Saturday, March 3, 2012

Final Reflections on "The Philosophy of Horror": Part One

"The question is: why would anyone be interested in the genre (horror) to begin with? Why does the genre persist.....how can we explain its very existence, for why would anyone WANT to be horrified...?" 

"Furthermore, the horror genre gives every evidence of being pleasurable to its audience, but it does so by means of trafficking in the very sorts of things that cause disquiet, distress and displeasure.

So...why horror?" 

- Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, pgs. 158 - 159.




So I'm finished with the first book I've read for my proposed paper on the development of horror cinema and horror cinema today, The Philosophy of Horror, by Noel Carroll. Overall, it was an excellent work.  Very comprehensive, thought-provoking, and illuminating.  I'm going to review Chapter Four, "Why Horror?" - in three separate blog posts, because they're so long -  then tag on some additional thoughts at end.

To this point, Carroll has worked to find a definition of horror, pondered the connection between the audience and protagonists of horror films,  the varied ways horror films and fictions are plotted, and then ends by coming back to the essential question: why? Why watch and read horror, why write it...why does it exist, and why is it so popular?

Early on in the chapter, Carroll does point out that there are some who are simply attracted to blood and guts and gore, and that's all there is to it.  He cites that the reasons here are possibly voyeuristic, but more than likely they can be viewed as a "rite of passage" - the manly thing to do. In other words, if you can survive back-to-back viewings of all the Hellraiser movies, then you're made of "tough stuff", have a "strong stomach", and have achieved a sort of "pseudo-bravery".

He points out, though, that he's not interested in that demographic, and that well-done horror films do not go for the gross-out only, and that he's analyzing well-done films only.  Of course, one's idea of well-done can be subjective, but he at least sets down a framework for what he considers to be a well-done horror movie: a film designed to invoke emotions in the viewer, among the following:

1. fear
2. dread/horror/terror
3. disgust/revulsion

...and that movies hitting #3 only are not horror films, per se.  He doesn't offer a title for films that focus on that latter only, so I won't either...because I'm still threshing that out in my head, too.

In the section subtitled The Paradox of Horror, Carroll comes to this resolution:

"Thus, the paradox of horror is an instance of a larger problem...that of explaining the way in which the artistic presentation of normally aversive events and objects can give rise to pleasure or compel our interests." (pg. 161, emphasis mine).

He focuses his efforts on the following three explanations for why horror compels our interest as readers, viewers, and...by my extension...writers:

1.  cosmic fear
2. religious awe 
3. attraction to the power of monsters


Cosmic Fear:

Here, of course, Carroll cites the father of cosmic fear himself, H. P. Lovecraft: 

"The one test of the really weird is simply this - whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes on the known universe's utmost rim."  

and...

"When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is super-added, there is born a composite of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself."

So, according to Lovecraft - as Carroll sums it up - humans are born with an instinctual fear of the unknown which verges on awe.  This, perhaps, is then the attraction of supernatural horror: That it provokes a sense of awe which confirms deep-seated human convictions about the world, that it (the world) contains unseen forces, and that the literature of cosmic fear attracts us because it confirms these deep-seated fears of ours, creates an apprehension of the unknown, charged with wonder.

Speaking as a reader and moderate viewer of horror cinema, there's a lot to vibe with, especially this bit: 

"that literature of cosmic fear attracts us because it confirms these deep-seated fears of ours, creates an apprehension of the unknown, charged with wonder."

For me, personally, as a reader and a writer, it is the supernatural unknown that fascinates me.  Obviously this connects with my spiritual background and beliefs, but even so, the idea that we walk in a very modern, materialistic world while unseen forces swirl around us, constantly in conflict - ergo, the eternal battle of Good VS. Evil - strikes a deep resonance within me not only of interest, but of Ultimate Truth, also.  

Probably why Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Peter Straub - and also now Charles L. Grant, Norman Prentiss, T. L. Hines, Mary Sangiovanni, T. M. Wright (to name only a few) - are among my favorite authors, because they write so often in this vein, and, quite frankly, it's the kinda stuff I want to write about, too.

 Carroll, however, points out two very insightful flaws with Lovecraft's position:

1. nowhere in his horror manifesto does Lovecraft seem to identify why experiencing this cosmic fear would be a good thing, or so fervently sought out.  Carroll posits that perhaps Lovecraft believed it an essential part of what it is to be human - our way of responding humanly to the world - or a corrective to the "dehumanizing encroachment of materialistic sophistication" (pg. 162).  This sounds very plausible, but because Lovecraft never takes the time to address this, Carroll can't accept his argument wholesale.

2. that Lovecraft, in his opinion, confuses what he regards as a level of high achievement in the genre with what identifies the genre. To clarify, Carroll says that Lovecraft's assessment really only targets commendable, well-done horror - or a certain type of horror - and not the horror genre itself.

And this bears out in my own reading.  For example, Charles L. Grant's brand of dark fantasy - what I've read - loves to traffic in this sense of "cosmic dread" or "fear of the unknown".  And I love all his work.  But Nate Kenyon's Sparrow Rock is a WONDERFUL work that is completely about human horrors, while The Reach  - also by Nate - is certainly more "spiritual", but still about human unknowns, not necessarily cosmic unknowns. And they're both FABULOUSLY well written.

And some authors can produce both kinds of works. Brian Keene regularly does so. The Rising, Dead City, Dark Hollow, Ghost Walk,  A Gathering of Crows, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Terminal and even Ghoul could be said to traffic in "horrors  of the unknown beyond our world". His novella Take the Long Way Home, fits nicely Carroll's second category,  "religious awe".  However, three really excellent examples: His novella Jack's Magic Beans and the novels Urban Gothic and Castaways certainly hit all of Carroll's requirements for horror, but aren't supernatural in any way, and are all excellent reads.

Robert Dunbar's best two works (IMO): The Pines and The Shore are, again, about human and biological/genetic unknowns, but they're beautifully written, about hurting, conflicted characters.  They - despite their high quality - also don't fit into Lovecraft's definition.

Another author who traffics in both would be Dean Koontz.  A lot of his works - especially his later works - deal with unknown forces, though he clearly separates them into Good VS. Evil. His Odd Thomas and Frankenstein series comes to mind. One Door Away From Heaven.  And too many others to name.  Night Chills and Shattered, however - though still about Good VS. Evil - are completely rooted in human dynamics.  So, even based on my own reading, I definitely see where Carroll is going in his questioning Lovecraftian's definition of the horror genre as a whole.

Tomorrow, I'll look at Carroll's critique of the second solution to the "paradox of horror", "religious awe".