Reimagining the Nature and Theory of Art-Horror

Reimagining the Nature and Theory of Art-Horror
© Photograph by Faerie Blossom

For nearly a decade and a half, perhaps especially in the United States of America, horror has flourished as a major source of mass aesthetic stimulation. Horror novels seem available in virtually every supermarket and pharmacy, and new titles appear with unnerving rapidity. One author in this genre, Stephen Edwin King, has become a household name, while others, like Peter Francis Straub, though less well known, command large followings. Popular movies, as well, have remained so obsessed with horror since the success of ‘The Exorcist’ (1974) that it is difficult to visit your local multiplex theatre without meeting at least one monster. Horror and music explicitly join forces in many rock videos, notably ‘Thriller’, though one must remember that the iconography of horror supplies a pervasive colouration of much MTV. Of course, non-music television itself offers several horror programs, such as ‘Tales from the Dark Side’ (1984), while Broadway was recently terrorised by Edward St. John Gore’s version of Dracula. Horror figures even in fine art, not only directly in works by Francis Bacon, Hans Ruedi Giger, and Sibylle Ruppert, but also illusionistically in the pastiches of many postmodern artists. In short, horror has become a staple across contemporary artforms, leading and otherwise, spawning vampires, trolls, gremlins, zombies, werewolves, demonically possessed children, space monsters of all sizes, ghosts, and other unnameable concoctions at a pace that has made the last decade or so seem like one long Halloween night. Thus, the time is ripe to initiate an aesthetic inquiry into the nature of horror.

The type of horror to be explored in this article is that associated with reading something like Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ or Algernon Henry Blackwood’s ‘Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories’ or with seeing something like George Andrew Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ or Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’. We shall call this art-horror. It is different from the sort of horror one expresses in saying “I am horrified by the prospect of ecological disaster” or “Terrorist acts are horrifying.” Call the latter usage of “horror” natural horror. It is not the purpose of this article to analyse natural horror, but only art-horror, that is, as it serves to name a cross-art genre whose existence is already recognised in ordinary language. Indeed, one might regard the first part of this article as an attempt to rationally reconstruct the latent criteria for identifying art-horror that are operative in ordinary language.

In order to avoid misunderstanding, it is necessary to emphasise that by “art-horror” we are referring narrowly to the effects of a specific genre. Of course, one might be horrified by the events in a non-horror novel, for example, one might be horrified by the murder in ‘The Stranger’. Nevertheless, though such horror is generated by art, it is not part of the phenomenon we are calling “art-horror.” “Art-horror”, by stipulation, is supposed to refer to the product of a genre that crystallised roughly around the time of the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and that has continued, often cyclically, to persist through the novels and plays of the nineteenth-century and the literature and films of the twentieth-century. Moreover, it must be noted that though our emphasis is on a genre, we shall not respect the notion that horror and science fiction are discrete genres. Much science fiction of the bug-eyed monster school, for instance, is really a species of horror, substituting supernatural forces with futuristic technologies. This is not to say that all science fiction is a subcategory of horror, but only that much is. Thus, in our examples, we will move freely between what is called horror and science fiction.

It should not be assumed that all genres can be analysed in the same way. Westerns, for example, are identified primarily in virtue of their setting. Novels, films, plays, paintings, and so on that are grouped under the label of “horror” are identified according to a different sort of criterion. Like suspense novels or mystery novels, novels are denominated horrific in respect of their intended capacity to provoke an inevitable affective response. Indeed, the genres of suspense, mystery, and horror derive their very names from the affects they are intended to promote a sense of suspense, a sense of mystery, and a sense of horror. Again, not all genres are identified this way — a musical is not tied to any specific affect. But the genres that are named by the very affect they are designed to provoke suggest a very tantalising strategy through which to pursue their analysis.

Like suspense, works of horror are designed to elicit a certain kind of affect. We shall presume that this is an emotional state whose emotion we call art-horror. Thus, one can expect to locate the genre of horror, in part, by a specification of art-horror, the emotion that works of this type are designed to engender. Such an analysis, of course, is not a priori; it is an attempt, in the tradition of ‘The Poetics,’ to provide clarificatory generalisations about a body of work that we antecedently accept as constituting a family.

Initially, it is tempting to differentiate the horror genre from others by saying that horror novels, stories, films, plays, and so on are marked by the presence of monsters of either a supernatural or science fiction origin. This distinguishes horror from what are sometimes called tales of terror, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ or Alfred Joseph Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho,’ which, though eerie and scary, achieve their hairraising effects by exploring extreme psychological phenomena that are all too human. Similarly, by using monsters or other supernatural entities as a criterion, one could separate horror stories from Gothic exercises such as Ann Radcliffe’s ‘Mysteries of Udolpho,’ where suspicions of otherworldly beings are introduced only to be explained away naturalistically. However, even if a case could be made that a monster or a monstrous entity is a necessary condition for horror, such a criterion would not be a sufficient condition. For monsters inhabit all sorts of stories, such as fairy tales, myths, and odysseys, that we are not wont to identify as horror.

What appears to distinguish the horror story from mere stories with monsters, such as fairy tales, is the attitude of characters in the story to the monsters they chance upon. In works of horror, the humans regard the monsters that they encounter as abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order. In fairy tales, on the other hand, monsters are part of the everyday furniture of the universe. In ‘The Three Princesses of Whiteland,’ for example, the lad is beset by a three-headed troll; however, the writing does not signal that he finds this creature to be any more unusual than the lions he had previously walked past. A creature like Chewbacca in the space opera Star Wars is just one of the guys, though a creature made up in the same wolf outfit, in a film like ‘The Howling,’ would be regarded with utter revulsion by the humans in that film. In examples of horror, it would appear that the monster is an extraordinary character in our ordinary world, whereas in fairy tales and the like the monster is an ordinary character in an extraordinary world.

One indicator, then, of that which differentiates works of horror proper from monster stories, in general, is the affective responses of the characters in the stories to the monsters they meet. Though so far we have only spoken about the emotions of characters in horror stories, the preceding hypothesis is nevertheless useful for getting at the emotional responses that works of horror are designed to elicit from audiences. For horror appears to be one of those genres in which, ideally, the emotive responses of the audience run parallel to the emotions of characters. Indeed, in works of horror, the responses of characters often seem to cue the emotional responses of the audience.

In Jonathan Harker’s journal in ‘Dracula,’ we read “As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.” This shudder, this recoil at the vampire’s touch, reception of the ensuing descriptions of Dracula; for example, when his protruding teeth are mentioned, we regard them as shudder-inducing, nauseating, rank, and not something one would either want to touch or be touched by. Similarly, we model our emotional response upon ones like that of the young woman in ‘Night of the Living Dead’ who, when surrounded by zombies, screams and clutches herself in such a way as to avoid contact with the contaminated flesh. The characters of works of horror exemplify for us the way in which to react to the monsters in the fiction. Our emotions are supposed to mirror those of the positive human characters. This is not the case for every genre. If Aristotle is right about catharsis, the emotional state of the audience does not double that of Oedipus at the end of the play. Also, when a comic character takes a pratfall, he hardly feels joyous, though we do. Nevertheless, with horror, the emotions of the characters and those of the audience are synchronised, as one can observe easily at a Saturday matinee at one’s local cinema this feeling of nausea structures our emotional.

That the audience’s emotional response is modelled on that of characters provides us with a useful methodological advantage in analysing the emotion of art-horror. It suggests a way in which we can formulate an objective, as opposed to an introspective, picture of the emotion of horror. That is, rather than characterising art-horror solely on the basis of our own subjective responses; we can ground our conjectures on observations of the way in which characters respond to the monsters in works of horror. That is, if we proceed under the assumption that our emotional responses as audience members are supposed to parallel those of characters, then we can begin to portray art horror by noting the typical emotional features that authors and directors attribute to characters beleaguered by monsters.

How do characters respond to monsters in horror stories? Well, of course, they are frightened. After all, monsters are dangerous. But there is more to it than this. In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous novel, Victor Frankenstein recounts his reaction to the first movements of his creation: “now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, unable to compose my mind to sleep.” Shortly after this, the monster, with an outstretched hand, wakens Victor Frankenstein, who flees from its touch. In ‘The Sea-Raiders,’ Hans Ruedi Giger, using the third person, narrates Mr Frison’s reaction to some unsavoury, glistening, tentacled creatures: “he was horrified, of course, and intensely excited and indignant at such revolting creatures preying on human skin.” In Muir’s ‘The Reptile,’ MacAndrew’s first response to what he takes to be a largish, deadly snake is described as “the paralysing grip of repulsion and surprise.” And for a more contemporary illustration, consider the dream portent Jack Sawyer encounters in ‘The Talisman,’ by King and Straub: “some terrible creature had been coming for his mother-a dwarvish monstrosity with misplaced eyes and rotting, cheesy skin. ‘Your mother’s almost dead, Jack, can you say hallelujah’? This monstrosity had croaked, and Jack knew-the way you knew things in dreams that it was radioactive, and that if it touched him, he would die.”

What examples like this (which can be multiplied endlessly) indicate is that the character’s affective reaction to the monstrous in horror stories is not merely a matter of fear, i.e., of being frightened by something that threatens danger. Rather, the threat is compounded by revulsion, nausea, and disgust. The monster is so unwholesome that its very tough causes shudders. And this corresponds as well with the tendency in horror novels and stories to describe monsters regarding, and associate them with, filth, decay, deterioration, slime, and so on.

Thomas Hardy’s Horror Gothic has its Place in Art

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