Why do we find certain organisms scary?

What dictates the fear factor?
31 October 2023

Interview with 

Adrienne Mayor, Stanford University


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In this most hallowed time of the year, many of us look forward to going out, seeing images of witches, ghosts, and ghouls, and getting a good fright. But a few poor organisms got caught up in this negative press somewhere along the way, and are now stuck with a bad rap. Well that’s what this show is hoping to remedy, as we extol the virtues of so-called ‘creepy creatures’ and ‘frightening fungi’. But before any of that, how did we get here? Why did certain animals become attached to Halloween, and how far back does it go? Adrienne Mayor is a historian at Stanford University, and author of ‘Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws’.

Adrienne - Certain animals are synonymous with Halloween for starters, because they're nocturnal and predatory. These creatures engage in mysterious activities in the dark, and so they've been cloaked in superstitions since ancient times. And the combination of dark grey, brown or black colours with their sort of cryptic, mysterious nighttime habits, that kind of brings a sense of fear and awe. Especially if you think back in history when the only lights at night were oil lamps and wax candles. If you just think about how dark and long the nights were for people before electricity, it's easy to imagine how frightening the creatures of the night might be, especially if you knew or could sense that they were maybe lurking just beyond that flickering light of a fire or a candle flame.

Will - I'd never thought about the colour scheme being scary, but that's a very good point because you don't have a scary bluejay, do you?

Adrienne - Not really. No. <laugh>.

Will - I guess that makes sense. From almost an evolutionary defence mechanism standpoint, if something is predatory and nocturnal, you don't want to be anywhere near that.

Adrienne - Yes, we have an evolutionary benefit in being frightened of such creatures. We need to be able to feel terror and react to them. We do seem to be sort of hardwired to be afraid of or repelled by certain distinctive features of dangerous predators or poisonous animals because they were, they were real genuine threats to our survival for most of human history, stealthy hunters in the night, they preyed on early humans. So we learned to fear predators with certain features of big eyes, large claws and talons, ferocious teeth. I think we did evolve to be afraid of these creatures.

Will - Obviously evolving to be afraid of creatures like this means that it sort of goes back further than we could ever measure it because it is sort of a primal instinct. But is there a time where these sorts of organisms got drawn into folklore, into scripture as it were?

Adrienne - I think we can go back to ancient Greece and Rome, and especially Rome, I think because the Romans had all these superstitions and omens, and they're all always looking for signs in nature that would warn them about bad things that were about to happen. And of course, the Romans came to Europe and even Northern Europe and England, and so they brought a lot of those superstitions.

Will - That's an excellent point, that it's almost like humans evolve to be so good at pattern recognition that as soon as they see something strange in nature happen at the same time as something they don't like, it must be related, right?

Adrienne - Oh, I think that the basis of superstition is causality. I mean, even if you're not superstitious, you think to yourself, 'well, it couldn't hurt' <laugh>.

Will - You've touched on there the idea of creatures with talons and teeth and stuff that you'd do well to stay away from, but there's also organisms like fungus and worms, which are, let's be honest, not quite as threatening, but they still have this sort of attachment to being scary or disgusting. Why might that be?

Adrienne - I think we have an evolutionary repulsion for things that we find disgusting or repellent because they could in fact be dangerous to our health. There are scientists who actually study the emotion of disgust and find that it is universal to certain organisms or situations that could in fact be unhealthy or dangerous.

Will - This is an interesting one because we talk a lot about the past and now it makes sense as to why they steered clear of certain individual organisms, but this fear has stayed with us even as we enter a time where we understand far more about the natural world and what goes on in the dark in the woods. Why do you think this fear inducing image endures even as society becomes less afraid of the dark?

Adrienne - People today are fascinated and morbidly interested in the same things, both real and imaginary, that terrified people of antiquity. Telling tales and stories of fearsome dreadful monsters is thrilling. It's an adrenaline rush and people think it's fun to share scary experiences and fears of eerie creatures and monsters with their friends. So it's something that we do in groups and I think, as I mentioned, there's an evolutionary benefit to it. We need to be able to feel terror and react to it. And I think we humans still need to face fear in order to maintain not only our physical survival instincts, but also our psychological resilience. We humans seem to know and understand that feeling fear is important for escaping life and death situations, and I think Halloween is one of those outlets for expressing the primaeval fear and keeping all systems go.

Will - So to lose this fear would almost be to lose our humanity.

Adrienne - I think you could say that, yes.


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