Sunday, February 12, 2012

Interesting Reflections on the Origin of the Horror Genre

Just finished the first chapter of Noel Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror, (which I'm reviewing and researching for my Film & Philosophy grad class), and he offers this interesting reflection on the origins of the horror genre.

Though it's something that can be debated, Carroll marks the middle of the 18th century as the origin point of the horror genre, developing from Gothic novels such as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764).  He doesn't try and make a case as to who wrote the first Gothic novel, just that the major consensus seems that the Gothic novel developed during this time period.

What he finds interesting is that horror's "birth" overlaps the period cultural historians call the "Enlightenment" or "The Age of Reason".  This period is thought to have spanned the 18th century, saw the wide dissemination of the ideas of Descartes, Bacon, Locke, Hobbes, and Newton to the reading public (pg. 55).  

The Enlightenment, of course, rested on "the immense achievements of natural science", and things like religion or of a supernatural nature were viewed with distrust, because it valued faith and revelation over reason (pg. 55).

And, interesting to both Carroll - and honestly, myself - it is against this backdrop that "horror" found its birth in the Gothic novel, a fiction that was very fixated on the supernatural and "unknown".  Carroll offers two hypotheses for this development (both of which he admits are flawed and can be argued against):

1. the idea that the "horror" or "Gothic" genre developed as some sort of "answer" to "The Enlightenment" or "The Age of Reason", a time period marked by reason and science and nature as the end all and be all, whereas horror/Gothic fiction explored emotions, especially violent ones in the case of the main characters.  Also, Carroll points out that while a hallmark of The Enlightenment was objectivity, a hallmark of the horror novel is subjectivity (pg. 56).

So, according to this idea, Carroll advances the theory that while a convert of The Enlightenment held a naturalistic conception of the world, the horror novel presumes the existence of the supernatural, at least for fiction's sake.   That, in opposition to The Enlightenment's "faith" in progress, horror promoted a regression to a belief in the unseen supernatural, which The Enlightenment had attempted to repress, or at least discourage (pg. 56).

Of course, Carroll points out it's easy to shoot this theory full of holes, because without further, intensive research, there's literally no way to know who wrote what and who read what and why?  For example, how do we know who read Gothic fiction and why - can we honestly prove that people wrote and flocked to this new art form in a reaction to the faith in reason of The Enlightenment?  No.  However, he does indicate that simply the rise of horror - which presupposes the supernatural and something "unknown" - during the Age of Reason, which believed nothing needed to be unknown by man, interesting enough to promote further study.

2. A much easier connection can be made, Carroll says, in thinking how one conceptual birth - The Age of Reason and Enlightenment - helped bring about another, simply in one creating a structure the other could violate. In short, and very paraphrased form: The Enlightenment, with its promotion of naturalistic theories and desire to develop a scientific, natural view of the world, gave horror/Gothic fiction the perfect backdrop against which  to develop its "monsters".

So, in other words, because:

"the Enlightenment made available the kind of conception of nature or the kind of cosmology needed to create a sense of horror." (pg. 57)


"the sense of natural violation that attends art-horror" (pg. 57)

In other words, the Enlightenment developed a general idea of what the "natural" world was for the general reading public, which gave room for stories to create monsters and situations that violated that natural world, in essence, helping give horror natural rules to break with its monsters.

Again, Carroll readily admits that more research is needed to support or refute either claim.  And, yeah, once again, we're probably splitting hairs here.  But still, it provides plenty to think about....