Joyce Dignam analyses the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and asks the question: Why does psychological horror still give us the heebie-jeebies?
Focusing on the darker sides of the human psyche, psychological horror tends to follow protagonists who are tortured by their own mind or haunted by the darkness of others. Psychological horror remains popular across all forms of literature, but it was the nineteenth century American short story writer and essayist, Edgar Allan Poe, that pioneered the genre with his tales. Poe’s stories remain chilling even to modern readers who are exposed to gore and violence in the media on a daily basis. So, why is it that psychological horror remains so sinister.
When reading a tale of psychological horror, the reader cannot comfort themselves with the thought that “it’s only a story” because the reader knows that the mind really can create such torment
Psychological horror arguably terrifies the reader more than other genres because it is plausible. When reading about characters who commit acts of violence or torment, we can imagine that they can exist somewhere in the world, even if we have never encountered them. The genre sets itself apart from other types of horror, such as supernatural or weird science, because they have the possibility of existing in the real world. When reading a tale of psychological horror, the reader cannot comfort themselves with the thought that “it’s only a story” because the reader knows that the mind really can create such torment. Poe wrote almost all of his stories with this concept in mind, creating characters who on the surface appear normal, but become manic figures who have lost control. The Black Cat, focuses on an alcoholic who is driven insane by his cat, leading him to commit acts of violence; “The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer.” Poe demonstrates that monsters are not the things which live under our bed, but rather the things which live in our heads. The beast lies not without, but within.
Poe demonstrates that monsters are not the things which live under our bed, but rather the things which live in our heads. The beast lies not without, but within.”
Psychological horror reaffirms that it’s not ghosts or goblins that we should fear, but rather losing control of one’s own mind. What would you do if you could no longer trust yourself? Berenice follows the story of Egaeus, a man who suffers from a disorder that makes him fall into periods of intense focus where he often doesn’t remember what has happened. Egaeus is about to marry his cousin Berenice however, his fiance becomes ill, and has her teeth remaining the only healthy part of her body. Egaeus comes to obsess over her teeth, and when Berenice passes away, Egaeus awakes one night to a servant who tells him her grave has been disturbed. He finds himself covered in mud, with a spade beside his bed and a box containing “thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances.” Aside from the taboo image of the disturbed grave, and the macabre box of teeth, what’s unnerving about this story is that the protagonist doesn’t even know what he has done. He has lost control of his own mind and been driven to perform an act of horror. Poe paints a convincing portrait of seemingly sane characters who commit acts of insanity, demonstrating that psychological horror can strike at any time.
In one of Poe’s most famous short stories, The Tell-Tale Heart, we see a murderer haunted by the beating of the still living heart of his victim. The narrator of this tale is an agitated character who obsesses over the eye of the old man he lives with, so much so that he murders him and hides the body under the floorboards. What’s terrifying about this character is his nonchalant attitude towards what he has done and his lack of remorse. His sense of reality has been so altered by his own mind, that he doesn’t believe he has committed any wrongdoing. He tries to convince the audience that he isn’t mad; “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing…You should have seen how wisely I proceeded.” He’s proud of what he has done and only confesses to his crimes because he is haunted by the perceived “beating of his hideous heart,” not because of any guilt over the murder he has committed. Poe’s tales remain chilling because they deny us the comfort of ascribing horror to otherworldly spectres or monsters. Rather, psychological horror reaffirms the fear that the real monsters plague the darkest corners of our minds.