Unsettling Fiction: The weird, the horrifying, and the terrifying

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Humans are strange creatures – in a world where we can choose from an abundance of comfort and pleasure, or already suffer from pain and misery, we still seek out uncomfortable experiences – rollercoasters, diving with sharks, bungee jumping, watching scary movies. And, it’s the same with books – horror, grimdark, thrillers, Gothic, and weird fiction – they all have their readership and fans, despite being deeply unsettling. So, why do we like being unsettled? And why do we seek out these narratives?

The Psychology of Fear

When riding a rollercoaster, or swimming in a shark cage, or dangling from a bungee cord, or watching a horror movie through our fingers, there’s a subtle reminder of safety – the bar across our laps, the metal bars and narrow gaps, the strong and sturdy rope, the flicker of pixels on the screen. We’re scared, but ultimately we know that we are safe. And it turns out that our brains respond in two very different ways when we’re exposed to something that is simultaneously safe and scary: they flood our body with adrenalin, endorphins, and dopamine (the feel-good chemicals), while also reassuring us that we’re safe and that we don’t need to freeze, fight, or flee, but rather sit back, relax, and enjoy.

Relax – you’re safe
Image by Matt Bowden via Unsplash

In addition to this primal (and slightly less primal) response, is a more sophisticated psychological reason for why we enjoy unsettling experiences and narratives: According to the Godfather of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud, humans engage in dangerous acts because of a deep-seated preoccupation with death – something he termed the ‘death drive’ and others termed ‘Thanatos’. Freud argued that, in contrast to the ‘life drive’ (‘Eros’), which motivated human behaviour towards preservation of life (procreation, social cooperation, survival), the death drive motivated human behaviour towards its ultimate demise – “an urge in organic life to restore to an earlier state of things”, a force “whose function is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death” [Freud: Beyond the Pleasure Principle]. It was his way of explaining risk taking behaviours and reliving of trauma.

While Freud’s theory is controversial and hotly contested, it’s easy to see aspects of it in a less pathological and more common state of arousal experienced by adults and children alike: morbid fascination.

Morbid Fascination

Morbid fascination is the ‘rubber necking’ at the site of an accident, the sudden interest students have in discussing the Salem Witch Trials, the binge watching true-crime documentaries and dramas. It’s both a) a recognition that a darker side of life exists and a need to understand it, and b) a rebellion against ordered rules and social norms to embrace the unnatural and taboo. We’re drawn to the morbid because it satisfies an intellectual and emotional desire: We want to understand it (curiosity), and we enjoy the subversion of indulging, and not shying away from, it (pleasure).

Carl Jung also wrote about morbid fascination, arguing (to paraphrase) that our “mental health depends on our shadow, that part of our psyche that harbors our darkest energies, such as melancholia and murderousness. The more we repress the morbid, the more it foments neuroses or psychoses. To achieve wholeness, we must acknowledge our most demonic inclinations.” [Psychology Today].

Eric Wilson, Professor of English at Wake Forest University and author of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away, expands on this, saying: “To stare at macabre occurrences…can lead to mere insensitivity, gawking for a cheap thrill; or it can result in stunned trauma, muteness before the horror. But in between these two extremes, morbid curiosity can sometimes inspire us to imagine ways to transform life’s necessary darkness into luminous vision.” He gives two examples that seem to capture that familiar concept of the sublime – where death and beauty are intertwined: “Renaissance scholars kept skulls on their desks to remind them how precious this life is. John Keats believed that the real rose, because it is dying, exudes more beauty than the porcelain.” [ibid]

Alas, poor Yorick!
Image via v2osk via Unsplash

Morbid Fiction

Fiction is the perfect place to indulge in morbid fascination: it gives us the space to work through the intellectual complexities of darker/unnatural subject matter, and the safety to linger in the emotional thrill of fear and loathing. Even better, different genres offer various levels of morbidity to indulge in – so we can dial it up or down depending on our emotional bandwith.

So, what does this spectrum of morbidity look like? Having thought about this for a bit, I’m more inclined to think of it as a matrix than a linear spectrum.

If we start from the premise that morbid fascination in fiction is all about a feeling of unsettlement – something unnatural (that we can’t fully understand, reconcile, or control) – then we can move on to explore what causes the ‘unsettlement’. I see it along three axes (which is tricky to draw, but hopefully the image below conveys the general meaning): Unnatural Things, Unnatural Behaviour, Unnatural Intentions.

Where we have natural things behaving in natural ways with unnatural intentions, we get genres and modes of story like True Crime, Grimdark, Dystopian, Thriller. The fear comes not from what the antagonist is, or from not knowing their power or capabilities, but from the depth of damage and carnage they are threatening (and capable) to unleash. These stories are more closely and directly tethered to our known reality.

Where we have natural things behaving in unnatural ways with unnatural intentions, we get possession and poltergeist type stories – the Exorcist (the daughter (natural) behaving unnaturally (climbing the walls and twisting her head 180 degrees)) and Poltergeist (televisions turning on by themselves and communicating otherworldly messages) are the two movies that come to mind. Sometimes, however, we have natural things behaving in unnatural ways and we are unsure of the intent – the television that flicks on, lightbulbs that flicker, clocks that spin their hands backwards, the stranger in the clown mask. And the not knowing the why is more terrifying than the knowing… (to be honest, I got the heebie jeebies just writing those examples [and reading them again in the edits]).

‘heebie jeebies’ coined by cartoonist Billy DeBeck in 1942

Where we have unnatural things behaving in natural ways with unnatural intentions, we get the typical monster stories – Godzilla, Dracula, Aliens. The ways are natural because they are known to us – these monsters are behaving in the ways we’d expect them to, given our understanding of their lore. Kaiju destroy cities, vampires suck blood, aliens eviscerate and/or possess their hosts. They’re scary because they can dominate us, but also not-so-scary because we know them. And knowledge is power.

Monsters be acting like monsters

Where we have unnatural things behaving in unnatural (or inexplicable) ways we have supernatural and paranormal genres and modes like Gothic Horror. Sometimes we can observe the unnatural intent (a malicious haunting, for example), but sometimes the intention is unclear – and the result is more unsettling and terrifying, than openly horrifying. Horror is fear you can put a name to, Terror is fear you can’t reduce to words.

Where we have somewhat unnatural things (hybrid, mutated, metamorphosed), behaving somewhat unnaturally (due to their unnatural nature), for benign or aggressive purposes, we enter the realm of weird fiction. Weird fiction, unlike the other genres/modes/tropes we’ve covered, is unsettling not from its horror (known or knowable menace) or its terror (unknown and inexplicable menace), but from its grotesquerie. Because of that, it’s easier to dwell in the intellectual discourse of weird fiction because we’re not overwhelmed by the physiological horror or terror. Weird fiction is an incredibly interesting mode of fiction — one that is found in my own Tasmanian Gothic and one that I will explore further in my next post.

Until then – let me know if you like your stories a little unsettling, and share your favourites or recommendations in the comments section.

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