Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Understanding Horror with Margee Kerr and Mathias Clasen

Margee Kerr, Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (New York: PublicAffairs, 2015). Details here.

Mathias Clasen, Why Horror Seduces (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Details here.

Up until last year, the number of horror films that I had seen could have been counted on one hand. As part of my early research into toys for my doctoral work, I have become drawn to toys depicting horror motifs and wondering what the big deal is, and whether these toys were something children should really be playing with. With this in mind, I decided that I should probably figure out more about horror.

As with anything I want to figure out, I tend to approach it academically. Several years ago, just as I was finishing up my MA and trying to decide what to do, I came across a Psychology Today article profiling Margee Kerr's sociological work on fear and how she was now a consultant for haunts in Pennsylvania. I was immediately impressed by her decision to bring real-world relevance to academic work. Intrigued, I put her 2015 book on my reading list. I came across Mathias Clasen's work by accident while browsing through the publishers' stalls at the 2018 SCMS conference in Toronto. I had decided to attend some of the horror panels to try and figure out what the big deal was and I came across his book, entitled Why Horror Seduces. Well, that sounded like it would answer my question, so I bought it. (I was really good, it was the only book I bought).

Kerr is a sociologist by training and chose to write for a popular audience, allowing her a platform  outside of the academic sphere. Scream is a confessional work of sorts which tries to link common fears, her experiences with them, and the latest scientific theories surrounding them together in a very readable and accessible book. Through eight chapters, Kerr documents her own experiences with a variety of common fears: heights, the sensations of a roller coaster or other thrill ride, the dark, the occult (especially hauntings and ghosts), death, and violence. Her final chapter shows how her work has been put to good use through the scientifically-driven development of the Basement, a new attraction in the popular ScareHouse haunt outside Pittsburgh. As a consultant on the project, Kerr combined the latest scientific research with audience surveys to create a more immersive experience than the usual haunt offers. As Kerr explained, the team at ScareHouse "decided to try an experiment inspired by the interactive or 'immersive' theatrical productions that put the customer in the performance, where actors can touch you." (Kerr, 197) What Kerr is getting at here is why humans like scary things: evolution. Fear responses are ingrained in evolutionary and cultural conditioning. Things that can harm us, or worse kill us, provoke extremely powerful emotions. Thrill rides, haunted houses, and horror media are designed to provoke these emotions, but at the same time we remember that we are safe: the roller coaster has safety barriers even as we drop to our simulated death; the haunted house is full of actors who may frighten us, but will not actually harm us; the scary movie is just make-believe on a screen and we can leave or turn it off. These survival emotions are followed by the dopamine hit - we feel good and want more. Kerr and ScareHouse go further by pushing that reassurance out of the conscious mind. It involves a great deal of paperwork, pre-experience interviews and vetting of potential customers, but the Basement at ScareHouse is designed with the feeling of safety in conventional horror attractions pushed to the limits. Here, the scary actors don't seem like actors, they reach out, touch you, control you (sort of like breaking the fourth wall). The idea is to provoke actual fear, a more authentic feeling because, while you are in fact perfectly safe, your brain might not think so.

Kerr recounts her own experiences with fear and relates them to science, creating a very accessible way to understand what it going on. (Notes at the back of the book are provided for those who want to take their knowledge to the next level). Kerr's choices for experiences are interesting. She uses the Edge Walk at the CN Tower to explain the primal fear of heights and the limbic system taking over from executive processing. Through more globetrotting, she uses the Daiba Strange School in Japan to explain how culture also plays a part in determining our expectations from experiences. As she explains, "Japanese culture is traditionally more future oriented and values the investment of time and energy into telling a story," so a haunt based around a plot becomes more rewarding. (Kerr, 130) Further, a more collectively-minded culture would appreciate a scenario where visitors are invited into the narrative. While I would not recommend wandering the backstreets of Bogota to test your reflexes (which she does as well), it does make for a good read. Adding the human element to academic writing makes it much more accessible, and Scream does this admirably.

Clasen's Why Horror Seduces is an academic book through and through, but is just as readable as Kerr's work. Broken into three parts, Clasen, a Literature and Media professor at Aarhus University, breaks down the latest evolutionary theories surrounding our attraction to horror and debunks a great deal of prior scholarship by analyzing some of the most influential American horror works of the 20th century through an evolutionary lens. He chooses a mix of literary and cinematic classics ranging from Night of the Living Dead and Jaws to the Blair Witch Project and Rosemary's Baby to offer a refreshingly simple interpretation of what makes them scary and why we are drawn to them. He concludes by attempting to predict where horror media will go next, through virtual reality and more immersive haunts. This is where the two books really connect. In fact, Clasen is a consultant for a Danish haunt very similar to the one Kerr works with.

Clasen is highly critical of media studies' fixation on Freudian interpretations. As he explains, audiences "thrill at the sight of a limb chopped off by a chainsaw-wielding maniac." A classical media studies interpretation would see this fascination as a manifestation of "the infantile fear of castration" with all sorts of buried symbolism. (Clasen, 3) But, especially as Freud's pioneering theories are increasingly replaced with more empirically robust ones, isn't basing media interpretations on debunked theory like "building a house on sand"? (Clasen, 3) Clasen doesn't pull punches here: evolutionary biology offers much neater and compelling explanations. "Horror stories are particularly efficient in targeting evolved danger-management circuits when those stories reflect or respond to salient sociocultural anxieties." (Clasen, 4) Basically, humans are not normally keen on getting hurt or dying. We see the chainsaw guy as a potential risk (there are deranged people and there are chainsaws), therefore we should probably pay attention to the scene because it might offer clues for how we might avoid or survive a similar situation (however remote the chances).

Similarly, Clasen attacks media criticism's fixation with the "liberationist paradigm" - using scholarly means for activist and political ends. (Clasen, 16) He charges that "humanists have been busy ignoring biology or actively denying it any shaping role in human lives." (Clasen, 16) As an historian, I am a humanist, but I also recognize that biology offers much more sensible (although probably not as colourful or fun) explanations for why horror is so darn seductive. I enjoyed my time at the SCMS conference, but there were moments that echoed Clasen's contention that Freudian-based interpretations are "like a Rube Goldberg contraption with a receptacle for texts at one end and an interpretative spout at the other, churning out thrillingly arcane and counterintuitive explanations." (Clasen, 18) Why not give evolutionary biology a try? It might be easier. Put simply: "Humans are fearful creatures." (Clasen, 24) Things in horror scare us and we want to learn as much as we can about them lest we might one day find ourselves in a zombie apocalypse (OK, zombies do need some deconstruction, but pathogens and unpredictable human behaviour are things we might encounter).

After several chapters outlining the latest scientific thinking on fear and why we fixate on horror, Clasen gets into his case studies, which are excellent summaries of each work followed by an explanation of why an evolutionary biology lens makes more sense than the deep (and fun!) Freudian explanations. Consider his deconstruction of John Carpenter's Halloween:
"Myers became a horror icon not because he is a symbolic embodiment of sexual guilt or a castrating, phallus-wielding agent of conservatism, but because he is a supercharged representation of an ancient danger - a murderous conspecific outside rational reach, an individual perfectly capable of, and willing to, take lives using whatever implement is at hand." (Clasen, 133) 
Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the best. While the deep layers of textual interpretation make for robust academic writing, the average audience is unlikely to see what the scholar sees. If we instead interpret Myers as a homicidal maniac, then his appeal is more broad as it taps into a universal fear. Why Horror Seduces is full of equally amusing and damning discussions. Is the Blair Witch Project "a collection of signifiers bopping around in a textual funhouse," or just a group of teenagers doing normal, innocent, teenage things when something goes horribly wrong? (137)

Taken together, these two works provide highly accessible and entertaining explanations and explorations of how recent scientific research is helping to explains something that is far more primal and conscious than some media  scholars would have us believe. As I try to figure out what the big deal is with horror toys, I am drawn to the idea that it is all about tapping into something much more primal and basic: things that scare us deserve our attention, because the things that scare us can be detrimental to our evolutionary standing. It's not complicated, or that fun, but sometimes life isn't as hard as we might think.