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GLT's Psych Geeks Know What Scares You

Clyde Robinson
Flicker via Creative Commons
What we fear reveals a lot about us.

What's your fearful pleasure? Brain-eating zombies? Vampires? Giant mutant bugs? Or how about that old standby: body cavity invading spiders?

The list of what scares us is long and varied. But the reasons why we're scared by stuff are basic human reactions we all share. 

Eric Wesselmann and Scott Jordan are professors in the Department of Psychology at Illinois State University. Their alter egos are as the GLT Psych Geeks, examining pop culture through the prism of psychology.

Jordan said what makes something scary for us has a lot to do with expectation and surprise.  

"Some people argue that there are five basic fears, including death, mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation from others and ego death," said Jordan.

"I think the core in all of that is threat on some level," said Wesselmann. "Whether that's physical threat or social threat. It's something that we wish to avoid."

Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
The GLT Psych Geeks Eric Wesselman, left, and Scott Jordan, from ISU's Department of Psychology.

The popularity of horror in popular culture tends to be culturally relevant, explained Jordan.

"In the 50s we had all these radiation large insect movies, for example."

The ongoing popularity of zombie-related entertainment reveals a variety of shifting fears. Wesselmann points to "White Zombie," a Universal film from 1932. "During this period, the zombies were voodoo, Haitian inspired. There was definitely a racial component in terms of intergroup conflict, and this idea of another culture robbing us of our will seemed to be scary."

"Then, moving into Romero, they make one brief reference in "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) to a potential cause for the reanimation of the dead and that was radiation. Progress forward to the zombie movies of the 80s and 90s and now you start having a virus metaphor."

Wesselmann believes many people would argue that trend stemmed from our fear of AIDS. In "The Walking Dead," the real threat is other people. "They just keep running into more and more horrible people doing horrible things to survive. This idea of we are our own worst enemies comes up."

"Zombies tap into many levels of fear," said Jordan. "Fear of death, mutilation and loss of autonomy all factor in."

Jordan and Wesselmann are enthusiasts of all things spooky and have recently teamed up to contribute a chapter to the new book, "Supernatural Psychology: Roads Less Traveled." It's now available from Sterling Books.

Listen to the full interview

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.