File 0114: Spooktacular Special


October 27 2023

This week we delve into the world of scary stories, their history and why we love them and Nathan tells us about some of the Jehovah's Witnesses propaganda against everyone's favorite holiday: Halloween! 

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JWs and the Holiday of Halloween

Growing up I didn't have any real involvement with Halloween, and it made sense since the Organization was pretty staunchly against it. I'm get to read you some of the propaganda that was fed to me as a kid, and is continually regurgitated throughout the years. Oddly enough, I learned something about other cultures and their celebrations of the dead, and how they honor them, so that's fun.

The Origins of Scary Stories

Halli suggested we talk about horror and why we as people, by and large, enjoy being scared and it got me thinking, what are the oldest horror stories out there.

It's said that for as long as storytelling has existed, as has the genre of horror. Fear is considered one of the basest human emotions, as HP Lovecraft is so frequently quoted as saying:

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

It's theorized that the reason humans began to tell stories was not just for entertainment but also as a way to pass on information, sometimes for generations.

Stories come in all shapes with the oldest being oral, which includes poetry and song. As humans have evolved so have our means of storytelling. Some of the earliest recorded stories exist in pictures painted in caves by our ancestors.

When we learned to read and write, stories began to be recorded in a more permanent record. Then came audio recording, then film, video games, you name it. If there is a medium humans have access to, we have used it to tell stories

Some of the oldest stories we know about come in the form of myth. Today we think of myths mostly as entertainment, but many of the myths we know from ancient times explained how the world worked and often were spiritual or religious in nature, tying to pagan gods and sacred spirits.

Just like myths gave answers, they also gave warnings. The idea of telling children scary stories to keep them out of trouble is an ancient one, don't cry wolf if there isn't one, or else when one shows up no one will listen and you will get gobbled up.

These are probably the earliest iterations of what we would call horror. Stories designed to inspire fear. As human society evolved, by and large the world we knew became safer and the average person more educated. Horror would evolve with us, a constant distorted reflection of a society's latent fears

In her essay "Elements of Aversion", Elizabeth Barrette articulates the need by some for horror tales in a modern world:

The old "fight or flight" reaction of our evolutionary heritage once played a major role in the life of every human. Our ancestors lived and died by it. Then someone invented the fascinating game of civilization, and things began to calm down. Development pushed wilderness back from settled lands. War, crime, and other forms of social violence came with civilization and humans started preying on each other, but by and large daily life calmed down. We began to feel restless, to feel something missing: the excitement of living on the edge, the tension between hunter and hunted. So we told each other stories through the long, dark nights. when the fires burned low, we did our best to scare the daylights out of each other. The rush of adrenaline feels good. Our hearts pound, our breath quickens, and we can imagine ourselves on the edge. Yet we also appreciate the insightful aspects of horror. Sometimes a story intends to shock and disgust, but the best horror intends to rattle our cages and shake us out of our complacency. It makes us think, forces us to confront ideas we might rather ignore, and challenges preconceptions of all kinds. Horror reminds us that the world is not always as safe as it seems, which exercises our mental muscles and reminds us to keep a little healthy caution close at hand

While these stories became more about entertainment than warnings about practical dangers, at the root of every story was the same idea "what if?". What if things weren't as safe as they seemed? If your neighbor was not who you thought? If that old man in the castle on the hill wasn't just an old man? What if those noises you heard at night weren't just the house settling?

For a story to truly scare you there must be something you can relate to, something that speaks our most primal fears and there has to be, even if only the smallest sliver, possibility. This is something that could happen

In his book, The Philosophy of Horror, the American thinker Noël Carroll describes horror as a story about an event or entity that contradicts our conventional understanding of the world. Although people initially experience this contradiction as deeply unsettling, Carroll argues horror can serve an intellectual purpose insofar as it draws attention to our false preconceptions and general lack of knowledge.

While we must look to folklore and myth to try and grok what the oldest horror stories may have looked like, unsurprisingly it was during the greco-roman period that we would first begin to see written examples of this and with it some of the classic supernatural entities we that we still know today.

Witches, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, the undead and demons. All the things that go bump in the night and that you can walk into a Spirit of Halloween and buy a costume of right now.

One of the earliest recordings of what we'd deem a scary story comes from a letter correspondence written by none other than Pliny the Elder during the first century.

In it he recounted a popular story of Athenodorus Cananites, a philosopher from Athens who bought an abandoned house because it was inexpensive, only to be haunted by the ghosts residing inside it

Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62?–c.A.D. 113). Letters.

The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled, hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the daytime, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm. Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold. It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but, in order to keep calm and collected, tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another. Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him. The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones, being collected together, were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more

The earliest werewolf stories are said to have come from Petronius who lived during the early half of the first century.

While it's more than likely, based on folklore and myths that have survived, that stories around witches and those use magic have been with us forever. Our first written story comes from the 5th Epode of Horace, thought to be written between 42-30 BC, wherein a boy is captured and killed by a group of fearsome witches.

These kinds of stories were prevalent in this period, but would decrease dramatically when we entered the Dark Ages. Which isn't surprising really, as there was the same dramatic decrease in all written works in general, as with the fall of the roman empire, literacy rates plummeted and soon it was only the clergy that could read and write by and large. And they were too busy copying religious texts to note down whatever the hot scary story of the time was.

We're sure during this time stories were being told, just not recorded, but there were a few exceptions.

Beowulf is thought to have been written between 700-1000 though this is heavily debated. Regardless the poem absolutely contains elements of horror, even in the first chapter alone where Beowulf first squares off with Grendel a monstrous being barges in to a celebration, pained by the sounds of joy and devours many of the men, forcing the clan that lived there to flee, until Beowulf comes to slay the monster.

Beowulf then fights Grendel's mother who appears to be a monstrous entity living at the bottom of a lake

In the 12th century we have Bisclavret a werewolf story written by Marie de France

"Bisclavret" ("The Werewolf") is one of the twelve Lais of Marie de France written in the 12th century.

Bisclavret, a baron in Brittany who is well loved by the king, vanishes every week for three full days. No one in his household, not even his wife, knows where he goes. His wife finally begs him to tell her his secret and he explains that he is a werewolf. He also says that while in werewolf form he needs to hide his clothing in a safe place so he can return to human form. The baron's wife is so shocked by this news that she tries to think of ways she can escape her husband. She does not want to "lie beside him any more".[5] She conspires with a knight who has loved her for a long time. The following week, the baron's wife sends the knight to steal her husband's clothing. When her husband fails to return, she marries the knight. The baron's people search for him but finally relent, feeling that their absentee ruler has left for good.
A year later, the king goes hunting and his dogs corner Bisclavret, now fixed in wolf form. As soon as he sees him, Bisclavret runs to the king to beg for mercy by taking the king's stirrup and kissing his foot and leg. This behavior so astounds the king that he has his companions drive back the dogs and everyone marvels at the wolf's nobility and gentleness. The king takes Bisclavret, still in wolf form, back to the castle to live with him.
The knight who had married Bisclavret's wife is invited to the castle for a celebration along with all the other barons. As soon as he sees him, Bisclavret attacks the man. The king calls to Bisclavret and threatens him with his staff. Because he never acted so violently before, everybody in the court thinks the knight must somehow have wronged the wolf. Soon after, the king visits the area where the baron used to live and brings the werewolf along with him. Bisclavret's wife learns of the king's arrival and takes many gifts for him. When he sees his former wife, nobody can restrain Bisclavret. He attacks her, tearing off her nose.
A wise man points out that the wolf had never acted so before and that this woman was the wife of the knight whom Bisclavret had recently attacked. The wise man also tells the king that this woman is the former wife of the missing baron. The king has the wife questioned under torture. She confesses all and yields up the stolen clothing. The king's men put the clothing before the wolf, but he ignores it. The wise man advises them to take the wolf and the clothing into a bedchamber and let Bisclavret change in privacy. Bisclavret does so, and when he again sees him, the king runs to his beloved baron and embraces him, giving him many kisses. The king restores Bisclavret's lands to him and exiles the baroness and her knight. Many of the wife's female progeny were afterwards born without noses and all of her children were "quite recognizable in face and appearance."

Around the same time

The Witch of Berkeley is a medieval English legend describing a woman from Berkeley, Gloucestershire, who sold her soul to the Devil for wealth. After being alerted to her encroaching demise by an omen from her pet jackdaw, she leaves instructions with her children on how to safeguard her spirit after death. In accordance with her wishes, her body is wrapped in elk hide and then placed inside a stone coffin which is then fastened by three chains. For three nights her family stood watch over her grave, but each night a demon came and broke one of the chains. On the third night, when all the chains had been broken, the Devil appeared and set the Witch on 'a black horse… with iron hooks projecting over the whole of his back.' She was then carried off into Hell leaving nothing but the sound of 'her pitiable cries'.

Dante's Divine Comedy written during the 13th century, while not what we would immediately think of as horror today, as it tends to fall into the "classics" genre, has all the elements of a horror story, as the author presents a fictional account of their travels through three sections of the Christian afterlife: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. With Inferno naturally being the most horrific. It played on the clear fears of many Christians of the time, when the concept of going to hell was something people took a lot more serious back then. 

The 18th and 19th centuries may have been the Golden Age of horror stories. This would be the birth of gothic fiction and many of the horror classics we still love today. This literary genre popularized many staples of modern horror, including spooky settings, an emphasis on mystery and suspense, and a liberal use of dreams and nightmares.

We would also see many of the stories in this era seemingly being based on real-life events or individuals instead of myth. Creating more grounded settings in which the Victorian readers could more easily imagine themselves being part of.

The first gothic story is thought to be the Castle of Otranto, a 1764 novel written by the English author Horace Walpole. tells the story of a nobleman hellbent on securing a decrepit chateau for his heirs despite the dangers that seem to lurk there.

The Castle of Otranto tells the story of Manfred, lord of the castle, and his family. The book begins on the wedding day of his sickly son Conrad and princess Isabella. Shortly before the wedding, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet that falls on him from above. This inexplicable event is particularly ominous in light of an ancient prophecy, "that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it". Manfred, terrified that Conrad's death signals the beginning of the end for his line, resolves to avert destruction by marrying Isabella himself, while divorcing his current wife, Hippolita, who he feels has failed to bear him a proper heir in light of the sickly condition of Conrad before his untimely death.
However, as Manfred attempts to marry Isabella, she escapes to a church with the aid of a peasant named Theodore. Manfred orders Theodore's death while talking to the friar Jerome, who ensured Isabella's safety at the church. When Theodore removes his shirt to be killed, Jerome recognizes a marking below his shoulder and identifies Theodore as his own son. Jerome begs for his son's life, but Manfred says Jerome must either give up the princess or his son's life. They are interrupted by a trumpet and the entrance of knights from another kingdom, who want to deliver Isabella to her father, Frederic, along with the castle, as Frederic has a stronger claim to it (another reason Manfred wishes to wed Isabella). This leads the knights and Manfred to race to find Isabella.
Theodore, having been locked in a tower by Manfred, is freed by Manfred's daughter, Matilda. He races to the underground church and finds Isabella. He hides her in a cave and blocks it to protect her from Manfred and ends up fighting one of the mysterious knights. Theodore badly injures the knight, who turns out to be Isabella's father, Frederic. With that, they all go up to the castle to work things out. Frederic falls in love with Matilda, and he and Manfred make a deal to marry each other's daughters. Frederic backs out after being warned by an apparition of a skeleton.
Manfred, suspecting that Isabella is meeting Theodore in a tryst in the church, takes a knife into the church, where Matilda is meeting Theodore. Thinking his own daughter is Isabella, he stabs her. Theodore is then revealed to be the true prince of Otranto as Matilda dies, leaving Manfred to repent. A giant ghostly form appears, declares the prophecy fulfilled and shatters the castle walls.
Manfred abdicates the principality and retires to religion along with Hippolita. Theodore becomes prince of the remains of the castle and is married to Isabella, for she is the only one who can truly understand his sorrow.

We would also see such classics as Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula, which was published at the other end of the century. Like many Gothic writers, both Shelley and Stoker drew inspiration from the distant past: Shelley from the myth of Prometheus; Stoker, from Vlad Dracul the Impaler.

It is a now commonly accepted view that the horror elements of Dracula's portrayal of vampirism are metaphors for sexuality in a repressed Victorian era.[40] But this is merely one of many interpretations of the metaphor of Dracula. Jack Halberstam postulates many of these in his essay Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker's Dracula. He writes:
[The] image of dusty and unused gold, coins from many nations and old unworn jewels, immediately connects Dracula to the old money of a corrupt class, to a kind of piracy of nations and to the worst excesses of the aristocracy.

While the most famous stories from this era star men a significant amount of horror fiction of this era was written by women and marketed towards a female audience, a typical scenario of the novels being a resourceful female menaced in a gloomy castle.Subjects began to shift as the 19th century waned.The serial murderer became a recurring theme. Yellow journalism and sensationalism of various murderers, such as Jack the Ripper, and lesser so, Carl Panzram, Fritz Haarman, and Albert Fish, all perpetuated this phenomenon. The trend continued in the postwar era, partly renewed after the murders committed by Ed Gein. In 1959, Robert Bloch, inspired by the murders, wrote Psycho. The crimes committed in 1969 by the Manson Family influenced the slasher theme in horror fiction of the 1970s. In 1981, Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon, introducing Dr. Hannibal Lecter

As he revealed in the preface to the 25th anniversary edition of The Silence of the Lambs in 2013, Harris was a 23-year-old journalist in the early 1960s when he visited the Nuevo León state prison in Monterrey, Mexico, to report on an American convicted of murder named Dykes Askew Simmons.

Simmons, with his unnerving eyes and "bad Z-plasty repairing a cleft lip," certainly fit the profile of a killer, but Harris found himself more intrigued by the doctor who'd tended to the American following a botched prison escape.

Harris met "Dr. Salazar" in the prison medical office, describing him as a "small, lithe man with dark red hair" and "a certain elegance about him." After a few nondescript answers, the doctor sprung to life as he probed the reporter for his thoughts on Simmons' disfigured appearance.

"Were the murdered people attractive?" Salazar asked. "Yes," Harris answered. Was the doctor insinuating that the beautiful victims had pushed Simmons into a violent rage?

"Certainly not," was the Doctor's reply. "But early torment makes torment easily ... imagined.

"You are a journalist, Mr. Harris," he continued. "How would you put that in your journal? How do you treat the fear of torment in journalese? Might you say something snappy about torment, like 'It puts the hell in hello!'?"

Later that day, Harris was surprised to learn that Dr. Salazar was not a prison employee, as he assumed, but a convict facing a lengthy stay behind bars. "The doctor is a murderer," the warden told him. "As a surgeon, he could package his victim in a surprisingly small box. He will never leave this place. He is insane."

According to profiles in The Times of the U.K. and The Latin Times, the "Salazar" of Harris' story was known by the real name of Alfredo Ballí Treviño. He was born into a prominent family in Méndez, Tamaulipas, his strict father pushing the boy and his siblings to excel in their studies.

As a medical intern in 1959, Ballí Treviño got into an argument with his lover, Jesús Castillo Rangel, due to either money problems or the former's insistence on marrying a woman. The would-be doctor killed his boyfriend, carefully sliced him into pieces to fit into a box and attempted to bury the box on a ranch.

His handiwork was soon uncovered, however, and Ballí Treviño was sentenced to death in 1961 for his "crime of passion." He was also said to be a suspect in the killing and dismemberment of hitchhikers, though those accusations were seemingly never proven.

While in prison, the "Werewolf of Nuevo León" reportedly continued to display a deft sartorial touch with his light-colored suits, dark shades and gold Rolex watch. He also maintained an informal medical practice by tending to other prisoners and visiting townspeople.

His sentence commuted after 20 years behind bars, Ballí Treviño returned to his old neighborhood in Monterrey to treat the sick and the poor, often for free. He agreed to sit for a newspaper interview in 2008, months before his death from prostate cancer, but refused to talk about his violent past, saying, "I don't want to wake up my ghosts."

Science fiction historian Darrell Schweitzer has stated, "In the simplest sense, a horror story is one that scares us" and "the true horror story requires a sense of evil, not in necessarily in a theological sense; but the menaces must be truly menacing, life-destroying, and antithetical to happiness."


The Science of Being Scared (Sh*tless)

The only good season is SPOOKY SEASON!

So why in the hells do we even like to be scared in the first place? Scary movies, books, music, shows…it's all extremely popular, and every year it feels like there's more of it. So why do many of us willingly sit down to consume something that will scare the living daylights out of us? It seems counterintuitive.

For example, I love horror books. LOVE THEM. I recently read a big batch of really great horror books including Bloom by Delilah S. Dawson, The Invisible World by Nora Fussner, The Redemption of Morgan Bright by Chris Panatier, and Episode Thirteen by Craig DiLouie. Some of the hottest writers on social media are horror writers - Stephen Graham Jones, Catriona Ward, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, V. Castro, Eric LaRocca. 

So…why? For me, horror books are a way to experience the weird and terrifying while controlling the scenes in my head. If I don't want them to go too far, or get too bloody, I can manage how spooky things get. I've been scaring myself with books since I read Mary Higgins Clark's Loves Music, Loves to Dance when I was nine years old. But as I've gotten older, the jump scares and extreme, pointless gore in passive media (aka TV and movies) are just too much, with only a few exceptions. They spike my anxiety, as I'm held captive by what someone else wants to show me. I didn't use to be like that; I used to love all things horror, no matter how it was presented. Maybe it's age, maybe it's the changing mindset and natural growth of a human life. Maybe I'm just a wimp anymore. 

But there's real science behind why we love to be scared (and why many others of us aren't so keen on it). And it all starts in our amygdala.

  • "You could call the amygdala a relevance detector," says Nouchine Hadjikhani, an HMS associate professor of radiology who specializes in capturing the activity of the brain as it reacts to fear–provoking stimuli. "In less than 100 milliseconds, just one–tenth of a second, sensory information reaches the amygdala, which signals your brain to be aware. All your systems become more receptive. You're now ready to fight, freeze, or flee."

The amygdala buys us a few precious extra milliseconds in which to make that decision, and this reaction is built-in to mammals, even after eons of evolution and adaptation. And scientists are still unraveling "how we decipher danger in the gazes or body movements of others, by informing treatments for conditions such as post–traumatic stress disorder, and even by providing clues to the gender–based underpinnings of human response to fear." We could easily get into fear and trauma responses here, but since we're focused on the fun, scary part of Halloween, we'll save that for another episode. Suffice to say that the amygdala is our knee-jerk reaction to fear and fear triggers, and with scary movies, TV, books, and more, we have control of our surroundings, and lessening the fear response can be as simple as turning off the TV or shutting the book.

So why do we like scary things so much?

Well, it's not real. That's one of the biggest reasons cited by scientists - again, we have the control to walk away/turn it off/etc. So it's a small risk to turn on The Exorcist or pick up The Shining for a good little thrill, the creep of chills down your spine. It's fun, and for some people, they enjoy it and nothing more. But scary media also taps into well-known archetypes, and for horror readers in particular, the genre is a good chance to examine their own opinions, biases, and responses to fictional characters and situations.

And horror as a genre almost always becomes more popular during times of political and social unrest.

  • As Ray Bradbury put it, "While our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age or death, it can revitalize us amid it all."

Horror lets us wrestle with the wider picture of the world, but also with our own personal demons. Racism, sexism, populism, capitalism, and any and all of the so-called "seven deadly sins". It can help us probe our fear of death, of loneliness, of the strange yet edifying sensation that we're truly on our own in a big, bad world. Some might take comfort in the bleakness of it, and others might find verisimilitude in understanding a part of themselves they hadn't fully explored. And horror stories prove that while our fears might wax and wane, the genre is here to stay.

Fear is an ancient emotion, as old as when we first put a word to it, and while there is a very fine line between the fun of being scared and the danger of fear inducing panic attacks and even worse, it's hard to imagine a world where scary stories didn't exist. They reveal our best and worst, and plumb the most hidden depths inside all of us.