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Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!

Why do we read tragedy, melodrama, and horror fiction, which evoke fear and sadness?

How do we enjoy them?

These were the research questions guiding this interdisciplinary workshop, featuring Professor Pamela Gilbert of the University of Florida in conversation with respondents from different fields at Warwick. Respondents included Jonathan Heron (IATL), Lorenzo More (Life Sciences), Elizabeth Barry (English) and Emilie Taylor-Brown (English/IAS). We invited all postgraduate students, early career fellows, and others to join us for lunch, followed by a lively discussion on the relationship between physiology, psychology, neuroscience, art, and literature.


The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the explosion of both literacy and the production of the novel. This period also saw the rise of physiological psychology, in which thinkers interested in affect often turned to literature as a rich field for the contemplation of human emotion; likewise, literary authors had a natural interest in what scientists and philosophers had to say about the experience of art. Recent advances in neuroscience today have given new insight into—and images of—the workings of affect, and a corresponding interest in neuroscientific theories of reading. But, the earlier period had its own scientific theories of reading and reception, not so different from today’s.

One problem that has dogged aesthetic and psychological theorists since at least the days of Aristotle is the aesthetic appreciation of negative affects:

  • Why do we read tragedy, melodrama, and horror fiction, which evoke fear and sadness?
  • How do we enjoy them?

This workshop outlined some of the theories of the period and how they were reflected in the literature of the time. We then considered some current theories and research on these questions before opening to a wider discussion of how more recent developments in the arts, media, and and the sciences affect our understanding of the appeal of aversive affects and how that appeal reflects on our sense of what is "natural" in "human nature."

A workshop co-sponsored by IATL, the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studie, the Centre for the History of Medicine and the Institute of Advanced Study.


Monday 16 May 2016 |
1-2pm Lunch 2-4pm Event


G.57, Millburn House, University of Warwick


This event was free, with no need to register in advance.