I’m an existential psychologist. Among other things, that means I study the importance of our awareness of death to our mental health. Freud, because he lived in particularly sexually repressive times, imagined repressed sexuality to be at the heart of neurosis. Existential psychologists imagine repressed knowledge of death does the same thing.
Ernest Becker wrote a compelling treatise on the topic. In The Denial of Death, he makes a case that reminders of our mortality (death salience) damage our self-esteem. If everything you do will be dust soon, what use doing anything at all? Then, to repair our self-esteem, we join in-groups and necessarily create out-groups. Becker was trying to explain Nazis. He ended up explaining a lot of stuff that didn’t end with Paris Peace Treaties.
You’re right to be suspicious. Nobody should accept theories as facts without a bunch of data. Luckily, there is a wide and deep pool of data on the topic, experimental evidence showing that people exposed to death salience (for example, a picture of a graveyard) do indeed endorse more nationalism and racism on surveys. Check out this book, for example, full of experimental evidence, and only the tip of the iceberg: Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology.
Now what in the heck does any of that have to do with horror?
We all know death is everywhere. It’s on the news. It’s in the hospital we pass on our way to work. In the traffic report on the radio. We spend all day burying our fear of death. That fear attaches to other stuff. It causes problems. But we can go to the movies and watch a horror movie – and there engage with the fear of death in a controlled setting. We let the beast out of its cage for some exercise. Then the movie is over.
If it’s a good film, it lingers with us. We feel the dread… and we know why we feel the dread. The important part of Becker’s equation is repression: feeling dread without knowing why. You see the horror on the screen then take that unease with you for a while, and you can name it.
Even better is a good horror book. Short stories, novels, whatever. There you can sink into the experience of each character, build empathy for them, fear for them. Ideally, even understand the monster or the villain. Death becomes a little closer and a little less terrifying, because we can sit with it while nothing bad happens to us, and understand the experiences more deeply.
Me, I love to introduce ambiguity. Does the protagonist make it out alive and sane? Well, maybe. Because getting comfortable with ambiguity is a great treatment for fundamentalism of all types.
When I say fundamentalism, I mean starting with premises and working backwards through the evidence; this is as opposed to radical acceptance, which requires starting with the evidence and arriving at good-faith conclusions.
Writing horror is a public service. The horror writer engages with death. With horror, torment, disgust, terror, fear, angst, revulsion, ambiguity. We o it so those who are willing can join us in these spaces and come out of the covers or the movie house a little more ready to live in a world where death is a fact of life.
Jason Dias is a doctor of clinical psychology with fifteen years of experience working with developmentally disabled adults, four with people in severe states at the psychiatric hospital, and nine doing international psychology. He is co-founder of the Zhi Mian Institute for International Existential Psychology, an organization helping Chinese psychotherapists to acquire counseling skills and develop professional infrastructure.
Additionally, Jason writes. His credits include web journals and articles for The New Existentialists and A New Domain, two book chapters about existential psychology, a book of poetry and several novels and anthologies. He worries that academic writers spend too much time writing for journals only read by people who already agree with them and tries to get big ideas out in other formats.
Jason lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and son and keeps mostly to himself.
Thank you, Jason! Jason was my editor on the Necro-Om-Nom-Nom-Icon, and has several stories in it, as well. And I'll never argue with anyone who says writing horror is a public service. Rarely do I get assigned positive reasons for writing what I write...
Now for some links. Bear in mind I'm not endorsing these, merely passing them along. Always do your own due diligence before submitting.
Willow Press is seeking literary and genre fiction in one of the following themes: perfection, lust, or risk. 800 to 1000 words for flash, 4000 to 5000 words for short stories. Pays $10 to $30 CDN. Deadline August 12 (July 22 for theme of perfection).
Human Noise Journal is seeking short stories, poems, and essays. Up to 10 pages. Pays $30. Deadline August 15.
Zsenon Publishing is seeking stories for the A Punk Rock Future anthology. Up to 6000 words. Pays $.06/word. Deadline August 15.
What do you think about what Jason said? What does horror do for you? Do you find it a safe reprieve? Any of these links of interest? Anything to share?
May you find your Muse.
Movies and books do provide a safe way for us to deal with horror. It's a fear we all possess, even if we're comfortable with what we believe happens afterwards.
That's an interesting take on why people enjoy horror. I'm not much for scary movies, but I do read some horror.
In the end the robots with AI will rise up and kill us all.
I didn't know what an existential psychologist was, how interesting. I think I enjoy reading a horror novel because I have control. If it gets TOO scary, I can close the book to take a break.
Wow, great guest post! I think Jason just blew my mind. I also think all writers think about death a lot, because it's the ultimate tension-getter:)
I like both!
I don't doubt it. That was the gist of my Physics paper, LOL.
That always helps, too. That's usually when it sucks me in, though.
I'm sure there's some truth to that.
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