An Expert Explains Why You’re Scared of Creepy Clowns and Other Horror Tropes – Slate Magazine (blog)

Besides the obvious reason, that is.

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This article originally appeared in Vulture.

Horror is a genre that constantly reinvents itself, yet certain tropes have remained in place for decades. The demon-possessed doll in The Conjuringfranchiseis part of a pantheon of scary dolls that includes Chucky from Childs Play (1988), Talky Tina fromThe Twilight Zone (1963), and Hugo the ventriloquists dummy in Dead of Night (1945). The freaky masks worn by killers inThe Purge and Youre Next have their origins in classic Universal horror villains likeThe Phantom of the Opera (1925) andThe Invisible Man (1933). Then theres a long tradition of scary clownsthats Pennywise fromIt,the latest adaptation of which hits theaters this Friday,pictured above. So why is it that these images are just as frightening now as they were to our great-grandparents?

Clearly, theres some deep psychology at work here. Vulture called up Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and fright-film fan Steven Schlozmanwho teaches an undergraduate course on the psychology of horrorto find out why certain things stay scary.

Lets start with something thats always been a staple of horror movies: faces altered by deformities, mutations, or creepy masks. Why are they so unsettling?There is an aspect of horror that Freud initially calledthe uncanny. Thats where something is familiar enough to be recognizable but weird enough to give you the shivers. The uncanny explains a lot of horror tropes, where you look at something and its not quite rightlike a human face thats decomposing. Its recognizable, but just enough away from normal to scare you. In my lectures, Ill show a slide of a beagle, and I have a series of Photoshopped slides where I keep changing the eyes of the beagle and it gets creepier and creepier, because you recognize that theres something not right about it, and it takes you a second to place it.

What about circuses and clowns? Why are they disturbing?Thats the uncanny at work, but theres another part to it. Clowns, by definition, are supposed to make you laugh, but in the background is the fear that they wont, and all of us have that in the back of our mind: the fear that you wont actually be able to do the very thing that youre designed to do. In fact, clowns in the Middle Ages, if they didnt make the king laugh, they paid a pretty steep price. A lot of the jesters were mutilated to make them smile all the time. They would have the muscles cut that enabled the mouth to frown.

That is possibly the freakiest horror trope: unnatural smiles.I just went back and watched Magic with Anthony Hopkins, the one with the puppet, which I hadnt seen in a long time, and when that ventriloquist doll has this creepy stuck grimace, its horrifying. Again, you recognize a smile, your brain registers that smiles are largely good thingsand yet you cant smile all the time, because if youre smiling all the time, somethings not right. Like when Tony Soprano smiles all the time, its really bad for whoever hes talking to. So I think thats similar to clowns, in that we take cues from the way people behave, but if theres no change in the way they look or the way they actthink of Javier Bardems face in No Country for Old Menthat makes them very scary.

What about tropes that are completely outside most of our experience, like blood dripping from walls or screams coming from the basement?Those tropes are kind ofa-hamoments where you know beyond a doubt that this is not going to go well. Like inTheBlair Witch Project, when they find human teeth hanging from the trees: Among the things this could be, none of them are good. Thats the opposite of the uncanny. The uncanny is when pattern recognition goes out the window. Whereas you have enough of a template to know that teeth should be in mouths and not hanging from trees. So youre safe in assuming that something bad will likely happen. The calls are coming from inside the house is another trope like that. Thats the moment where it all comes together for you: These creepy calls now make sense in the worst possible way.

How about situational tropes, like being lost in the woods?This trope brings up really interesting ethical questions. Like, when do you stop to help somebody, even if you know it puts your own life at risk? Horror movies love to play with those ideas. All those kids in the cabins in the woods are about that.Theres also a helplessness that goes with a lot of horror movies. Mouths sewn shut is the classic one thereyou need to scream, but you cant. It gets taken to a whole new gross level in movies likeThe Human Centipede.

Why are psychiatric hospitals and insane asylums such a horror staple?Psychiatric hospitals scare people for two reasons. One is that we are frightened of that which we see in ourselves. People will often tell me, when they say they dont like studying psychiatry, I dont like it because I just cant understand it. Ill say, Actually, its the thing thats closest to you. Thats why I think you dont like it. You cant imagine having a heart attack, but you could imagine being morbidly depressed or something. So its the idea of seeing people who are lot like you kept in horrific conditions. Second, theres this whole largely fictional, but based on some reality, notion that once youre in a psychiatric hospital, you have no rights. Having your freedom taken away still has that strong resonance.

Theres definitely a childhood thing going on in horror movies. Whats going on there?A lot of horror is about lost innocence. If you look at Stephen Kingstories, a lot of them are about kids acting grown-up, or adults who have to solve something that they first confronted when they still had their innocence. Then theres something about children as a kind of swarm, like inChildren of the Corn.This is what got the critics upset in George Romeros first movie,Night of the Living Dead. People were able to tolerate it up to the little girl stabbing her mother, and then they just lost it. People walked out, people were screaming, people called it subversive, thought it was dangerous.

How about the ever-popular zombie?What people find scary about the living dead isnt the living dead at all, its the way everybody responds to each other when the living dead are around. Thats where the money is in these movies. Thats what makesThe Walking Deadso scary: The zombies are just big, empty vessels, and we cant tolerate something thats not going to care about us, especially thats going to kill us. That drives us crazy. So we turn on each other.

Lets finish with the scary Christians trope. Where does that fear come from?There have been a whole lot of exorcism movies lately.Theres also been a run of gothic southern tent-preaching in movies and TV, like onTrue DetectiveandJustified. Idolatrys always scaryintense, unwavering devotion the absence of even a slight question. Its one thing to say, I believe because I have faithIm all for that, and I myself have faith. But its very different to say, I will accept no other point of view. Once you say that, and if the activity youre engaging in is one that necessarily puts others in harm, youre in trouble.

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An Expert Explains Why You're Scared of Creepy Clowns and Other Horror Tropes - Slate Magazine (blog)

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