In wake of October’s arrival, complete with its grinning pumpkins and fun-sized candies, many are choosing to spend their month relishing in the culture of the creeps: slasher film marathons, amusement park events and even true crime shows aim to relish in the Halloween fever—but a lot more goes into the themes surrounding the spooky holiday. Let’s take a trip into the world of the ominous, disgusting, and fascinating, and how we define our responses to it.
Fear: we’ve all experienced it, haven’t we? Those gigantic long-legged spiders that seem like they have 40 more eyes instead of eight, or the sight of splattered blood might turn heads (of course, the other way). Or maybe, those empty hallways you walk through at dead of night might make you shiver—or maybe that alleged killer that’s out on the loose, supposedly strolling through your neighborhood at the very moment, is making your pallid hand tremble at the doorknob. In our striving for survival, we are comprised of the very emotion; we see things as unpleasant or undesirable because of our underlying instinct built into us, indicating danger beyond that absolutely must be evaded. When you experience these emotions and instincts, you’re simply trying to protect yourself from a route of action that might work to your very detriment, so do give kudos to yourself. A pat on the back, perhaps, to evolution—unless the hand patting your back isn’t your own.
We experience fear in many different forms, all of which are categorized below two main types derived from slightly different circumstances: terror and horror. Each type of fear holds heavy weight in our natural understanding of it as it pertains to us—so what’s the difference between the two?
Let’s start off by following the natural process of fear as it comes to us: the first type born in our minds is utter terror. Terror is perceived as a fear comprised of anticipation and anxiety stirred by circumstances that are definitively imminent; when we already know something is most certainly wrong, our minds devise all sorts of routes that can be taken in sight of danger, revealed or not. The state of terror entails dread for the known facts and emphasizes one’s fear of the unknown territory following those facts. Say you live alone; you come home from a long, tiring day at work and you open your front door, only to see that the singular armchair that you usually keep in the corner of your living area has been moved completely to the other side of the room. Your mind is racing; oh my God, you think. Someone has been here before you. Someone has gotten inside. Are they dangerous? Did they do this to throw you off? What are they here for?
Or, perhaps, are you just simply going insane? Are you suffering a mental dilemma or condition that provokes memory loss and subconscious states of being? Are you hallucinating? All these questions pile on top of each other as your mind attempts to comprehend what is happening around you; the worst part is, however disorienting the situation is, what you’re not disoriented about is the certainty of its existence. Whether or not it’s you or a stranger, there is still something wrong. The armchair isn’t in the corner. And until you locate the source of the trouble, the culprit behind the movement, you can’t seem to do anything about it. How would you be able to? You have no clue what is happening, yet you know it’s happening, entailing possibly dangerous ends for you. You’re rendered helpless, and your vulnerability and mortality are amplified in wake of your knowledge, however limited. That is pure terror.
Of course, with terror, the circumstances can be more severe, and they’re usually seen as so in pop culture; our favorite TV shows and horror classics stand as actually depicting more terror than horror, despite the obvious element of the latter being a prominent factor in its genre. Look to season one of Stranger Things, where Will Byers knows that the demogorgon will snatch him from his back shed and take him to the Upside Down; his eyes are wide, he shivers and stands frozen in his helplessness, and alas, we see someone experiencing terror.
Maybe that same terror stands out to you more in other shows and films; Michael Myers chasing his victims in Halloween is terrifying too! Oh goodness, what will happen to them? Will they escape? If they’re caught, how will they kill him? The situation forces you to think about and predict all the potential outcomes while supposedly having no control over those outcomes; your dread stirs and the terror prevails—that is why it is seen as the most powerful between the two elements of fear.
Now that we have covered that, let us cover the second element of fear—the element that succeeds terror: complete horror at its aftermath.
Horror is defined as fear or aversion to the sight and aftermath of circumstances that have already taken place. The revolting appearance of 40 eyes on a gigantic spider-creature—that’s already some quality horror! The spider was just born that way, you see; it always had 40 eyes as a result of its birth into the world as an absolute monstrosity, and now you’re just reacting to it. But of course, the situations that horror more effectively applies to generally involve scenarios more immediately dangerous and harmful—terrifying scenarios that came true.
You find horror in a crime scene; you see blood splattered among the walls and seeping through the carpet floors in the wake of a vicious attack. You watch as the monstrous 40-eyed spider eats a person whole and you feel nauseous to the brim, with tears in your eyes and a coated throat to accompany it. You are absolutely horrified at what you see.
That same fear transcends and defines the horror genre in pop culture; when Will Byers is found in the Upside Down, trapped beneath the tangled bunch of creatures that use him as grounds for evolving, his mother gasps and groans at the grisly sight; she is horrified at what has happened to him in the span of his disappearance. When Michael Myers strangles and slits and stabs various unlucky characters during his spree, we feel queasy and shaky at the sight of the sheer violence erupting before our eyes, and that is where horror plays with our minds and souls as we know it does.
The two elements work hand-in-hand; one emphasizes the other, and in the rush of fear, we continuously challenge ourselves to face those scenarios that urge our survival instincts and anticipatory mindsets to awaken. Halloween comes to life and gives us something new to work with—something scary. Now you’ll know how exactly you respond to it. So, spook and scare and shock away!