You are watching a horror movie. The scenes exude an atmosphere of anxiety and fear, created not only by threats of jump scares but also by an intoxicating, dreadful darkness. Even a simple scene of a mother drinking a cup of coffee can be filled to the brim with tension if produced correctly. Why is that?
One of the best horror fiction writers of the 20th century, H.P. Lovecraft, said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” Representations of macabre literature are as old as civilization itself. In its primitive form, the horror tale appeared in rituals to invoke supernatural entities from prehistoric times. To some extent, it was developed by classical authors such as Phlegon of Tralles, who introduced the concept of the “the corpse bride.” In the middle ages, macabre art developed more vivid and unsettling imagery such as the gargoyles on top of Notre-Dame and St. Michaels cathedrals. While ghoulish figures in folktales, art, and other literature existed primarily in the periphery of the human imagination.
It was not until the advent of the gothic novel that macabre art started entering mainstream literature. By this time, not only were vampires, werewolves, and spectral figures invoked to stimulate fear, but also a trail of blood, ominous sounds, and abandoned castles that enraptured the imagination. This change in macabre visuals caused many to fear the unknown with greater brevity than they had before. However, this does not explain why we find vampires scary or abandoned houses creepy.
The feeling of horror arises when we recognize something is out of place, unnatural, and weird. It conjures up the unknown and the alien. This feeling evokes a reaction that is primal as much as it is cognitive. We recognize that something is out of place. There should not be blood on the floor or darkness obscuring our vision and forcing us to use our imagination to see what lies below. The oddities we see in someone’s behaviour or among a space that’s just a little too quiet can evoke strong feelings of uneasiness.
This feeling is exemplified best in characters such as Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. Apart from the fact that Myers is an unstoppable and ruthless killer, the way he is presented in the films is where the real horror lies. Superhuman strength, seemingly immortal, mute, and masked, Myers’ features amplify his unnatural and alien characteristics. We see that Myers kills, but we have no idea why. I think this is where the feelings of horror arise. When we notice something unnatural and seemingly dangerous, our anxiety gradually evolves into a phobia due to our inability to understand it. And in our attempt to avert it, our primal instincts fill us with fear. It is the fusion of these emotions that contribute to the feeling of horror.
We have turned our greatest fears into an entire industry. Horror movies and the Halloween season allows us to indulge in the thrill of being frightened. It is fun. However, this seeking of fright tempts us to think that this is what contributes to macabre art. There are countless horror movies like The Nun and The Grudge remake that rely on jump scares via soundtracks or the sudden appearance of ghouls to frighten you. These movies may scare you, but they fail to make you feel dreadful.
Movies like Hereditary and the original The Grudge inundate the atmosphere with a distressing aura, emphasizing the films’ dark undertones. In these movies, there is no source of hope. You see evil tear apart the psyche of the characters. You are not just witnessing people meeting their doom at the hands of an unknown ghost or creature because their curiosity got the better of them. Instead, you see innocent families’ humanity shatter, consumed greedily by some unforeseen evil. I think this is the quintessential ingredient to real horror.
I said before that horror arises when we experience something abnormal that gradually unfolds into a phobia when we do not understand its intention. The aversion and reaction that follows are accompanied by dire emotions such as fear and anxiety. However, this kind of aversion is weak compared to coming face to face with something purely evil yet incomprehensible.
In the painting The Triumph of Death by Peter Bruegel the Elder, you see unending legions of death, destroying people who are futilely trying to escape it. This visualization aspect is where macabre art is most salient.
What makes up the feeling of horror is not merely the aversion to the abnormal and unnatural. It is the knowledge that it can utterly extinguish your humanity. It is this kind of fear that is tucked into your psyche, no matter how wonderful and bright your day might be.