I think I was five or six when I first saw The Wolfman. My parents must have figured that an old movie like that didn’t have any scares left in it, but I remember lying in bed with the sheet pulled up to my neck, the wolfman stalking his prey playing and replaying in my mind. Eventually, my mother had to come upstairs and sit on the edge of the bed until I calmed down. I still love The Wolfman… and Frankenstein… and Dracula… but those movies don’t have the same ability to frighten me that they once did. In the 40 years (holy shit!) between then and now, The Wolfman hasn’t changed – and it was dated in 1973 – but I’ve changed, a lot. What scares us – past a kernel of fear that is part of what it means to be mortal – changes and shifts with time, thought, and culture.
Just as there are archetypal stories – core stories that live inside larger narratives – there are essential paradigms of fear. Never are we closer to our animal natures than when we become prey: shaking, sweating, complex thoughts and ideas subordinated to the need to flee.
Circumstances vary, but certain fears are so basic as to be understood by all: fear of death walks hand in hand with fear of abandonment, or of having those we love taken from us. We avoid hunger and thirst because on some level we fear starvation, and we dread being alone because to be alone is to be at risk, or to be lonely, or perhaps those two things are the same, mixed together in a stew of evolution and emotion.
Death as an endpoint frightens both animals and people, but fear of what death represents: meaninglessness, the unknown, decay – are existential anxieties that only humans experience. Though they may spring from the primal, our complex brains allow access to a range of uniquely human fears, whose manifestations are often opaque, even to us.
When I read The Raven in high school, I remember being struck by the idea that terror could come not from anything that was happening, but from an idea: that love might never be forgotten, that one might never recover from loss. This was a way of thinking about horror that I’d never considered – as something that sprung from thought, rather than threat. Humans are unique in that our fear of the possible – war, loss, violence, death – exists right alongside our fear of the real.
Each of us carry our own unique dreams and ambitions, and with them our own, very personal fears. Small places, spiders, safety, happiness: our lives burden (or perhaps define) us with anxieties that are based as much on the experiences we’ve had as about any concrete, physical threat. Nevertheless, the fear is real.
The Culture of Horror
My parents thought that The Wolfman wouldn’t scare me because it no longer scared them, but as a child, I hadn’t yet absorbed enough of the culture around me to be protected by it. If what scares us is a mixture of core, biological fears and more complex, existential ones, the channels we use to access those feelings evolve along with our culture.
The idea of being stalked by a predator remains scary, but evolving styles and sensibilities impact our experience of the paradigm. By the 1970s, the idea of one person stalking another was old news, let alone the slow-paced, bloodless stalking in The Wolfman, but the six-year-old me hadn’t been acclimated to it the way my parents had, so it terrified me.
Audiences in 1941 might have been frightened by stalking, but given the more rigid societal mores of the time, it seems equally likely that they were more impacted by the supernatural elements, or by the idea that a beast could live inside an innocent-looking man. What frightens us changes generation to generation (sex, urban blight, nuclear war, climate change), as does the style used to present it (lighting, pacing, realism). As ideas are presented to us again and again they lose their power, and leave us searching for something new.
Drifting on The Black River
What Scares us is fluid: a mix of core drivers, complex and sometimes individual emotions, cultural concerns and stylistic expectations that are in constant flux. We all want to be scared sometimes, to varying degrees, and as long as we do, we’ll find new ways to frighten each other. Being scared is validating: it shows us that we’re still alive. Conquering our fears is a way of gaining a semblance of control over the uncontrollable, at least for a little while.
I don’t have the same tolerance for horror that I used to – I don’t have the distance I once did, or the surety that nothing bad will ever happen to me, or to those I love. I get less of a thrill from primal scares, and the kind of existential fear that I’m most interested in (and most susceptible to) is hard to find… but I’ll keep looking.
What scares you? What used to scare you, but doesn’t? Do you agree that everyone likes to be scared, sometimes?