Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Philosophy of Horror - Mini Review #1

As part of a semester project for my "Film & Philosophy" class, I'm reading The Philosophy of Horror, by film philosopher and critic, Noel Carroll.  Not exactly sure what the thrust of my focus is going to be, I just know I've decided to focus my semester's study on the development of the horror movie and horror cinema in general.  

I need to write a critical review of a book on film and philosophy, (I'm reviewing Philosophy of Horror for that), give a presentation on one of our assigned texts, and write a final paper. (pretty standard grad school fare) Since I chose to give my presentation on a critical analysis of David Lynch's Lost Highway (not necessarily horror, but definitely very dark and surreal), it makes sense to focus on the dark and the weird and the supernatural.

So, like my previous review of The Woman In Black, I'm going to thresh out my initial thoughts on The Philosophy of Horror, get my ideas in order, while sharing them with you all here on the blog.  Here's my first bit of reflection.

For much of the first forty pages, Carroll spends most his time articulating WHY attempting to generate a "philosophy of horror" is important, defining what horror is, and considering two important paradoxes when it comes to audiences - and readers - of horror:

1. how can anyone be frightened by what they know doesn't exist?

2. why would anyone be interested in horror, when being horrified is so unpleasant?

One key factor that Carroll emphasizes early on is his focus: analyzing the emotional effect horror is intended to have on its audience, by analyzing the emotional state and reactions the main characters of horror movies and books and plays display, and how audiences and readers associate and empathize with those reactions.    To him, THAT is the key element to consider when developing a philosophy of horror.

He also differentiates between something that is designed to produce sensations of horror and things that are merely horrific.  For example, stories of murder and death and mass genocide in the newspapers and on television and documentaries - or, even in things like war movies - are not horror.  They are horrific.  

Carroll also differentiates between things that "shock" or produce "jump-scares" and horror.  The element of "shock" is used across genres, from crime movies to science fiction and fantasy, is a story-telling element, NOT a defining element of horror itself.

Because of the two above examples and for the purpose of this work, Carroll deigns to coin the term "art-horror" for all fictive works designed to produce sensations of horror in audiences and readers.  This, in many ways, rules out a lot of things from the very beginning, something I hope he'll clarify throughout the rest the book. 

1. how can anyone be frightened by what they know doesn't exist?

Carroll spends a lot of time here analyzing the core of the "art-horror" movie, novel and play - the monster.  What makes the monster dangerous, threatening, and impure.  He focuses especially on that last element, how monsters really need to be considered impure to generate feelings of "art-horror" in the audience: fear, disgust, madness, irrationality, agitation.  He then defines this key element of the "monster" - not limited to the supernatural - as being impure, in that they are:

"unnatural relative to a culture's conceptual scheme of nature.  They do not fit into the scheme, the violate it.  They are threats to common knowledge.  They are formless, and render those who encounter them insane, mad, deranged. They are challenges to the foundations of a culture's way of thinking" (pg. 34) 

"native to places outside of and/or unknown to the human world.  Or, the creatures come from marginal, hidden, abandoned sites: graveyards, abandoned towers and castles, sewers, or old houses...they belong to environs outside of and unknown to ordinary social intercourse" (pg. 35) 

Of course, many of these "monsters" don't really exist, so Carroll comes back again to the characterization of the movie's "positive" main characters, and our reaction to their reactions, the strength of our emotional connection to them.  He says in this that these monsters present a "cognitive threat" to our perceptions of the way the world should be.

Carroll emphasizes the need for all three elements to wholly create the monster: that it must be dangerous, threatening, and impure.  He cites The Fly as an example.  Though the positive characters and certainly audience are probably disgusted by the main protagonist's transformation throughout the movie into an impure abomination, for most the movie, they feel sympathy for this guy turning into a human fly.  Even the guy's girlfriend feels sympathy and tries to deal with the situation.  He (the human fly) doesn't truly become threatening and dangerous until the movie's very end.

So in this case, Carroll disclassifies The Fly as "art-horror" along these two lines:


1. he's not dangerous or threatening until the end

2. for most the movie, other "positive" characters feel either sympathy or pity for him, thereby possibly engendering sympathy and pity in the audience, which, according to Carroll's notion, is not the emotional reaction to the "monster" art-horror films are intending to produce. 

2. why would anyone be interested in horror, when being horrified is so unpleasant?

This is something he hasn't delved into yet, spending most his time so far defining the term "art-horror" and what exactly monsters are, and why we find them threatening.  At the end of the introduction, he states that this is his goal: to thresh out this paradox of audiences and readers seeking out "art-horror", as he hopes to try and articulate - even if only for himself - why the horror genre is so compelling.

One last bit that was especially thought provoking for ME as a reader and especially a writer is where he differentiates between art-horror and what he calls "tales of dread", or works of the "fantastic", such as the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, etc.  They are peripheral to the horror genre, but in Carroll's estimation....

"nevertheless, I do think that there is an important difference between this type of story - which I want to call tales of dread - and horror stories.  Specifically, the emotional response they elicit seems to be quite different than that engendered by art-horror.  The uncanny event which tops off such stories cause a sense of unease and awe, perhaps of momentary anxiety and foreboding.  These events are constructed to move the audience rhetorically to the point that one entertains the idea that unavowed, unknown, perhaps concealed and inexplicable forces rule the universe.  Where art-horror involves disgust as a central figure, what might be called art-dread does not" (pg. 42)

Now, genre definitions are hazy and fluid at best, which Carroll openly admits throughout the work, and goes on to state that because both "art-horror" and "art-dread" deal with supernatural or preternatural events, they are intimately related, just that he wanted to illustrate that both factions are discernible.  This little bit right here, though, provided ME with much food for thought as a writer and creator, about what types of emotions I want to inspire in readers:

 These events are constructed to move the audience rhetorically to the point that one entertains the idea that unavowed, unknown, perhaps concealed and inexplicable forces rule the universe. 

This is the realm many of my stories return to, it's the framework from which I form all my story ideas, even (or especially) my Hiram Grange title.  So does this mean I don't write horror?

Hmm.  Who knows?  And maybe the point's moot, splitting hairs. BUT, I sometimes think - maybe arrogantly - that a lot of the bad fiction written across ALL genres today has been produced without really thinking very deeply about where the ideas have come from, why they've been generated, and what we want to inspire in our readers. At the very best, I'm driving myself deeper into thinking what it is I want to write and why.

At the very least?  Pretty cool way to spend a semester of grad school....