Fear of the Unknown: The Heart of the Weird Tale

“THE OLDEST AND STRONGEST EMOTION of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.”

—H. P. Lovecraft, The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature.

When we say humanity is an irrational animal, we’re describing all the inner emotions of fear that trigger in us a sense of anxiety and flight: extinction, mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation, and ego death. Psychologists describe these as the core fears from which all other derive:

Extinction—the fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. This is a more fundamental way to express it than just “fear of death.” The idea of no longer being arouses a primary existential anxiety in all normal humans. Consider that panicky feeling you get when you look over the edge of a high building.

Mutilation—the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function. Anxiety about animals, such as bugs, spiders, snakes, and other creepy things arises from fear of mutilation.

Loss of Autonomy—the fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control. In physical form, it’s commonly known as claustrophobia, but it also extends to our social interactions and relationships.
Separation—the fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness; of becoming a non-person—not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else. The “silent treatment,” when imposed by a group, can have a devastating effect on its target.

Ego-death—the fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.1

As Salman Akhtar describes it fear is a dysphoric reaction to an actual object (e.g., a wild animal, a knife-wielding drunkard), event (e.g., an earthquake, a stampede), or situation (e.g., watching a horror movie, losing control of a car on an icy road) that is felt to be threatening. The extent of dysphoria in the face of approaching danger varies and four levels of fear’s severity are identified in the English language: (a) apprehension, which refers to a mild anticipation of a bad occurrence; (b) dread, which blends the conviction that one is facing danger with a powerful reluctance to encounter the scary object or situation; (c) panic, which denotes an overwhelming sense of being scared, coupled with alarmed hyperactivity (e.g., pacing, running away) and physiological arousal (e.g., increased heartbeat, laboured breathing); and (d) terror, which signifies an extreme degree of consternation, a feeling of doom, “catastrophic aloneness”, and psychomotor paralysis.2

This sense of apprehension, dread, panic, and terror are at the heart of horror and the weird. We’ve all felt a sense of apprehension when walking down a street at night, or entering a cold, dank forest full of thick bushes and trees, or plunging into an ocean and swimming among the torrent of waves, or any number of other landscapes of city or country, mountains or deserts. This sense that something may be lurking in that street, forest, or ocean; something that may or may not have designs on us, that may harm us or frighten us. This apprehension can suddenly turn into dread when we see a dark figure moving towards us out of that street, forest, or ocean. A dread that can turn to panic as we feel threatened by this unknown thing, this not knowing what it might be or do to us. Our panic can turn to terror when we realize that we are alone facing this person, thing, or object to the point that we feel a sense of impending doom, futility, and despair because of our vulnerability in the face of this monstrous thing arising out of the darkness around us.

Marlow a character in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness describes a fog that surrounds his vessel as they move up the Congo River:

When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it— all perfectly still— and then the white shutter came down again, smoothly, as if sliding in greased grooves. I ordered the chain, which we had begun to heave in, to be paid out again. Before it stopped running with a muffled rattle, a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation, soared slowly in the opaque air. It ceased. A complaining clamor, modulated in savage discords, filled our ears. The sheer unexpectedness of it made my hair stir under my cap. I don’t know how it struck the others: to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly, and apparently from all sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise. It culminated in a hurried outbreak of almost intolerably excessive shrieking, which stopped short, leaving us stiffened in a variety of silly attitudes, and obstinately listening to the nearly as appalling and excessive silence.

These various physical and biological changes Marlow and the crew undergo as they apprehend the strange, eerie, weird, and unknown sights and sound coming out of the murky fog are part of that ancient fear that drives our feelings of danger and flight. This physiological process which is part mental and part body suggesting that horror is an aspect of our mental life in which our physiological constitution is most notably implicit, that horror is essentially bio-horror and involves the tenuous negotiations between rationality and a looming biological plenum that defies rational mapping.3 E.R. Dodds in his eloquent study of the ancient Greeks and the Irrational describes the notions of their guilt-culture with its central fear of bodily biological horror as “a horror of the body and a revulsion against the life of the senses which were quite new in Greece. Any guilt-culture will provide a soil favorable to the growth of puritanism, since it creates an unconscious need for self-punishment which puritanism gratifies. But in Greece it was, apparently, the impact of shamanistic beliefs which set the process going. By Greek minds these beliefs were reinterpreted in a moral sense; and when that was done, the world of bodily experience inevitably appeared as a place of darkness and penance, the flesh became an “alien tunic.” “Pleasure,” says the old Pythagorean catechism, “is in all circumstances bad; for we came here to be punished and we ought to be punished.” In that form of the doctrine which Plato attributes to the Orphic school, the body was pictured as the soul’s prison, in which the gods keep it locked up until it has purged its guilt. In the other form mentioned by Plato, puritanism found an even more violent expression: the body was conceived as a tomb wherein the psyche lies dead, awaiting its resurrection into true life, which is life without the body.”4

This Puritanism and revulsion of flesh and body, the biology of horror is central to our Western Judeo-Christian traditions which if not fully conscious in our secular-atheistic culture still inform the darkness of our cultural heritage and the various literatures of terror, horror, fantastic, weird, and eerie works of authors from the Nineteenth century to the present. This sense of puritanism arose according to Dodd’s when the Greeks began crediting humans with an occult self of divine origin, and thus setting soul and body at odds, it introduced into European culture a new interpretation of human existence, the interpretation we call puritanical. (ibid.) As he describes it the “occult self” is a shamanistic idea:

Now a belief of this kind is an essential element of the shamanistic culture which still exists in Siberia, and has left traces of its past existence over a very wide area, extending in a huge arc from Scandinavia across the Eurasian land-mass as far as Indonesia; the vast extent of its diffusion is evidence of its high antiquity. A shaman may be described as a psychically unstable person who has received a call to the religious life. As a result of his call he undergoes a period of rigorous training, which commonly involves solitude and fasting, and may involve a psychological change of sex. From this religious “retreat” he emerges with the power, real or assumed, of passing at will into a state of mental dissociation. In that condition he is not thought, like the Pythia or like a modern medium, to be possessed by an alien spirit; but his own soul is thought to leave its body and travel to distant parts, most often to the spirit world. A shaman may in fact be seen simultaneously in different places; he has the power of bilocation. From these experiences, narrated by him in extempore song, he derives the skill in divination, religious poetry, and magical medicine which makes him socially important. He becomes the repository of a supernormal wisdom. (ibid.)

In our secular civilization such notions have fallen by the wayside, we no longer believe in such things as soul, occult self, magic, etc. accept as part of the folklore of ancient societies and the religious mythologies of the monotheistic world faiths. Of course, this does not rid of its impact or importance as a part of the supernatural lore that informs our deepest fears, and it is central to all forms of horror in literature and film to this day. As one author suggests,

…panic, anxiety, worry, and fear have taken hold of the American psyche and become the driving emotions behind a majority of our actions and decisions, to our great detriment. Numerous authors dissect and condemn the rampant “fear profiteering” in contemporary American society, arguing (correctly) that fear is used to sell products and shape political debates. Viewer-hungry news outlets manipulate our fear response and our brain’s inability to distinguish “real” threats from the abstract and anomalous terrors across the globe that appear within seconds on our smart phones and TVs. We live in an objectively safer world than ever before, but we’re bombarded with fear-triggering messages and worried about issues that likely won’t affect us and are far from our control. We are arguably consumed with fear.5

The late Mark Fisher in his study of the Weird and Eerie spoke of its fear as being one of a fascination with the Outside: “for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience. This fascination usually involves a certain apprehension, perhaps even dread — but it would be wrong to say that the weird and the eerie are necessarily terrifying. I am not here claiming that the outside is always beneficent. There are more than enough terrors to be found there; but such terrors are not all there is to the outside.”6 This notion of the ‘outside’ of the unknown in both the empirical and abstract sense speak to us of our inability to know or understand the world, the reality of things as they are in themselves. What ever since Kant are termed the noumenal / phenomenal divide. Kant separated the world into the epistemological and ontological. Epistemology deals with what can be known through our senses and our mental intuition: it’s study’s the nature, origin, and scope of knowledge, epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues. Ontology is a form of metaphysics which the ancients called the ‘science of being’: it deals with concepts such as existence, being, becoming, and reality. It includes the questions of how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level. Kant in his own philosophy which has had a great impact on philosophy and the sciences since his time suggested that our apprehension of the world is shaped solely by our mind’s (brain) various mechanisms, and that we only ever have access to the world our mind creates, invents, constructs, and re-presents to us through the various categories of the Mind itself. Whatever the world-is-in-itself (i.e., “the thing-in-itself”) is absolutely inaccessible and unknown and unknowable to us and cannot form a part of our knowledge or epistemological framework. Ever since Kant’s time philosophers and scientists alike have argued about this inaccessible world beyond the mind-brain – Kant’s ‘noumenal’ realm of the Outside-Real and have sought by every means possible to overcome this divide, seek a way to know and understand the world as it is in itself. Philosophers have failed so far to do this, although many have tried and come up with various ingenious methods, strategies, and partial successes. Scientists see it as a non-problem since they deal strictly with the phenomenal world of sense-data rather than the unknowns and unknowable conceptuality of ontological metaphysics. For the sciences we are bound to the macro-micro physics that our tools of cosmological grasp entail from the greatest stretches of the stars to the smallest particles of our sub-atomic universe. Anything outside the range of the actual is pure mathematical theoretic awaiting instruments that can prove or disprove those theories.

Horror literature and the weird, uncanny, and eerie deal with the human condition toward this strangeness we feel in our inability to know and understand the world-in-itself, that we are cut off in a world of the Mind’s fabrication, a realm of human emotions, delusions, and illusions. Our fears stem from our apprehension that something is not quite right with the world, that the world we all share and know through the sciences and epistemology, or knowledge is not all there is, and that what remains outside this known world is both weird, strange, and full of terrors unimaginable. We are alone in a world we know nothing of and we are afraid. As Lovecraft put it at the turn of the Twentieth Century:

The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons, and thus clearly belonging to spheres of existence whereof we know nothing and wherein we have no part. The phenomenon of dreaming likewise helped to build up the notion of an unreal or spiritual world; and in general, all the conditions of savage dawn-life so strongly conduced toward a feeling of the supernatural, that we need not wonder at the thoroughness with which man’s very hereditary essence has become saturated with religion and superstition.7

  1. Albrecht, Karl Ph.D. The (Only) 5 Fears We All Share. Psychology Today. March 22, 2012.
  2. Akhtar, Salman. Sources of Suffering: Fear, Greed, Guilt, Deception, Betrayal, and Revenge. Karnac Books Ltd. 2014
  3. Morgan, Jack. The Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature and Film. Southern Illinois University Press. 2002
  4. Dodds, Eric R.. The Greeks and the Irrational (Sather Classical Lectures). University of California Press. 1951
  5.  Margee Kerr. Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. PublicAffairs. 2015
  6. Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie (pp. 8-9). Repeater. 2017
  7. Lovecraft, H. P.. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged. Hippocampus Press. 2012

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