Extended Interview: Mathias Clasen

Extended Interview: Mathias Clasen

Gallows Hill: Let's start with a quick introduction on who you are, what you do, and how you came to be a horror researcher.

Mathias Clasen: I’m an associate professor in literature and media in the English Department at Aarhus University, a large research university in Denmark. My main research focus is on horror—its history, forms, functions, and appeal. My primary training is in literary study, but I’m also interested in audiovisual and interactive horror—films, video games, live-action horror attractions, you name it. It spooks you, I wanna understand it. This professional focus grows out of personal fascination. I developed a passion for scary stories in my teens, and that passion puzzled me. I was fortunate enough (and stubborn enough) to pursue both passion and puzzlement in graduate school and beyond.

GH: From a physiological standpoint, what happens to us when we watch horror movies or read horror stories?

MC: Well, the physiology of horror consumption hasn’t been completely charted (although I’m doing a study with some good colleagues where we look at physiological responses among haunted house visitors—we haven’t analyzed the data yet though, so I can’t say anything about it). It looks like an effective horror movie sets up a classic fight-or-flight response—physiologically and emotionally, but not behaviorally. Folks may scream and break out in goosebumps and experience elevated heart rate, but they rarely attack the screen or flee the theater (although it’s not unheard of).

When we watch or read or play horror we run simulations of frightening scenarios in our minds, and we can react quite strongly to those simulations. Let me give an example.

Imagine you’ve bought a sandwich. Chicken and bacon, let’s say. You unwrap it, it looks excellent. Crispy bacon sticking out, shiny tomato, lots of mayo, the works. Holding on to it with both hands, you bite into it. Chew, chew, scrumptious, little bitter maybe. You’re getting ready to take a second bite when you notice movement in the eaten-from area. Something brown with hairy legs, size of a small cupcake wrapper, squirming. It’s a huge spider trapped between a strip of bacon and a slice of tomato. Two of its legs are severed and bleeding some kind of greenish goo.

You got that image in your mind? Not pleasant, right? Just holding that representation in your mind is apt to produce some downstream physiological and emotional effects—disgust, at the very least. That’s because your imagination is wired into your emotional system.

When we imagine something, the imagination recruits appropriate emotional responses because that’s what the imagination evolved to do. That’s how the imagination lets us run through simulations—what scientists call “decoupled cognition”—and weigh various scenarios against each other and so, ultimately, how imagination shapes our behavior. If we don’t feel the valence, the emotional value, of each scenario, we won’t know which one to choose. And crucially, horror is like software that runs on the hardware of our imaginations. (Incidentally, in a recent study my colleagues and I found that imaginative people are overrepresented among horror fans.)

Horror elicits defensive physiological reactions—usually more strongly in the audiovisual medium than in the literary one, not least because of sound. Mood music, for example, and the sudden, loud noises that form the core of the jump scare. Those physiological reactions include elevated heart rate, perspiration (sweaty palms), piloerection (goosebumps), maybe a fluttery sensation in the belly and dry mouth. That’s the body getting ready for evasion or conflict—flight or fight. Resources are directed away from the digestive system (irrelevant in the face of danger) and toward the big muscles. That’s why the heart beats faster, to get those juices flowing toward the crucial places, and why you experience butterflies and dry mouth. Piloerection stands your hair on end to make you look bigger and more fearsome. Essentially, your body is responding to danger, but you’re tricking it into this response.

The threat is fictional, but the ancient, defensive structures within your nervous system don’t “know” that. Rationally you realize it, which is why you don’t flee the theater or attack the King novel. And when folks do flee the theater, that’s their ancient fear system screaming so loudly that it drowns out the rational voice reminding you that it’s just a movie … just a movie … just a movie …

GH: How closely do these "symptoms" mimic those of being in a genuinely life-threatening situation?

MC: They’re identical, only—usually—milder. Horror works by tapping into, or exploiting, what psychologists call our fear system, but we can rationally keep that system on a leash and keep the fear response within tolerable limits. Usually. (My colleagues and I are publishing a study very soon about fear regulation strategies among haunted house visitors, in fact. Turns out that people use a whole variety of different strategies—cognitive, behavioral, and social—for regulating their own fear when they walk through a haunt.)

GH: I, personally, get genuinely frightened while consuming horror. So why am I so drawn to it?

MC: That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? It’s what the philosopher Noël Carroll called “the paradox of horror.” Horror by definition seeks to elicit negative—painful—emotions in us. Fear is unpleasant. Dread is unpleasant. Anxiety is unpleasant. That’s the whole point of negative emotions.

Emotions evolved to guide our behavior along an approach-avoidance axis, and negative emotions specifically evolved to guide us away from stuff that’s dangerous to us. And yet, in the domain of entertainment we do seek out experiences that involve the stimulation of negative emotions. It’s not really as weird as it sounds, though. For one thing, those negative emotions are counterbalanced by positive ones. We don’t just expect to feel fear and disgust from a Stephen King novel or a slasher film, but also suspense, for example. We expect to feel strongly for and with interesting protagonists. We expect to be carried—“transported” is the technical term—into lands of horrifying make-believe. And for another thing, to go a step deeper, we find pleasure in exploring negative emotions outside of their biological niche.

When we know that we’re immersed in a fictional world, we can enjoy the stimulation of strong emotion because the threats that normally cause those emotions are absent. The threats are fictional. So it’s a way of playing with fear and dread and anxiety and disgust and the rest, but within a simulation, a mental sandbox, if you will. The whole function of play seems to be preparation for real-world challenges at low risk and cost, in fact, and the playful engagement with horrifying scenarios that horror offers is no different. So to answer your question: You, like most other people, are equipped with a reward system—an evolved, biological mechanism—that gives you doses of enjoyment (in neurochemical form) when you challenge yourself and push the outside of the envelope by means of horror. It’s human nature.

GH: Why do some people hate horror? And are they the "normal" ones?

MC: No, they’re not the normal ones. They’re the weird ones, as it happens, at least according to the research I mentioned before. In our survey, less than a third of the sample said that they don’t like horror. Some of it has to do with personality, some of it with age, and some of it—I think—with exposure and experience. In terms of personality, people who aren’t very imaginative aren’t likely to be among horror fans, and people who are highly neurotic also aren’t likely to be horror fans. Gender has a little bit to say, but not much—males are slightly more likely to be horror fans than females, but it’s a very modest effect.

In terms of age, we see a so-called curvilinear relationship between age and horror liking. The appetite for horror increases during childhood and peaks in adolescence, after which it tends to decrease slightly throughout life. So old folks aren’t likely to be horror fans either. And then there’s exposure and experience. Some folks who say they hate horror have a very narrow understanding of what horror is. I don’t have any empirical data to support this point, only anecdotal evidence, but I often talk to folks who express mild to strong dislike of horror (and disbelief toward my occupation) and who seem to use horror synonymously with slashers.

When they hear the word “horror,” such folks see before them the worst of the eighties slasher wave, the aesthetic and moral troughs—the “women in danger” films that Siskel and Ebert bitched and moaned about. So there’s some genre prejudice and some genre stigma still. Not as bad as with science fiction, I don’t think, but still. A lot of it grows out of a severely blinkered understanding of the phenomenon. Some folks who profess to hate horror simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Haven’t discovered the richness of the genre.

GH: Do you personally like horror movies and books?

MC: I’m like you, I get terrified by the stuff. In fact, journalists almost always ask me if I’m not immune to the stuff, having worked with it professionally for so long. Well, nope. A couple of months ago I was down with a cold and figured since I was stuck on the couch, I’d catch up on my horror viewing. Chalk it up to momentary cognitive malfunction, but I decided to chase down a viewing of Hereditary with the first three episodes of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Man, I was a wreck by the end of the day. I still have flashbulb visions of the Bent-Neck Lady when I’m rummaging around in our very creepy basement. But man, I love it.

GH: In your TedX talk, you said that the scariest monsters reflect our ancestral threats. Could you explain why that connection is still so powerful, even though we live in a world where there are relatively few of those threats remaining?

MC: Right, this has to do with the way that we’re wired up, biologically speaking. The fear system—the mechanism that kicks in when we face danger or something that might signal danger, such as a weird sound in the middle of the night—evolved over millions of years to protect us from dangers, many of which no longer exist.

Remember, civilization is a very, very recent thing in terms of human evolution. Our species spent by far the bulk of its time as small prey animals, hunted by all kinds of monsters in ancestral environments. Imagine living as a fragile hunter-gatherer on the East African savanna a couple hundred thousand years ago. Imagine when darkness fell and the embers of your bonfire were slowly dying … and it sounded like big things might be moving about just outside the feeble circle of light cast by those dying embers. Imagine the horror stories that must’ve spontaneously formed themselves in the mind of that ancestor of ours.

Anyway, our species evolved to respond rapidly, instinctively, toward any sign of danger, particularly so-called ancestral dangers—the predators that hunted our ancestors. Big cats, but also snakes and spiders. Hell, even violent weather events. A thunderstorm could be fatal to our ancestors. The cliché “It was a dark and stormy night” has its roots in the environmental perils of human ancestral existence. So, the kinds of creatures and situations that spelled death for our ancestors live on in our genetic wiring, even though many of them have disappeared from our environments, and they also live on in our horror entertainment where they’re often exaggerated for dramatic effect.

I just finished F. Paul Wilson’s excellent Nightworld, which is shock-full of humongous monsters—flying reptilian leviathans erupting from a huge hole in Central Park, enormous slithery things in the sewer systems of Manhattan, that sort of thing. Such monsters don’t reflect the kinds of things that figure in present-day mortality statistics (stuff like cigarettes and saturated fats), they reflect ancestral, predatory dangers.

GH: Can you explain what you mean when you talk about horror calibrating our fear systems? Does this mean that horror junkies would be more prepared for surviving in an apocalyptic doom world than those who avoid the genre?

MC: Ha, well, that’s an empirical question to which I hope we never find the answer. Seriously, though, I mean that we get to test and familiarize ourselves with our fear reactions when we engage with horror.

It’s like kids playing house, or any other social simulation. They learn the ropes of that situation, try out various behaviors, run through chains of inference and consequence. I know what it feels like to be terrified because I’ve read and watched and played a lot of horror. I know pretty well what my limit is, what really gets me, what the effects of fear on my behavior are.

Sometimes horror may also, in a more literal sense, convey valuable information about life and death in a dangerous world, of course. (The brilliant writer Joe Hill had some amusing things to say about that.) It may “reinforce” our fear instincts, as John Carpenter has put it. Stephen King, in a classic interview, explained his youthful fascination with the serial killer Charlie Starkweather as a need to learn about those kinds of bad guys so that he could avoid them in the real world.

So, yeah, there can be some real informational or instructional value in horror, some dos and don’ts, but more subtly it can also provide us with insight into human nature, maybe especially its darker corners, and into the fringes of morality. We can learn something about the culture that gives rise to particular horror texts. And yes, for sure, reading Max Brooks’s World War Z is probably a good idea in case the zombie apocalypse approaches. Even if it doesn’t, reading that book is a good idea. It’s a hell of a novel. Like all good horror, it’s not so much about the monsters as it is about the effects—psychological, social, societal—that those monsters have.

GH: Have you been able to find any insight into what differentiates horror stories that are really effective at engaging and scaring readers from those that fall flat?

MC: Not really, no. Horror stories are immensely complex things, and people’s response to those stories are even more complex. Often predictable, yes, but complex.

My intuition is that it has a lot to do with character. Psychological realism, it seems to me, is paramount in horror, even supernatural horror. I can swallow the most ridiculously far-out monster and the most ludicrous narrative premise, but if the characters are flat and uninteresting, I get off the train.

I want rich, nuanced, compelling characters with whom I can empathize or who I can hate. Characters in horror don’t have to be likeable, but they do have to be engaging. I just re-read Carrie, which has no really likable characters. It has strong characters, interesting ones. Ones that are depicted with real flair and psychological insight. Even though I don’t believe in telekinesis, I was deeply engaged by that novel.

In contrast, I also watched Orphan the other day and was thoroughly bored. Really, I just waited for them all to die so I could cap the night with an episode of Supernatural. I think the problem was character depiction more than anything else. I mean, a trite plot can still provide the skeleton for an awesome, terrifying horror story. So, character is paramount.

Then there’s also the issue of craftsmanship. If a horror novel is poorly written, it’s really difficult to become immersed. You see the clunky language or the grammatical mistakes or the contrived plot developments, which works against immersion, like when you notice the zipper in the monster suit. Most horror is stylistically fairly conservative for that reason, I think. The language is supposed to be a well-polished window onto the world of the depicted horrors.

And of course there’s stylistically challenging horror, horror that produces strong emotional responses, intense engagement with characters, and also a powerful aesthetic experience. I recently read Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter which has all of those qualities—vivid depictions of horrifying stuff, fascinating characters, real psychological insight, wonderful language. So, for me, horror stories that are really effective are characterized by good literary (or cinematic) craftsmanship plus good, strong characters. An interesting premise never hurts, but it’s not a requirement.

GH: If you were in a horror movie, what would be the scariest monster you'd have to face, and would you be able to defeat it?

MC: Huh, good question. It’d probably be a monster that either emerged from the depths of my own mind or that somehow targeted it. I’d really hate to be stuck in Hill House (Jackson’s as well as Flanagan’s version). Fighting zombies, on the other hand, might be pretty fun. I’d give that a go. I like to think that I’d kick a substantial amount of zombie ass before I went down.

GH: Can you tell me about your book, Why Horror Seduces and the research you did while writing it? Where can people buy a copy? And if our readers want to follow you and your work, where can they do that?

MC: Yeah, it’s a research monograph, which sounds boring, but I tried to make it as accessible and entertaining as I could, without losing scholarly precision and scientific nuance.

It’s the culmination of all the research I’ve done over the last decade or so. The book sets out to answer the question you asked, about the peculiar appeal of horror. It draws from cognitive and evolutionary psychology as well as the more humanistic research tradition of horror studies to shed light on how and why horror works. So a lot of research went into this interdisciplinary project.

I’ve been reading about monkey morality and fear in fruit flies and the history of the slasher and the complexities of gameplay mechanics and the difference between sexual and pathogen disgust and a lot of other topics. I’ve also been doing some more empirical work to bolster some of the theoretical claims, but not all of that work made it into the book because it’s ongoing.

The book itself is composed of a handful of theoretical chapters and then goes into several case studies. I analyze a bunch of canonical American horror films and novels to see how and why they work and what they mean, from Matheson’s vampire classic I Am Legend to the film that gave found footage horror mainstream appeal, The Blair Witch Project.

The final chapter looks at interactive horror—video games, haunted houses, virtual reality—and makes some speculations about the future of horror. So far as I know, it’s available (in a fairly inexpensive paperback version and also a Kindle version) from all respectable bookstores.

If folks want to follow my work, I suggest they check out my Twitter feed at @MathiasClasen and maybe also my university homepage.

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