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Art-Horror and Natural Horror: What’s the Difference?

Art-Horror and Natural Horror: What’s the Difference?
© Photograph by Nick Sachos

In ‘The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart’, Noël Carroll provides a careful account of horror. However, by “horror,” Noël Carroll means something very specific: “the type of horror to be explored [by Noël Carroll] is that associated with reading something like Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ [or] Algernon Blackwood’s ‘Ancient Sorceries’ […]” What is not meant is “the sort [of horror] that one expresses in saying ‘I am horrified by the prospect of ecological disaster,’ or ‘Brinkmanship in the age of nuclear arms in horrifying’ […]” The former Noël Carroll calls “art-horror,” which is an emotional response felt to the genre of art of the same name. The latter, which Noël Carroll calls “natural horror,” goes unanalyzed. The purpose of this chapter is to discern what relationship holds between art-horror and natural horror. I will show that Noël Carroll’s account of art-horror is inadequate because it does not explain the relationship between natural and art-horror. However, by adopting an alternative theory of horror, developed previously by Peter A. French and myself, one can explain both the similarities and differences between the two types of horror.

Art-horror, according to Noël Carroll, is an emotion felt in response to a fictional monster that defies our scientific understanding of the world. One responds with art-horror when one responds to a monster as something “threatening and impure.” Thus, art-horror is a mixture of fear (as a response to a threat) and disgust (as a response to something impure). This mixture of fear and disgust is what defines the genre of horror: zombies and all other horrific monsters are both threatening and revolting. Noël Carroll developed his theory based on the evidence available, and it can be confirmed or denied by seeing if it “appl[ies] to the reactions we find to the monsters indigenous to works of horror.” Read or watch a successful horror story — if Noël Carroll is correct, you will be left shivering in both fear and disgust.

Noël Carroll never explains natural horror in more depth than his quick examples above. However, there are only two general possibilities: either natural horror is the same sort of emotion as art-horror, or it is not. Unfortunately for Noël Carroll, neither of these options is plausible. Let us consider them in turn:

Natural horror and art-horror are the same emotion. That Noël Carroll can even draw a distinction between the two types of horror and that we can understand this distinction both imply that there is some difference between the two. However, this does not imply that they are two different emotions. How an emotion is expressed can differ dramatically depending on its object. Being angry at a friend for insulting you is different from being angry at a stranger for stealing your cab, but what is felt is anger in both cases. If the objects of an emotion differ in relevant ways, then an emotion felt about one may differ from that same emotion being felt about the other. Therefore, this option suggests that the differences between natural horror and art-horror can be identified as some relevant differences in the object each type of horror takes. The emotion felt in each case would be the same: a mixture of fear and disgust.

The problem is that those cases where one feels natural horror are not cases where one is both frightened and disgusted. Specifically, disgust is missing. The recent oil spill in the Gulf Coast, for instance, is the kind of disaster that many find naturally horrific. Few, however, have expressed disgust at the oil. Disgust is marked by a strong desire to stay away from the impure thing — as Noël Carroll says, “there is an evidenced aversion to making physical contact.” Yet, there are countless videos of individuals reaching out to touch the oil. There are also videos taken by divers of the oil as it gushes towards the sea’s surface. Such videos require these divers to be in the same water as the oil, yet they show no revulsion. News programs have shown endless footage of the oil gushing from the broken pipe, but no viewers complain of this scene being too revolting to watch. This ecological disaster is horrifying, and is as good a candidate for natural horror as any, but no disgust is evident. It is equally hard to find evidence of disgust in other candidates for natural horror. The prospect of nuclear war, while horrific, does not leave one gagging. Granted, there are cases of natural horror where one does feel disgusted — the Holocaust, for one, is both horrifying and disgusting — but the examples listed above show that disgust is not a necessary component of natural horror. One cannot parse art-horror and natural horror, as the same emotion if one accepts that art-horror is a mixture of fear and disgust.

Natural horror is a different type of emotion from art-horror. There is evidence from ‘The Philosophy of Horror’ to support this interpretation of natural horror. Noël Carroll notes that the monsters that inspire art-horror fascinate us, and this fascination “would be too great a luxury to endure, if one, against all odds, were to encounter a horrific monster in ‘real life.’ We, like the characters in horror fictions, would feel distressingly helpless.” Perhaps natural horror is a mixture of different emotions than the fear and disgust that composes art-horror. Noël Carroll’s suggestion of distressing helplessness as a component seems apt, and I shall return to this suggestion later. For now, however, I will consider only the general suggestion that natural horror is a different breed of emotion entirely from art-horror, whatever that breed may be.

The problem with this is that we use the same word, “horror,” for both natural and art-horror. Both “natural horror” and “art-horror” are Noël Carroll’s terms of art, and ordinary language users speak instead only of “horror,” whether talking about both the prospect of nuclear war or zombies. Never does one have to clarify one’s emotional state: “That horrified me — but not like zombies do, more like the oil spill.” The word, “horror,” without the addendum, is sufficient in ordinary language to describe how one feels, regardless what elicits it. If natural horror were an emotional state different in kind from art-horror, then one should expect some linguistic need to differentiate between the two. But there is no such linguistic need. Therefore, I maintain that an adequate theory of art-horror will be one that can explain it as the same sort of response as natural horror. What is truly needed is an account of horror, one that applies equally well to natural horror and art-horror.

We cannot explain the difference between natural and art-horror by accepting that they are both a mixture of fear and disgust, because many good candidates for natural horror do not disgust us. We also cannot explain the difference by accepting that, while art-horror is fear and disgust, natural horror is something else, because this defies our ordinary usage of the word, “horror.” If one accepts Noël Carroll’s definition of art-horror while also respecting ordinary language, then one is left with no clear account of natural horror. Therefore, I suggest an alternative: adopt a different definition of art-horror.

In ‘Blink: Monsters, Horror, and the Carroll Thesis,’ Peter A. French and I argue that Noël Carroll’s account of art-horror, which I shall now call the ‘Disgust Thesis,’ is inadequate. We argue that ‘Blink,’ a 2007 episode of Doctor Who, is an example of art-horror but elicits no disgust. In order to account for ‘Blink’ along with similar examples, we claim, art-horror should be defined as a mixture of fear and impotence instead of fear and disgust. In other words, Noël Carroll is right that horror contains a feeling of being “distressingly helpless,” but we argue that this emotion is a necessary component of art-horror, in place of disgust. My claim here is that this alternative account, the ‘Impotency Thesis,’ provides an explanation for the similarities and differences between natural and art-horror that is lacking in the ‘Disgust Thesis.’

The ‘Impotency Thesis’ can explain natural horror just as well as art-horror. Why is the Gulf Coast oil spill horrific, as opposed to just terrifying? Because, as millions of gallons of oil spilt out into the ocean, there was no way to stop it — the ecosystem was being destroyed, and we knew no solution would be effective for months. Why is the prospect of nuclear war horrific? Because the start of a nuclear war requires only one world leader behaving diabolically, and we as simple citizens have no power to keep that from happening. Why is genocide so horrific? Because genocide involves the systematic breakdown of individual rights and freedoms that is often impossible to escape once it has begun. We experience natural horror in response to that which threatens us and which we have no capacity to control. We experience horror when we feel both frightened and impotent.

The ‘Impotency Thesis’ explains why we use the same word, “horror,” to describe our responses both to zombies and to nuclear war: the same emotion is experienced in each case, a mixture of fear and impotence. As mentioned above, however, there must also be an explanation of the difference between art-horror and natural horror, given that Noël Carroll’s distinction between the two is coherent. There is a difference between responding to ‘The Shining’ and responding to the Gulf Coast oil spill. If the same emotion is felt in both cases, there must be a relevant difference between the objects of the emotion that account for art-horror being different from natural horror.

The most obvious candidate to explain the difference is that, in all of the examples given so far, natural horror is about what is real and art-horror is about what is fictional. However, the difference we are searching for cannot be the difference between real life and fiction. There are many cases of horror in response to fictions that are more appropriately considered natural horror as opposed to art-horror. Noël Carroll himself lists a few examples: one might be horrified by the murder in Camus’s ‘The Stranger’ or the sexual degradation in de Sade’s ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’. Nevertheless, though such horror is generated by art, it is not part of the phenomenon I am calling “art-horror.” More examples are possible. Consider ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold, in which the ghost of a young girl tells us of how she was raped and murdered. The scene is horrific, but the horror we feel is not the same as the horror caused by zombies even though both are equally fictional. Consider ‘The Vanishing’, where our hero discovers himself buried alive in a coffin, or a scene in ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, by Haruki Murakami, where a character describes watching his commander skinned alive as a form of torture.

These are fictional stories, yet they are appropriate candidates for the type of horror felt in response to real cases of depravity and disaster. If the distinction between natural horror and art-horror is to be useful at all, our account must place these cases in the category of natural horror, even though they are fictitious.

From the examples above, a more useful distinction can be discerned: what yields natural horror is more realistic than what yields art-horror. In all of the cases of natural horror listed above, the horrific object is something we believe could actually occur or exist. It is entirely plausible that a little girl can be raped and murdered, or a man can be buried alive, or a commander skinned as a form of torture. While these cases are fictional, we know these types of events actually happen and could even happen to us. The objects of art-horror, on the other hand, stretch credibility. The idea of a zombie is ridiculous and far-fetched, just like vampires, werewolves, and all other sorts of art-horrific monsters. The monsters in art-horror stories are firmly lodged in the realm of imagination, and we know it. In the right context, art-horrific monsters can even seem silly in a way that the murder of little girls or the torture of men cannot — zombies can be laughable, but there is nothing laughable about horrors that can actually hurt people. The relevant difference I suggest, then, is this: while, in both cases, one experiences a mixture of fear and impotence, this mixture expresses itself differently when it is felt in response to a threat that is genuinely concerning as opposed to when it is felt in response to a far-fetched threat. Horror is horror, but horror felt about an unrealistic and ludicrous monster is what Noël Carroll calls “art-horror” and horror felt about something deserving genuine concern is what Noël Carroll calls “natural horror.”

Accepting that art-horror and natural horror are the same emotional response felt about different types of objects has added benefits. Recall that Noël Carroll’s definition of art-horror requires we respond to a monster that defies our scientific understanding of the world. It is left unclear, in Noël Carroll’s work, why our horror must be in response to such a monster. Noël Carroll argues only that “[c]orrelating horror with the presence of monsters gives us a neat way of distinguishing it from terror [..]” In other words, Noël Carroll acknowledges that art-horror is felt in response to such monsters but provides no explanation for why this should be so. With the theory of horror I have outlined above, however, an explanation is possible. Art-horror requires our horror be about something unrealistic, or, to use Noël Carroll’s words, something “not believed to exist now according to contemporary science.” If we believed the monster were realistic, then it would be the subject of a genuine concern and our response would be natural horror, not art-horror. Because art-horror is horror felt about what we believe is fanciful, all cases of art-horror will be about monsters that defy our current scientific understanding of the world. Noël Carroll was right, but the ‘Impotency Thesis’ allows us to see why.

Adopting the ‘Impotency Thesis’ might also explain why so many cases of art-horror have a metaphorical or allegorical relationship to what we would find naturally horrific. Noël Carroll, along with many others, notes that stories such as King Kong which were popular during the Great Depression highlight “the fear of being outside civil society through no fault of one’s own,” whereas the horror stories of the 1950s involved monsters that “are really stand-ins for the international communist menace.” As obvious as this connection seems, one is left wondering why this would be if there is no obvious connection between art-horror and natural horror. The ‘Impotency Thesis’, on the other hand, hints to a possible answer: since the only difference between natural horror and art-horror is that one is about a genuine concern whereas the other is about unrealistic monsters, art-horror may be a conduit for confronting natural horrors. It implies that audiences in the 1960s felt the same emotion in response to the threat of nuclear war as they did Godzilla, and so their interest in Godzilla may be interpreted a means to respond to their horror of nuclear war.

I present the ‘Impotency Thesis’ as a suggestion for greater consideration, given that it stands to clarify the relationship between those horror stories that amuse us in movie theatres and those real horrors that keep us up at night. I do not claim to have provided anything near a complete account of horror, but I propose that any consideration of horror will be more successful if it begins with the ‘Impotency Thesis’ as opposed to Noël Carroll’s ‘Disgust Thesis’.

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