Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

Scary stories


Halloween was a few days ago. It’s an event I ignore. It didn’t exist in Aotearoa when I was growing up and personally I’d be happy if it remained so today. Thankfully, our current home has not been visited for Trick or Treating since we moved here 16 years ago. Perhaps it’s the unlit, tree lined zig-zag path that leads to the front door that puts kids off. Whatever the reason, it means I don’t have to pretend that Halloween is fun.

Halloween has brought up the topic of how folk with aphantasia (the inability to visualise mental images), such as myself, react to scary stories. Apparently we don’t. It might explain why I had no interest in sharing scary stories as a child. According to a Royal Society Publishing article the fear induced while reading or hearing a scary story relies on being able to create a mental image of the situation/event being described. No image, no fear.

The study measured skin conductivity of subjects while being presented with a scary or frightening story such as being in an aircraft as it crashed, or being trapped in a room full of spiders that then begin crawling over you. It’s well established that strong emotions are linked to skin moisture – the stronger the emotion, the wetter the skin becomes, lowering its electrical resistance. The control group showed significant increases in skin conductivity during the presentation of the scary stories but the aphantasiacs “flatlined” showing no change in emotions.

To check whether aphantasiacs lacked emotional responses, subjects were also presented with scary images. Both the control group and those with aphantasia showed identical responses. The study indicates the there is a close relationship between visual imagery and emotions. Both the control group and aphantasiacs presented the same emotional reactions when presented with real images, but only the control group did so when no images were presented as they were able to create the mental image of the story whereas those with aphantasia could not.

Around 2% – 5% of the general population have aphantasia, while it’s estimated that 20% – 30% of autistics are also aphantasiacs. Most people with Aphantasia don’t realise that they have it unless they are tested specifically for it. I only discovered I have aphantasia in my mid 60s – around six or seven years ago. It might go someway to explain why I have difficulty identifying faces –even of those nearest and dearest to me. Perhaps it might also explain why I find little to no attachment to fictional situations, but slightly more so when I see it on a TV or movie screen.

Aphantasia is another one of those neurological differences where those with the condition are frequently described as suffering with/from the condition, in much the way autistics are often described as suffering from autism. If you are guilty of this, just stop it! Neither autism nor aphantasia cause suffering in and of themselves. Any suffering comes from how others disbelieve, devalue, ignore and gaslight the experiences of those with these conditions, and worse when we are punished because others perceive our responses to our experiences as being wrong.


Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

7 thoughts on “Scary stories

  1. This is an interesting outside perspective to Halloween. But there is more to this festival [which includes the Day of the Dead in Mexico, etx] than being scared or not. It is a celebration of something that, though I cannot explain, seems valuable. The way it has been adopted so enthusiastically in Japan suggest that it speaks to something deeply buried in our psyches.

    Aphantasia though is interesting too. I can see how it could cause one to remain an outsider in such proceedings. If only we could all together accept all our differences.

    • Halloween, Valentines Day, and Black Friday are all recent imports from America. Personally, there’s plenty of festive events that are indigenous to Aotearoa that would be more appropriate and fulfil that “something deeply buried in our psyches.”something deeply buried in our psyches.”

      Here, as it is in Japan, it’s the marketing hype that’s the primary reason for its success. That is most evident when examining Black Friday. As Thanksgiving has no meaning for us, it’s ignored, but a few years ago some of our major retailers saw how successful Black Friday was in America and thought they could emulate it here. Traditionally Boxing Day (December 26) has been the day with the biggest sales and the busiest day in the retail calendar by far. In less than 5 years Black Friday has become the day with the highest turnover in the year, and Boxing day has become just another shopping day. All due to coordinated promotion by our largest retailers.

  2. I’ve never heard of aphantasia. I receive so much pleasure from reading fiction and my brain filling in the images. I’m not sure losing this ability would be suffering but I’d certainly miss it. For the ND, is it really only societal expectations that make the conditions painful? I’m almost equally distressed by my Tourette when I’m alone as when I’m in public.

    • If someone who has the ability to create mental images suddenly lost it, I’m sure they would suffer the loss to some degree, possibly a lot, but if you’ve never had that ability, and never realised others had it then what’s there to miss? Most people with aphantasia live their entire lives without hearing the word or realising they have it. Many people are surprised at how easily I recognise someone’s voice on the telephone or a make of car before it comes into view. It’s a skill I have which most people don’t have, but I doubt anyone considers they suffer from not having that skill.

      I find making eye contact extremely unpleasant, as I do shaking hands or hugging so I avoid them as much as possible. I haven’t a clue how to make small talk or maintain a conversation without going into “info dump” mode. I can’t read body language or recognise what changes in voice tone mean. I can’t recognise faces and can’t recognise a great many social cues that come second nature to others. I struggle with the assault on my senses in places such as shopping malls, supermarkets and any place where there’s large crowds, loud noise or bright lights. And for these differences I have been considered rude, selfish arrogant, obnoxious, self centered, opinionated, dishonest, creepy, and untrustworthy, and treated as such. My experiences are often gaslighted. What’s more, many of these traits are considered worthy of punishment by society from ostracisation to ridicule to physical punishment. To many, including some in the health profession, I’m less than a whole person, incapable of “real” feelings and emotions, and treated that way.

      But I can enjoy going to one supermarket during one hour each week when they lower the shop lighting, cease stocking the shelves, turn off the advertising screens, turn of the beeps emanating from the checkout scanners and tills, and cease public announcements. The supermarket is open 84 hours each week, and yet during that one hour of sensory quietness, I hear complaints from other shoppers about how ridiculous it is and in the words of one shopper I challenged, “woke madness”.

      When I’m in the company of others who understand my differences or when I’m with others with autistic traits, I don’t have any issues. I don’t have communication issues, I’m not judged by my differences. People aren’t offended when I recognise them by their voice or gait or the way they move their arms or their unusual haircut or unique dress sense or distinctive glasses or even a particular twitch. If it’s a noisy environment, others don’t object if I ask them to exaggerate their enunciation so that I can read their lips, or they’ll agree to accompany me to a quieter spot to converse.

      I dare say it would by your Tourette that I would recognise you once we had met. Would that offend you? The point I’m trying to make is that in environments where my differences are considered unimportant, or understood, and accommodations are made for them, I may still struggle and find it exhausting, but I’m not punished or thought less of because of those differences. That’s were the real suffering is.

      I do have a number of facial tics that I’m mostly able to suppress in public, and I do so because I was punished by teachers and bullied by my peers because of them, particularly one where I grimace as if I’ve just seen or tasted something nasty. But if others understood it was not intentional and doesn’t imply something negative, why should it matter? I don’t know precisely how your Tourette manifest, but may I ask why it should be distressing in private? If the distress is caused by embarrassment of shame then yes, it is societal attitudes that cause the suffering.

      • Why indeed do I find my tics distressing. Home alone today I ticced up a storm and thought about this question. I decided it bothers me to not have control over my body.

        • Well, I can understand why that would be bothersome. I have a mild form of aphasia which gets much worse during migraine attacks. knowing what I want to say and not being able to find the correct words can be frustrating. And with migraines, even quite mild ones, I can get hemiplegia on my right side. I also have dyspraxia and find doing fine hand movements such as tying shoelaces very difficult. I know how to tie a shoelace, but my fingers just won’t follow my instructions. Migraines make it much worse.

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