Monday, February 20, 2012

The Philosophy of Horror - Mini Review #2, of Chapter 2

Just finished  chapter two of Noel Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror, (which I'm reviewing and researching for my Film & Philosophy grad class), and he ran through a bunch of theories as to how it is viewers of horror cinema and readers of horror fiction can actually feel emotion, experience what he calls "art-horror" at something that's not real, or could not exist in reality.  He  ran through a few different scenarios, carefully dismantling them as not holding up very well:

1. The Illusion Theory, or "Suspense of Disbelief":

Here, Carroll deals with the idea that readers/viewers WILLINGLY suspend their disbelief that, say, a giant flood of green slime is coming for them (if that's what they're watching/reading about), and BELIEVE that it's actually coming for them, for entertainment's sake.  

The clear problem here, Carroll points out, is that if they ACTUALLY WILL themselves (a hard feat) to believe in the green slime, the level of terror they'd feel would propel them to leave the theater, and be pretty counterproductive to actually enjoying the movie on any level.  

This is important, because it strikes a blow at the claim I've heard lots of anti-horror folks level at horror and horror fans: "You're just a sick, twisted individual that loves misery and wants to be scared all the time!"   Obviously not true, according to Carroll's conclusions.  Yes, the flush of adrenaline during an exciting scene is part of enjoying cinema and fiction, but that's not limited to horror, either.  Can find that in action flicks, suspense thrillers, even chick flicks.

2. The Pretend Theory:

Here Carroll cites Kendall Walton's theory of "Pretend Fear".  That, like children playing mud pies or Cowboys'n Indians, viewers and readers of horror fiction "pretend" they're afraid, therefore experiencing "pretend" emotions.  

Though this sounds plausible, Carroll points out several problems with this as well, saying that first of all, it jumps back and forth over a line dividing intent and subconscious urges - either we actually CHOOSE to pretend belief in something, therefore feeling pretend fear for fun and entrainment, or that, like children who naturally play "pretend", even though we don't acknowledge the rules of "pretend", we "know" them subconsciously, and are adherent to them.

Carroll sees problems with the idea of "pretend fear" being engaged at will, because in his experience viewing movies, this wasn't the case.  For several movies, he felt instinctual stirrings of real, genuine, emotional fear.  For others, however - perhaps those not as well done - he simply couldn't do it, which seems to invalidate the idea that a viewer can WILL himself to feel pretend fear.

Also, Carroll comes back to another point - if the viewer/reader is "unaware" of the rules on a conscious level, then their "pretend" fear would be indistinguishable from "real" fear, once again undercutting any entertainment value or enjoyment of said movie/book. 

One major element that seems to draw audiences/readers to horror cinema/fiction is the following, which he comes back to quite often in the text, our connection to the Protagonists and their fears:

"...We can fear for others....we can fear for the dog that runs into traffic just as we can fear for the fate of political prisoners in countries we will never visit...so might we fear for the lives of fictional characters just as we fear for the lives of actual political prisoners....it can be argued that....we can be moved emotionally not only in terms of fear for others, but by our recognition that something...is fearsome ever if we do not believe it constitutes clear and present danger." (pg. 76)

He bandies about here whether or not emotions require beliefs - whether or not readers/viewers actually HAVE to believe what they see.  This leads him to the "Thought Theory", in which he basically states:

"I maintain the practice of fiction - including our emotional responses - is actually built on our capacity to be moved by thought contents and to take pleasure in being so moved"  

In other words, even if viewers don't necessarily believe the object of fear exists, if it's been done well enough, simply the thought or concept is enough to produce an emotional reaction.  So even if the monster in the movie is not real, the thought of it can produce a  real, emotional reaction; and even if these fictional characters are facing fictional dangers, the thoughts of these scenarios can produce real, emotional reactions.

And so he continues on to the next theory:

3. Character-Identification:

In this theory, Carroll posits that many consumers of horror fictions and cinema - as well as critics - cite how well audiences/readers "identify" with main characters of horror films and stories.  How well we connect with characters, feel for them, root for them, feel concern for their welfare helps determine how strong or valid an emotional reaction we feel to their plight.  

The problem here, Carroll notes, is simply in the title: identification, which to him implies a symmetry between what the characters and the audiences feel, which clearly doesn't make sense.  If a monster is descending upon Becky, the audience feels concern for her safety, as well as suspense.  Becky, however, is probably too scrambled to think anything other than "RUN!"

Our reactions are different, as well.  When we learn that Oedipus has killed his father and slept with his mother - through no fault of his own, through tragic fate - the audience feels sympathy for Oedipus, we feel bad for him (along with a little revulsion, also).  However, Oedipus himself feels guilty, self-loathing, and responsible for the deaths of his father and the defilement of his mother.

Also, there's the issue of dramatic irony to consider: that often, the audience knows far more than the main character, and would be experiencing an entirely different set of feelings than the main character, or at the very least, experiencing far more nuanced and specific feelings.  For example, maybe Becky very much DESERVES to be devoured by this monster, so while she feels fear, the audience feels justified, or at the very least knows that her own actions have led her to this, and at best pity her.

Carroll ends this chapter, however, really focusing on this element: that powerful connection between  the audience/reader and the movie/story's characters.  In his estimation, there's an assimilation that occurs - in well-done movies and novels, readers and viewers assimilate the character's situation, come to understand them, their fears, the danger they're in...but still remain outside the character, with all our beliefs and fears and prejudices interacting with this assimilated knowledge - which helps explain why this can be so subjective, why one person will find a movie/situation scary, and another find it laughable. 

So, in a rare blogging excess, in a bit I'll post another blog with movie clips from films that have really scared me, and why.  Stay tuned...