Over at the Frontal Cortex blog, Jonah Lehrer discusses the insights psychopaths give us into moral behavior. His takeaway is that morality is an emotional, rather than a rational, response to the world around us. His argument rests on the fact that psychopaths "seem to have perfectly functioning minds. Their working memory isn't impaired, they have excellent language skills, and they don't have reduced attention spans. In fact, a few studies have found that psychopaths have above-average IQs and reasoning abilities; their logic is impeccable." The problem is that their emotional reactions are stunted or nonexistent. Which leads us to the part that gets interesting for horror fanciers:
When normal people are shown staged videos of strangers being subjected to a powerful electrical shock or other painful stimulus, they automatically generate a visceral emotional reaction. Their hands start to sweat, and their blood pressure surges. But psychopaths feel nothing. It's as if they were watching a blank screen. Most people react differently to emotionally charged verbs like kill or rape than to neutral words like sit or walk, but not psychopaths. The words all seem equivalent. When criminologists looked at the most violent wife batterers, they discovered that, as the men became more and more aggressive, their blood pressure and pulse actually dropped. The acts of violence had a calming effect.
So, despite the conventional wisdom assumption that psychopaths would show an obsessive interest in media violence – think of Patrick Bateman's use of Texas Chainsaw Massacre as porn – the research suggests otherwise: Horrific images bore psychos.
This reminds me of an assertion made by horror writer Joe Hill that the defining characteristic of horror was sympathy. In his Heart-Shaped Box his smuggles in something of a manifesto: "Horror was rooted in sympathy, after all, in understanding what it would be like to suffer the worst."
Perhaps psychopaths reveal something fundamental about the sensation of horror. One of the traditional knots of horror fandom is how one should divide the horror experiences into a taxonomy. The explicit versus the implicit, terror versus horror, the uncanny versus the possible, and so on. But, the odd immunity of psychopaths to horrific imagery might suggest a common, more primal connection. Perhaps, no matter how you slice it, all horror, regardless of final affect, starts with a moral sympathy. Before you can anticipate the terrible or revolt at the image of the horrible laid bare, you have to be able to create a connection between the suffering or threatened other and yourself. That link is a prerequisite act of sympathy.