5 Great Halloween Reads for the Psychologically Minded

Some of the best spooky, brainy reads on the internet this Halloween.

Posted Oct 29, 2015

Source: Invisible by Alyssa Miller https://flic.kr/p/5Wp8zm

Over at Motherboard I speculate a bit on what makes some people love horror and the supernatural and others hate it - why do some people binge-watch Penny Dreadful and mainline Stephen King while others can barely make it down Halloween Aisle at Target?

In researching that piece, I ran into some pretty great reads, and thought I would share them with you here. 

1. Vocabulary of Fear

Lincoln Michel, author of recent short story collection Upright Beasts and editor at Electric Literature, writes of the distinction between terror and horror in this gorgeous piece.

"Why does terror enliven us while horror deadens? For Radcliffe, terror in its ambiguity moves us toward yet another effect: “the sublime.” The sublime is the confused awe at greatness and darkness our mind can’t grasp. We are both attracted and repelled by it. To Edmund Burke—whose philosophy Radcliffe references—it is “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” The sublime is often associated with nature—think hurricanes, looming mountains, the infinite expanse of the sea—yet it is particularly effective in art. This is because the mind requires a little distance to feel the sublime. If you are caught in a tornado, you may feel nothing except panic. But if you read a powerful description of a tornado destroying a town, you may feel the sublime."

2. Monsters, Myths, and a Grand Unified Theory of Fear

Victor Lavelle, author of The Devil in Silver, is interviewed here 

Source: Spooky Moon by Ray Bodden https://www.flickr.com/photos/rcbodden/

"There’s a certain definition for the word monster that I love. It derives, in part from the Latin word monstrum, and can be translated as an omen or a message from the divine. To me this comes closest to explaining the appeal of horror, at least for me. All the best horror, the best monsters, terrify in their embodied state but also in the idea of what they represent. They have to do both. That’s why, for me, something like a dragon doesn’t qualify as horror. It’s fantasy not because it’s unreal (so are Dracula and Jason Voorhees), but the dragon doesn’t speak to any kind of idea or wisdom that causes me to tremble. The dragon doesn’t seem like a message from the divine, it’s just a really big lizard. (Though of course Godzilla does seem like a message, but of course he’s a dinosaur not a dragon.)

In a way I’d say our psychological fears then are actually manifestations of far older wisdom and not the other way round, from long before the idea of the human psyche became codified. I like the idea that part of what terrifies us is the feeling that there’s a world far past what our own minds can come up with. Certainly there are fears we generate but even these, potentially, can be tamed. More frightening is the sense that there are things we can’t tame, can’t even reckon with, and so we tell horror stories to try and reconcile this fact."

Source: Margee Kerr http://www.margeekerr.com/

3. Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear

Fellow Psychology Today blogger Margee Kerr is a sociologist who works with ScareHouse in Pittsburgh. She took a year out of her life to travel the globe doing scary things, reading about the science behind fear, and writing this book. It's a great read, and you can get a preview of some of her ideas here.

4. The Psychology of Scary Movies

Filmmaker IQ takes an in-depth look at some of the major theories behind why we like to watch scary things on film in particular.

5. Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety

Finally, the most scientific of the recommendations: a very recent popular science tome written by Joe LeDoux, an NYU neuroscientist who has spent his career studying how fear works in the brain.