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It’s an unpleasant emotion we usually do our best to avoid. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Clive Barker continue to haunt the popular consciousness.Yet across the world and through time people have been drawn irresistibly to stories designed to scare them. Far longer ago, listeners sat mesmerised by violent, terrifying tales like Beowulf and Homer’s Odyssey.‘If you go to your video store and rent a comedy from Korea, it’s not going to make any sense to you at all,’ says literature scholar Mathias Clasen based at Aarhus University, ‘whereas if you rent a local horror movie from Korea you’ll instantaneously know not just that it’s a horror movie, but you’ll have a physiological reaction to it, indicative of the genre.’Fresh from a study visit to the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Clasen believes the timeless, cross-cultural appeal of horror fiction says something important about humans, and in turn, insights from evolutionary psychology can make sense of why horror takes the form it does.
That we’re innately fearful of atavistic threats is known as ‘prepared learning’.Besides its disgustingness, another feature of the zombie movie monster that exploits our cognitive machinery is known as the uncanny valley (see box overleaf) – that is, there’s something particularly unnerving about an entity that moves jerkily in a way that’s nearly human, but not quite.‘Zombies also drastically reduce the moral complexity of life,’ says Clasen.There’s certainly fossil evidence to back this up, suggesting that early hominids were preyed on by carnivores and that they scavenged from the kill sites of large felines, and vice versa.Modern-day hunter-gatherers, such as the Aché foragers in Paraguay, still suffer high mortality rates from snakes and feline attacks.