what scares you, there’s one thing about horror that is very life affirming. As long as it isn’t happening to us we can observe it and then breathe a sigh of relief when it passes, thankful that we get to live to fight another day. Alas, no one lives forever, and the great unknown is out there, waiting for us with infinite patience and all the time in the world to get to know each one of us personally. Can we ever really be prepared for what it has in store for us?

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