How afraid you are of Stephen King

Monster explorerSeismographs of our fear are monsters

Adalbert Siniawski: At the weekend, thousands of horror fans met for the fear congress - the first fear convention in Bonn. The fascination for the zombie series "The Walking Dead" was already mentioned earlier. And the remake of Stephen King's horror story "It" breaks box-office records in US cinemas. All of this obviously shows: "People need monsters". The science author Hubert Filser brings the phenomenon to this formula. I asked him how he could explain the great success of the remake of "It".

Filser: Well, of course, that's a great story in itself that was filmed there - for the second time, yes, remapped. This is a character that we know more in the children's milieu, the clown Pennywise, who inspires children, cheers them up. Interestingly, the children in this film are the very first to sense that something is wrong with him. And this slight deviation from normality, from what one expects, what one hopes for - namely children who want to be entertained, want to be entertained - that is what creates this unrest in us. And that's a very, very deep feeling. That docks with our oldest fears. And that's why these characters are so powerful, so strong and irritate us for a long time.

We spoke longer with Hubert Filser - you can hear the long version of the Corso conversation here

Siniawski: One principle is ambivalence, you describe in the book. So this horror clown is also a kind of ambivalent figure. Somehow familiar and human, but unpredictable and evil on the inside. Is that such a general motive for the fascination with monsters?

Filser: Yes absolutely. I've already hinted at it a little: you expect something from him that he doesn't redeem. And this disappointed expectation actually triggers the uncertainty in us. So, this is ultimately a primeval phenomenon that we always want to adjust to our environment, mainly to the dangers of the environment. And when something happens that we didn't think so - when a voice is different, when something looks slightly different, when someone moves strangely, like with the zombies, for example, so shuffling, slowly - then something like that comes along Alarm signal high in us. So: watch out, there is something that could be dangerous for you. In prehistoric times this was life-threatening. Today this reflex remains, so that we still think today: Better be careful before something happens to you that you did not expect.

How does anxiety work?

Siniawski: And yet we feel a kind of pleasure there. Psychologists explain the fascination of horror stories with the fear-pleasure principle. How does it work?

Filser: By overcoming the fear and facing it, after all, it provides such a real adrenaline rush, we also have an experience. And this experience means: In overcoming this fear, we have achieved something incredibly great. And that's what creates this feeling of pleasure.

That already existed in antiquity; it was used in classic dramas. So this catharsis effect in the end. So that is something that we know, what we are looking for, what we are looking for, of course, in a secure atmosphere nowadays, in modern civilization, that we go bungee jumping or just go to a horror film and then know: Okay, there nothing really happens to us, but it could. And this fear results from this possibility, which we then overcome.

Siniawski: "We need monsters to give shape to our hidden fears." Now transferred to this clown again: Do we learn from this - as a substitute for dealing with "it", as it were - to defeat our own unpredictable fellow human beings or the evil within us?

The science journalist Hubert Filser (© Peter von Felbert)

Filser: So, defeat - it depends on each individual how he deals with it. So I advocate that we deal with it, that we face these fears, that we can look at them. And that is why this secure framework is extremely important. So the monster gives us the opportunity to take a look at something that is there anyway. Well, these aren't characters ... Well, nowadays we often perceive monsters as creatures that have a life of their own. They have in a certain sense, but ultimately they're still inventions.

And if we look at these properties of our own inventions, which are based on our inner fears, we also work on these fears. Or at least you can edit them. These are uncertainties, that is something ... They are often things that we are not consciously aware of. This is actually the great source of the monsters. The chance that they offer us is that they show us something that we do not know, but only guess, feel. Well, I also call the monsters seismographs, like an earthquake knife, like a fear knife, you could say.

"In the end it will be the monsters"

Siniawski: Exactly. And you name four categories of monsters in your book: There are the inner monsters, maybe it is this clown, the evil in us. Then there are the nature monsters, the Loch Ness monster as an example, and others. The category "inner monsters" includes not only the fictitious, but also real ones - such as suicide bombers. And elsewhere you write: "The monster Hitler showed his evil face." Is it legitimate to place Adolf Hitler and Anis Amri, the assassin, next to King Kong and Frankenstein?

Filser: Yes, that is on the edge of that. I also thought a lot about how strongly you can bring real people together with fictional characters. I have now decided on this variant. That is sure to be discussed. So for me, so to speak, the decisive thing is not the real figure at the moment when I look at Anis Amri or Hitler, but also what is projected onto it. This is, so to speak, a combination of a real figure and projection.

Siniawski: Because: You might think that you are playing down these people with the label "Monster" and pushing this phenomenon away from you - that was an isolated case, it cannot happen to us again.

Filser: No, it is never an isolated incident. I also write that in the book. So, in the end we are the monsters. We are the ones who create them. We are the ones who invented it. They come out of us at all times, in all societies. I mean, it's also interesting that every society, at all times, i.e. since they came into being 40,000, 50,000 years ago, has known such monsters. That means: This is something that has a lot to do with us. At first glance, it looks as if this is something that we have then externalized, i.e. what we have then found a character for. And then we can look at the figure in peace and then at some point you forget, especially when it is so terribly scary, that this is actually something that came out of us. But that is the basic requirement for me. It is always something that has to do with us. If you were to put it simply: We are the monsters ourselves.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.

Hubert Filser: "People need monsters"
Piper Verlag, 2017. Munich: 288 pages, 20 euros.

"People need monsters" by Hubert Filser (Piper Verlag)