What Makes Zombies So Terrifying?

As the entertainment world's zombie outbreak continues unabated, one of the nation's top minds seeks an answer to a pressing question: What makes humans fear these brain-hungry abominations, aside from the whole brain-eating thing.

Stephen Schlozman, MD, knows a little something about fear and the undead. He's an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, for one. He's also the author of The Zombie Autopsies, an upcoming work of fiction about a medical team on a remote island attempting to apply forensic techniques to the living dead in order to cure a zombie plague.

So Schlozman knows the human psyche, and he knows zombies. Who better qualified to tell us what about these shambling monstrosities terrifies us so?

According to Schlozman, writing in a blog post for Psychology Today, zombie terror stems from a very basic human information processing mechanism: Pattern recognition.

It's a mechanism we use every day, allowing us to quickly assess a given situation and respond appropriately. Our minds categorize situations and stimuli much like a computer does, and when we're presented with a situation, we bring up that data in order to react.

It's a mechanism that can be quite helpful. It's also a mechanism, as Schlozman points out, that can lead to prejudice.

Someone might expect that a man in a dark alley intends to take your wallet, and yet he might think the same of you. We make up our minds quickly in part because the drive to categorize and classify declares itself early and profoundly so we can get by in the world largely on autopilot.

What does this have to do with zombies? One of the key factors of zombie horror is forcing humans out of that autopilot state, presenting information our brains can't process through simple pattern recognition.

That guy is staggering, so perhaps he is drunk. But wait! That kid is also staggering, and kids don't get drunk. And that woman is staggering, and when was the last time I saw three staggerers at the same time? Things are not fitting into my usual patterns. I do not recognise this pattern, and I am therefore forced to switch off automatic and to perilously fly manually. Most of the time we're flying by instrument, but not now. Now, we need to look around.

It's this mix of the familiar with the unfamiliar that sets humans ill-at-ease, and the more the unfamiliar is mixed with the familiar, the more intense the feeling. Your brain is desperately searching for a pattern to grab hold of, yet there's nothing there.

Gimme something.

Anything.

And fear sprouts from the depths of your brain, your primitive cortex freaking the hell out and your frontal cortex madly searching the hippocampus for anything even remotely familiar.

And this is where you experience horror.

What an amazingly simple way to explain a complicated emotional and mental response. Consider your book preordered, Dr. Schlozman.

The Horrors, the Horrors! Meditations on the Science of Zombies and Fear [Psychology Today]


Comments

    I read a similar explanation of why horror movies started using little girls as antagonists. When confronted with an aggressive adult male figure, we know how react. But how do you react when a little girl is behaving in ways that are totally outside of the usual pattern for little girls to act? That alone is offputting, and when the behaviour is so far outside normal for ANYONE, its just plain creepy.

    For me it's mostly about the fact they used to be human and still look mostly human.

      Interestingly enough this is why L4D2 had problems here in the Land of Aus, they were still recognizable as human.

      We fear something that makes little sense (like Zombies), but also because they are recognizable as once being just like us.

    But the only scary zombie movie was 28 Days Later...
    All the slow shambling zombies are just laughable.

    Sounds like it'd be an interesting read, especially when combined with this:

    http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9388.html

    Zombies is the one horror theme that doesn't scare me. They are so shambling I'm convinced I could just run away.

    Zombies aren't scary at all. And the zombie fad should end. Now.

    What he is describing is also known as the uncanny valley. In fact, points of reference on some uncanny valley charts are corpses for still images, and zombies for animated.

    It is simply a dissonance between the known (a person) and the unknown (dead flesh) that is creepy.

    zombies are terrifying because they are constantly searching for human flesh they are not like the other monsters that stay in a specific area like a lake,castle,village etc but zombies they just show up from a random place it cloud be in your house,neighbours house,your living place(village,town,city),neighbouring country they just show up and they spread like the black death they dont stop in a specific area they always hunt you even if you get 700km away from them that doesnt make you safe sooner or later they are going to reach you no matter what and they will aways try to eat you no matter if you are dead or alive and another thing is that they mainly move in gigantic mobs unlike other monsters like the vampires wich are looners zombies ruin everything that you knew to that point

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