OPINION By Patt Morrison Los Angeles Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Leo Braudy, author of "Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds" shares why we love scaring ourselves.
Los Angeles Times
In Scotland, they used to pray that from "ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us."
But these days, do we really mean that?
Halloween is turning into a worldwide holiday, celebrated in countries that never even had that tradition before -- which is to say before movies and comics and the commerce of All Hallows' Eve.
What is it about making ourselves a little bit scared that draws us all, again and again, to the creatures of our imagining?
Leo Braudy is a USC professor of English who sorts out our fondness for a good fright in his book "Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds." Here's why we like to go for the trick and the treat. ------ Why do we love doing this to ourselves, scaring ourselves?
I think it's partially purgative, that is, when you see something in a movie or you read a book, that is, it has a shape to it -- it arouses these fears, these emotions. But then it allays them, it makes them into a story. So by the end we feel a little bit better about things.
And so we can outsource our terror?
We can outsource it into traditional monsters of one sort or another, whatever is bothering us in the current world, whatever is freaking us out, whatever is making us uncertain becomes part of the story, part of something that we're sort of familiar with. We know about monsters. We know about vampires. We know about ghosts in some vague way, so we can assimilate that knowledge.
What is the difference between terror and horror?
In terms of the first people who talked about this, at the end of the 18th century, they were very interested in that difference between terror and horror. And in fact, they made this very specific distinction. Ann Radcliffe, who is one of the great bestselling authors of the time, said that the difference between terror and horror is that horror is a physical response; it actually comes from the Latin for your hair rising on end.
That's that wonderful word "horripilation," when you have goose flesh.
Exactly, gooseflesh -- anything physical that's like what my wife would call "jumping-out movies." Things that just startle you in that way and you get a physical response. But terror is much more metaphysical. It's existential. It's about the shape of the universe. It's about God and Satan and all those kinds of things.
And it can stay with you long after the goose flesh is gone.
Absolutely. It's kind of embedded in your psyche somewhere. Before the 18th century, you had the Christian-era horror, which is mostly a horror of going to hell, of demons.
The 18th century is when horror starts to become commercialized. It becomes part of public culture.
It is popular culture, in fact. A part of what I think is behind your question, too, is this whole relationship between horror and religion, that horror and religion are both preoccupied by the line between life and death, and that's the sometimes-uncertain line between life and death, we might say -- the way ghosts come back, the way monsters arise in that way. So horror and religion go way back. The late 18th century, you see that you have a burgeoning popular culture, and one of the prime elements in that popular culture, is the literature of sensibility, the literature of emotion, the literature of fear. That literature is not necessarily meant to make you think. It's also meant to make you feel. So you have in this period things like the beginnings of contemporary pornography, literature that is supposed to make you sexually aroused, satiric literature that's supposed to make you angry, the literature of sensibility, which is supposed to make you cry. And of course the Gothic literature, which is supposed to scare you.
We are also marking this year the 200th anniversary of the publication of the book "Frankenstein," by Mary Shelley. This book really set us on the course where we find ourselves now, with how we use terror as morally instructive -- or just for the fun of scaring the crap out of ourselves.
Frankenstein is the monster. Frankenstein is the doctor, or, as the title calls him, the Modern Prometheus, the man who brought fire to humans and was punished for it.
The monster is never quite called a monster in the book. He's generally called the Creature. Is he really monstrous in that way? Again, different kinds of interpretations. What is this book about? is it about a failed father-son relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature? Is it about the idea of the monstrous itself?
Part of, let's say, the longevity of the Frankenstein story is that it is so malleable; Mary Shelley creates a new modern myth and the Modern Prometheus. But this is a modern myth of the scientist who wants to create something but then abandons his creation.
So there's a kind of familial side to it. There's a scientific side to it. Mary Shelley didn't know anything about cloning. Mary Shelley didn't know anything about body parts and how they could be made, how they could be manufactured on a 3-D printer, even. But in fact, the myth that she created is capacious enough that it can encompass so many changes that have happened over the last two centuries.
We still use that as a term in culture that virtually everyone knows. You say Frankenstein. People know what you mean.
And we have Frankenfood, you know, genetically modified food. It becomes a label. People say "Sherlock Holmes" who've never read a Sherlock Holmes novel or story, or people say "Frankenstein" who've never read "Frankenstein." It has detached from its origins and it becomes a kind of a metonymy, just a piece of something that everybody in the culture knows, even though they may not know where it comes from.
The Frankenstein creature is one of the four kinds of monsters you write about. Where does he fit in?
It seems to me that every era has its own monsters, and we're still in this kind of 200-year or so era in which four prime monsters and a couple of subordinate monsters have appeared.
In my taxonomy, first of all, is the monster from nature, the thing that comes out of nature. I mean Sasquatch, the yeti.
King Kong, animal monsters, natural monsters of all sorts. What's behind this monster? Well, it's part of the modern world. The idea of the Enlightenment, the idea of progress pushes us forward. It's all about sunlight, it's all about being better, it's all about ideals. But the Gothic thing, the horror, is about what we've left behind.
Look what's happening with climate change, arguments like that now. That's the monster, in fact, on the horizon. So that has a perpetuity in it.
The next kind of monster is the Frankenstein monster, which is the monster about the misuses of science. That's one of the ways it's become a metaphor for so many different things -- again, a part of the modern world. We're moving too fast. we're doing things we shouldn't be doing, we're messing with nature.
The next one is the psychological monster, and that's the Jekyll and Hyde monster, the monster that doesn't come from nature, doesn't come from science, but comes from within.
That is our own fears about ourselves, our output. You could connect that in a way to the natural monster, because it's about that primordial, primitive self that's inside, that's violent and crazy and sexual and all those other things.