In the latest podcast episode of It’s (Probably) Not Rocket Science, Spooky Folklore and the Psychology of Horror take center stage in a unique, spooky trip down memory lane that fuses the worlds of ghostly New Mexican folklore and the psychology of horror films with the science of fear.


It is brought to life by ghostly host, Carly Bowling, and by experts and staff at The University of New Mexico including Gabino Noriega, a Ph.D. candidate in Chicano and Chicana Studies, and David Witherington, associate professor in the Department of Psychology. Listeners will be immersed in eerie stories and traditions of New Mexico, and then reach a better understanding of the most popular horror movies of today and the kinds of feelings the films aim to evoke. 

La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman, is a vindictive spirit said to circle bodies of water, weeping loudly in the night for her deceased children, who she drowned in the river in a grief-stricken rage at her husband’s infidelity, so the tale goes. In every version of the story, her wails are a warning for children to hightail it back home before she finds them. 

Noriega, a lifelong New Mexican, keeps La Llorona’s story and other folklore alive by continuing his family’s tradition of storytelling. He grew up with the legend, which was told to him from the lips of his abuela, and it hasn’t left him since. Through history, La Llorona’s story retelling is as varied as the story of Cinderella: rewritten from various angles and with new endings that best fit the narrative of the storyteller. Noriega even brings historical knowledge of the story’s Aztec origins. Listen to Noriega explore several variations of her story, as well as other popular spooky stories from his childhood.

“We live in a time with all of this urbanization and sometimes we do lose elements of [our historic culture] and I think one of the most important things we can do is keep those narratives and folklore, that medicine if you will, intact,” says Noriega.

Later, Noriega discusses the cultural impact of folklore and the 1980s “Ditch Witch” campaign created by the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, Bernalillo County and the City of Albuquerque to keep children out of the local lakes, rivers, and ditches in the 1980s. 

It makes sense that scary stories would make their way into how we impart lessons, history and values. But what is going on inside of us when we experience fear? How and when do we learn to develop a sense of fear, and why?

Witherington, an associate professor, developmental scientist and horror movie buff, recounts his studies of how humans begin to develop fear as babies and children. He discusses popular horror movies and the feelings that go along with them and walks listeners through the stages of childhood in their relation to fear, as well as the evolutionary purpose of such an instinctive emotion. 

“When we experience horror, the objects of our horror aren’t immediately threatening to us. Horror has often been called a spectator emotion or an onlooker emotion. What horrifies us is not a threat that’s immediately present to us. What horrifies us is bearing witness to someone else being threatened,” says Witherington.

Most horror film viewers actually experience fear, rather than horror, while watching a scary movie. According to Witherington, the films allow viewers to explore complicated ethical dilemmas and taboo emotions in a controlled setting. It’s the excitement of adrenaline and catharsis that keeps them pinned to their seats. 

“I think what the horror film provides is kind of a safe space for exploring vulnerability and for exploring emotions that normally might be considered taboo,” Witherington suggests.

The art of horror is designed to break boundaries and to give viewers the opportunity to identify with both sides of the victim-victimizer coin, he adds, which is what most audiences find so inherently appealing about it. 

There is so much more to learn about horror and the psychology behind it. Listen in and learn more about this week’s episode of It’s (Probably) Not Rocket Science by visiting for show notes and resources, or by subscribing on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Make sure to rate the show! New episodes premiere every other Tuesday.