Fear. We’ve all experienced it. Maybe you felt afraid as a kid in the store when you looked up and couldn’t see your parents anywhere. Or as an adult, while watching the news. Maybe you seek fear in horror movies, haunted houses, or extreme sports. Scientists have argued for decades over why specific fears are more common than others. Equally intriguing is why many people seek to feel afraid and even enjoy that feeling.
Our ancestors had plenty of real reasons to be afraid– predators, marauding enemies, and an incomplete list of poisonous plants, just to name a few. So why did they invent other things to be afraid of, like ghosts or werewolves? And why do we still find these creatures frightening and intriguing today?
It turns out that enduring monsters follow a formula. Here’s why we are still afraid of ghosts, zombies and other classic monsters:
The Four Underlying Fears
Most common human fears can be traced to at least one of four “base” fears that everyone experiences:
- Fear of dying
- Fear of being eaten
- Fear of the unknown
- Fear of being out of control of oneself or one’s environment
The scary creatures found in folklore across the world often tap into more than one of these fears at once. This may explain the staying power of things like ghosts and zombies and their ability to frighten those who don’t believe they exist.
Many cultures around the world do believe in ghosts, demons, vampires, and other spiritual nemeses. In the U.S, polls have shown that 30-50% of people believe that ghosts exist. About 45% of Americans believe in demons, but far fewer believe in vampires.
Experts think that ghosts and demons represent our fears of both the unknown and death. They can also be personifications of the nebulous dangers of the world around us that we have no control over. Some cultures, for instance, believe that evil spirits live in the jungle or some other wild and dangerous place.
Vampires, sometimes said to be demonic beings, mix together our fears of death and what happens after it, with a fear of being eaten. Werewolves bring together fear of being eaten with a fear of being out of control. This formula of fears can be found in every popular monster:
Fear of death+fear of being eaten= zombies
Fear of dying+fear of the unknown= ghosts, and every monster that we never see clearly, like the creatures in BirdBox or The Quiet Place.
These classic creatures and their variations tap into old parts of our brains and frighten and fascinate us on a primal level. But are there other reasons why creatures like these have stuck around?
Metaphors for Societal Fears
Some things are difficult to talk about or explain without delving into our imaginations. Cultural and personal “demons” are often personified as actual demons, ghosts, or other monsters.
A good example of this is the shape-shifting monster who looks like a human but turns into a monster once he’s lured you away from the village, (a common archetype across cultures). Anthropologists think these stories could be one way of reckoning with the reality of “two-faced” people, the “nice guy” who ends up being a serial killer or some other type of real-life monster.
Historically, ghosts usually appeared to let people know that some cultural norm had been violated. Often, the ghost was the spirit of someone who hadn’t been buried properly or who had been murdered and unavenged. Even in modern literature, ghosts are often “avenging” spirits who seek to right the wrongs of their own death or the bigger wrongs of their society. Authors often use ghost stories to talk about societal wrongs that have never been truly rectified, like slavery or brutal colonialist practices. The ghosts in these stories sometimes act as messengers to the present, voices of people who weren’t allowed to speak for themselves in the past.
Some monsters have been used throughout history as metaphors for things people weren’t allowed to say out loud. In many times and places, criticizing the government was illegal or at least strongly discouraged. A discontent peasant couldn’t call the local Lord names, but he could tell stories about that “vampire” who was draining people dry or the “dragon” sitting on his hoard of gold and stealing livestock from the local village.
Fear+Utility= Popular Monsters?
In modern American society, it’s probably fair to say that most people aren’t really afraid of vampires, but many people do find them fascinating, and well, useful. Creatures like vampires are the ultimate shape-shifters, morphing across time into whatever we need them to be. They help us face up to the realities of death, understand the darker parts of human nature, and act as a dark mirror for both individuals and societies. The same could be said of many other popular monsters.
Even some of the cheesier, less ancient classic monsters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Godzilla appeal to both our fears and our need for metaphors. The Creature from the Black Lagoon represents a fear of the unknown, and can be used to discuss environmental concerns, scientific ethics, and forbidden love. Godzilla taps right into our primal fear of giant reptiles that could kill or eat us, but he was also a way of talking about the hazards of the atomic age. Several similar monsters seen in post atomic-bomb movies represented real fears about nuclear contamination, and resulting mutations.
Perhaps, it’s this combination of fear and utility that has created a morbid fascination with certain monsters that we just can’t seem to shake. We enjoy the feeling of fear or goose-bumps these monsters inspire because in facing them we are reckoning with our fears of death or the unknown. Even when we aren’t afraid of the monsters themselves we can use them to talk about things that disturb us.
Are You Ready to Face Your Fears?
Our Chaos Escape Rooms feature all your favorite monsters, from ghosts, mad scientists and zombies to serial killers and nightmares. Come face your most primal fears and see if you can escape alive.