Humans are unique as the only creatures on this planet who tell stories.
At much insistence from my friends, I’ve started watching the Netflix hit series Stranger Things. [Mild spoiler alert: a few basic facts about the show come out below, but nothing reveals a plot twist.]
One of the great things about the show is that it raises philosophical questions about emotions people experience when taking in frightening fictional events.
An important puzzle in aesthetics and philosophy of emotion is the Paradox of Tragedy (though it also applies to suspense, horror, and any genre designed around sad or scary feelings). Consider these apparently basic facts:
The typical appreciator of fiction is neither a sadist nor a masochist, meaning she doesn’t (for the most part) enjoy pain or inflicting it on others.
Fear and sadness are painful—in the broad sense of unpleasant—both when they’re on behalf of oneself and when they’re on behalf of others.
Observing horror or tragedy involves either experiencing fear or sadness oneself, or it involves experiencing those emotions on behalf of, or through identifying with, the characters in the drama. (Or both.)
From these apparently simple facts it seems to follow that typical human viewers should not enjoy works of drama—plays, novels, movies, etc.—that are tragic or horrible. 2 and 3 combine to imply that watching horror or tragedy should be painful/unpleasant, and 1 implies people don’t like pain either for themselves or others. So people shouldn’t like tragedy or horror. But the truth is quite the contrary. Tragedies, whether Sophocles’s Oedipus The King or Coppola’s Godfather Part II, are some of the most popular works ever. For many, horror is addictive in a way that seems at odds with how much we avoid fear in regular life. And Stranger Things, which has many elements of horror, is hard to stop watching.
But consider the bizarre creature that terrorizes several people already in the first few episodes. Its shape is humanoid; it’s strong and grotesque; it is fast and lurks in dark lonely places, typically approaching people when they’re alone; and it’s associated with a disgusting, otherworldly organic residue.
You’d never want to encounter that creature in real life. So why do perfectly regular humans (neither sadists nor masochists) enjoy watching a drama with that thing?
Philosophers have floated several resolutions to this paradox over the years. Maybe people are a bit sadistic after all; maybe fear and sadness aren’t intrinsically painful/unpleasant, etc. But the solution that’s become more attractive to me recently is that the ‘fear’ and ‘sadness’ that people experience in consuming tragedy and horror are significantly different from those emotions in real life, and this difference makes a difference as to whether they can be enjoyable.
Several philosophers have argued for views like this. Kendall Walton, for example, argues that the ‘fear’ you experience in watching horror is a quasi-emotion, which is still a genuine emotion, but not the same as the real fear you experience in real life. Rather, you imagine it’s genuine fear, even though it’s not, as a way of engaging with the fiction (for Walton, engaging with fiction is a type of make-believe play). Walton has several arguments for that conclusions, but one of his main ones is to point out that when you watch horror, you’re not disposed to flee the theater when (say) the slime comes at you; but one of the consequences of real fear is being disposed to flee (or call the cops, which you also don’t do); hence the ‘fear’ you feel is not the same as real-life fear.
I’m not persuaded by that argument, however. Freezing is also a behavioral manifestation of real fear, especially when you sense that the fearsome entity hasn’t detected you. So whatever low-level systems modulate fear don’t register the scary thing on screen as having seen you, which makes your downstream behavioral response freeze rather than flee. And this comports with what happens when you see a monster on screen: you sit stone still.
But even if the action-disposition argument doesn’t work, the conclusion may still be right: the ‘fear’ one experiences from watching horror (or ‘sadness’ from tragedy) could have substantial differences from real-life fear (or sadness)—despite also having impressive similarities. And I now think this is the case, mainly due to a phenomenological comparison.
When I lived in South Africa, I spent time in Kruger National Park observing wildlife, and on a couple of occasions I came close to hyenas. Once I was in a protected area, but the fence was thin—and an apparently hungry hyena stared me down. On another occasion, I was briefly outside the protected area in a region of the park I knew contained hyenas—which I couldn’t see. (Reader: do not do this.) Hyenas, though they are predominantly scavengers, have been known to savage humans, and they often work in packs. So what I experienced on these occasions was genuine fear.
That fear, however, felt different from the ‘fear’ I feel when seeing the creature on Stranger Things. The fear of hyenas came as a stunning alertness—a heightened awareness—and readiness to act fast. The ‘fear’ of the Stranger Things creature, however, can best be summed up as make it go away, make it go away, make it go away! Some of my physiological responses were the same in both cases, as far as I can tell, but the overall character of the emotions was different: anticipatory action readiness versus helpless dread. (Sadness and ‘sadness,’ I think, also have phenomenological differences.) And it’s the latter ‘fear’ that has the enticing come-back quality that will keep me watching Stranger Things, even though I’ll stay away from real hyenas.
Many questions are still open about this view. What exactly are the similarities to and differences from real-life emotions? How do the differences help explain enjoyment of otherwise painful feelings? Why does a ‘fear’ that has that make-it-go-away feeling also have that enticing come-back quality? That, perhaps, is a puzzle of its own, though different from the initial Paradox. And finally, why does fiction trigger emotional responses at all—even if emotional responses of a distinct sort? But we’ve already arrived at a fascinating fact about humans: we’re capable of entirely distinct forms of emotion—counterparts to but distinct from regular emotions—and we have those emotions in response to things we know aren’t real.
Why we have those emotions in response to fiction has resisted philosophical explanation at least since Plato. Nor does there seem to be any analogous phenomenon in the non-human animal kingdom. So all we can say, taking all these considerations together, is that we humans are capable of stranger feelings than our best theories so far can capture.