The Psychology of Horror

by Andy Peloquin

I found an AWESOME definition of horror in an article on Psychology Today: “Horror is the initially familiar becoming increasingly unfamiliar.”

It’s a pretty interesting thing to consider, and a common theme in horror and dark speculative fiction. In fact, I’d wager that it’s one of the MOST common themes. Even in stories where there are no demons, zombies, virus outbreaks, psychopathic murderers, or Chthonic deities, there is the “familiar becoming unfamiliar” theme.

Take a look at The Walking Dead, the most popular “horror” graphic novel/TV series around today. There are lots of terrifying moments where the zombies are chasing the humans, but the REAL reason that it’s scary is because the familiar (the humans) have become the unfamiliar (flesh-eating walkers).

But let’s go a step deeper and analyze the truly horrifying moments of the story. There are two things that make us cringe when we watch The Walking Dead:

  1. Seeing familiar characters turn into zombies. Some of the harshest, most heart-rending moments were when main characters (SPOILER ALERT!!! Shane, Andrea, etc.) either consumed by the zombies or turned into zombies themselves. Something that was so familiar (the people we knew and loved) became unfamiliar (either in their death or their being turned into zombies).
  2. Seeing familiar human characteristics coming out in horrible ways. Human behavior is both predictable and unpredictable. It’s to be expected that we’ll do whatever we have to in order to care for and protect the ones we love or to obtain our desires. That’s the familiar—the “unfamiliar” is when we watch human nature go to terrible, dark places. When we see people kill to protect their loved ones. When we see them torture and maim others to get what they want.

Horror isn’t just about blood and gore. In fact, I’d say that it’s far less often about blood and gore than most people expect. Horror is about tapping into the subconscious fears and bringing them to life on the page:

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of the darkness
  • Fear of higher predators
  • Fear of being alone
  • Fear of being forced to make life or death decisions

All of these things are primal fears, and they’re what horror writers tap into when bringing the stories to life.

The reason I put “fear of the unknown” at the top is because it’s possibly the single most primal fear we have. When something familiar becomes unfamiliar, it is even more terrifying. Our world is built on assumptions and understandings, so it’s scary to have that foundation eroded. It’s why horror that taps into that fear is so much more gut-wrenching and nerve-wracking than any vampire, werewolf, or demon could ever be!

Skip to toolbar