The Paradox of Spooky Fiction

This week, hot on the heels of Halloween, a stimulus about spooky fiction from Grace Lockrobin of who is one of our team at We used it our online classes this week.

It shows a film audience reacting to a scary movie, Paranormal Activity 2. There’s a certain amount of tension even in watching them tense up! You can’t see the movie itself at all, so shouldn’t be any issues showing it in class, but watch to the end and pause before the screaming if you see fit!

Why be scared of what we know doesn’t exist?

Fear is an unpleasant emotion. So why do we seek out scary fiction in stories and on film? And why should we be scared of something that doesn’t exist anyway?

You could present the class with this argument, modelled on one by philosopher Colin Radford.

1.    It makes no sense to be scared of things that you know don’t exist.
2.    If you know something is fiction, you know it doesn’t exist.
3.    We do get scared by fiction.
C:    Therefore, we make no sense.

A good way to use such arguments is to display them, talk in pairs, and then ask the class to write on whiteboards which parts they agree with, leaving off the ones they don’t. Then you can easily see the spectrum of opinion within the class and ask for their reasons. 

They might challenge 1 because you can be scared of things that could exist, or scared for a character rather than of a monster, so that it’s a matter of empathy; or 2 because a good film manages to convince you, while you are watching it, that it does exist; or 3 because we don’t so much get scared as “pretend scared” – although that is undermined by the fact that we can’t turn off our feelings of fear after a scary movie!

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