Horror – A Sort of History

Horror – A Sort of History

By James L Hill


People have been afraid of the dark since time began. For good reasons, we don’t have the night vision of a cat, the hearing acuity of a bat, or the sense of smell of a dog. We compensate for our lack of physical abilities with our superior mental prowess. But that opened its own can of worms.

By the way, worms terrify people, usually not on a one-on-one basis, but n mass, they cause nightmares. It is our higher intellect that is the source of most of our fears. Some of those fears are ingrained in our DNA, part of our fight or flight survival response, like a bump in the night that raises the hairs on the back of our necks.  Others come from millennia of stories meant to shape our morality and make us better people, like bad things happen to bad people. Or shame on you if you do this, tell your children the monster under the bed will get them if they get out of bed one more time, even if you need peace and quiet. By the way, which will only cause more nightmares making you get out of bed to quieten the children again.

Armed with a basic idea of fear, we can talk about the history of horror. Horror can be broken down into three forms, natural, supernatural, and technological. Natural horror stories are understandable. We are not the most physically fit of the creatures on Earth. These stories build on primal fears, being hunted by some beasts, lions, tigers, and bears. Oh My!

Built on this premise is a supernatural horror story. Baked into our psyche is the desire for life to be more than you are born, you live, and you die. During that daily struggle to live we want something, anything, for the effort. So, we have gods.

I am speaking of all the gods from all religions. For one’s belief is another’s myth. Religion serves a dual purpose. It provides a reason for living, live a righteous life and obtain a loftier goal, immortality. The chance to escape the inevitable. And to that end, a system to measure one’s worth in this world.

But if you have a god that is good, our intellect reasons there must be its opposite, a demon. Something that has as its sole purpose is to stop us from reaching immortality. It does so by temptations, trials, and downright torture. The demons take shapes from what we fear in nature, the beasts and elements, and are infused with powers beyond our control. In these stories god will save the righteous and condemn the wicked. Or in some stories, we find the power within ourselves to defeat the monsters.

Finally, we come to science fiction horror stories. Like the others, it is born out of our imagination. We look at new discoveries and inventions and speculate on the worst possible outcomes. Mary Shelley, in my opinion, is the mother of the genre. Frankenstein took the new neurobiology and electricity, forced them together to create a new monster, the living dead.

Since Shelley we found many ways to give life to the dead and challenge humans for survival. Biology is a driving factor in science fiction horror from incurable diseases to aliens trying to take over. The latter came to us after World War II and the space age. We learned the universe is much bigger than we thought. It only stands to reason if we can go out there, what is stopping something or someone from coming here?

At the same time, we had to redefine what shape life may take. It can be a large and monstrous destroying cities with ease. Or tiny and insidious, infiltrating our very being, subjugating our whole planet before we know we are under attack. Science fiction horror tells us life is abundant, but ecosystems are rare and fragile. We must be vigilant against outside invaders as well as the catastrophic results of our own ambitions.

Horror stories have been with us since we told them around the fires in our caves. They are still a staple of a good camping trip. Maybe our psyche needs a good jolt every once in a while, to keep us on our toes. Ready to fight or flee at a moment’s notice.

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