Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615


 

Daniel Shaw

A Humean Definition of Horror

 


 

Noel Carroll

_The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart_

New York: Routledge, 1990

 

Much of what fascinates us about horror must be accountable in terms of emotional and cognitive abilities present in a small child. My four-year-old son loves monster movies and _Goosebumps_ tales, getting some unique pleasure out of being horrified (I am happy to say I still share his glee as an adult). There is a paradox inherent in such pleasure akin to, though different from, the problem David Hume had explaining tragic pleasure in his famed essay 'Of Tragedy'.

 

One of the major concerns of Noel Carroll in his thought-provoking work _The Philosophy of Horror_ was to explain this central paradox of the pleasure of watching horror films, in a manner consonant with his definitions of what he calls 'art-horror' (to indicate its fictitious nature) and the emotions it calls up in the audience. His answer, like Hume's, explains away the paradox by claiming that we really *don't* take pleasure in art-horror, but rather that the enjoyment comes from the structure of the plot, which inevitably revolves around a process of disclosure and confirmation that is cognitively satisfying.

 

I knew that I would have serious disagreements with Carroll when I read the following passage: '...the emotion of art-horror is not our absolutely primary aim in the consuming of horror fictions...Rather, art-horror is the price we are willing to pay for the revelation of that which is impossible and unknown, of that which violates our conceptual schema.' [1] Let me summarize the main facets of Carroll's work that led him to this conclusion.

 

Carroll takes Aristotle's _Poetics_ as his model for what a theory of an artistic genre should be. But, unlike Aristotle, Carroll poses four basic questions that he clearly answers by the end of the work (he calls his work a treatise 'for its parts are systematically related'). Divided into four chapters, the book defines 'art-horror' and the emotions which it engenders, explains how we can be frightened by something we know does not exist (his first 'paradox of the heart'), offers a typology of recurrent horror plots worthy of Northrup Frye or the Russian formalists, and solves the central paradox of horror, why we are attracted by something that is inherently repulsive.

 

To begin with, the objects imitated in art-horror are monsters, which he defines as 'any being not believed to exist now by contemporary science' (27). In so stipulating the subject of horror, Carroll automatically rules out such classics of what might be called 'realistic horror' as _Psycho_ or _Dead Ringers_. Monsters are 'uniformly dangerous', but are also 'impure'. It is this latter quality that gives rise to the characteristic emotion we feel in the face of such monsters: revulsion and disgust. We are horrified at the thought of such beings, though we know them to be impossible. Mobilizing Descartes' classic distinction from the _Meditations_ between objective and formal reality, Carroll claims that such monsters have objective, but not formal reality (i.e., reality as thought, but not as existing), and that the audience remains aware of this throughout.

 

Elaborating on the repugnance and disgust such beings arouse, Carroll contends that it is because of their biological or conceptual 'interstitiality'. Taking as his paradigmatic examples such monsters as H.P. Lovecraft's Dunwich Horror or the 'intelligent, two-legged bloodsucking carrot' in _The Thing_, Carroll contends that the disgust is caused by a kind of category mistake. Detached body parts that move, werewolves, undead vampires and the like are all beings that fall between the cracks of our conceptual framework.

 

Space does not permit me to go into any detail on Carroll's analysis of the pleasure of fictions, beyond noting his insights about the difference between the emotions felt by the audience and by the main characters themselves with which the audience is led to identify. The characters are not experiencing art-horror, but real horror (which precludes their enjoyment of the pleasures Carroll discusses), and the audience is in suspense over the fate of another (albeit fictional) individual, not themselves. It is revealing that Carroll minimizes the extent of our identification with the *monster's* perspective. This is especially clear in his failure to recognize the frequency with which the protagonist is turning into the monster, and we in the audience must come to grips with the fears associated with such a transformation. Otherwise the second chapter addresses a general question about how fictional characters can arouse real emotions that is not genre-specific and need not concern us further here.

 

The typology of characteristic horror plots Carroll generates in chapter three demonstrates the value of analytic aesthetics. Attention to the variations involved is sharp and detailed, and gives a sense of the unity of the genre, despite its diversity. Halfway through the chapter, he had outlined no less than fourteen different possible story formats, involving various combinations of the onset of the story, the discovery of the monster by the protagonist(s), their attempts to prove it to others, the confirmation of their discovery and the climactic confrontation with the monster.

 

Having identified and forcefully characterized these stages as definitive of the genre (describing what Aristotle might have called the 'manner' in which monsters are imitated), Carroll proceeds to solve the paradox of horror. One must remember the Humean model on which his account is based. Perplexed at the pleasure we take in viewing tragedies, and unwilling to attribute sadism as its cause, David Hume explained it as largely the result of the narrative expectations generated by a well made plot.

 

In a crucial passage quoted by Carroll, Hume says that 'the pleasure [of tragedy] rises upon us by the conversion of this subordinate movement into that which is predominant. The passion, though perhaps naturally, and when excited by the simple appearance of a real object, it may be painful; yet is so smoothed and softened and mollified, when realized by the finer arts that it affords the highest entertainment.' Hume apparently believed that aesthetic form, normally the 'subordinate movement' in our emotional appreciation of works of art, can become the predominant one when finely wrought. Utilizing the power of the tragic sentiment, which Hume took to be unmitigatedly unpleasant in its own right, a lucid and eloquent aesthetic structure can create exquisite dramatic pleasure. If the original matter or content of the work were more lukewarm, and less tragic, the resultant emotional vector would be less satisfying.

 

Carroll is urging a similar 'vector analysis' of our emotional response to horror. The characteristic emotions of disgust, revulsion and extreme terror that art-horror engenders are not pleasant in themselves, but they *are* vivid sentiments. The unpleasant nature of our disgusted reaction, which would naturally be predominant, is overcome by the delights of the well-made narrative: 'the locus of our gratification is not the monster as such but the whole narrative structure in which the presentation of the monster is staged' (181).

 

Curiosity is at the heart of most narratives; without the desire to know, the narrative flow would be uninvolving. 'However, the horror fiction is a special variation on this general narrative motivation, because it has at the center of it something which is given as in principle *unknowable*' (182). Carroll calls the process of disclosure 'the drama of ratiocination', the satisfaction that comes from witnessing the logical and methodical reasoning that (generally) leads to the monster being confirmed and successfully confronted.

 

Carroll therefore concludes that 'the pleasure derived from the horror fiction and the source of our interest in it resides, first and foremost, in the processes of discovery, proof and confirmation that horror fictions often employ' (184). This ratiocinative pleasure is what predominantly interests us in good horror fictions, which successfully harness and subordinate the feeling of repugnance to enhance the overall experience. Carroll's account is as convincing about the nature of 'horror-pleasure' as Hume's was about tragic pleasure. Which is to say that he provides an ingenious solution to the paradox, but fails to come to grips with the essence of horror in the process.

 

Returning to Aristotle for a moment, one must appreciate how his theory of catharsis really does address the paradox of tragic pleasure. What would otherwise be excruciating if real is experienced vicariously in staged representations. Through the catharsis of the emotions of pity and fear, otherwise unpleasant affective states are valuable as outlets for excess emotions which build up due to the pressures of daily life. Getting them out relieves one of an excess of such emotions, like opening a steam valve on a pressure cooker. Freud's catharsis theory offers an account with similar, and perhaps richer, virtues.

 

The most promising answer to the paradox of horror has come from psychoanalytic critics like Robin Wood. Monsters represent 'the return of the repressed', embodiments of forces sealed up in the unconscious mind which arise only to be further repressed by the destruction of their embodiments, and of any teen-ager who violates societal norms. The Freudian stress on ambivalence embraces both horns of the paradox: our conscious mind is disgusted by the monster while our id would love to rampage, rape, pillage and destroy with the kind of power monsters wield (_Forbidden Planet_ makes that ambivalence the driving force in the narrative). [2]

 

Carroll himself rather too quickly dismisses the psychoanalysis of horror as falling victim to counterexamples. Claiming that horrific beings can be generated 'as almost formal operations on cultural categories', he continues 'It is not clear to me that monsters confected in this way must touch any infantile traumas or repressed wishes or anxieties' (172). After an unconvincing argument to the effect that the manifest images of cephalopods in a story by H.G. Wells contain no latent content, Carroll rather hastily concludes that 'Therefore, the psychoanalytic reduction of horrific creatures to objects of repression is not comprehensive for the genre.'

 

 

Let me begin by noting that, if argument by counterexamples drawn from archetypal instances of the genre refuted definitions, the exclusion of _Psycho_ from the appellation 'horror film' would doom Carroll's definition from the start. But believing as I do that *all* attempts at defining aesthetic concepts are honorific stipulations, and that no 'real' definitions of 'art' and its various subconcepts will ever be forthcoming, this is not a fatal objection to his proposal from my perspective. [3] What bothers me most is that it does not seem to adequately describe the phenomenon of art-horror, or recognize the depth of our ambivalence about it.

 

On Carroll's view, we are *not* ambivalent about the monsters in horror fiction. We are univocally revulsed by monsters *per se*, and only because our curiosity and ratiocinative powers are engaged by the structure of the plots of the narratives in which they appear do we have a global experience of successful horror fiction that is pleasurable. This seems to make the relationship between audience and monster too unproblematic, unpleasant and uncomplicated. My son Patrick loves the monster, and not just when the monster is lovable (like Frankenstein is at certain moments), even as he loves to be chased by just about anyone that he can get to chase him. He loves to be scared, and is constantly

(and ineffectually) sneaking up behind someone and acting like a monster.

 

Possible answers to the paradox that do not deny the profound ambivalence at its heart have a greater chance of doing justice to the complexity of horror than following Hume's model, which offers what might be called a formalist approach to tragic pleasure. For Hume, it is the narrative form that gives pleasure; that structure utilizes the emotional charge of the content to enhance that pleasure. Hume was merely following his general theory of aesthetic pleasure offered in 'Of the Standard of Taste', which was a proto-formalist account that greatly influenced Immanuel Kant.

 

Any profound understanding of the nature of tragedy must focus on the unique *content* of tragic narratives. In my view, the pleasure we take in tragedy comes from our admiration for the resolute commitment of tragic protagonists like Oedipus, Antigone, Hamlet and Ahab. That admiration outweighs our natural devastation in the face of the spectacle of a noble individual unjustly destroyed. In fact, the value of resolute and committed action stands out all the more clearly precisely because it can be affirmed in the face of its greatest challenge, the failure that such action often faces.

 

Perhaps there is a similar process going on in art-horror, which requires accounting for a good deal of the resultant pleasure in terms of the content of the narratives in question. Facing our greatest fears, embodied in monsters that are patently impossible, distances us while allowing us to confront them in a vicarious form. Having confronted our fears of death, dissolution, genetic defect, sexuality and aggression, we are better able to deal with the associated emotions in everyday life. Offering an outlet for unacceptable sexual and aggressive instincts, the release of repressed energy that identifying with the monsters provides is inherently pleasurable, and the super-ego is gratified by the ultimate demise of the monster with which most horror films conclude. In short, I am convinced that the psychoanalytic approach to monster movies is hard to beat.

 

But psychoanalysis does not answer a related question, and one that points up my other quarrel with Carroll. For him, the *impossibility* of the monsters in horror fictions is definitive of the genre. Then what is one to make of the host of highly possible fictions that have long been considered horror films, from _Freaks_, _Psycho_ and _Repulsion_ to _Raising Cain_ and _Dead Ringers_? Is our revulsed fascination with Norman Bates or the Mantle Brothers really different in kind from what Carroll is discussing? Indeed, aren't monsters like Hannibal Lector all the more terrifying as a result of their possibility?

 

Now, one can simply cease to call realistic films 'art-horror' and leave it at that. A witty neologism can cut up the critical pie in another fashion, but something crucial will have been lost. From my perspective, Carroll's problem is that his theory is insufficiently philosophical. Or rather, that it fails to do justice to the horror genre as one of the most philosophical of dramatic forms.

 

Questions about the nature of human existence are raised by horror films, in a manner organic to the genre. Confronting the other raises fundamental issues about the nature of the self. Depending on the power of the monster, the very existence of the human species may be at stake. Most directly in realistic horror fictions, we are forced to confront the terrifying potentials of human existence. All of this appeals to children at a very young age, before they cease being natural philosophers who constantly ask the 'why' questions about life on this earth. This existential dimension to horror is paid little attention to by Carroll, which is surprising given the otherwise scrupulously intellectual approach to the subject matter. But it must be remembered that Carroll is an analytic philosopher, one who is not given to consider such 'squishy' topics as being-towards-death, nihilism, bad faith or resolute projection as genuinely *philosophical*.

 

In that connection, one of Carroll's more interesting hypotheses is that the rise of postmodernism has something to do with the popularity of the horror genre. In his view, a combination of the collapse of American hegemony and the 'intimations of instability for intellectuals' articulated by postmodernism goes a long way towards explaining why 'for over a decade and a half, horror has been a reigning popular genre.' Carroll thinks that a 'comprehensive theory of horror' such as he has generated need not explain why the genre is particularly popular at any one point in time, but he concludes his book with this highly suggestive proposition.

 

One might conclude from the foregoing that I didn't enjoy _The Philosophy of Horror_, and nothing could be further from the truth. Carroll's book is genuinely philosophical in structure and approach, and has the magisterial virtue of asking all the right questions, which any good philosopher *must* do. In a critical age dominated by ideological and psychoanalytic concerns, it is refreshing to see a formalist approach articulated with such force and vivacity. He is at his best in the first chapter, empirically framing a definition of horror that is more than serviceable. I differ with Carroll on what the emotional and intellectual *effects* of horror are on the audience, and about the significance and meaning of those effects. But his focus on both a sense of danger *and* impurity, resulting in a feeling of disgust and repulsion at the horrific object, is highly useful. It is a pity that he failed to recognize that those same feelings are involved (and perhaps to an even greater degree) in relating to the possible, like the twin gynaecologists who go stark raving mad in _Dead Ringers_. [4]

 

There are, of course, other ways to discuss the pleasures of horror. On a biological level, one could also address the paradox of horror in respectful terms, recognizing that fear is painful but the exhilaration generated by the adrenaline rush which follows in its wake is pleasurable if escape is successful. But any satisfying account of the reasons why so many of us love horror fictions has got to recognize that our primary source of pleasure *is* the monster, or horrific human, which we relate to in a profoundly ambivalent fashion.

 

Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania , USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. Noel Carroll, _The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart_ (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 186. Further references will be followed by their page numbers.

 

2. See Wood's _Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan_ (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), esp. the chapters entitled 'The American Nightmare' and 'Normality and Monsters'.

 

3. See 'A Kuhnian Metatheory for Aesthetics' published in the _Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism_, Fall, 1986 for a detailed discussion of my views on this issue.

 

4. For an extensive discussion of Dead Ringers that focuses on its existential implications see my article 'Horror and the Problem of Personal Identity' in Volume III of _Film and Philosophy_ (1996).

 

 

 Daniel Shaw

A Humean Definition of Horror

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 4, August 1997

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol1-1997/n4shaw

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1997

 

 

  

 

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