Under Vecna’s Spell: The Science Behind Our Obsession With Mythical Creatures
Just like every other Stranger Things fan, I have spent the past few weeks watching (and rewatching) the Duffer Brothers’ masterpiece. As Max Mayfield, who is played by Sadie Sink, rises into the air under the influence of the infamous Vecna, I am left contemplating one thing: Why do I care? Now, in no way do I mean about Mayfield herself, as I feel we have all found ourselves sympathizing and obsessing over fictional characters, but why am I fascinated (and also somewhat frightened) by a mythical creature I will never interact with in this physical world?
If you truly ponder on it, a multitude of popular programs feature allegorical beings, among them being The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, and even H2O: Just Add Water (despite mermaids being less threatening/violent). These fictitious entities are clearly receiving lots of attention and praise, but why?
One explanation could relate to the constant viewing of the creatures in these shows, movies, and the media overall. According to Robert B. Zajonc’s theory of the mere-exposure effect, the more people interact with a certain stimulus, the more they will begin to like or enjoy it. This would further suggest that our infatuation increases with exposure to everything from episodes down to promotion posters.
While it might initially seem illogical that viewers begin to “like” entities as grotesque and destructive as Vecna, the mere-exposure effect has actually been found to apply to terrifying cases. In a study conducted by researchers in the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience at the Boston University School of Medicine, it was stated that something initially alarming (for example, Vecna’s first appearance) does increase the sympathetic nervous system, also referred to as fight, flight, or freeze; because the peril appears so realistically (especially considering our modern day technology and editing methods), the “prefrontal cortex, paracentral lobule, amygdala, cingulate cortex, insula, PAG, parrahippocampus, and thalamus” all become active in a fear response according to neuroscience and psychology researchers.
However, because of the mere-exposure effect, this horror decreases upon further interaction (for instance, Vecna’s later scenes). Biologically, this occurs because the parasympathetic nervous system begins to kick in, calming the body by commencing vasodilatation, or “the reciprocal of decreased heart rate,” as one’s body now recognizes that this fictional beast is not a true threat. This new sense of tranquility can actually translate into a gratifying sensation according to John Edward Campbell, assistant professor in the Department of Broadcasting, at Temple University. This positive feeling would further increase the reward system that fans experience, causing them to desire more exposure to these beings.
Another similar reason for our fixation on these characters could be Dolf Zillmann’s excitation-transfer theory. This concept states that experiences involving intense emotional arousal can actually cause the amplification of later, unrelated emotions. This would mean, as stated by National Geographic science writer Nicole Johnson, “the fear we experience while exposed to something intensely frightening, such as watching a scary program, will intensify the positive emotions that we feel later.” So, Vecna might have caused a panic in episode one, but he may have incited subsequent happiness or excitement, forcing us to wish to watch him again.
Overall, there are many complex justifications as to why we adore these make-believe beings; but, just because you like watching Hawkins residents tremble as they figure out Vecna does not mean you are evil. For now, we should just sit back, use our parasympathetic nervous system, and enjoy!
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