Nautilus

How Evolution Designed Your Fear

The most effective monsters of horror fiction mirror ancestral dangers to exploit evolved human fears. Some fears are universal, some are near-universal, and some are local. The local fears—the idiosyncratic phobias such as the phobia of moths, say—tend to be avoided by horror writers, directors, and programmers. Horror artists typically want to target the greatest possible audience and that means targeting the most common fears. As the writer Thomas F. Monteleone has observed, “a horror writer has to have an unconscious sense or knowledge of what’s going to be a universal ‘trigger.’ ”1 All common fears can be located within a few biologically constrained categories or domains.

Over evolutionary time, humans and their ancestors have faced potentially lethal danger in the domains of predation, intraspecific violence, contamination-contagion, status loss, and in the domain of dangerous nonliving environmental features. In other words, they faced danger from predatory animals (ranging from mammalian carnivores to venomous animals such as spiders and snakes); from hostile members of their own species; from invisible pathogens, bacteria and viruses; from loss of status, ostracization, and ultimately social exclusion, which in ancestral environments could mean death; and they faced the risk of lethal injury following dangerous weather events such as violent thunderstorms, falls from cliffs, and other potentially hazardous topographical features. The selection pressures from these types of danger have resulted in domain-specificity in the reactivity

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