In the constant quest to scare myself and compare newer works to old, I have come to notice something peculiar happening: when I choose to revisit that special movie or book a second time to recapture that eerie, horrified feeling of doom and dread… to savor it once again, to relive the scary…the magic isn’t there. (Or maybe I should say: the same magic isn’t there.)
In fact, whole sections of rather detailed – and what I recall as emotionally integral – terrifying scenes routinely turn up muted or missing.
How can this be? What happens to the mind reading Horror or sitting in a dark theater that we invent so much that isn’t there? Does Horror really lose its effectiveness because we get older? How do we come to misremember the Horror that we remember so well?
Our Brains in a Jar: the Science of Horror
When H.P. Lovecraft rose to the defense of our genre in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, speaking against the Literary Critics of his time, he stated:
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (105).
Savor those words a minute…because the literary definition of Horror has long been “stories that exploit fear…”
It is around the potency of this emotion that the Horror genre (even when called Weird) is built. And for that exact reason, every student of Horror should dig deeply into the anatomy of fear. Of course that means digging into some science – specifically the science of the brain (neuroscience), the science of perception (psychology), and the science of the body (biology).
Because for anyone who ever wondered why watching the movie or reading the book the second time around is so totally not the same experience, reading up on the technical end of things sheds some fascinating light. Horror, it would appear, it a whole-body experience.
One of the most interesting books I happened across recently is called What We See When We Read: a Phenomenology with Illustrations, by Peter Mendelsund. The associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf and designer of some pretty iconic book covers, Mendelsund did some interesting digging of his own into the application of imagination in reading.
What do we see when we read? This (it turns out) is a very interesting question. Because apparently, reading is a kind of marriage between what the author suggests and what we remember.
You read right: what we remember. Because according to Mendelsund, we build new literary images from consolidating relevant or similar details born of our own experiences.
Says Mendesund, “the idea of [a] house, and the emotions it evokes in me are the nucleus of a complex atom, around which orbit various sounds, fleeting images, and an entire spectrum of personal associations.” (207)
Furthermore, “These images we ‘see’ when we read are personal: what we do not see is what the author pictured when writing a particular book. That is to say: Every narrative is meant to be transposed; imaginatively translated. Associatively translated. It is ours…and the feeling has primacy over the image…” (207)
So when we read, we reach into that catalogue of remembrances for the most similar thing and attach it to the skeleton of the author’s words. We shape and refine, correct and adapt as the author gives us more information, but the power of the moment – the very images we associate with that first reading – are not only retained in ghostly fashion, but are most likely ours and based on our personal experiences at that moment in time.
Says Mendelsund, “Much of our reading imagination comprises visual free association…untethered from the author’s text… (we daydream while reading)…A novel invites our interpretive skills, but it also invites our minds to wander…” (294)
And wander Horror minds do…
It goes back to the psychology of the moment associated with the image the author has summoned by the spell of his or her words. Say our victim is wandering an old house in her nightgown. We all have a concept of an old house in mind, but we all also most like remember a very specific old house, one that had some creepy element that haunts us still. We also all understand what it is to discover that we are not safe after all when we are asleep at night (at our most vulnerable, very likely naked or nearly so). So with one simple concept, likely one simple sentence, we have created the whole scary house and put ourselves in it.
We remember, we empathize, and we shiver. It doesn’t matter that, as we read the book, we concede certain facts to the revelations of the author – who constantly divulges them bit by bit. We keep what we kill.
“When we remember reading books, we don’t remember having made these constant little adjustments…We simply remember it as if we had watched the movie…” (Mendelsund 53)
Unfortunately, when we re-read the same sentence years later, we very often have more houses to compare the images to, and have made some decisions about sleeping naked (or nearly so). Therefore when we read the same book or passage years later, it is not the same because the house is different, the victim is different, and the survival plan has changed.
The truth of why Horror doesn’t scare you the same way a second time is one of biology: you changed and the book did not.
Thank God! It’s Brain Science & Not Old Age…
People like to say that Horror is a young person’s game. They claim that it is really a Young Adult obsession, or worse – a phase.
But it turns out that this is not completely true. Of course there are consequences to growing older that affect how our brains process Horror. And that has more to do with memory than it has to do with becoming more “emotionally mature.”
But the good news is: if you love Horror, you can love it all of your life. Contrary to speculation (if not popular opinion), we do not outgrow Horror… we out-fox it.
First, we have to look at the profile of those who like Horror, who love to scare themselves, those who refuse to let go of the genre. While there may be a thrill-seeker or two among us, we tend to be pretty “normal” types. But we do confess to having an addiction to adrenaline rushes that a good Horror story can inflict. Having seen what Real Life can do, we also tend to prefer the mental-emotional playground that is the Horror genre.
We also tend to have been the types that have drilled ourselves relentlessly from childhood on how to survive life-threatening events – including the monster under the bed. Only now we choose Zombies over middle-eastern wars, troublesome Ghosts over broken social mores, Vampires over empty relationships. We still have minds that like to work on problem-solving (as all humans do). So we like to pimp our ride: we decorate the threat with shreds of rotting flesh and fangs dripping with radioactive drool and see if we can survive the experience of the encounter.
The reason any of this works or presents any “value” is because of what that little primal germ of fear enables in the brain. As Mendelsund says with regard to the feeling, we “do not want it supplanted by facts.” (206) We crave the feeling of fear.
So with Horror we recreate the tiger in the tall grass, and every time we make him bigger, gnarlier, scarier…to challenge ourselves.
We practice survival of the primal instincts as complicated by the rational mind.
And biology is our co-pilot.
…Because it is the nature of biology to adapt to changing circumstances and ever-changing threats, and Horror is one biological roller coaster ride that lasts from the first sensory intake, loop-de-loops through the amygdala, races through the nerve endings and thrusts fast-twitch muscle fibers of our legs into action even as the scream leaves our mouths.
Yet even then something is happening in our brains – young or old – that makes a significant difference in recapturing that same feeling more than once.
Just as we are hard-wired to jump at indistinct motion in the darkness (thus illuminating the biology behind the jump-scare success of Hollywood), we are hard-wired to catalog the experience for comparison later.
A tentacle wraps around your ankle like a cat…you scream…
And you live to tell all your friends the next day over lunch. The next night, a tentacle wraps around your ankle like a cat… you wonder where it is coming from….
Already your brain has logged the experience as non-lethal and maybe not even important – just curious.
Your brain has stepped in and…”helped” you. Now you won’t waste precious time and calories running crazily and needlessly through the tall grass. You can wait for the next tiger. The bigger, more lethal tiger. Because this one has shown you all of the criteria for being present and noticed but not a danger to you – not worth endangering yourself. See enough tigers, and you might become desensitized.
Suddenly the Zombie is just this wobbly dead guy; sure he’s ugly, but he’s slow and if you split open his head, it is Life As Usual. Big whup. What else you got?
But this is not necessarily a good thing. Every Zombie has the potential to be different the way every tiger is different. Sometimes we have to remind the brain that it is prudent to run… which is why the rational part of our brain keeps buying into Horror. Deep down, we know we are prey and we really, really want to run…
But this presents a challenge for the makers of Horror, who battle their own cardboard tigers even as they figure a way to surprise their audience with new and improved tigers to fool the brain… So the successful Horror story becomes one in which a new Horror emerges – one you never thought of. It means we have to find ways to outsmart ourselves and our increasingly desensitized audience.
Which makes writing and reading Horror as an older person …even harder; we go through more books and movies before we find a passable scare because as we get older, we have a much thicker catalog to compare things to. But it also means (if we are also writers) that we have the opportunity to make things even more interesting.
Misremembering: It’s Not You, It’s ME
It’s so easy to blame the filmmaker or think the author tricked us. Somehow. All that time ago.
Because the truly weird thing about Horror the second time around is the inserting of whole scenes that we come to discover were never there.
How and why we do this resides in the way human memory works. Because we form memories from a collection of our own experiences – even as we are gathering new ones – every monster is Frankenstein. When we read or see certain images, they resonate with our subconscious and glom together in the darkness of our imagination. Sometimes right in the middle of a book or a movie we go off on a primrose path lined with gothic bleakness and horrible thoughts or crippling fears born of our own personal experiences… our own minds present a few what-if scenarios connected more to our pasts than to what we are reading or seeing and we subconsciously press the emotions generated right into the pages of a book or the cells of a film. We create a ghost of those personal memories and mistakenly think the book or film is speaking directly to us. But then we risk imagining terrors greater than what are actually shown or described. And terror lasts a long, long time in our limbic system.
Being aware of this recollection and comparison of intimate and personal Horrors makes no difference to the outcome.
Even as we rationalize about how that moment is taking us right to this or that memory or traumatic event, it is incorporated into the exoskeleton of the story. Later when we recall the book or film, we remember the terror invoked even when it was our own terror that rose from the ashes of real memory or supposition. We attach those emotions to that fiction and tell ourselves, “that was a good Horror story.”
We even tell our friends. And then they go see it or read it and think it was inane or toothless and tell us so.
And then in indignation, we go and read it or see it again and think what was I thinking? What about that scene where… But there is no such scene. Or it is a big nothing…a field of monster seedlings that no longer germinate in your mind.
Your brain has moved on.
And boy, do you miss that scary part that was never, ever there. You can keep the book as long as you like, but the fairy glamour has dissipated…a fading spell, well-worn even as it has been touched and caressed many times in the imagination. The Horror has become a ghost.
It’s called “emotional re-learning,” and it’s how we manage our trauma which, in turn, transforms the impact of the original Horror.
Here we can learn a lot from sufferers of PTSD. For example, “the sense in which PTSD patients feel ‘unsafe’ goes beyond the fears that dangers lurk around them; their insecurity begins more intimately, in the feeling that they have no control over what is happening in their body and to their emotions. This is understandable, given the hair trigger for emotional hijacking that PTSD creates by hypersensitizing the amygdala circuitry.” (Goleman 210-211)
Nobody wants that. Except that we do –as Horror fans. It is exactly what we attempt to create and experience in a good genre novel or film. But the revelation as to why Horror loses its punch the second time around has a lot to do with how PTSD sufferers resolve their traumas…
Because one step in healing PTSD “involves retelling and reconstructing the story of the trauma in the harbor of that safety, allowing the emotional circuitry to acquire a new, more realistic understanding of and response to the traumatic memory and its triggers. As patients retell the horrific details of the trauma, the memory starts to be transformed, both in its emotional meaning and in its effects on the emotional brain.” (Goleman 211)
In other words, it is the turning on of the lights and the exiting of the theatre where “The therapist encourages the patient to retell the traumatic events as vividly as possible, like a horror home video, retrieving every sordid detail…the goal here is to put the entire memory into words, which means capturing parts of the memory that may have been dissociated and so are absent from conscious recall. By putting sensory details and feelings into words, presumably memories are brought more under control of the neocortex, where the reactions they kindle can be rendered more understandable and so more manageable.” (Goleman 212)
What Horrors cannot be rewired? The ones we can’t put into words… I detect a conundrum…
Every time we intentionally revisit the memory of that movie or book that scared us so well, every time we read it or see it or talk about it, we remove a tooth from the tiger…we are rewiring the memory and its requisite trauma. And we can’t help ourselves. It’s a brain thing.
The Difference Between HD and Analog
The pure biological truth is tough: we are going to have to outwit ourselves, to trick our brains into being scared in order to keep enjoying Horror. We do that by making and seeking monsters that are infinitely indistinct, partially sensed, indescribable, primal creatures. We do it by letting the audience fill in important blanks with their own PTSD, phobias, and painfully personal details.. and then by not spoiling those images with a far-too total reveal.
Look at Stephen King’s It (in particular in movie form)…a great, truly creepy story that I always abandon at the ending. It got ruined when they wheeled out the Muppet Spider. It was too much information that my own brain had a solution for (a really big shoe). I much prefer to stay in that nebulous, monster-and-clown-infested country that Stephen King novels create before Hollywood gets hold of them.
It really is the difference between analog and HD… because our brains (once they categorize something) shift the images right into analog: worthy of note, but not anything to write home about… a kitschy black and white monster with the zipper showing. We see that the tiger has gray on its muzzle and a bit of a limp; we suspect we can out run him.
In our first encounter on the savannah we saw sudden, undefined motion in the dark…then the green glow of eyes…then TEETH… we imagined the claws ripping us apart and we screamed and grabbed our boyfriends. Or girlfriends. We came out of the movie theater or put down the book and felt positively breathless…like we had stood in a wind tunnel that sucked away everything but us…
But once the biology sets in, there is no getting that feeling back. Once we see tons of tigers, we start counting stripes instead of teeth. We biologically forget the danger because our experience nullifies it. Our inner computer updates with what is – in reality – wrong information. But it is right for the suburban family whose main concern is paying the cable bill and what’s for dinner. Horror works when the writer or film maker can change out the predictability expected by our brains. And what works for me might not work for you…
This is why success in Horror is spelled Stephen King: he connects with the broadest sampling of modern fears. The rest of us (in trying to out-Horror the King of Horror) all too frequently discover that our fears are more to the outside of the mean. Maybe we like Old Horror because those stories contain the kinds of Horror that sneak up on our brains…while maybe Old Horror falls flat to the guy who lives near a graveyard. Horror is relative. Figure in the unpredictable amount of experiences a person can have that mutes those Horrors and the genre is a challenge. But it is a fun challenge.
Just don’t expect to be scared effectively twice by the same monster… Only irrational fears get past the catalog. Even Muppet Spiders. For the rest of us, it’s an endless search for HD in an analog world. Beware the tall grass.
Mendelsund, Peter. What We See When We Read: a Phenomenology with Illustrations, by Peter Mendelsund New York: Vintage Books, c2014.
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, c1994.
Lovecraft, H.P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” At The Mountains of Madness.The Definitive Edition. New York: The Modern Library, c2005.