Sunday, October 31

Halloween Psych 101: Lesson I - "Monsters, Toddlers, and Psychopaths: A Love Story"

Seeing as today is Halloween, I decided I'd kick off my blog with a hint of relevancy. (Notice, I only said a hint). I figured I'd put the 3/4 of my unfinished Psych degree to good use and discuss the psychology of fear in relation to horror movies to figure out why exactly we find them scary and why different ones speak to people in different ways. I've actually been writing for a few days now and have compiled so much information I didn't know where to start so I kind of started in the middle and am posting them in whatever order I feel like. How 'bout them apples?

At some point or another, we all worried about the monster that was taking up residence in that eternally rent-controlled housing unit known as the space our bed. Unlike good neighbors who welcome you to the neighborhood with Bundt cakes, and water your plants while you’re away, monsters threaten to yank you under the bed and eat you as you get up to go pee in the middle of the night. Monsters are scary because not only do they fall under the “fear of the unknown” category, they represent something less than human but more than beast and that scares us.


Humans have the capacity to reason, to rationalize, to make moral decisions, and to feel compassion, empathy, and love. Monsters do not. Monsters are jerks.
This is why we fear wild animals we encounter in the woods (or rather you would encounter, since I have no particular fondness for camping or the outdoors in general and therefore would never find myself in such an absurd scenario). It’s why we fear dogs that bark and jump at you or cats that hiss and extend their claws. You cannot reason with animals the way you would with humans because animals don’t feel empathy, or guilt, or compassion for you when you tell them not to rip off your arm. They just do it.

By nature, humans are social creatures. We learn, grow, and thrive from interaction with others and model our behavior, ideology, and expectations after those who have experienced more life than we have -- our parents, teachers, friends, siblings, celebrities we have never even met, etc.
Since we only have one life to live, we can never personally experience everything this world has to offer so we live many lives vicariously through others. It explains the eternal need for books, movies, television, tabloids, and other forms of entertainment to take us to different worlds. It explains the need for sideline parents and pageant moms.

Just kidding. There is no need for pageant moms.

This is one reason why so many enduring movie franchises feature sociopathic serial killers a la Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream, Hostel, and Saw 1 through 38. Now bear with me, I’m not saying that we are all secret serial killers or desire to be (although I hope to avoid offending any aspiring Dexter Morgans that might be reading this, so to avoid seeming discriminatory, I will adamantly maintain that it’s a lifestyle choice that you are completely free to make and I hope it works out for you).

 You're welcome.

I think it’s not so much that we want to murder people but that we want to temporarily envision what it’s like to be completely ignorant of how the world perceives us, how our actions affect other people, and what the world expects us to be and do. At one point, every single one of us, lived that experience, we just weren’t old enough to remember.

The late developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, delineated the stages of children’s social development ranging from flaming baby narcissism to more socially aware creatures that try to pretend they’re not still narcissists. He breaks development into 4 phases: the Sensoriomotor, Pre-Operational, the Concrete, and the Formal Operations stage. 
  • The Sensoriomotor and Pre-Operational stages both indicate that for our formative years, we are entirely self-centered creatures and if you’ve ever seen 4-year-olds fight over a toy, you’d agree. Epitomizing the term “Egocentrism,” babies and toddlers are pooping, eating, crying machines that don’t realize there is a world outside of themselves, and take and take and take without being able to empathize with others. They just do what they know best: look out for number one. Not that babies are sociopaths, but they have no concept of human life so they are not burdened with the task of valuing it. There you go, one thing babies and Freddie Kruger have in common -- aside from a tendency of looking absolutely adorable in stripes.
  • By the age of 7, Piaget claims they are less Egocentric (this is debatable), and start to develop an understanding of life outside of oneself and the consequences their actions have on others. 
  • By the Formal Operations stage starting around age 11 -- which Piaget points out that many people never reach – the child grows into a fully functional, socially and morally aware citizen of planet earth. Again, Piaget said many people never reach this stage. Piaget was a smart man.
And kind of a baller.
When we fear the darkness within us -- our most primal, visceral, basic instincts -- we basically fear devolution from an advanced state we spent our whole lives fighting to attain. We spend our whole lives fighting to become “human.”

The darker side of society fascinates us so because it terrifies us that we all possess it to some degree but cover it up with more socially acceptable traits (either due to a conscious decision to be a decent person or merely a lack of both opportunity and a working chainsaw). If you’ve ever suppressed the urge to beat the living crap out of someone, to tell off your boss with a list of words so offensive Lady Ga Ga decided to steal it from you and wear it to the Grammys, or if it ever crossed your mind to not hit the brakes next time a bicyclist darts out in front of you, you know exactly what I’m talking about. We don’t like this part of ourselves, and we don’t like other people to see us in this light either so we do our best to keep it under wraps.
  Except Troy. He's a little out of control.
But like most instincts, when we are under pressure, frustrated, stressed, tired, scared, etc., it’s so easy for us to revert back to our bad habits and default behaviors. Biting nails, smoking, eating our feelings. It seems nearly impossible to be 100% good all the time. By confronting our dormant shadows in the safety of a dark movie theater, we can temporarily exorcise our demons in an entertaining, cathartic way without hurting anyone in real life. These cinema and TV villains unleash the caged animal for us so that we don’t have to.  

(Here’s the million dollar question: Was I talking about Freddy vs. Jason, or Toddlers and Tiaras there?)