What are Primal Fears?
A primal fear is an unpleasant feeling humans get whenever they think they are in danger.
This type of fear is neither logical (rational fear) or illogical (irrational fear). It is primal as in relating to an early stage of evolutionary development.
Thus, primal fear is a natural response to dangerous situations because of centuries of human evolution.
For example, fear of fire or darkness is a primal fear because both can kill us. Our bodies and minds have evolved to distrust both. Our responses are innate.
Horror writers use primal fears to scare their readers. They are perfect for horror fiction since they do not require explanation.
It was futurist author Karl Albrecht who described the five primal fears we all shared. Personally, I think there are more than five, but these five are a nice conversation starter.
Moreover, these are the five fears every human share:
- Fear of extinction. As in dying and ceasing to exist. Macabre horror fiction preys on this fear.
- Fear of mutilation. As in losing limbs or body invasion. Body horror, anyone?
- Fear of losing autonomy. As in feeling completely helpless, imprisoned, immobilized. Most horror fiction but especially torture porn.
- Fear of separation. We talked about isolation in horror fiction before and how effective it is.
- Fear of humiliation or Ego-Death. Shame, humiliation, losing face, facing criticism. A fear we all share.
These are fears that have to do with the person and their survival.
So, how do you apply those fears to horror fiction? Here are three examples of common archetypes, horror monsters that prey on those fears.
The Mirror Monster
Sometimes called the mirror monster or the monster in the mirror, this is one of the most overdone tropes in horror fiction and cinema. And yet, so effective and even expected.
Ancient humans were scared of mirrors and believed our reflections can capture our souls. Modern humans know better. Or do they?
A character will look into a mirror. Instead of their reflection, they will see a monster (or a distorted image of themselves).
On other occasions, a character will look into a mirror and see a spirit or evil entity in a corner, looking back at them, menacing.
Both instances are frightening. However, the first example provokes a primal fear in viewers. Revealing the monster is us, or that we have become monsters, is a form of ego-death.
In real life, if we were monstrous, it would be a cause for shame and even a reason to feel isolated (fear of separation). If we are possessed, it is a form of mutilation (some force has invaded our body).
Mirror monsters are an effective trope because they are reminders we can lose our humanity. Frightening indeed.
The Blank Face
Another horror trope is being chased by a monster or creature, in the dark, only to discover they have no facial expressions. Scary, no?
Besides the incongruency and surprise element, this works in a primal way since we fear losing a limb (fear of mutilation), imagine losing your face. Worse, imagine staring at a blank face?
Monsters are supposed to be ugly and provoke disgust. But what about a faceless monster? It would feel incomplete.
Our brains hate incomplete and disorder. Faceless is unfamiliar.
A blank face is empty. You cannot measure any emotional state. None. A blank face is worse than a killer with a mask. At least the mask shows features.
Trust me, we do not want to face (pun intended) a faceless monster. Give me an old-fashioned hideous one.
Many horror stories are about viruses. Faceless, microscopic killers sicken, disfigure, and even kill humans.
Even before coronavirus hit, our collective memories and DNA know about how dangerous pathogens can be. Humanity survived many pandemics, like bubonic pest (or Black Death), Spanish flu, and the Antonine Plague, to name a few.
The kind of unnamed virus you find in horror fiction is much worse. They turn people into either zombies, taking their will and personhood, or turn them into scarred, disfigured beings (body horror again).
Worse, viruses transmit quickly, and if a monster you can only fight with medicine and science. Indeed, identifying the pathogen and engineering a cure are important parts of the plot.
However, it is the anonymous and silent way they kill, slowly, without us realizing what makes them deadly.
Moreover, besides the primal fear against extinction and mutilation, they represent our primal fear against isolation (social distance, anyone?) and loss of autonomy (they control us).
Furthermore, as Covid-19 or the AIDS epidemic taught us, who needs monsters when real life is just as deadly?
The Living Shadow
We previously talked about darkness and how effective it is in horror. As a matter of survival, we are naturally programmed to be afraid of the dark and the unknown.
Horror fiction uses darkness to great effect. In effect, it thrives on it.
So, what happens when the monster does not hide in the dark but is made of darkness itself?
Living shadows induce several primal fears on us, from ego-death (we are afraid of our own shadows) to separation (what if our shadows are not part of us?) to extinction.
Living shadows are primal symbols of the mysterious dangers of the night.
A living shadow is like the monster under your bed, except this is a bed that walks alongside you–hiding evil intentions towards you.
Hence, living shadows are like being afraid of the dark, except the dark is out to get you. Worse, the light may make them retreat but won’t kill them.
Even if daylight may arrive, the monster will be inside every shadow you walk by. If that does not induce paranoia, what wouldn’t?
Primal fears are some of the surest ways to induce fear in your readers. They prey on those same behaviors and responses learned from centuries of evolution.
They are ancient, primordial, culturally embedded fears.
No, they may not be rational or illogical. These scares may not be so much different than the ending of a Scooby-Doo episode, where the monster turns out to be a person inside a mask.
Nonetheless, they still scare you. Even if we no longer live in the Stone Age. Even when we should know better.
Therefore, for your safety, beware of those mirrors and shadows, don’t stare at faceless shapes, and please, wash your hands.
After all, primal fears are based on real dangers.
Reader, what is your favorite primal fear? Which one scares you the most?