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The Philosophy of Horror

Why do audiences crave the negative emotions of horror fiction?
the philosophy of horror
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Horror, like action-thrillers, comedy and the tear-jerker, is one of those genres that takes its name from the emotional state is designed to arouse. Consequently, the key to understanding the genre of horror is to grasp the nature of the emotion that it is intended to engender.  This is how Aristotle proceeded in his analysis of tragedy, whose function he contended was to elicit pity and fear.  But to consider the philosophy of horror, we should begin by asking: what is the emotion that works of horror are supposed to provoke?

Perhaps the most straightforward approach to answering this question is to attempt to identify the object of the emotion of horror.  That is, what is horror directed at — what horrifies us in our response to works of horror?  An obvious answer is the monster: a creature of supernatural or scientific provenance, whether that's a demon, an alien, dinosaur, or even a haunted house or a malevolent car.

As a first approximation, we might define “a monster” as a being whose existence is denied by contemporary science.  This is a good start; it distinguishes the kind of characters in which we are interested from various other sorts of villains, like the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry. But, it is too broad, since it includes Superman and Peter Pan in the same category as Dracula and Pennywise the Clown.  And even if we are willing to label such benign creatures as monsters, they are not the sort of monsters that inhabit the genre of horror. 

So, what does it take to be a horrifying monster?  For, if we could identify the properties of those particular monsters, the horrific ones, we would be on our way to discovering the emotions they are meant to elicit. What are the salient features of the monsters that lurk in the stories and images of the horror genre? Perhaps their most salient attribute is that they are (above all else) dangerous. They have certain powers and advantages and they are hostile to humans, or, at least, to a subset of human beings; usually innocent human beings, people who do not deserve to be victimized. The relevant monsters are dangerous or threatening because they are very powerful—either mentally and/or physically—or they have special abilities that they wield with lethal effect. Frankenstein’s monster possesses superhuman strength, while Dracula can hypnotize his prey. Zombies, although pretty ineffective when faced one at a time, are very dangerous in encircling groups; and velociraptors are powerful, fast, and smart.  In short, horrific monsters are threatening to people like us.

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"For Aristotle, tragedy was defined, in part, in terms of the arousal of pity and fear. Horror, in contrast, is in the business of arousing fear and disgust."

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Although we humans are now the most dominant life form on earth, for most of our career on this planet, we have been prey.  This is, of course, a major theme in horror fiction and undoubtedly part of our fascination with the genre. For, in horror stories, we are typically being relentlessly stalked, often by our hungry conspecifics, as we are in The Night of the Living Dead.  Horror rekindles one of our most primitive emotions as prey: fear.

Admittedly, this is pretty obvious. But can anything else be said that might say something more specific than that horrific monsters are fearsome?  I think there is.  In particular, they tend to be impure.  They are not the sorts of things we want to touch. We not only recoil from the zombies in The Night of the Living Dead for fear of being bitten, but also because their suppurating wounds appear so unclean, unwholesome, and sickening.  Indeed, this feature is even more pronounced in the escalating gruesomeness of the make-up on the contemporary zombies in TV shows like The Walking Dead.  Their lacerations and amputations are repulsive. The prospect of being kissed by a zombie is downright revolting, like imagining eating rotten meat. Moreover, the theme of impurity recurs throughout the bestiary of horrific monsters.  

The anthropologist Mary Douglas has proposed that there are four leading sources of impurity.  Categorical interstitiality, categorical contradictoriness, incompleteness, and formlessness. This list may not be exclusive nor are the items on it necessarily mutually exclusive. But they provide useful pointers for isolating the crucial properties of horrific beings. By categorical interstitiality, Douglas has in mind things that cross categorical boundaries. Werewolves are clearcut examples of this—part human, part wolf.  Jeff Goldbum's protaganist in The Fly is categorically interstitial, being an amalgam of man and insect. Alien monsters are frequently interstitial—The Thing from Another World in the classic film of the same name is an intelligent, two-legged, bloodsucking carrot. That’s interstitial.

Many horrific monsters are categorically contradictory. That is, their essential, ontological features are incompatible. So many monsters are both living and dead. Some prime examples of this include ghosts, vampires, mummies, Frankenstein’s monster, and zombies, especially those in the lineage of The Night of the Living Dead whose morbidity is etched upon their flesh. Other categorically contradictory horrific beings include those that conflate the animate and the inanimate, such as haunted houses, willful objects, and Stephen King’s possessed Plymouth Fury, ''Christine''.

Quite a few horrific monsters are incomplete. Zombies, again, are an excellent example. Parts are always being detached from their bodies. Sometimes they are only heads with no bodies. Some monsters are only body parts, usually just hands as in William Harvey’s “The Beast with Five Fingers.”  In Donovan’s Brain the monster is a brain in a vat.  In Fiend without a Face, the monsters are brains that use their spinal cords as tails – all the better to choke you with.

Lastly, Douglas correlates impurity with formlessness. This brings to mind horror novels like The Fog and horror movies like The Blob as well as the dark clouds that constitute the essence of demon in the TV series Supernatural. In these cases, the shapelessness of these malevolents appears impure insofar as, in defying stable boundaries, they seem to exceed categorization altogether. Thus, in addition to being dangerous, horrific monsters are also impure.  And, just as fear is the appropriate emotional state to raise with respect to the dangerous or the threatening, disgust is the appropriate affect to mobilize in regard to the impure. We not only find Frankenstein’s monster frightening, but, being stitched together from the parts of dead bodies, it is also loathsome, unclean, and even nauseating. 

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"Why do we open the next book by Stephen King or head to the cinema to see an adaptation of it? Because by imagining something beyond science, it promises a glimpse of something unknown that whets our curiosity."

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In certain other cases, the pertinent monstrous creature (or creatures) is something that within our culture we already regard as disgusting, which is then magnified and massified for horrific effect. By “magnified”, I mean antecedently-repulsive beings like spiders, scorpions, or anaconda snakes are made larger, which makes them more dangerous whilst still retaining their gross-out potential. By “massified,” I have in mind setting huge swarms of killer bees or army ants being pitted against unwitting humanity for a final showdown.

Not only may horrific beings be disgusting in themselves. They are often surrounded by revolting thingsas vampire lairs are infested with vermin and spider websor they do things that are stomach churninglike tearing off the heads of mortals and sending great gouts of blood flying in every direction as well as eating or otherwise wallowing in body parts. Call this horrific metonymy.

Thus, disgust, along with fear, is a central feature of horror. For Aristotle, tragedy was defined, in part, in terms of the arousal of pity and fear. Horror, in contrast, is in the business of arousing fear and disgust. Fear is aroused in virtue of the threat the monster poses; disgust is engendered in virtue of the monster’s interstitiality, contradictoriness, incompleteness and/or formlessness and/or the magnification or massification of the creature’s antecedent repugnance, often augmented by horrific metonymy. What we call horror with reference to the fictional genre of that name is an emotional compound of fear and disgust in response to design of the monsters that define horrific narratives and/or images.

One objection to this account that is often made is that horror fictions do not always contain monsters in my sensethat is, creatures whose existence is denied by contemporary science. In some horror fictions, it may be argued, the antagonists are just psychotic human beings, while in others the threat comes from existing animals like sharks. 

However, I think that a closer look at these examples reveals that the most famous horrific psychotics have something supernatural about them. Michael Myers can’t be killed in addition to his uncanny ability to appear and disappear seemingly at will, not to mention his superhuman strength and durability. Hannibal Lector, on the other hand, is unlike any existing psychotic. He is to all intents and purposes omniscient. He is more like Mephistopheles than like any mental patient you will ever encounter. Moreover, the sharks in the Jaws cycle are way too smart to be an actual fish. In Jaws: The Revenge the eponymous shark seeking vengeance follows a family to the Bahamas in search of retribution! 

I want to stress the importance of the monsters in horror fictions being outside the ken of contemporary science not only to defend my account of the nature of horror fiction, but because I think it also suggests a large part of the allure of the genre. Why do we open the next book by Stephen King or head to the cinema to see an adaptation of it? Because by imagining something beyond science, it promises a glimpse of something unknown that whets our curiosity. The result is not always as fascinating as advertised. So the contract is fulfilled often enough that many of us are willing to renew it.

 


Image credit: Shelley Duvall in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (Warner, 1980).  

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