Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

web page statistics


"Fear is the emotional response to the perception of an alternating loss of control and regaining of control. By 'control' I mean any conscious act of mind and body. The alternation between control and lack of it must occur in varying degrees of intensity and inconsistent periods of time. This alternation insures an element of surprise and keeps the perceiver off balance emotionally so that he cannot construct a set of mental expectations and thereby reimpose control" [David R. Saliba,  A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), p. 5].

Fear: Psychology and Mechanics

[Excerpt from David R. Saliba,  A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), pp. 39-42]

In a biological sense fear is related to death. For the human organism all emotions can be said to be reactions to what Jeffrey Gray calls "reinforcing events," i.e., rewards and punishments, or the removal of such rewards and punishments.[1] Fear, as all emotions do, depends on what our perception is in relation to these "reinforcing events." A fearful response is an indication that the perceiver believes that his well-being is in danger, and that he is threatened by death or injury, which can lead to death indirectly.

Biologically fear is a warning signal that death, injury or destruction is imminent, and it is designed to cause the perceiver to avoid the dangerous situation. Fear, psychologically, is also a warning, and it basically functions to prevent the possibility of personality disintegration. A victim of fear perceives a threat to his identity which he experiences as a loss of control. According to Arno Karlen it is "a traditional Western fear that any loss of individual or social control will start a snowballing loss of controls in general,"[2] and such an effect in itself is sufficient to arouse more fear and complicate the situation for the victim. That is, fear is capable of generating more fear, and a victim of fear can find himself in a nightmare of his own making if he allows his imagination to get out of hand and does not successfully reimpose control on the situation. Once the victim perceives himself in control, he must maintain that control until the situation stabilizes. If his control falters, he will enter a vicious cycle of control and loss of control, and thereby facilitate the start of a panic reaction.

There are two basic kinds of fear stimuli. The first is environmental and poses a direct physical threat to the perceiver. The second is strictly psychological and poses no direct physical threat. For obvious reasons the first is a rational fear and the second is an irrational fear. Rational fears can be overcome by physical retaliation or escape, whereas irrational fears such as those aroused by horror stories, can be successfully overcome only by conscious and rational control. Carl Jung claims that "it is just man's turning away from instinct--his opposing himself to instinct--that creates consciousness."[3] Consequently, the method for controlling irrational fear is to avoid further instinctual reactions and to concentrate on rationalizing. However, in a panic situation the victim automatically acts instinctually rather than rationally, and instead of remedying his problem and dispelling his fear he acts in a non-rational way that is likely to end catastrophically.

Though the principle of rational control is plausible enough, the fact that the type of fear aroused by a horror story [or horror film] is irrational fear makes the victim's task difficult. The conscious-rational side of the human mind is diametrically opposed to, and inconsistent with, the unconscious-irrational side of the mind. The unconscious influences the behavior of the conscious, but a person cannot directly understand his unconscious mind. According to the personality theories of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, an integrated personality depends on a balanced interaction between the conscious and the unconscious sides of the mind. Jung's analytical theory details two parts of the unconscious which he calls "personal" and "collective."[4] Irrational fear, which is the type of fear... [produced by horror fiction], has its source in both of Jung's portions of the unconscious mind.

Fear is an intense form of anxiety. Anxiety can come from threatening situations perceived in a person's surroundings, as well as from what Freud refers to as the id (man's instincts) and the superego (man's conscience). Once anxiety is experienced the ego--or the conscious part of the mind--moves quickly to protect itself through defense mechanisms, which are unconscious reactions that essentially distort reality. Since fear is an intense anxiety it, too, causes the ego to set up defenses to protect itself. And because of the greater intensity of fear over anxiety the threat perceived by the ego is identity dissolution. Consequently, the defenses in response to fear are often desperate and aimed at self-preservation--which in some cases is perceived as both psychological and physical self-preservation, even though the fear is irrationally based.

During a highly fearful reaction the ego may see its loss of control in terms of mind disintegration, which is the inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy--or put another way, the inability of the conscious mind to keep the unconscious mind under control. Mind disintegration is simply another form of identity dissolution. William Stein's interpretation of "The Fall of the House of Usher" exemplifies mind disintegration literarily: "In sum, the outraged unconscious swallows up all conscious authority, and Roderick is rendered completely insane. As Madeline escapes her death-in-life confinement on the literal level of action, on the psychological level the instincts...attain their release."[5] In this case, Roderick represents the conscious mind which fails to keep Madeline, the unconscious mind, under control. Consequently, the chaos of total insanity results.

In whatever form a victim of irrational fear perceives his control loss, his response will always be one of self-preservation.[6] He will generally either meet the threat head-on, or he will attempt to escape it. Low level fears, or anxieties, will produce what Freud called ego-defense mechanisms, which include both direct and indirect responses. Defense mechanisms are unconscious compulsions that function to save the conscious mind from unwanted shock or pain, and the five basic mechanisms that Freud describes are regression, reaction-formation, repression, projection, and fixation. There is also the possibility of reduction in intensity of a fear-producing stimulus through adaptation or habituation: "it is in the nature of an intense stimulus that, with repetition, it becomes less intense (a phenomenon known as 'adaptation'); and in the nature of a novel stimulus that it becomes familiar with repetition (a phenomenon known as 'habituation').[7] Both phenomena have been used with great success in curing phobic fears. However, as Stanley Rachman points out, outside of clinically controlled therapeutic situations.

The complexity of the relations between the emergence and the decline of a fear can be seen from the fact that repeated exposures to the fear-evoking object or situation are said to sometimes increase the fear (sensitization) and at other times to decrease it (habituation). In other words, it is posited that fears exist in a state of balance. Furthermore, this balance will tilt in the direction of increased or decreased fear depending on the type of exposure, intensity of the stimulation, the person's state of alertness and other factors.[8]

During a nightmare the balance tilts in the direction of increased fear, and it is through an understanding of the nightmare as a paradigm of irrational fear that the relationships among...literary art, dreams, fear, and the gothic will become apparent.

"Dealing with the effect of fear, anxieties" by Nick Ianniello

This is a newspaper article from The Appalachian on the subject of the psychology of fear. The article was published on October 31, 2006. Read the article.

Fear: Physiology

The physiological response to a fear stimulus starts in the brain. The brain triggers the release of certain chemicals that cause the "fight or flight" response in human beings. This response is characterized by rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, flexed muscles, and an automatic focus on reacting physically. Once the chemicals released in the blood stream start to work, we are hardly aware of what is happening to us physically. We are simply in a reactive state controlled by the autonomic nervous system. All we want to do is run away from the fear agent or attack it directly.

Specific parts of the brain work together to trigger our reactions to fear stimuli. These include:

  • Amygdala

  •  Hippocampus

  •  Hypothalamus

  • Sensory cortex

  • Thalamus


The process generally starts in the thalamus which collects sensory data coming from the five senses during the intrusion of the fear stimulus. The sensory cortex receives the data from the thalamus and interprets it; stages it for processing by the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus. It is the job of the hippocampus to store and download memories that help it analyze the context of the situation. The amygdala has a store of fear memories and begins interpreting emotions and evaluating the threat level. Finally, the hypothalamus is responsible for ordering the response; either run or attack.

The reaction to a fear stimulus is completely unconscious. And there are two recognized paths through the brain that eventually lead to the "fight or flight" response. Both of these paths occur simultaneously, but reveal very different behaviors. One path leads to an immediate and completely unconscious response, while the other takes just a little time to evaluate the situation before causing us to revert to our animal instincts. Julia Layton calls these paths the "low road" and the "high road." In her article, "Creating Fear," she explains these paths to fear very clearly.

See also  "Physiological Arousal and Fear"

Fear: Neurobiology

Laurel Edmundson explains that "studies of neuronal activity in the brain have suggested that the prefrontal cortex, a cognitive and emotional learning center that helps interpret sensory stimuli, is responsible for the conscious assessment of danger. After passing through the amygdala, sensory information is sent on to the cortex. There, the frightening stimulus is examined in detail to determine whether or not a real threat exists. Based on this information, the amygdala will be signaled either to perpetuate the physical response or to abort it. Because the amygdala is aroused before the cortex can accurately assess the situation, an individual will experience the physical effects of fear even in the case of a false alarm." To read the entire article, see "The Neurobiology of Fear," by Laurel Duphiney Edmundson.

Lovecraft on Fear

[Excerpt from Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1973), p. 12]

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tales as a literary form."

The Mechanics of Fear in Screenplay Development

[Online article cited: Ryan Williams, "The Mechanics of Fear: Constructing Horror," The Script Journal  (, Copyright 1999-2007 ScriptShark.]

In an online featured article in "The Script Journal" Ryan Williams writes that

"Good screenwriters know that fear generates a core emotional response that actually changes the body’s chemical response for a small period in time. This shift inside an audience, in turn, creates thrilling moments in which their participation actually engages them physically with the stories on the screen. This is because horror films are emotion-based experiences."

Williams explains that because horror movies rely specifically on eliciting fearful emotions, the most successful horror movies are constructed using tested and proven techniques that elicit this desired fear response in their audiences. He lists 3 techniques employed in this classic screenplay formula:

  • "Set-up and Payoff"-the character is set up for the inevitable fear surprise

  • "Sense of Predation"-the innate fear of being devoured kicks in our resistance to becoming prey

  • "The Antagonist"-the main villain who we know is reputed to be the primary fear agent and who we have paid to view

Williams then discusses "types of horror films" and breaks them into 4 distinct categories:

  • "Creature Feature"

  • "Slasher Flicks"

  • "Supernatural Horror"

  • "Psychological Horror"

He carefully defines each of these 4 categories and lists key features and sample films for each.

Fear Research in Neuroscience

[Online abstract cited: Sodikdjon A. Kodirov, Shuichi Takizawa, Jamie Joseph, Eric R. Kandel, Gleb P. Shumyatsky, and Vadim Y. Bolshakov, "Synaptically released zinc gates long-term potentiation in fear conditioning pathways ," Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS Online Article contributed by Eric R. Kandel, August 16, 2006), Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences.]

If you are interested in the physiology or chemistry of fear, there is recent research in neuroscience on the chemical interactions possibly related to learned behavior; particularly in relation to the learning of fear. In the abstract to an article titled, "Synaptically released zinc gates long-term potentiation in fear conditioning pathways," the researchers submit that 

"Using whole-cell recordings from amygdala slices, we demonstrated that activity-dependent release of chelatable Zn2+ is required for the induction of spike timing-dependent long-term potentiation in cortical input to the amygdala implicated in fear learning."

Fear Reaction

[Online information cited: "Dental Phobia and the Neuropsychology of Fear," Dental Fear Central - Your Hub for Dental Phobia Information.  © Dental Fear Central/Various Authors 2004-2006]

According to the Dental Fear Central  website, a fear response ("fight-or-flight" response) is characterized by some or all of the following:

  • Heart Palpitations

  • Sweating

  • Trembling/shaking

  • Sensations of shortness of breath

  • Feeling of choking

  • Chest pain

  • Nausea or abdominal discomfort

  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint

  • Chills or hot flushes

  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling)

  • Feeling of derealization (world's not real) or depersonalization (being outside one's body)

  • Fear of losing control or going crazy

  • Fear of dying


A phobia is an irrational fear of anything: objects, people, situations, activities that the experiencer of the phobia feels compelled to avoid. Someone can be afraid of something without it controlling their entire life and reactions, and it wouldn't be a phobia. For example, say someone is afraid of flying, they may still be able to book cheap flights, but they may just need to take some medication to help them sleep through the flight itself once they are on board the aircraft. However, if someone suffers from aviophobia, they would never even book cheap flights. A phobia is a disabling, irrational fear that controls a person more then normal fear would. Getting on board Cheapflights Canada to Europe and anywhere in between would be completely out of the question for someone with a phobia when it comes to flying. This holds true for all phobias, these fears are a form of psychological disorder that takes a hold of a person in a way normal fear does not. It's important to know the difference between having a phobia and being fearful to a lesser degree, in order to know how to handle your fears. Erin Gersley explains that the symptoms of phobias include:

  • Feeling of panic, dread, horror, or terror

  • Recognition that the fear goes beyond normal boundaries and the actual threat of danger

  • Reactions that are automatic and uncontrollable, practically taking over the person’s thoughts

  • Rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, trembling, and an overwhelming desire to flee the situation – all the physical reactions associated with extreme fear

  • Extreme measures taken to avoid the feared object or situation [Excerpt from Erin Gersley, "Phobias: Causes and Treatments," AllPsych Journal (November 17, 2001), Copyright © 1999-2003, AllPsych and Heffner Media Group, Inc., All Rights Reserved.]

Comprehensive Lists of Phobias

Insect Phobias