The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.
You’ve probably heard that one. Maybe you’ve heard this, too:
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
That was H.P. Lovecraft. You know — the writer who set the tone for a century’s worth of supernatural horror, now equally notorious for his xenophobic, racist views. His fear of people and cultures that were unknown to him.
Yeah, you could write half a dozen dissertations psychoanalyzing that. I’ll leave that to the dissertation writers, though — this post is not about Mr. Lovecraft or his personal demons.
It’s not even about the countless monsters, movies, plotlines, or atmospheric settings that evoke the fear of the unknown. And they are countless. Because, as wrong as Lovecraft was about people, and race, and so many other things, he was right about one thing: the fear of the unknown is old.
Perhaps, even, evolutionary.
There are many phobias that seem irrational, yet universal, that scientists have suggested could be inherited from our ancestors — fear of bugs which are much smaller than us, for example, because some of them are poisonous.
It’s not hard to imagine how a fear of the unknown could have kept early humans safe. Death lurked in hazards as mundane as pestilence and exposure to cold, never mind fierce predators’ fangs and claws. Caution rewarded the humans who hunkered down in caves and played it safe.
But how could that be, when we also need risk to survive? Someone needed to go outside to hunt and gather food. And clearly that fear can’t be too deeply embedded in our genes, because it didn’t stop humankind from spreading to every corner of the globe and even into outer space.
The explorer in each of us thrills to see what no one else has seen — the narcissist longs to become unique, the scientist yearns to learn and share new knowledge.
That’s the thing about the unknown — it’s scary, yes. But it’s also alluring.
And doesn’t that make it all the more frightening?
Isn’t that what makes fear, itself, powerful?
Whether it’s defiance or curiosity or sheer stupidity, there is some small part of us that thrills in fear. Fear may be one of the most powerful impulses we have, but it’s not enough to stop us from doing something that we really want to do — something necessary for survival. Something brave. Something stupid.
The unknown is not scary because of its vagueness. That lack of specificity is a tool that carves out a little hollow, right there, right in the middle of all that darkness and uncertainty. And you, whether you want to or not, whether you know it or not — you will carry your personal demons right into that spotlight.
I’m not saying it’s a conscious thing. You’re not going to sit in the darkened movie theater during Jaws and hear the eerie music and go, “OH MY GOD IT’S THE CREEPY CLOWN FROM MY ELEVENTH BIRTHDAY PARTY.” It’s much subtler than that. Besides, everyone knows clowns can’t swim.
It’s in the way that the cinematographer always shoots just around the edges of the monster. The way the sound designer drops little touches into long silences just to remind you that something is there, but not what, or where. The way the director waits until the very last minute to show you the monster.
In those shadows and silences, your brain supplies the monster.
This is why the director waits. No two audience members will imagine the monster in exactly the same way.
A skillful storyteller will manipulate your fear into the shape they want so that when you do see it, it will feel like the thing you have become afraid of. But the seeds of that fear came from you. When the only stimulus was a footstep or a shadow, you supplied the monster.
The unknown is personal.
It’s the most personal kind of horror there is.
And that is what makes the unknown scary… no. That is who makes the unknown scary.