Titles of Interest: Why Horror Seduces

Why Horror Seduces by Mathias Clasen (Oxford University Press, 2017)

From vampire apocalypses, shark attacks, witches, and ghosts, to murderous dolls bent on revenge, horror has been part of the American cinematic imagination for almost as long as pictures have moved on screens. But why do they captivate us so? What is the drive to be frightened, and why is it so perennially popular? Why Horror Seduces addresses these questions through evolutionary social sciences.

Explaining the functional seduction of horror entertainment, this book draws on cutting-edge findings in the evolutionary social sciences, showing how the horror genre is a product of human nature. Integrating the study of horror with the sciences of human nature, the book claims that horror entertainment works by targeting humans' adaptive tendency to find pleasure in make-believe, allowing a high intensity experience within a safe context. Through analyses of well-known and popular modern American works of horror--Rosemary's Baby; The Shining; I Am Legend; Jaws; and several others--author Mathias Clasen illustrates how these works target evolved cognitive and emotional mechanisms; we are attracted to horrifying entertainment because we have an adaptive tendency to find pleasure in make-believe that allows us to experience negative emotions at high levels of intensity within a safe context. Organized into three parts identifying fictional works by evolutionary mode--the evolution of horror; evolutionary interpretations of horror; the future of horror--Why Horror Seduces succinctly explores the cognitive processes behind spectators' need to scream.

From an interview with the author at Religion Dispatches:

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

I think there are two important take-home messages: One, horror entertainment isn’t just mindless junk. No, the horror genre is ancient and universal, and horror stories serve important psychological, social, and moral functions for us. They give us insight into the darker extremes of our emotional register; they teach us about the vicissitudes of life and the complexities of psychology and sociality; and they provide moral calibration and help us grapple with notions of good and evil. They help us plug into our culture and connect with our humanity.

The other take-home message is that we can’t really make sense of horror without taking into account evolved and adapted human nature. Humanists have traditionally focused only on culture and context in their attempts to explain literature and films and so on, but we really have to take human biology seriously. Culture grows out of, and is constrained by, biology. That goes for horror entertainment too. Horror is enabled and constrained by human nature. If we weren’t fearful, imaginative creatures we’d have no horror stories—and if we want to understand why we are fearful, imaginative creatures, we have to get a fix on our evolutionary history and the biological forces that shaped our nature. So, my take-home messages are these: Let’s take horror seriously, and let’s take our own biological heritage seriously, because that heritage helps explain how and why scary entertainment works.

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