Column: Halloween is turning into a worldwide holiday. Why do so many people love to be scared?
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.
Horror and religion are both preoccupied by the line between life and death. Leo Braudy, USC professor of English
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.
And the final monster is the vampire. The vampire is the monster from the past. The vampire monster represents a pre-Christian world that we’ve forgotten and is going to take its revenge on us.
And that monster is unlike King Kong, who is an innocent. He’ll kill you, but he’s not after your soul. The vampire, because he is ancient, because he can be seen as anti-Christian, anti-religious, is a bigger danger in some ways.
A much bigger danger, because he also, in addition to being anti-Christian and pre-Christian in those ways, represents an alternative to Christianity. What is he promising? Immortality, essentially.
And then there is that sexuality that some of these monsters begin to exude. You see the Gothic novels, and women were mocked for reading them. But at the same time, these novels are about a challenge to authority, a challenge to political authority, to religious authority, to male authority. No wonder women like to read them.
In fact, some of the earliest caricatures of the readers of the Gothic were caricatures of women sitting around a table scaring themselves. There was one even more crazy one that I include in the book, which is an image of a woman sitting with her hand under her dress reading “The Monk,” this great bestseller of the 1790s, masturbating in a pretty obvious way.
Wow, Georgian porn!
And the image is called “Luxury.” Again, that is the erotic, the idea of the monster as a kind of antisocial being, or a being who has been rejected by society in one way or another.
I should add this as a fifth category of monster, the zombie. That’s the kind of monster that we see most frequently these days. The zombie is a very intriguing sort of monster because unlike all the other monsters, the zombie is a member of a group, and it’s a faceless group. There is no king zombie.
The zombie myth is really about the crowds. It’s about the fear of crowds, it’s about the fear of whatever crowd you don’t like -- a fear of Islamic fundamentalists, or immigrants coming over the border, or Republicans or Democrats or whoever you hate. It’s about that crowd.
That’s what reaches into our basic paranoia these days -- that fear of otherness as a group.
The modern fictional detective is a creature who dispels some of the darkness, from Ann Radcliffe to Sherlock Holmes books. Science says, Wait a minute. I know what’s going on here. That’s not a ghost, that’s not a fill-in-the-blank.
I thought it was really necessary to have something about the kind of counteraction, the effort to dispel the monstrous in popular culture, and that figure is really the detective. The detective somehow understands the monstrous body of the city and its variety; he can make his pathway and uses a combination of intuition and reason in order to solve the crimes there.
The monster in a certain way is a response to the Enlightenment, to reason and rationality as being the order of the day. And the detective tries to bring back that reason.
Do we resent the detective at the same time we love his skills and talents and admire his brain? Resent him for banishing these ghosts that we seem to enjoy so much?
Well, he never manages to banish them entirely. That’s the thing. The detective always comes back. Crime is never vanquished entirely. You win the battle but you never win the war. So we can resent him maybe a little bit because he knows more than we do, but we want to be like him.
The monster and the detective appeal to different aspects of our own sense of self. The monster is this sense of independence, the sense of being different from others and not being appreciated in the proper way. The detective is more on the side in which we actually try to deal with things, to understand things. Of course, the detective who’s doing it a lot better than we ever do.
So what would you make of my sixth-grade crush on both Dracula and Sherlock Holmes?
I think that’s perfectly appropriate, right? Two sides of the same coin.
What about superheroes? Where do they fit in?
With superheroes, you have different kinds: the mythological superheroes like Thor, coming out of the past, coming out of another mythology. And you have superheroes like the X-Men, who are different, and we feel somehow that we’re really different, and it should be valued in a positive way.
All the various superheroes in the X-Men have a kind of problem that is also their virtue. That is also their power. So you turn your problem into your power – that’s the kind of interesting messages especially for the teenage audience, which is so strong on these shows.
Already a subscriber? Thank you for your support. If you are not, please consider subscribing today. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.
MORE PATT MORRISON ASKS
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.