Science and Horror


“There are things in this world your science can never hope to explain!”

I cringe at lines like that. I get the purpose behind it – horror and science fiction frequently cover themes of incomprehensibility. But I can’t shake the feeling that lines like that speak to, well…lazy writing, frankly.

I don’t mind it at all when a story utilizes the plot point of something being beyond our abilities to understand. That was, after all, the driving theme in most of Lovecraft’s work (which he pokes fun at himself early on in “The Unnameable”). And power beyond reason doesn’t diminish my love for “Dragon Ball Z” or “Yu Yu Hakusho.” No, what irks me is the mindset that the opening phrase above evokes.

Namely, that science is an institution, something arbitrarily applied to counteract some unquantifiable “truth.”

It’s rubbish, that mindset. Science is this, and only this: a method. Hence the phrase “scientific method.” It is SOLELY a process in which variables are isolated, observed, and processes are refined so that said observations can be repeated by anyone who wishes to do so.

Oh, you disagree? You think science is trying to sterilize a chaotic, supernatural world? Well, fella, I hate to break it to ya, but science doesn’t give a shit about your sense of mysticism. It’s not an institution, some kind of exclusive club, or some “mentality.” It’s completely, totally, and only an observational process.

Still don’t agree? Open any grade-school science book. The instructions for scientific research are right there.

True, there are scientists who insist on antagonizing anything they see as superstitious or immaterial. Thing is, these scientists are assholes. They don’t “represent” science. They’re people with chips on their shoulders and a need to be acknowledged. And believe me when I say: other scientists think they’re assholes too.

This subject is something of a hot point for me, I guess. I’ve gone on more than a few tangents where I drive my roommate to roll her eyes and probably think to herself Yeah, I know, YOU’VE SAID THIS ALREADY. I’m currently pursuing graduate education in psychology, a field which, due to its non-physical nature, has to adhere to the scientific method particularly fiercely. This insistence on proper methodology is drilled into your head in every class you will ever take on the subject. And while the grinding aspect of methodology can understandably annoy a lot of students, I was fascinated by how pure and essentially simplistic the process was.

So, science isn’t this oppositional force attempting to reshape people’s belief system. You could say that it is simply examining and presenting the factors that cause those belief systems to function. I favor the philosophies of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, where one has to wonder how science can do anything but increase people’s wonder for the universe.

People love to say “Science has never disproved God!” They always forget to mention that science has never tried. Science kills God, you say? Sagan believed atheism was as unscientific as religious faith, since both relied on absolute belief without evidence. What’s that, no more arguments? Yeah, thought so.

I like to tell people that I’m pursuing an artistic career, but a scientific education. I don’t think these are incompatible goals; Lovecraft was famously skeptical of the supernatural, and would actively dismiss any “evidence” in support of it with ruthless logic. Even in stories of his that deal with supernatural themes, he would often describe such phenomena as belonging to scientific schools human beings simply could not perceive or understand. The Phantasm films use a similar theme, explaining the Tall Man’s amazing abilities and machinery as science which adheres to the physical laws of other universes.

But there’s a greater problem in how people apply their understanding of science in fiction. Beyond the inherent misunderstanding of what science is, there’s a growing buzz-philosophy on the role of science in the world based solely on that misunderstanding. And that misunderstanding grows exponentially, fed on expansive armchair philosophy. You have writers and artists, sometimes famous, influential figures, expounding on science in ways that, compared to their level of knowledge in other areas, are almost tragic for their level of ignorance. (Clive Barker, I’m looking at you. You’re beautiful in your work and your person, but please don’t wax scientific anymore. It breaks my heart when you do. It’s like learning your favorite uncle never knew how to read. It’s embarrassing.)

Even sci-fi writers are guilty of this. Harlan Ellison showcases how hilariously old he is every time he criticizes people for writing on computers, like there’s something inherently scary about saving work as an electronic file.

Douglas Adams wrote on computers, was in fact an early adopter of word processing technology. Terry Brooks was the same way. Neil Gaiman, a personal friend of Ellison’s, tweets like a mother fucker. Amazing gonzo horror novelist Jason Pargin began John Dies at the End entirely online. Science and technology didn’t magically “kill” their art. It just…happened, and they exploited the usefulness of it, as all people have done, since human beings first learned how handy fingers were.

Does Mr. Ellison use a phone? I’d bet my ass that he does. But, y’know, that technology already existed when he was a kid, so it’s arbitrarily labeled OK in his book. Clearly technology was supposed to randomly cease advancing at that point in its application.

This amazing blog post explains how important science is to understanding phenomena we perceive as paranormal. Michael Crichton believed strongly that there exists phenomena that is too rashly brushed off as superstition by over-eager and unprofessionally biased researchers. Science has a place in both horror literature and real-world mysticism. We just need to exercise our minds a little to realize this.

Here’s a fact nobody considers: science doesn’t explain anything. It isolates singular pieces of data. Patiently and painstakingly. Science presents data; it doesn’t provide answers. That chore is left for human interpolation. And, yes, there’s room for error in that part of it, but that’s alright. The universe is never the same as it was an instant before. Data changes. Answers change. Error can be exposed, discovered and corrected. The point isn’t to know everything. It’s to make as honest, i.e. accurate, of an effort at it as you can.

After all this, you might remain tempted to say: “But ghosts/magic/God is an inherently unscientific subject!” Well, here’s the rub to that argument: there are no truly unscientific subjects. There are only unscientific processes. That creepy lady in white who disappears into walls? Valid subject for scientific research. Diseases disappear from loved ones every time you pray? Let’s get to isolatin’ some variables, folks, there’s some shit need’s evaluatin’!

But the actual scientific process is boring for a lot of people. That’s why you don’t see any television shows for legitimate parapsychologists, but a shit-ton of programming blocks for people with night vision cameras stumbling around in the dark. Seeing a vaguely human-shaped shadow is far more thrilling for most of us than watching a single experiment testing a variance of electromagnetic energy, thousands of times, in the exact same way every time, then being repeated by hundreds of people in the EXACT SAME WAY IT WAS BEFORE, then being proceeded with a new experiment in which only one extremely slight change has been made, and so on, et cetera. Never mind how exciting the discoveries that blossom from said grind might prove to be. Many of us just can’t stomach keeping up with that long, agonizing process.

And for a lot of us, that vaguely human-shaped shadow is all the proof we need, even if it can be explained away eighty different ways to Sunday. We feel a deep-down certainty over what we saw, and it’s more comfortable for us to believe that instinctive gut feeling than to be told we’re wrong, and have it explained to us in a way that, no matter how kindly the words are formed, can accidentally end up making us feel silly and shamefully ignorant.

There’s something to be said for that gut-assumption – those assumptions kept us alive when cats with steak knives for teeth ran our asses down – but even in our caveman days, we had a capacity for reason, and it’s a betrayal of our humanity to completely sublimate our innate curiosity, our need to understand. It’s a drive in us that is every bit as instinctive as our tendency towards assumption.

“But you can’t apply your worldly principles to phenomena from beyond this world?”

Sure we can. Scientific methodology can be applied to everything. Can’t see how that can be? Me neither, most of the time. But that’s okay. Someone else will see, and they’ll do their part to help us clear away the cobwebs. The scientific community is huge for a reason.

So, if science can be appropriately applied to paranormal subjects, there’s no reason it can’t be applied equally appropriately to horror. I’m not suggesting a complete overhaul of how people approach scientific subjects in fiction – I have a feeling that would ruin a lot of great, but currently unwritten, tales – but let’s try to see someone aim for slightly more accuracy in the presentation of scientific principles in fiction.

Let’s stop confusing psychiatrists for psychologists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors, psychologists are therapists and researchers. There’s ripe thematic material in the practices of both professions. Let’s isolate and explore them.

And Christ, let’s STOP MENTIONING FREUD. NO ONE FOLLOWS FREUD ANYMORE. NO ONE. AT ALL. He served an important purpose in pushing psychological research into mainstream scientific acceptance, but pretty much all of his hypotheses have been discredited. His brand of psychoanalysis is virtually dead in practice. Much more effective therapy is accomplished nowadays in just the span of a few weeks. And the id, ego, and superego are not considered legitimate anymore. The same goes for “fixations,” oral, anal, whatever. The field moved on, decades ago. Let’s investigate behavioral and humanistic psychology instead, shall we? Let’s move beyond Jung, even. Let’s look at Skinner and Horney, Rogers and Maslow (but let’s avoid misinterpreting Maslow the way John Green did). Let’s challenge ourselves. Let’s blend philosophies. No ethical psychologist thinks humans are simplistic beings. Let’s respect that complexity.

Let’s stop using science as a means to create something horrible. Let’s have science be the means for saving the day. Asimov wrote his landmark robot stories because it didn’t make sense to him for robots to cause wanton destruction. If scientific work fails, let’s ensure it’s the human element that fails.

Let’s avoid “punishment for playing God” scenarios. It seems more savory to punish characters for lacking vision, not for possessing it.

Let’s stop having science “go wrong.” Let’s see scientific methodology be applied to radically supernatural subjects, even.

And let’s let horror feed on the untapped strength that scientific principles and knowledge can grant the genre.

Let’s sink our teeth into the challenge, and watch it bleed.



– Special thanks to Voodoo Darling for permission to link to her blog. Click here to read the rest of it. It’s all pretty awesome.


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Filed under Ramblings on Horror, The Book

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