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Rubin, T.I. (1993). The Horror Reaction and its Importance. Am. J. Psychoanal., 53(1):55-63.

(1993). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 53(1):55-63

The Horror Reaction and its Importance

Theodore I. Rubin, M.D.

Reacting with horror, or the horror reaction, probably has its origin in genetic roots, early infantile experiences, and life-long learned responses. We have seen experiments indicating that children have an inborn fear of heights, reacting with trepidation and possibly primitive horror to the possibility of falling precipitously. We have also seen babies respond with what may be the beginnings of primitive horror responses to certain people, places, foods, odors, and all kinds of situations and stimuli. Eventually we learn what is horrible through perception and imitation from those around us and society itself. And so most of us find an open abdomen, blood, vomitus, skeletons, ugliness, disfigurements, terrible events, etc. horrible.

The manifestation itself seems to be a modified anxiety reaction varying in duration and intensity. It can be momentary and may consist of a small scare and a thrill. It can last for months and can produce conglomerate associations as well as nausea and nearly all other somatic symptoms. It can be severe and may result in prolonged terror and disassociative and depersonalization reactions. It can be particularly destructive to children. Some who have seen horror movies at a very early age have flashbacks and night terrors the rest of their lives. While the stimulus producing horror and the reaction itself may vary from person to person and in the same person at different times, there are usually conditions that produce horror in nearly all people in a given culture. See the examples above.

Is horror the same as terror? Anything we find horrible can surely cause terror and its ramifications. Anything we find terror-producing can bring a reaction of horror. Are they the same thing? The reaction we have to the stimulus may be similar or may even be the same. But I believe the functions and purpose of the reactions and often the stimulating events may be quite different. I will soon discuss the functions of horror. But let me say here, since this is not a paper on terror, that the main purpose of terror is to sound an alarm so as to remove oneself from danger. This is largely a primitive response that usually stimulates an adrenergic reaction.


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