The Horrors, the Horrors! Meditations on the Science of Zombies and Fear

Horror is the initially familiar becoming increasingly unfamiliar.

Posted Feb 15, 2011

Meditations on the Science of Zombies and Fear
Over the last year, I've spend a lot of time thinking about what is really scary.

I've written a horror novel, after all. And I decided that it didn't make much sense to write a scary story and then not do my due diligence in trying to give someone the willies.

But, as I am at least putatively trained to think scientifically, I recently decided to consult the scientific and medical literature regarding what scares us most. I embarked on this journey because a colleague wondered whether the rather unsettling neurobiological pathologies of cinematic zombies (i.e. what the hell is wrong with the brains of those ghouls?) contributes to the extent to which zombies are both scary and much loved.

In other words, do the creators of zombie stories have an innate understanding of the ways that neurobiological malfunction can be frightening and familiar all at once? Is Sam Raimi a neurobiologist? Is George Romero harboring a hidden Ph.D. in neuroscience? Both of these men are geniuses in my humble opinion, so these questions are not entirely outlandish. Nevertheless, the beginnings of my research have not yielded any occult scientific training among my celluloid heroes.

So, that brings me to the medical literature. Using key words like scary and phobia and frightening and fear, I found myself wandering through articles as diverse as discussions of what worries parents most when their kids play on playgrounds to scientific observations detailing increased startle response among adults who suffered childhood abuse.

As an author and a physician, and, most importantly for this piece, as someone who actually enjoys within reason being cinematically frightened, I have been trying to piece together this data to make sense of the popularity of zombies. The Walking Dead is about to return on the air and all indications are that people will again watch the show in droves, laughing and screaming in equal parts fun and fear.

Here's what I can determine so far:

You have to start with the notion of pattern recognition. We humans (and all sorts of other creatures) start from a very early age to recognize and adhere to familiar shapes and scenarios. A two-year-old can tell you a dog is a dog because it looks like a dog, even if she is being shown a toy poodle and a mastiff. These are adaptive responses that help us to quickly size up a given situation and to draw conclusions around how best to proceed. Mind you, this tendency is also the source of prejudice. Someone might expect that a man in a dark alley intends to take your wallet, and yet he might think the same of you. We make up our minds quickly in part because the drive to categorize and classify declares itself early and profoundly so we can get by in the world largely on autopilot.

So, now picture yourself walking to your usual coffee shop in the same way Shaun does in Shaun of the Dead. You get glimpses of things being not quite right, but if you are wrapped up in your own personal worries and concerns, you might be less keen to see the earlier signs of unfamiliarity. A body staggers by? Well, perhaps he's drunk. That guy's face is bleeding? Well, perhaps he fell. Shaun might notice these things or he might not, but the audience notices that he doesn't notice. That's what makes the first part of the movie both fun and also a bit unsettling. 

Pattern Recognition. That guy is staggering, so perhaps he is drunk. But wait! That kid is also staggering, and kids don't get drunk. And that woman is staggering; when was the last time I saw three staggerers at the same time?  Things are not fitting into my usual patterns. I do not recognize this pattern, and I am therefore forced to switch off automatic and to perilously fly manually. Most of the time we're flying by instrument, but not now. Now, we need to look around.

Oh my goodness! Is that person missing a piece of his neck? He is! Well, I have an expected response for what I think I'll see when people walk around with body parts torn off and discarded: They ought to be in pain. They ought to come to me for help. But these guys, these shamblers, they just keep on walking. They're moaning, sort of, but not like they're really all that bothered. They certainly aren't moaning the way I would moan if someone ripped my arm off.

Oh my goodness! That stumbling old lady just ripped that man's arm off! And that man is screaming. I recognize that pattern! That is an expression of pain at having your arm ripped off. I am now mixing familiar with unfamiliar. Pain makes sense. Little old ladies ripping off arms does not make sense.

Oh my goodness! That stumbling old lady is eating that man's arm.That doesn't fit any pattern at all except for the ones that lurk about in the dark recesses of what I thought were my personal nightmares. And I'm not about to go to my nightmares. I worked hard to lock those away. But I am going to help that man. That's a patterned response I understand. But wait! Why is the once sexy woman whose nose seems to be half missing grabbing my pant legs.  C'mon, brain! Gimme a pattern. Gimme a template for action. 

Gimme something. 


And fear sprouts from the depths of your brain, your primitive cortex freaking the hell out and your frontal cortex madly searching the hippocampus for anything even remotely familiar. 

And this is where you experience horror.

Horror is the initially familiar becoming increasingly unfamiliar.  And the easier it is to question what you're seeing, the less familiar it is by definition, and the more familiar it was at first. 

A drunk guy (familiar) becomes something different (because the kid is drunk and kids don't get drunk) and the staggering of the old lady (a familiar walk for the elderly) declares itself as drastically off when she bites into that arm (old ladies don't tend to eat other people's arms), and so forth. 

Sartre understood horror and patterns. He wrote in Nausea about a man out for a walk who at first see's what he thinks is simply a piece of cloth blowing in the wind:

"Across the street, he'll see something like a red rag, blown towards him by the wind. And when the rag has gotten close to him he'll see that it is a side of rotten meat, grimy with dust, dragging itself along by crawling, skipping, a piece of writhing flesh rolling in the gutter, spasmodically shooting out spurts of blood."

Gross? Sure. Gripping? You betcha. And the stuff of horror? Without question.