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The Audacity of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart

The Audacity of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart
© Photograph by Rebeca Saray

In her study ‘Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject’ (2003), Elena Gomel looks precisely at the narrative influence on violent behaviour and examines the way popular culture constructs violent subjectivity (for instance, in serial killers or perpetrators of genocide). She also claims that being a killer is the end result of social construction, just like being a woman or a man, and looks at modes in which narrative representation contributes to our capability of committing violent acts and resistance to them.

By way of explanation, it is not (just) what we read that makes us violent, but, rather, violent identity is such a complex construct that it cannot be simply reduced to being a consequence of inadequate reading choices, or any other single reason. In line with this, there are many more studies that show how reading about tragic or horrific events provokes feelings quite opposite to aggression. In ‘Poetics 11’, for instance, Aristotle speaks of three components of the complex plot of tragedy: peripeteia (reversal), anagnorisis (recognition) and pathos (suffering). The first two represent unforeseen complications of events that have moral and psychological consequences for the protagonist(s). Pathos, however, is very graphic. It refers to a clear display of violence: “the destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds and the like.”1 Strictly speaking, pathos is the horror necessary to make the moral of the tragedy more pronounced and to contribute to the final sense of catharsis. Tragedy, a noble genre, should “imitate actions which excite pity and fear” and to a great extent, many horror texts are indeed tragic in the literary sense of the word.2 Thus, horror seems to be a necessary ingredient of a complex play, as it provides the realistic context crucial for successful mimesis (which should provide us with the model for truth and beauty). Expressly, we should learn from the play/the horror and change our behaviour for the better.

In her book-length study ‘Empathy and the Novel’ (2010), Suzanne Keen argues that we still do not know how much of the felt empathy caused by sympathizing with fictional characters is translated into the actual behaviour of emotional readers, suggesting the need to examine how emotional readers behave in life. Following that line of thought, Bal and Martijn Veltkamp have conducted experiments with people on the basis of which they were able to give scientific proof that reading fiction enhances the readers’ actual empathic skills. In fact, the more emotionally involved a reader is in the fictional text, the greater the personal transformation.3 Their research shows that changes occur even if the reader is not emotionally engaged, but these are changes of a different kind. For instance, if the reader is simply interested in how the story ends or how the mystery is resolved, he or she engages only his or her cognitive abilities and, thus, reading results in other outcomes, that is, enhanced problem-solving skills, instead of higher empathy. For readers of horror fiction, which for the most part engages readers on an emotional level, the expected outcome then is to “identify and sympathize with others”,4 but also to learn from their mistakes, as Aristotle suggests. This is not at all far-fetched if we look at several texts of the genre and the issues they promote and/or discuss.

One of horror’s crucial qualities as a literary genre is its versatility and the ability of its tropes to represent and, more importantly, mean more than is obvious. This means that in addition to simply scaring the reader, which undoubtedly is its primary purpose, good horror texts also demand of the reader to reflect upon different (taboo?) phenomena related to human life, be they our (deviant) sexual impulses, forbidden desires, aggression, hatred, or any other part of individual psychology that we have to come to terms with in order to function in our social environments. These texts offer an insight into what happens when the boundaries of socially accepted behaviour are transgressed,5 and they reawaken the reader to the reality that our behavioural conventions are far from natural, but rather arbitrary social constructs and norms. Gelder explains that “horror’s capacity to disorient and disturb” is its major strength because “the disturbance it willfully produces is, in fact, a disturbance of cultural and ideological categories we may have taken for granted.” That is to say, instead of perpetuating the status quo with its implied inequalities, intolerance and prejudice against the Other, horror texts have the “ability to call conventional representations of temporal, sexual, cultural and national identities into question.”. According to Dilg, in order for students and teachers to thrive in a multicultural classroom, teachers should promote a pedagogy of belonging and this means, among other things, “to understand our own strengths and weaknesses, the power and limitations accorded us by our own histories and identities”, which is precisely what certain horror texts enable and support.

While, for instance, a comparative approach in studying the linguistic differences among variants of a language (“World Englishes”) or in studying cultural differences which are in the focus of pragmatics has its theoretical and practical value in a multicultural English classroom, it is equally important to offer courses that approach the heterogeneous student audience from a different point of view. Instead of focusing on the differences, a course in horror literature will tend to examine different social constructs that are presented as defining and identifying of a group and dismantle them as they tend to contribute to prejudice and blur the truth of our universal human nature. In this, horror tends to (ab)use the body as the vessel for understanding more abstract ideas, for instance, freedom and equality. To put it bluntly, a horror story will make the student understand what the power-obsessed villain of Ayn Rand’s novel ‘The Fountainhead’ formulates with shocking cynicism: “We are all brothers under the skin — and I, for one, would be willing to skin humanity to prove it” (1996, 264).

Elena Gomel concludes that “Pathos is what people react to when they throw up at the sight of blood. It is arguable that nausea is the true foundation of morality” (2003, xxiii).
This means they feature a tragic hero, one who is better than us, who makes some kind of tragic mistake or has some great frailty of character (fatal flaw) that leads to his downfall (consider Victor Frankenstein, Faust, or Dr. Jekyll, among others).
Bal and Veltkamp (2013) are not the only ones who have written about the personal transformations of readers subsequent to reading, but their paper contains actual research results with exact numbers and graphs illustrating the data (e.g. hierarchical regression analyses predicting empathy; standard deviations, means, reliabilities, and correlations of the study variables, and so on). Other relevant psychological studies that deal with this topic include: Miall and Kuiken (2002), Mar et al. (2011), and Kidd and Castano (2013). Among relevant narratological studies are, for instance, Zunshine (2006), Phelan (2007), and Thrailkill (2007).
Contrary to reading fiction, which typically causes people to relax from their everyday obligations, reading nonfiction texts may be associated with alternative consequences: instead of feeling empathy, readers of nonfiction texts that contain descriptions of horrific events may experience feelings of guilt or obligation (Slovic 2007).
Of course, it can be said that this is one of the primary functions of (high) literature in general (see, for instance, Leitch 2001). This subsequently also implies that horror is not trivial by default.

Also published on Medium.


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