At some point in our childhood, we were probably exposed to some form of spook story or legendary folklore. For reasons I am going to explore in this article, they are embedded into the construct of virtually every culture in existence. Think Arabian ghouls, the Puerto Rican El Chupacabra, European vampires, and let’s not venture into the endless list of Asian urban legends.
I remembered my first experience with a horror fable. I was four at that time, about to get into bed for school the next day, and in an unfortunate head-turning incident, I witnessed a horror film playing on TV right at the jump-scare. I could vividly recall the Chucky-esque figure that came to life, fuelling my childhood fear of dolls and contributed to accompanied bathroom visits for the most part of my primary school years.
You probably have had this experience yourself. And perhaps so did your great grandmother. Everyone maintains their own unique spiritual experience with unearthly beings, the form of which may differ from culture to culture, but we all share a common recognition towards ghosts — the spectral archetype — ubiquitous to all cultures owing to its vivid rendering through centuries of popular culture.
It’s hard to exactly pinpoint the birth of such beliefs, but the first recorded sighting of a ghost, according to this article by the American TV Network History, is through the letters of the great Roman author and statesman Pliny the Younger, during the first century C.E.. The letters became famous for their vivid account of life during the peak of the Roman Empire. Pliny reported a haunting incident in his Athenian house, which involved the ghost of an old man with a long beard.
Granted, the origin of folklore probably dates back to more ancient times, but the appeal of it is apparent in its swift rise to fame. The spiritual underworld has gained such popularity that it is now a staple in every culture in every country. We now classify these stories under a collective ‘Horror’ genre, having haunted many domains of pop culture — from books, comics, films, shows, dramas, video games, even board games that our kids can play with at home.
For a long time, people have been arguing the reasons for this ghostly phenomenon. While stories clearly run amok in our culture, the evidence department suggests a more blurry and controversial explanation. Research within this area of science has been scant, but one performed in 1997 hypothesised the “suggestion” theory, postulating that ghost sightings are more common when people are told the place they are in is haunted.
One other theory involves electromagnetic fields and infra-sounds, as stipulated by Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger, when his paper demonstrated that the application of varying electromagnetic fields to specific lobes of the brain could produce haunting sensations. Classically haunted sites such as Hampton Court has been noted to possess erratic magnetic fields.
But why is horror such a fun thing to participate in?
One theorist suggests that humans have evolved to find pleasure in situations that allow them to experience negative emotions in a safe context, the elements of which is apparent in children’s games. “Take hide-and-seek for example, which is a simulation of a predator-prey interaction”, says Mathias Clasen, who did a TED Talk about the seductive nature of horror films. “The kid hides and the adult pretends to be a troll or a predator, searching for the child while growling like a dangerous beast.”
Clasen says that horror provides us with insights into ourselves and into the dark corners of the world, and it lets us develop and refine coping skills that may be critical later in life. But isn’t the same true for thrillers? They emulate the narrative and fear elements of a horror films, except that a viable explanation is often offered at resolution. If anything, Clasen’s theory seems like a better fit to the thriller framework, as they are often created in ways that are more realistic and representable in society.
The bulk of why folklore and horror tales are so deeply-seeded in popular culture and history, despite the obvious lack in the evidence department, is ultimately down to behaviour. It is woven into the fabrics of human nature. Some fanatics claim that the reason ghosts haven’t been proven to exist is that the technology simply hasn’t arrived yet, and that we’ve just been incredibly unlucky.
This fuels deeper investigations, wider exploration, and an aggrandised public response to even the slightest hint of evidence. This usually leads to a slew of expert reports dismissing the shallow proof, providing a far more reasonable explanation for said occurrence. The search for the elusive evidence therefore goes on, but this hopeful ending will probably never transpire. And that’s exactly why the idea is so lucrative for show biz.
Horror is endlessly popular because it’s based on stories that are not (yet) proven to be true, and probably never will. It’s like that girl you can’t seem to make like you back or the whole wrongness of love affairs that makes their appeal so seductive. Something, or someone who is unattainable are leagues more captivating and intriguing than something that’s easy and explainable. Explanations are rarely entertaining (think astrophysics), but the collaborative search for evidence that in all likelihood will never surface is. Eternally.
It’s like trying to solve a highly convoluted murder case that’s been unsolved for the past 100 years, or unraveling secrets of Atlantis, or inter-dimensional communication, or extraterrestrial presence, or even conspiracies about the 9/11 attacks. It’s not about the destination. It’s the journey. Even better if the destination does not exist.
The loop does not end there, however. There is a huge incentive awarded to filmmakers and authors for producing work in this genre, which in turn drives the wheel of intrigue and interest, again fuelling the subsequent incentive for creators to make more. This conjures images of some creaky, rusty old flywheel from an abandoned theme park that revolves perpetually in the absence of a working engine.
And so horror operates in society as a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as solid hard evidence proving the existence of ghosts do not surface, which it probably never will, humans shall continue their pursuit for proof. And the entertainment industry will keep on taking advantage of this behavioural loop by distributing horror to the mass market. This preserves the horrifying tales of Hanako-san, Slender Man, and the Poltergeist into the chasms of eternity.