Context is Everything in Spookiness (LSP #216)

Context is Everything in Spookiness (LSP #216) November 1, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday was Halloween, and now today is All Saints’ Day. Tomorrow will be All Souls’ Day, officially. All three days have a certain spooky quality to them — and they have it for a reason: context. We humans are extremely context-sensitive creatures, and when something runs out of context, it can be a spooky experience for us. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the awesome psychological power of context.

day on bald mountain
Lysá Hora, the inspiration for Bald Mountain. (Ladislav Boháč, CC.)

Context and the Night on Bald Mountain.

When I was very little, my mom took me to see Fantasia — the first one. Looking at the movie’s Wikipedia page, this must have been in 1977, so it happened in Hawaii.

The segment that had the biggest impact on me was “Night on Bald Mountain.”


“Night on Bald Mountain,” from Fantasia (1941).

It was such an incredibly wild, creepy, spooky story. I’d never encountered such passionate music, either, and this music merged with the powerful animation to completely blow out my wee little circuits. I remember being just awash in wonderment, watching it.

But by far, the segment after it, “Ave Maria,” freaked me out more.


“Ave Maria,” from Fantasia (1941).

When dawn arrives, the demon overlord of this village folds his wings around himself to hide away from the dawn and the church bells announcing the end of his revelries. His awakened spirits and goblins return to their graves and volcanic homes. Then, as the dawn glides across the now-quiet landscape, mysterious people holding lit candles begin a journey to a wondrous land of muted pastels and peace.

The movie presented this segment as superior to the wild frenzy of the night’s debauchery, but it seemed like a whole other kind of horror to me.

Both scenes entirely lacked context. They were both completely out of the ordinary — events that didn’t connect to my everyday experience.

And so these two scenes remain uppermost in my mind when I think about why people find certain things spooky.

Context, TOWTTHO, and Liminal Spaces.

That’s really what we’re talking about when we talk about liminal spaces (those places that seem jarringly disconnected from context, like abandoned malls and long-ruined psychiatric hospitals) — and when we share with others That One Weird Thing That Happened Once.

(I’m indebted to Ubi Dubium for giving me the idea of TOWTTHO.)

When I was 17, my then-boyfriend Biff went through this elaborate exorcism ritual to rid my family home of demons. In the process, he was creating a completely context-less experience for everyone involved. He freaked my little sister (about a year younger than me) out for decades afterward. Me, not quite so much. I’d been around Pentecostals enough by then to know what was happening. But my sister was still a nice little Catholic teen, and she had no context whatsoever that she could use to evaluate his behavior.

Similarly, when our perception plays tricks on us we don’t have context coming easily to hand that we can use to figure out what’s happening.

When I was a tween, my sister and I stayed up so late that we were both seeing shapes in the shadows of the room.

I saw a black cat sniffing at her heels. We actually had a black cat at the time, so I figured it was him — but I also knew he was sleeping in another room, so the sight frightened me. My sister, for her part, saw a dark hand reaching out for my ankle from under a bookcase. She didn’t tell me about this sight for a long time. Yeah, she knew it would have scared the bejeezus out of me like it did her!

Seeking out the Context-Less.

Our understanding of context, in large part, keeps us safe. When we get disturbing vibes from people or situations, we know to stay away from them. But these scary stories and places harness those vibes to deliberately give consumers a safe experience as they indulge in the lack of connection to reality.

And some people seek out and greatly enjoy these kinds of experiences. We’ve even done studies of people watching horror movies to see how their brains process the imagery involved. We can see how the brain responds to horror movies that inspire sustained dread, versus those containing lots of quick scary surprises like jump scares. One such study concludes:

[B]ecause the brain regions experiencing enhanced activity during horror movies were also continuously interacting with sensory regions that “our brains are continuously anticipating and preparing us for action in response to threat and horror movies exploit this expertly to enhance our excitement,” researcher Matthew Hudson said in a release. [Source]

To me, that excitement derives from the vastly different context that scary media provides.

Different Worlds, Different Times.

Those contexts differ drastically from those we can find in real life. Obviously, in real life demons don’t live on mountaintops, fire doesn’t become dancing girls, and ghosts don’t rise from graves to play among goblins. But the different context producing these images can be exciting for some people.

The people who seek out scary media want to freely float beyond normal context. People who love to visit haunted houses or watch scary movies or read scary books want to throw themselves into a space where literally anything could happen — and often does.

It’s not for me at all — I just can’t deal with horror — but I do understand the appeal.

In the realm of imagination, demons cavort on Bald Mountain, then hide away from the dawn while humble pilgrims journey to the land of peace. And thus, Halloween gives way to the far more calm and composed All Saints’ Day.

And so today, Lord Snow Presides over the way that human imagination creates entire worlds operating by wholly different rules — just for our own amusement.

NEXT UP: The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is making a big huge stinky deal out of its rare sales events that result in decent numbers of new-ish recruits (who are largely existing Christians who’ve been poached from other groups). But even amidst their crowing, they can’t help but reveal that those events aren’t actually massive victories, but rather paltry returns on profligate expenditures of time, effort, and resources. We’ll check out one of those events on Wednesday. See you then!


About Lord Snow Presides (LSP)

Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow was my very sweet white cat. He actually knew quite a bit. Though he’s passed on, he now presides over a suggested topic for the day. Of course, please feel free to chime in with anything on your mind: there’s no official topic on these days. I’m just starting us off with something, but consider the sky the limit here. We especially welcome pet pictures!


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Favorite fictional world: GO!

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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