Asked what he feared, Stephen King once replied, “Everything!”
While his reply might have been purposefully overstated, it suggests a way of enhancing the fear factor of the horror story. The horror fiction writer can enhance the audience’s aversion to and anxiety toward the story’s antagonist (the monster) by preying upon readers’ natural fears.
Fortunately, if they don’t fear quite everything, many people do fear many things. We tend to be rather fearful creatures.
First, there are the phobias. There are plenty. Although these fears are held to be irrational, there may be an organic cause for them, according to psychologists, who, Lea Winerman, author of “Figuring out phobias,” says, locate the amygdala, perhaps by way of the brain’s higher cortex, as the point of origin for fear. Dr. LeDoux offers an example of the split-second timing characteristic of the fear response to threatening stimuli: “If a bomb goes off, you might not quickly be able to evaluate any of the perceptual qualities of the sound, but the intensity is enough to trigger the amygdala. If you knew a lot about bombs, then through the cortex pathway you could evaluate the danger, but it will take longer.”
Although studies have focused on obsessive-compulsive disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias were once believed to represent “abnormalities in the fast-track through the amygdala,” Dr. Scott Rauch declares, but further research suggests, instead, that “the amygdala responds immediately to anything that might be threatening, but that with more time to process other areas of the brain suppress the amygdala's initial response.”
Fear, like other emotions, appears to have an organic and chemical basis.
Meanwhile, there are the phobias, such as (just to list some that begin with “a”) acrophobia (fear of heights), agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), androphobia (fear of males), arachnaphobia (fear of spiders), astraphobia (fear of thunderstorms), autophobia (fear of being alone), aviophobia (fear of flying). For those who are interested in others, a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) article, “The A-Z of Fear,” lists a number of select others, only one of which, anuptaphobia, the fear of remaining single, begins with “a.”
How can phobias be used to heighten horror? Many people are claustrophobic. They fear close places, which suggests that they also fear being trapped. A person who is trapped is at the mercy of his or her environment, which means that the trapped individual is at the mercy of other people (perhaps his or her captors, from whom the person had escaped before becoming trapped), of wild animals, of extreme temperatures, of hunger and thirst. The trapped individual has no control over circumstances or events. By setting a story in a cramped environment from which there is no escape, such as a subterranean cavern that becomes sealed off by a landslide or an avalanche, a writer takes advantage of the audience’s claustrophobia. If, before reading such a story, a person was not claustrophobic, afterward, he or she might be.
Many horror movies have been produced that revolve around wild animals as the monsters. One reason may be that men and women fear quite a few animals, including cats (ailurophobia), bees (apiphobia), spiders (arachnaphobia), bats (chiroptophobia), dogs (cynophobia), insects (entomophobia), horses (equinophobia), reptiles (herpetophobia), mice or rats (musophobia), snakes (ophidophobia), birds (ornithophobia), frogs (ranidaphobia), and animals in general (zoophobia).
In reading through this list, you probably thought of several movies that are based upon these phobias, but let’s list a few, anyway, for those who may have missed them:
- Ailurophobia - Cat People
- Apiphobia - Attack of the Killer Bees
- Arachnaphobia - Arachnaphobia
- Chiroprophobia - Dracula
- Cynophobia - Cujo
- Entomophibia - Them!
- Musophobia - Willard
- Ophidophobia - Snakes on a Plane; Anaconda
- Ornithophobia - The Birds
- Xenophobia - The War of the Worlds; Alien
- Zoophobia (and some others as well) - The Food of the Gods
One might say that horror fiction itself is based upon phobophobia, the fear of fear.