“Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?”—The Silence of the Lambs
So here it is late march and I’ve been sketching out ideas and topics I want to discuss in this series, and yet each time I sat down to write a piece I found myself with something of a conundrum: where to begin? With all of this material and all of these topics, what in the hell do I start with?
I think in this case, as with any other philosophical inquiry, it’s best to establish a set of assumptions we’ll carry forward, answer some elemental questions. What is the essence of horror? What are the scenarios, generally speaking, that horror media present pretty much every time, universally? Here are three things that I think answer these questions pretty well and we’ll use them as the building blocks of our discourse as we go further.
- Horror’s primary focus is on the human in conflict with the inhuman. Pretty simple, right? I shouldn’t have to define what I mean by ‘human’ here. But ‘the inhuman’ bears a little explanation. We can define the inhuman as anything that stands in contrast to our anthropocentric worldview and the notion that we are rational and civilized and that we are the primary lifeform in the universe and have a right to/are entitled to exist here. This is a broad panoply to pull from. Some examples? Nature (JAWS), forces of nihilism and cosmic indifference (ALIEN…also falls under ‘nature’), irrationality (psychological breakdown or encounters with things that should not exist, yet, in horror media, do: for example, the living dead), and the unknown or unknowable. I can already hear some of you out there saying, “But…but, wait! What about serial killers? And CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST? And…” To which I say, “Yes, yes, those too.” Bear with me. Yes, we’ll include under the inhuman man’s-inhumanity-to-man and the uncanny human, which may seem paradoxical. But as we’ll see, horror is nothing if not comfortable with paradox.[i]
- These conflicts with the inhuman are presented as a threat of annihilation of the sovereign self. A lot of people tend to think of horror movies as portrayals of confrontations with death and dying, but this only part of the equation and for good reason. Not everyone is necessarily afraid to die. In fact, horror movies have more to do with loss of identity than they do with dying. Meaning they are about what we superficially think we are vs. what we suspect or believe we are at our core. As such, horror media are essentially existential in nature and will often be discussed here as existential constructs. For example, it’s not enough in a horror movie to simply show death. Lots of people die in dramas, thrillers, and Lifetime Movie Channel weepers. Death alone does not a horror movie make. No, in horror media characters have to die a horrible, meaningless, painful death, preferably without any dignity whatsoever at the hands of the inhuman. As viewers, we must subsequently reckon with the notion that our individual lives might as well be inconsequential and pointless, which challenges how we typically perceive ourselves. Further, horror characters often face fates that are worse, or at least more problematic, than death. They may endure psychological disintegration, see their values implode in catastrophic moral collapse, or find themselves transforming into the other. In fact, death is the least of it for a victim in a horror movie. Death is a release, a means to an end. What creates the horror in horror media, rather, is A) depicting attacks on human identity via the inhuman; B) portraying human helplessness to do anything about it while C) maintaining the victim’s (and the audience’s) awareness of what’s going on for as long as possible. Horror, then, comes from the knowing, not from the end.[ii] As Tom Ligotti puts it: “Officially there are no fates worse than death. Unofficially, there is a profusion of such fates. For some people, just living with the thought that they will die is a fate worse than death itself.” [iii]
- Horror movies are about the fear of being afraid. I’ll agree with Noel Carroll here regarding what he calls “the meta-fear of fear.” From Carroll himself:
….horror fictions, especially audio-visual ones, allow us to test our own fear factor. Its power over the viewer—at least to the extent that that power rests upon the fact that our emotional dispositions are frighteningly obscure for being untried—can be reduced by giving our fear a reassuring trial run.[iv]
What this means is that horror movies are never about the direct confrontation of our deepest fears. Rather, we are saved from that fact by representations, unreal avatars and embodiments of those fears. In short, we accept them only because they are unreal. Even the most ‘realistic’ horror movies—those that effect a grim and gritty plausibility, like, for example, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF SERIAL KILLER, MEN BEHIND THE SUN, or MAN BITES DOG—are made palatable by the shimmering veneer of fiction that stands between the film and the audience. This affords us the luxury to play at being afraid and allows us access to the cathartic qualities of narrative. Without which we risk becoming complicit and ghoulish voyeurs.[v]
So there you have it: the three central ideas that’ll crop up again and again and again in this series—the inhuman, identity annihilation/existential constructs, and the fear of fear. You may disagree. Nothing wrong with that. But if you do disagree or have something to add, please let me know in the comments or find on Twitter via @RSBrzoska.
Next month on Elements of (Horror) Style : Subtext.
[i] Don’t believe me? Think about things common in horror like the living dead or the supernatural and get back to me.
[ii]Think of movies like The Fly (1986) or Poltergeist (1982), neither of which contain a lot of death, but yet are still scary as fuck and undoubtedly horror. In The Fly, the horror comes from Seth Brundle’s terrible transformation and the awful fact that we know and he knows—he knows!—exactly what is happening as he falls apart and becomes Brundle-fly. In Poltergeist the family home and parental identity are attacked by the inhuman. The household, central to family identity, is assaulted, the home itself eventually destroyed. By some miracle nobody dies.
[iii] Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010
[iv] Carroll, Noel. “The Fear of Fear Itself: The Philosophy of Halloween,” in The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless, ed. Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2006), 233
[v] This applies as well to sites like Live Leak and Best Gore and the like, which, while much more extreme and direct than movies, still afford the viewer some remove from the subject matter. Now, these sites and their ilk create all sorts of ethical quandaries, but that’s for another essay. What I will say here is that these sites are often derided as attracting teenage mouth-breathers, violence fetishists, and sociopaths. However, I’d bet for a fair number of the viewers (pure speculation here) have an inchoate impulse that if articulated might look something like: “The world is a terrifying and bewildering place and I need a way to fucking quantify that because deep inside I’m scared shitless and seeing what’s out there helps me rationalize why I feel this way but I’d never say that out loud because I’m not a pussy. Fuck!” In this regard, these sites do offer a crude but problematic sort of catharsis.
(MEN BEHIND THE SUN photo from Listserv.)
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