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The Paradox of Horror: The Dark Side of Gothic Aesthetics

The Paradox of Horror: The Dark Side of Gothic Aesthetics
© Photograph by Ruslan Komarov

The permanent duality in the characters or objects of horror translates the duplicity inherent to the Gothic itself, exposing its double nature and its capacity to provoke effects of horror mixed with those associated with pleasure and beauty. The ambiguity and contradiction of its origin explains its inevitable association with the “Sublime”, the most ambiguous aesthetic category which Edmund Burke had defined in ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’ (1757), where he considered that everything that originates mental images of danger, agony or fear can be transformed into a powerful source of terror and sublime, concluding that: “Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too.”

The concept of “delightful horror” presented by Edmund Burke demonstrated that the “Sublime” could be built on terror, which transgressed certain conventional aesthetic principles. In ‘The Romantic Agony’ (1933), Mario Praz referred to a “new kind of thrill” originated from a new sense of beauty in combination with pleasure and pain, which could be represented by the image of the awful and fascinating Medusa. When aesthetically felt, pain can cause pleasure and this negative pleasure was also analysed by Samuel Monk in ‘The Sublime’ (1960), where he concludes that “the gothic novel exists almost purely for the sake of evoking pleasant terror.” Jean-François Lyotard also observed that the sublime sentiment is a strong and equivocal emotion, carrying with it both pleasure and pain. In ‘L’inhumain’ (1988), Jean-François Lyotard opposed the Sublime to the didactic of tecknè rhétorikè, because he considered it was provoked by the threat that nothing may occur, a white page being a possible source of terror for many authors and creators, whose art could be a witness of the inexpressible.

Vijay Mishra called our attention to the paradox of representation in ‘The Gothic Sublime’ (1993), where he evoked Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer to explain the difference between the romantic and the gothic sublime, which is nowadays more interested in the condition of the unrepresentability than in the representation of a transcendental presence, because the negativity that governs the sublime is created by the fact that the idea of death is beyond all representation. Terror comes from this recognition and the Sublime from the tension created between the attraction and the repulsion for the ineffable. Whenever an object of thought resists representation, we experience a certain sublimity caused by an epistemological conflict between the idea and its representation that also translates the conflict between life and death, the Freudian conflict between the instincts of preservation (Eros) and the instincts of death (Thanatos), which are always present in those situations when there is a rational will to maintain the control of the reason, but at the same time an irrational desire of losing it. In the ‘Imp of Perverse,’ Edgar Allan Poe dealt with the paradoxical nature of our most irrational impulses being very aware of what he called, in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ “the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis.”

In ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, Charles Baudelaire had already demonstrated that it was possible to associate the opposite feelings of voluptuousness and sadness in order to create the roots for modern art, whose aesthetics is in several aspects in tune with the Gothic mode.

Some critical voices have been taking note of this gothic paradox with a clear persistency. Edith Birkhead in ‘The Tale of Terror’ (1921) perceived an emotional ambivalence in the contradictory feeling of “fearful joy” so present in many works of gothic fiction. Eino Railo, in ‘The Haunted Castle’ (1927), also refers the ambivalence in the emotion of terror and its capacity to provoke pleasure and fear. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in ‘The Coherence of Gothic Conventions’ (1975) identified the Gothic with an aesthetics based on the pleasure of fear. Elisabeth MacAndrew, in ‘The Gothic Tradition in Fiction’ (1979), felt the presence of the emotional duplicity which she considered adequate to the gothic fictional process. Patrick Day, ‘In the Circles of Fear and Desire’ (1985), noticed the power of the Gothic to transform anxieties and fears into pleasures. Maggie Kilgour, in ‘The Rise of the Gothic Novel’ (1995) perceived in Gothic a “puzzling contradiction” created by its simultaneous subversion and reaffirmation of the moral and social order, which reveals the antagonism of the moral purpose of certain gothic novels and the pleasure created by the aesthetic fruition of terror. A fact that led Stephen Edwin King to conclude that the main purpose of the Gothic “is to reaffirm the virtues of the norm by showing us what awful things happen to people who venture into taboo lands.”

Fred Botting, in ‘Gothic’ (1996), considered that the Gothic does not belong to darkness nor to light, nor to reason or moral, superstition or corruption, good or evil, because it has to do with both poles of the opposition due to their constant dependence which led him to conclude that the “objects of terror and horror not only provoke repugnance, disgust and recoil, but also engage readers’ interest, fascinating and attracting them. Threats are spiced with thrills, terrors with delights, horrors with pleasures.” The ambivalent nature of the Gothic was also apprehended by Dani Cavallaro in ‘The Gothic Vision – Three Centuries of Horror, Terror and Fear’ (2002), where he noticed the contradictory feelings of revulsion and fascination provoked by gothic narratives, which use darkness with negative and positive connotations turning it into an example of gothic ambivalence, because as he concludes: “darkness is an ambivalent phenomenon, associated, on the one hand, with chaos and deception, and on the other with illumination and truth.” Dani Cavallaro also recognises the double nature of these narratives of darkness, whose “Gothicity primarily refers to tales of obsession and haunting which employ images of disorder, alienation and monstrosity for the purposes of both entertainment and ideological reflection.”

As we have already observed, this gothic duplicity comes from its sublime dimension which creates a concern with the production of pleasurable fear that stimulates the thrill of the forbidden underlining a persistent propensity for subversion. The association of terror and beauty also has very positive effects, because they are two opposite poles that offer the possibility, as Devendra Varma recognises, of reviving “our apprehension of life itself by enlarging our sensibility, making readers more conscious of the kinship of terror and beauty and renewing awestruck wonder at possible forms of being.” The contact with so many possible forms of life that surpass the limits of many conventional categories, in a genre so often associated with the theme of death, seems to underline the paradoxical nature of the Gothic, which seems to have the intention of preserving life in the face of much death.

In an essay entitled ‘Contemporary Gothic: Why We Need It,’ Steven Bruhm refers to the positive effects of Gothic in readers who seem to need it to feel more alive, because if a horror story can make their blood pressure rise, this shows that Gothic produces symptoms of life in spite of recreating death, which reveals its paradoxical tendency to be attracted by pleasant terrifying subjects in order to know life better, which led this author to the conclusion that “paradoxically, we need the consistent consciousness of death provided by the Gothic in order to understand and want that life.”

The excessive preoccupation with the darker side of human life — death, crime, insanity and perversion — can cause obsessions and apocalyptic visions which are not only natural and adequate to certain existential experiences in this fin-de millennium, but they can also translate the perverse effect of a very nihilistic and negative aesthetics that, instead of exorcising our worst fears and ghosts, can be used to turn them even more disturbing, as it happened, in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ with the reading of ‘Mad Trist’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator to calm down the nerves of a very disturbed Roderick Usher, when he was on the brink of madness and very close to his psychological disintegration, a ruin which the best forms of art and literature were not able to avoid. All the works of art, produced by Usher, are proof of his anxiety, and all of them are evidence of his psychological disorders revealing that his terror of the soul dominated him completely, in spite of his artistic activities. In the poem ‘The Haunted Palace,’ a poetic equivalent to the ‘House of Usher,’ we can find the verses that translate the power of evil of an irrational force able to cause a total unbalance in human mind: “But evil things, in robes of sorrow, Assailed the monarch’s high estate.” Art and literature seem to be totally impotent against the nightmare of a mind haunted by his terrible memories and at the end chaos triumphs over order, which questions the cathartic power of art in general and Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic fiction, in particular, to solve mental breakdowns. In a letter to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Edgar Allan Poe explained that: “By ‘The Haunted Palace’ I mean to imply a mind haunted by phantasms — a disordered brain.” This disordered brain seems not only to be a metaphor for Usher disturbances, but also for Edgar Allan Poe’s personality disorders, which the ambivalent power of his art could help to mitigate or to stimulate turning him into an addict to a kind of “perverse art.” In ‘The Romance in America’ (1969), Joel Miles Porte stated that “Usher is a portrait, somewhat caricatured, of the artistic temperament in its most decadent — that is, romantic — state.” This very conscious portrait of the artist as a madman, victim of his perverse impulses, reveals the self-referential nature of the Gothic and its awareness about its own duplicities and dangers.

One of these dangers consists in the unstable emotional duplicity involved in the aesthetics of the Gothic Sublime. The ambivalent relations between pleasure and pain or between terror and beauty can be dangerous whenever their balance is lost, revealing the dark side of the paradox of sublimity. This fact is very often dramatised in Gothic fiction through some Faustian characters who possess a fatal curiosity that leads them to transcend the limits of their human condition through artistic or scientific experiences that put them and other human beings at risk due to their total submission to uncontrollable and perverse impulses. In ‘Forbidden Knowledge’ (1996), Roger Whitney Shattuck used the term “pleonexia” to translate this irresistible will to surpass the limits of our human condition, considering it “an overweening resolve to reach beyond limits, particularly limits on knowledge, even at the risk of harming others.” Both authors and characters in the Gothic mode are victims of these irrational impulses, which are exposed in several fictions dedicated to the theme of the Double, where they express their fascination for the abominable. Herman Melville, for instance, when he finished ‘Moby-Dick’, confessed that he had written a very wicked book, but he felt spotless as a lamb. Charles Brockden Brown had already clarified his readers when he stated that “[g]reat energy employed in the promotion of vicious purposes constitutes a very useful spectacle.” Stephen Edwin King also assumed his dark side when he revealed that his destructive side was very powerful in his books, which led him to confess “Yes, folks, in the ‘Stand’ I got a chance to scrub the whole human race, and it was fun!”

Consequently, there could be a potential double effect in every gothic narrative. On the one hand, it can be seen as a form of personal therapy and, on the other, it can be used to justify destructive acts. In ‘Terrors of Uncertainty’ (1989), Joseph Grixti defends that fictional violence possesses cathartic properties, which can explain certain Stephen Edwin King’s assertions about the necessity of occasionally “lifting a trapdoor in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.” However, some alligators can never be totally satisfied, and we should be aware of this uncertainty because the subversive powers of the Gothic experience usually avoid old certainties and raise disturbing doubts. Through horror stories, we have learned that a Dionysian force may evade our Apollonian status quo without warning. Dependent on the tension of opposites, the Gothic possesses a duplicity we should never ignore, because, as David Punter says, in ‘Gothic Pathologies’ (1998), “Gothic is always that which is other than itself.”

The Gothic being “a very knowing and self-aware genre,” as Catherine Spooner observed in ‘Contemporary Gothic’ (2006), where she underlined its great degree of self-consciousness, it is just natural we could question its creative process and its effects, as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley did when she called Frankenstein her “hideous progeny.” In ‘Delights of Terror’ (1983), Terry Heller analysed the aesthetic experience of terror concluding that “[s]ensational tales of terror are unique in that within their aesthetically closed forms, they encourage the entertainment of catastrophe. The reader can pretend to be terrified without the risk of a really terrifying experience. The play of art makes a dangerous part of the world available to imagination.”

However, nothing is purely aesthetic and when art transcends all its limits it can turn into a very real source of danger and destruction. Perhaps it is relevant to ask whether the manifestation of horror in creativity is a response to a world desensitised to violence, or if it helps to create a cycle of violent actions stimulated by all the sensationalist images of crime and death transmitted in violent films, music, video games and some other forms of gothic culture. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Columbine High School Massacre show that human minds are much too fragile and vulnerable not to be afraid of these uncertainties.

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