Can we forget the taste of fear?

“I have almost forgotten the taste of fears,” says Shakespeare’s Macbeth as he hears the shriek of women announcing the death of his wife. “The time has been, my senses would have cooled to hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir as if life were in it.” Some things are pretty universal. Personally, I don’t like creepy -but is it really a dislike, or more of a disorientation in the face of the unanticipated? Discomfort in the presence of ambiguity?

I can still remember the intense frisson of fear one night at a friend’s place when the power went out in a storm. We’d been sitting in a little lounge in his rental accommodation, pretending to study when thunder vibrated deafeningly through the room after stochastic and blinding lightening strikes just outside the house somewhere. We both stumbled blindly to our feet and decided to hunt for a flashlight.

“Whatever you do, don’t go into the room at the end of the hall,” Jason warned me with undisguised hints in the tone of his voice of the famous Bluebeard’s warning about the locked room. We were both attending university at the time, and a group of students were renting an old house near the campus -Jason’s room was on the second floor. A sudden flash of lightning temporarily illuminated the two of us, and I saw a couple of doors along the corridor, with a larger one at the very end. “That’s Sandra’s room with the large door,” he explained. “She’s away this weekend, but if she noticed that someone had been rummaging around in it she’d come after me with a bat.” I could sense the fear in his voice.

I knew Sandra -she was in one of my psychology seminars- and always showed up wearing sunglasses. It had to do with the electromagnetic pulses in the fluorescent lights, she would explain with a shrug if asked, and then stare brazenly in the face of the questioner. Rumour had it that one of her eyes was glass, though, so nobody really pushed her to explain further.

“You try the closet down the hall, and I’ll rummage around in the bathroom here,” he said as he stood beside me, then disappeared in the darkness.

I felt my way down the hall, and groped my way past the closet door to what I decided was the Bluebeard door. How could I not pick up the gauntlet Jason had just hurled at my feet?

The door, interestingly enough, was not locked -an obvious invitation to enter- so I bumbled my way into the room, trying not to trip on anything. But, just as I knocked into some sort of table, there was an explosion of light through the window and everything in the room seem to freeze like a photograph. But in the split second before the concussive roar of thunder struck and momentarily deafened me, I saw at least one eye whose lid had just that moment opened, staring at me.

I was almost knocked to the floor by the ensuing noise, but I hung onto what had looked, in that brief frame of stillness, to be a bassinet.

My ears were still ringing, when Jason appeared at the door with a flashlight. “I told you not to go in there, G,” he hissed at me, obviously unwilling to cross the threshold. But in the quick flash of the beam he shone my way, I could see the little malevolent face with its single, aberrant eye glinting from the cradle, and I heard a tiny voice saying “Hi! I’m chatty Cathy” over and over again. It was, of course, a doll in the crib, but it seemed menacing. Evil. And we both ran along the corridor, the unsteady rays from the shaking flashlight bouncing eerily off the walls like a horror film. Now, even so many years later, with the story as overblown as our recollection of it, Jason and I can still relive the fright.

Maybe that’s what attracted me to an essay in the online magazine Aeon by Francis McAndrew, professor of Psychology at Knox College:

‘There are different types of creepiness,’ he writes, ‘and the array of things that creep us out ranges from dolls that are too lifelike to clowns in places where clowns should not be.’ The ambiguity is what makes it scary -things that ‘in some way fall outside of the norm put us on our guard because they are unpredictable, and it is unclear whether they pose a threat or not… [they] violate the subtle social conventions that enable us to understand their intentions.’

‘In his book The Experience of Landscape (1996), the British geographer Jay Appleton described two physical qualities that determine whether a place is attractive or frightening to humans: ‘prospect’ and ‘refuge’. Refuge means having a secure, protected place to hide where one can be sheltered from danger, while prospect refers to one’s clear, unobstructed view of the landscape.’

As well as ambiguity, helplessness and threat serve as synergists to our discomfort. ‘Research has consistently shown that we feel uncomfortable when our personal space is violated anywhere, but especially so in situations where we feel as if escape will become difficult.’

Of course, none of this explains the popular fascination for horror, or frightening situations.

Well, says McAndrew: ‘our enjoyment of commercial haunted houses and horror movies taps into the same evolved psychological mechanisms that exist to help us learn from the experiences of others.’ So, ‘In the safety of a movie theatre, watching others deal with serial killers or paranormal threats allows us to mentally rehearse strategies that we might use if we would ever find ourselves in a similar situation… better prepared for creepy encounters because we have seen what happens to others in harrowing circumstances.’

That’s an interesting theory, I suppose, and I remember avoiding eye-contact with Sandra in the seminar room for the rest of that term. Still, I don’t think I learned anything from my scare, except maybe to worry about the reason for her doll’s solo eye and to wonder if there was any truth to the rumour about what really lay behind Sandra’s dark and mysterious glasses.


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