Oh, the Horror! Why Skeptics Should Embrace the Supernatural in Fiction

Article excerpt

FOR AS LONG AS THERE HAVE BEEN STORIES OF THE supernatural, some who heard them believed that the menacing creatures depicted in them really existed. There have also always been skeptics who doubted the reality of such supernatural monsters. Mythological creatures such as satyrs and centaurs were once thought to live in the uncharted forests beyond civilization's reach. Ghosts have been a continuous presence in humanity's imaginary lives, and even today fictional creatures like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and space aliens in flying saucers have their die-hard adherents.

These stories were told and retold as non-fiction, but at the end of the Enlightenment a new type of fiction emerged: the tale of supernatural terror. Unlike the purveyors of myths and legends, the authors of these stories knew they were writing fiction. Critics, though, claimed such stories were dangerous, especially for women and children, who might come to believe in superstitious claims. In 1833 one writer claimed:

   Those fictious [sic] narratives so commonly told in nurseries,
   called ghost stories, or other horrible recitals of the same kind,
   are decidedly injurious under all circumstances. I know that
   children in the habit of hearing these follies, grow up fearful,
   and in some measure in want of moral courage; they become more or
   less superstitious, and lack resolution; a person, however strong
   in mind naturally, cannot wholly divest himself of the paralyzing
   effect of these injurious influences inculcated in his youthful
   days, even when he attains mature age. (1)

This righteous indignation continues today, with skeptics and scientists arguing that depictions of the supernatural on television and in movies lead to belief in pseudoscience and the paranormal. For example, Skeptic Dictionary author Robert Todd Carroll attributes the prevalence of the belief that ghosts communicate through tape recorders, radios, and televisions to the 2005 movie White Noise. Science writer Chris Mooney complained that television programs with supernatural themes "shill for religion and the paranormal," while science journalist Matt Nisbet argued that science fiction and fantasy films "attack reason, sell transcendental fantasies, and undermine appreciation for science and progress" There is frequent concern for the welfare of children, as when the science communication expert Glenn Sparks reported that supernatural-themed television was especially dangerous for teenagers. (2)

The horror genre, however, is more than a vehicle for reproducing superstition. A brief examination of the origins and development of the horror genre before World War II demonstrates that supernatural horror transcends simple-minded repudiations of science and is, in fact, a subtle and important critique of science and rationalism, one that skeptics can benefit from by approaching it with an open mind.

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Origins

Gothic horror is the name usually given to a group of novels and stories composed between 1764 and 1820 that used supernatural elements and spooky settings to generate an atmosphere of terror. The first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole's 1764 The Castle of Otranto, the story of a usurper whose control of his domain is undone by the appearance of a powerful ghost. Other well-known works of Gothic horror include Ann Radcliffe's 1794 The Mysteries of Udolpho, Matthew Lewis's 1796 The Monk, and of course the 1818 classic by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

These novels, and countless others like them, were products of the Romantic Movement, the great backlash against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Gothic writers turned to the supernatural as a critique of rationalism and an expression of the emotional truths the Romantics sought to explore. However, Gothic horror had a suitably rational basis, provided by the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke. …