The Skeptical Artistry Of Horror In Everyday Life

Alex de Borba
Alex de Borba

Truth be told, just because of the vigorous fondness elicited by the horror genre and the maddening acts that are depicted in it, to those sensitive to hideous misdemeanours, it is unthinkable not to discern that some justification or defence is needed. There are some obvious strategies for this, for example, raising the standards of “art for art’s sake,” or, by mere distinction, explicating the value of horror in its moral or educational value. Furthermore, there are also strategies bewitching to other categories of value, along the lines of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s explanation of the value of calamity as a Dionysian rallying cry. In this month’s editorial, I aspire to unravel the value of horror in terms that are neither aesthetic nor moral. My aspiration is to manifest that the horror genre has an epistemological value.

In what follows, I will use the term “horror” mostly to advert to a literary and cinematographic genre (or, more broadly, a motif) instantiated in artistic works. Moreover, occasionally referring to horror as a particular psychological sentiment or a form of cognitive experience. The defence proposed of horror in the first sense (either as a genre or motif), requires us to take up two philosophical questions: What is horror? And what is beneficial about it? My main interest here is not in defining what horror is in its entirety, but rather in exploring the defence of horror — the prospects of an “apology” in the classical sense. But we can not state in general what is beneficial about horror unless we understand what it is, to begin with. Thus, I propose the following cultural definition. Horror as a genre has two central elements: an appearance of the malevolent, occasionally supernatural or of the psychopathic monstrous killer; and the intentional elicitation of dread, visceral disgust, fright, or statement in the spectator or reader1. On this understanding, some of the most voguish and critically acclaimed works of art and entertainment hold elements of horror. It is instantiated not only in contemporary film but in the whole history of literary and representational art (for instance; Dante’s Inferno, William Shakespeare’s theatrical tragedies, paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Francisco José de Goya, to mention some conspicuous examples).

This acuteness builds upon others propositions in the philosophical literature on horror. American philosopher Noël Carroll defines horror as a genre representing unnatural, threatening monsters, be it supernatural or natural. According to Noël Carroll, the genre plays upon a viewer’s characteristic emotional aversion to the idea of such monsters as they are portrayed in his or her thoughts. For Noël Carroll, monsters are essentially fictional, not something to be troubled with in real life. The viewer is fully aware that they do not exist in our earthly plan. My personal definition of horror is broader than Noël Carroll’s in that it allows for horror with no specific monster and also allows for “realistic” monsters. I have strived in this way to respond to the criticism that Noël Carroll’s definition is indeed, too narrow to the point of excluding masterpieces like ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Shining’. In my point of view, unlike Noël Carroll’s, the threats that horror presents are not always fictional but can bleed into the actual world as we know it.

Unfortunately, the question of horror’s value has been clouded in a variety of ways. First of all, some horror films emphasize graphic depictions of sadistic, psychopathic violence to the exclusion of almost everything else, in something like the way pornographic productions focus on graphic depictions of intercourse to the exclusion of almost everything else in between. Consequently, this has led many individuals to question the value of the horror genre as a whole. For instance, professor of philosophy and religious studies Gianluca Di Muzio takes the infamous ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ as a model. In this film, a few juveniles wander into the clutches of psychopaths who torture, murder, and cannibalise them. The film depicts their sadistic torture and murder, and ultimately, only one character narrowly escapes. Gianluca Di Muzio argues that to enjoy such a film is to enjoy a depiction of the torture of children. He claims that it could only have a corrupting influence on one’s moral character since it involves “silencing one’s compassionate attitudes” in the face of (depictions of) terrific and pointless violence. Gianluca Di Muzio argues that the spectator of such a show risks “atrophying her capacity for appropriate compassionate reactions and her ability to appraise correctly situations that make moral demands on her.”

There is no scepticism that the violence of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is shocking and awkward. But the basic claim of Gianluca Di Muzio’s argument nonetheless does not hold one’s breath, even when applied to “slasher” horror. For it seems plausible to say that the experience of horror essentially involves the engagement of one’s compassionate attitudes. That is what makes horror horrifying. Suppose I cringe with dread while watching Pamela (one of the characters in the film) being hung on a meat hook? Suppose I can hardly watch and I feel nauseated? Later, I am unable to outcast the image out of my mind, particularly at night and during my regular visits to the butcher counter at the local supermarket. Although these reactions may be characteristically unpleasant and it may be puzzling to some individuals why I should ever wish to experience them, they are not desensitized reactions. On the contrary, the reaction to terror appears on its face to be a morally engaged reaction known by today’s society. And although a sensitive viewer may be morally overwhelmed by the violence depicted in horror films, there is no obvious causal link between being overwhelmed in this way and the atrophy of moral sensitivity. If there is such a link, it requires evidence which was not offered by Gianluca Di Muzio’s statements.

In any case, we are concerned with the value of horror as a contribution to diverse forms of art and digital entertainment in general, not only with the most graphic instances of the horror genre. Gianluca Di Muzio does not discuss whether, in principle, horror can contribute to something greater to art and entertainment. Elements of horror such as dread and the sense of the uncanny and eerie add something to the artistry and interest of ‘Macbeth,’ for example. It is doubtful that Gianluca Di Muzio would refute this. Thus the focus on the graphic character of violence in slasher films diverts attention from basic issues about horror’s value.

There is also a second way in which the question of the value of horror has been improperly handled. A critical discussion has focused more on why horror is pleasurable rather than on why it is aesthetically or morally of value. The appeal of horror as a theme or a genre, it has been said, is indefinitely paradoxical. Why should it be enjoyable or attractive to witness horrific events as they are depicted in films, fiction, and other arts? When Marion Crane (a fictional character created by Robert Bloch in his 1959 novel ‘Psycho’) is stabbed in the shower scene, and when the deranged protagonist Norman Bates then disposes of her dead body, why do we enjoy watching it with such morbidity? These are indeed, fascinating questions and have been answered in various ways by theorists of film. The gamut of explanations vastly spreads from a theory of repressed drives that pleasurably return to the viewer in his or her identification with the monster or the victim of horror to a more scientifically austere explanation of the neurophysiology of startle reactions and the social phenomenon of collective film-viewing experiences1.

The problem is that these are psychological answers to a psychological question, not philosophical answers to a philosophical question. Although philosophy certainly has something to contribute to the resolution of psychological questions (for instance, by clarifying psychological concepts and the nature of psychological evidence), it can not resolve these questions completely on its own. “Why is horror pleasurable?” is at least, partly an empirical or scientific question about individuals, requiring that we understand regular and general principles of human psychology and anthropology. This is why I take the paradox of horror in a different way. If there is any philosophical enigma in here, it concerns what is exceptional about horror, not just what is pleasurable about it.

In this editorial, I endeavoured to escort the philosophical discussion of horror back on track. I have debated that there is something positive about horror regardless of its artistic approach of aesthetically interesting and epistemologically positive. I have argued that by the threats it presents to the everyday life of the viewer, horror, however, gives us a perspective on so-called common sense. It aids us to comprehend that a notion of everyday life is completely secure against threats that cannot be possible and that the security of common sense is a persistent illusion. In order to make this clear, I have compared horror and philosophical scepticism, arguing that the threats they pose are structurally similar2. As with our purported philosophical solutions to scepticism, the idea of security in the everyday is based on an intellectually dubious but pragmatically attractive construction. We can all hardly resist relying on the world so that it does not annihilate us, and we can hardly resist trusting others not to do so. This is not because such reliance is rationally compulsory, but because we choose it as the easiest and natural strategy. One of the foremost positive facts about horror is that it allows us to viscerally experience this as an epistemological choice.

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