The Yuck Factor

“Masks Confronting Death” James Ensor, 1888
“Masks Confronting Death” James Ensor, 1888

A couple of weeks ago, on what I now refer to as Bloody Monday, I had a molar extracted. The tooth extraction was quick and painless. But what followed weakened my squeamish knees.

The nurse told me to keep a firm pressure on the gauze covering the extraction site, periodically changing it during the next few hours until all bleeding stopped.

“Don’t go by the gauze,” she said. “It will be bloody every time you remove it. Look in your mouth to see if blood is still dripping, or get someone to look.”

That ain’t gonna happen, I thought. I’ll never be able to find somebody who 1) is willing to look in my mouth, and 2) won’t faint at the sight. 

Then I remembered. People love zombies. There’s an absolute zombie craze happening in movies and television programs. With the new season of The Walking Dead, zombie costumes will be this year’s hottest Halloween selection, forecasts Gary Lipovetsky, co-CEO of social commerce website

What is it that draws so many people to The Yuck Factor, I wonder. To delight in fright, to find entertainment at the sight of zombies feeding on human brains, to relish the repulsive?

We humans have at least a 2,000-year history of putting ourselves in touch with the horrible. The origin of Halloween is found in ancient Celtic festivals. Samhain commenced on the eve of October 31 and kicked off the Celtic New Year the following day. The Celts saw this as a period when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was the most transparent, enabling the spirits of the dead to visit earth.

Dr. Margee Kerr, an expert on fear, says humans are obsessed with death because we have a hard time wrapping our mind around what happens after we die. We want a life that goes on after we die. Or better yet, we yearn to live forever. But this violates the laws of nature and is, therefore, terrifying.

Why do we like being scared so much?

People are curious about how much fear they can tolerate. There is a sense of satisfaction when we prove to ourselves that we can handle more anxiety than we had imagined. Scary situations leave us with a sense of confidence after it’s over.

There’s also a hormonal reaction when we are exposed to a threat or crisis, and this can stimulate our love of being scared. The moment we feel threatened, we feel increasingly more strong and powerful physically and more intuitive emotionally. We know this charge to our physical and mental state as an “adrenaline rush.” As humans, we are hard-wired to crave this type of feeling.

On a psychological level we’re attracted to vicariously experience the forbidden, the bizarre and the dark. Horror films in particular let us explore fear in an enjoyable and safe way. They also allow us to engage with evil without getting ourselves into trouble. Identifying with the dark side of the human condition is probably as cathartic as a Greek tragedy.

The Yuck Factor is also a philosophical line of thinking – applied especially to bioethics – suggesting that an intuitive negative response to something is evidence that it’s intrinsically harmful or evil.

So as we count down to the Halloween horrors that lie only days away – the oozing undead, the blood-thirsty vampires, the visiting phantom spirits, the worms and maggots and spiders -- let’s keep this old Scottish prayer on our lips:

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,

Good Lord, deliver us!

In my next blog, “Family Candy”

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  • Peter Yaremko
    published this page in Blog 2014-10-30 07:51:06 -0400