Demons to the Rescue: When the Fear Itself Becomes a Weapon for Survival


March 19, 2017 by Öykü Us

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird,
and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!”

Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking Glass (p. 22)

Lovecraft had once stated, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (Lovecraft, 1938, p. 4). He was one of the most talented and known craftsmen of the macabre literature, thus, it is not surprising to see how well he could define fear, and how marvelously he made up his stories with it. In his book, Supernatural Horror in Literature, he continues; “…uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities.” (Lovecraft, 1938, p. 6).

Indeed, fear is a powerful emotion, and it has shaped the human behavior down to its roots. Fear and disgust are two emotions that ensure our survival; while the first one allows us to protect ourselves threats and predators, the latter prevents us from getting contaminated (Rottman, 2014; Öhman & Mineka, 2001). Learning to be disgusted by something, or fearing it is not hard as well, for it would be a short life span indeed if humans persisted to consume poisonous, harmful substances or did not flee from an oncoming, deadly predator that was known to be hazardous for their lives. In fact, not only it is easy to learn fearing things, but it seems as if fear is a good way to jog the memory after all. It would seem as if fear of predators in a survival setting may cause people to remember more words, more than any other encoding technique used for memorization (Nairne, Sarah, & Pandeirada, 2007).


istock photo

The current research, however, deals with the possibility of supernatural creatures; beings whose attributes, weaknesses and general natures are unknown to humans, might be perceived as a bigger threat than originally thought, and this perception might actually be relatively advantageous in terms of survival. In the article that Kazanas and Altarriba have published at the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences in 2017, such is found to be the case, at least in terms of mnemonic strategies.

In their study, Kazanas and Altarriba essentially replicated the study of Nairne, Thompson and Pandeirada (2007), which had found that when people read a scenario where they were stuck in grasslands, condemned to find food and water to protect themselves from predators, it actually allowed them to recall more words. But the current research has a twist: the researchers not only examined the effect of supernatural predators but bizarre predators as well, reasoning that if unusual occurrences are more memorable than regular ones, then bizarre predators might have a similar effect on the memory. Of course, one of the most popular supernatural predator in the media are zombies, and Kazanas and Altarriba set out to see whether they could assess its threat levels and find a comparable supernatural predator. Interestingly, in the pilot study they did, it was found that instead of zombies, demons had a higher negative scoring, which indicated that people saw demons as more of a predator than zombies. The bizarre predator, however, was a clown, which was made more unusual by changing the “food” and “water” in the past experiment to “rust” and “dice”.

After the pilot study, 200 people were randomly grouped in four conditions, the standard predator survival scenario of Nairne, Thompson and Pandeirada; a scenario with demon predators, another scenario with clown predators and finally a control condition where participants would rate the pleasantness of the words. For all the other conditions except control condition and original scenario, the word “predator” was replaced with demon or clown, and for the clown condition, the words “food” and “water” were replaced with “rust” and “dice”. After reading the scenario assigned to them, and rating 32 words that appeared on their screen for pleasantness, they had to complete a sudden recall task where they had to recite all the words they remembered from the previous pleasantness task. Of course, those who only rated the pleasantness of the words were not exposed to any of the scenarios, and they only completed the rating part of the study.

It was found that demon predators were indeed effective for recalling words, rather than rating the pleasantness of the said words, however, there was no difference when demons and standard predators were compared. Interestingly, the results of clown condition produced were not different than standard condition, showing that the clown condition was not only less effective compared to the demon or standard predator conditions, but it was also rated as least interesting, imageable and familiar. While the result of the demon scenario can be attributed to the fact that the word “demon” itself has a deep, threatening religious meaning; the clown condition, which has been found less familiar, could have made the scenario “…less plausible and more difficult to utilize as a mnemonic strategy.” (Kazanas & Altarriba, 2017, p. 88)

Thus, it would seem as if the fear of the unknown predators might be on par with real ones. How this fear has born out of in the past is still a mystery. However, as humankind continues to move forward, these old fears do not fall asleep. They follow their creators and carve their path within. Each mark is deeper than the last, and as we gaze down into a future uncertain, they gnaw still. Fear is a big part of humanity, an aspect that made it how it was, currently is, and what it will be in the future, thus, it would be our best interest to understand it indeed.


Carroll, L. (1872). Through the looking-glass, and what Alice found there. London: Macmillan and Co.

Kazanas, S. A., & Altarriba, J. (2017). Did our ancestors fear the unknown? The role of predation in the survival advantage. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 11(1), 83-91.

Lovecraft, H. P. (1938). Supernatural horror in literature. Feedbooks.

Nairne, J. S., Sarah, R. T., & Pandeirada, J. N. (2007). Adaptive memory: Survival processing enhances retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 33(2), 263-273.

Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108(3), 484-522.

Rottman, J. (2014). Evolution, development and the emergence of disgust. Evolutionary Psychology, 12(2), 417-433.

Author info: E. Öykü Us, MA Cand., Experimental Social Psychology Program (Baskent Un., Ankara) | email: eoykuus [AT] gmail[.]com

One thought on “Demons to the Rescue: When the Fear Itself Becomes a Weapon for Survival

  1. In the TV series “Supernatural”, the most frightening scenes have always been the ones with the “hell-dogs” for me because you would be informed about their attack only but you would not be able to see them. Similarly, in the movie “Paranormal Activity”, the director used the same techniques to frighten the movie audience: the less you see, the more you afraid of. Therefore, even for me, demons are much more dangerous than zombies. At least I can fight with the latter. 😉


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