Several weeks ago, in late August and early September, a series of posts featured the PYF or Primal Yuck Factor, and described a procedure for calculating it—an actual formula was proposed. The idea was to formally quantify physically revolting or repellent features in a horror story. This in turn would provide a way to analyze and compare stories, either within a given author’s body of work, or across the work of other authors in the horror genre.
The Primal Yuck Factor was not intended to be an absolute figure. Nor was it considered the only source of a story’s effectiveness. Rather, it was proposed as a means to compare relative magnitudes of revulsion across scenes in a story, or to compare these values across stories. Though not the most important element in a work of horror, it was hoped that the PYF may augment more traditional analyses of plot, characterization, setting, and theme.
Insofar as the enjoyment of a horror entertainment is a whole body experience, the PYF may offer a means to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work of horror writers like Lovecraft and his colleagues.
So it was a delight—mixed with some repugnance—to discover there are specialists far more qualified than me who are doing research in the area of revulsion. Dr. Valerie Curtis is an anthropologist and expert on cross-cultural hygiene practices. She directs the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She and her colleagues are developing a new branch of scholarship called the ‘science of revulsion’. That this research should be based in England seems somehow appropriate.
Curtis has coined an acronym for her underlying theory of why some materials and situations are disgusting: "parasite avoidance theory" or PAT. The basic idea behind PAT is that revulsion was critical to the early survival and evolution of our species. As the ‘forgotten emotion of psychiatry’, the instinctual feeling of revulsion helped people avoid disease, deformity and death, and so pass on the trait of “healthy squeamishness” to their posterity. This makes a certain practical sense when one considers all the various noxious human and animal effluvia—and Curtis and her colleagues do—that could be infectious.
To paraphrase Lovecraft, it may be that the ‘oldest and strongest emotion of mankind’ is not fear, not even fear of being eaten. Biologically speaking, it may simply be disgust.
Curtis likens parasite avoidance to the more dramatic fight or flight response, and finds it even more critical for survival over time. She feels that disgust is an emotion that controls our lives on many levels, determining our choice of food, clothing, shelter, and relationships—often without our conscious awareness. Feelings of revulsion are the biological precursors of social habits. From these, morals, manners, personal hygiene and other more advanced social behaviors evolve. These habits allow us to feel safe and comfortable with each other and not—well, revolted.
It seems there must be countless examples of horror entertainments that include some violation of these biologically based hygienic and moral principles. Just consider all the stories, games and movies that feature infection by disease or parasite. The previous post discussed Lovecraft’s The Shunned House, where the author perseverates on bad smells, mould, fungus, disease and exsanguination—a word that sounds as disgusting as the process it refers to. Surely it would be fruitful, even purgative to apply the findings of Curtis and her colleagues to the study of revulsion in horror.
Dr. Curtis will be presenting her findings in a book called Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, The Science Behind Revulsion due out next month (in the USA) from the University of Chicago Press.