There is, of course, a very definitive list of 50 books that cover the spectrum of what scares most people — ranging from killer clowns to waking up without any limbs, possessions, haunted houses, bloodsuckers, and more. But it’s when you look past the fright factor to consider what it is about these supernatural stories that keep us coming back for more that you realize how much more there is to the recurring archetypes in horror fiction than just unshakeable fright.
Of all the things that go bump in the night, and might actually kill us, vampires have carried the most cultural currency for the longest amount of time. From the late 1800s, when Bram Stoker introduced us to his famous Transylvania bloodsucker, to the current Twilight-driven trend, the idea of a person — alive or dead — wanting to snack on the blood that pumps through our veins has always creeped us out. But a closer look at Stoker’s Count Dracula reveals that, in 1897, this man who wanted to suck your blood represented something real and frightening to Stoker and his British contemporaries; Count Dracula was the embodiment of “blood-sucking” Eastern European immigrants who some Victorians thought were hellbent on destroying the way of life that citizens of Great Britain were accustomed to.
“Invasion literature” was a very real thing in those days. The idea of foreigners coming over and bringing their weird religions, political beliefs, and other very non-English traditions could keep a fairly xenophobic populace awake at night with fear — and Stoker’s Dracula played on those fears in a way that other vampire books didn’t. That’s one unfortunate reason why invasion literature like Dracula and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (which have more in common that you might think) still resonate and frighten people to this day. We may be more aware as citizens of the world today, but the fear of outsiders coming into our homes, changing our lives, and causing outright destruction remains depressingly current.
Why are we really scared of ghosts? If anything, spooky specters should be comforting to us, confirming that there is something after all of this is over, and in some cases — especially in the Gothic stories and poems of writers like Edgar Allan Poe — there is something romantic about the dead not wanting to leave the living alone. One contemporary book that does this well is Elizabeth Robinson’s poem/essay, On Ghosts. Robinson’s ghosts aren’t necessarily the type we as the reader should be frightened of, but we wouldn’t want to be haunted by them.
The thing is, a ghost is sort of a generic term; where a clown or a vampire is something with a little more definition, a ghost can be scary when it’s something we can’t see — something that either isn’t actually visible or is only seen by us. And these unseen or potentially hallucinated ghosts often don’t get too scary until they actually do something scary, or at least make us think that they might. Books like Henry James The Turn on the Screw rely less on what is sometimes called phasmophobia — a term that is controversial because in order for it to be an actual phobia, proof of ghosts has to exist — and more on that fact that its ghost story confuses us as to what is and isn’t really there.
When you really think about it, who are the bad guys in Frankenstein? Is it the monster, or is it the doctor who wants to play God? When you dig deeper, it becomes fair to ponder whether the monster himself really scares us at all.
Frankenstein and his monster might not frighten us the way other ghouls do, but a Frankenstein complex, or a fear of mechanical men, is an actual thing, made famous in large part by the work of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, whose stories and novels predicted that as artificial intelligence becomes more and more prominent, so will our fear of it. In some ways, the Frankenstein complex touches on our anxieties about everything from the looming Singularity, to genetic manipulation, and might be even more “real” now than it was when Mary Shelley wrote the novel.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown
While vampires and aliens can be recycled over and over again, Stephen King pretty much owns the “clowns that scare the bejesus out of us” category thanks to Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who is just one manifestation of a mysterious monster that wakes up every 30 years to wreak havoc on Derry, Maine. Even though It doesn’t wear the makeup full-time — we actually don’t know exactly what It is, except that It is pure evil — the image most people retain is summed up in the below clip from the 1990 TV movie:
Pennywise’s resonance, above and beyond other forms taken by It throughout the book, might be proof enough that we find clowns especially scary. Although coulrophobia is a recent term, one that is said to exist “from the exaggerated expressions painted on the faces of clowns, usually of joy; however their intentions are unpredictable,” according to the book An Excess of Phobias and Manias.
The thing is that, while there is a long list of other phobias out there, clowns seem like an especially trendy generational fear, as proven by the nearly half-million people who “Like” the “I Hate Clowns!!” Facebook group. According to Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s piece for the Smithsonian, coulrophobia usually starts in childhood. And since an entire generation grew up worried that King’s demonic creation was going to try to pull them through the sewer bars where everything floats, Pennywise made clowns chief among our absurd and irrational fears.