H.P. Lovecraft wrote that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Certainly a fear of the unknown is a necessary, but not a sufficient component for horror literature to be effective. The appreciation of horror must be a whole body experience, not merely an anxious, intellectual abstraction. It must be seasoned with elements that are well known, (or at least familiar), and at the same time viscerally revolting. In a memorable horror tale the ‘fear of the unknown’ must be sprinkled with a dash or two of the physically repellent, and these horror condiments are what I have been calling the Primal Yuck Factor or PYF.
“Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.” (The Facts in the Case of M .Valdemar, by Edgar Allen Poe)
“It writhed there on the floor like a huge, repulsive starfish, an immense, armed, legged thing, that twisted…and presently raised its great round blob of a body on tottering tentacles, crept toward my host and writhed upward—yes, climbed up his legs, his body.” (Unseen—Unfeared, by Francis Stevens)
“Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest, where the dog’s rending paws still rested watchfully, had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator.” (The Dunwich Horror, by H.P. Lovecraft)
“Whatever it was about the man that repelled me I did not know, but the impression of a plump white grave-worm was so intense and nauseating that I must have shown it in my expression, for he turned his puffy face away with a movement which made me think of a disturbed grub in a chestnut.” (The Yellow Sign, by Robert W. Chambers)
“The open, staring eyes, with pupils immensely dilated, sent Jandron shuddering back. A livid ring marked the forehead that now sagged inward as if empty.” (The Thing From Outside, by George Allan England)
Variables Affecting the Primary Yuck Factor
I have recently attempted to apply the concept of a PYF in earlier posts that reviewed stories by E.F. Benson and William Hope Hodgson. Perhaps there is a calculation involving several variables, that when manipulated might generate a score useful for purposes of comparison and prediction, as well as analysis. What are these important variables? Readers probably know them intuitively. Given a typical horror story, does it contain any of the following types of stimuli, alone or in combination?
1. Deformities of the ideal human or animal form, which may include mutations and hybridizations, as well as dismemberment or disfigurement.
2. Dead, rotting, or decaying things, and the organisms associated with them. Vultures, worms, and insects are revolting through association with deceased items. Contact makes one unclean and in need of purification.
3. Invertebrate life forms, especially arthropods, annelids, and mollusks. Is any entity described in terms of an insect, worm, slug or octopus? Any creature with either more or less than the cardinal four limbs is inherently repellent. There is a reason for this. The least frightening creatures we can imagine, including even large predators like bears and tigers, are literally familiar, (in our family), because they share our quadruped nature. In order to make a quadruped frightening, it has to be amplified, made larger, fiercer, and more voracious. Nevertheless, we can still give our children teddy bears, but not—at least until fairly recently—teddy spiders or teddy squid.
4. Limbless creatures like snakes and eels, though vertebrates like us, violate the ideal quadruped form and so are inherently revolting. They are a variation of deformities of the ideal animal form.
5. Bodily fluids and discharges are repellent because of their association with infection, disease and death.
7. Fungus, mold, slime—in other words, large accumulations of microscopic organisms. They represent a deformity of the ideal vegetable form. Instead of a wholesome leafy green, they take other shapes and colors and are typically hidden from purifying sunlight.
Other Important Considerations
The items above are types of repellent or revolting stimuli that may be found or suggested in a horror story. There are other variables that interact with these types to amplify or modulate their effect:
1. The frequency in which the stimuli occurs in the story.
2. The relative subtlety or intensity of the stimuli—is it merely suggested or graphically described? (Score 1 if subtle, 2 if graphic.)
3. The mode of sensory presentation. A hierarchy among the senses is proposed here, determined by the relative proximity of the revolting element.
Smell—the most primitive sense, is most likely to give generalized sense of revulsion and discomfort. (Score 1)
Hearing—auditory stimuli create suspense and a strong feeling of the immediacy of the threat. They can also encourage a fateful curiosity in the victim. (Score 2)
Vision—with the horror in full view, characters experience its full force because the evidence of the immediate threat is now complete and physically present. (Score 3)
Touch—this is the most revoltingly horrifying because of the immediate physical contact. There is no distance left between the victim and the source of the terror. (Score 4)
Taste—this can barely be discussed, except to say a gustatory experience of horror implies that it is being taken inside, which is a mind and soul shattering experience. (Score 5)
Of course, the relative weight of all of these variables will vary from reader to reader and from culture to culture—somewhat. But it seems that horror and revulsion comprise a universal human experience, so that reactions to these various stimuli are typically shared around the world, and only vary by degree. The PYF cannot be an absolute figure so much as a way to compare relative magnitudes of revulsion across scenes in a story, and to compare these values across stories.
A Formula for Computing the Primal Yuck Factor
Here then is a proposed formula for computing the PYF. Essentially it is the sum of all of the types of revolting stimuli present in the story multiplied by their frequency, mode of sensory presentation and level of intensity.
PYF = [Ftype1(S1-5)(I1-2) + Ftype2(S1-5)(I1-2) + Ftype3(S1-5)(I1-2)…] ÷ [total occurrences]
…where F is the frequency that a given stimuli type occurs, S is the sensory mode, and I is the relative intensity of its presentation. This sum is then divided by the total number of references in order to arrive at a measure of central tendency—an average level of physical revulsion present in the story.
Here is an example of applying the PYF formula to just one scene in a story.
“Three days later Eustace, writing alone in the library at night, saw it sitting on an open book at the other end of the room. The fingers crept over the page, as if it were reading; but before he had time to get up from his seat, it had taken the alarm, and was pulling itself up the curtains.” (The Beast With Five Fingers, by W.F. Harvey)
PYF = 1(dismemberment) x 3(vision) x 2(graphic description) = 6
Applying this formula to the other scenes in the story, summing them up, and then dividing by the total number of occurances would produce the overall PYF score. What remains is to apply the PYF formula to an entire story, and this will be the subject of the next post.