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Natural Existentialism and the Paradox of Art-Horror

Natural Existentialism and the Paradox of Art-Horror
© Photograph by Juergen Niederauer

Before turning to an examination of horror imagery and themes in Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre’s existentialism I want to briefly mention another angle on art-horror that is given less space by Noël Carroll — the unknown. “To make anything very terrible,” says Edmund Burke in his ‘Enquiry’, “obscurity seems, in general, to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger […] a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Everyone will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can have clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings.”In their bid to disrupt everyday assumptions, writings classed as “existential” tend to trade in the unusual and the unexpected. Most of the fictional works (and sometimes the non-fiction as well) evoke an uncanny atmosphere; many portray extreme situations (‘Fear and Trembling’, ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’, ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘Heart of Darkness’, ‘Sisyphus’, ‘The Plague’, ‘The Flies’, ‘The Reprieve’, ‘Dirty Hands’), and some include elements of surrealism (‘Metamorphosis’, ‘The Trial’, ‘Nausea’, ‘No Exit’). This oddness has generated comparisons with subversive, extreme and nihilistic art forms such as absurdist theatre, film noir, and beatnik literature,  but so far very little has been written on its relationship with the horror genre.

My aim here is to show that existentialism and horror share some important features, and that an investigation of this connection can enrich our understanding of both. More precisely, in the first instance, I want to highlight the close association between some concepts and imagery of the early Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre and the horror genre. Then I want to argue that this association is understandable if we realise that the notion of the interstitial — that which falls between established categories — is a central concern in both cases. A development of this point identifies what might be called a “narrative of awakening” in existentialism that is mirrored in horror fictions.

This sees protagonists overcoming their initial rejection of threatening and repelling circumstances and replacing them with a form of acceptance that, crucially, requires a shift in their sense of identity in the direction of the monstrous. Finally, I want to claim that this shared concern helps explain the appeal of horror, and in so doing contributes a solution to the “paradox of horror” — the question of why we are drawn to films, stories and images designed to provoke emotions we would normally seek to avoid.

I take my lead on the nature of the horror genre from Noël Carroll’s seminal work ‘The Philosophy of Horror’. In this, he argues for a particular definition of horror and then goes on to address some riddles of aesthetic emotions, including the paradox of horror. There are three aspects of his theory that are of particular relevance to my aims here. The first is his analysis of what quality or qualities horror monsters will typically possess in order to affect the audience in the appropriate ways. The second is the matter of identifying the particular emotions that are provoked by these monsters and by the narratives in which they are situated. Since the elicitation of strong emotions in its audience is a defining feature of horror, an understanding of what precisely these responses are and what they mean should expedite a deeper understanding of the genre. Third is Noël Carroll’s discussion of the “paradox of horror”; the problem of why we seek out stories and images that provoke these negative feelings. This last aspect will be the focus of the final section of this article (‘Explaining Horror’s Appeal’), and in what follows the first two aspects will be explored.

On the question of what makes a monster horrifying, Noël Carroll’s view is that they are “interstitial” or “impure”. They are not entirely alien to us, but rather fall between familiar categories: for example, living and dead (vampires, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster), human and beast (werewolves, Kurt Neumann’s / David Paul Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’), human and supernatural entity (William Peter Blatty’s / William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’, Richard Donner’s ‘The Omen’, Alan William Parker’s ‘Angel Heart’), the intelligent and the inert (Stephen Edwin King’s ‘Christine’, James John Herbert’s ‘The Fog’), the intelligent and the unintelligent organic (golems, Alfred Joseph Hitchcock’s birds, Wyndham’s triffids, killer tomatoes, blobs), innocence and corruption/insanity (Stephen Edwin King’s ‘Misery’ and ‘The Shining’, child possessions and poltergeists), the young and the old (the “child” vampire in Hans Christian Tomas Alfredson’s recent Swedish art-house horror ‘Let the Right One In’).

It is not hard to find broad support for this kind of position. Timothy K. Beal has theorized around a similar “betwixt and between” account of the nature of horror monsters and their origins in Judeo-Christian religion, and citing among others Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Paul-Michel Foucault, Richard Kearney explains how “[c]reatures which hang around borders, and disrespect their integrity are traditionally described as monsters. They comprise a species of sinister miscreants exiled from the normative categories of the established system. A species of non-species, as it were. Alien monsters represent the ‘unthought’ of any given point of knowledge and representation, the unfamiliar spectre which returns to haunt the secure citadel of consciousness.”

However, since fairytales and science fiction also commonly involve interstitial entities (dwarves, elves, androids, alien species etc.) this element becomes a necessary but not sufficient condition. To complete the definition Noël Carroll claims that a film or book’s membership of the horror genre is also determined by the emotions it engenders in its audience. They must, of course, frighten us, but there is also the “tendency in horror novels and stories to describe monsters in terms of and to associate them with filth, decay, deterioration, slime and so on. This monster in horror fiction […] is not only lethal but […] also disgusting.”

“Art-horror” is the name Noël Carroll gives to this “compound” emotion. Highlighting fear is uncontroversial, but making disgust so central to the emotionality associated with this art form requires some justification.

Noël Carroll cites two main sources of evidence for this claim. The first is simply the appearance and behaviour of the monsters. A quick survey yields multiple examples of creatures that contain, say, the corpse-like and insect-like aspects of everyday life that typically disgust us. Monsters must, of course, have the power to threaten — to be strong, violent, deadly, aggressive, malicious, and so on — but also they are outwardly vile and grotesque. Take, for example, the rotting bodies of zombies and the decaying visage of Freddy Krueger; the saliva and slime-smeared eggs of the Alien; the green vomit in ‘The Exorcist’; David Paul Cronenberg’s hairy vomiting ‘The Fly’, his slug-like blob in ‘Shivers’ and exploding heads in ‘Scanners’. Then there is the blood-injection-injury phobia-inducing sight of Clive Barker’s Pinhead (in ‘Hellraiser’); the multiple blood-baths and gore-fests of the splatter sub-genre; the common use of worms, maggots, slugs, spiders, snakes and slime in gentler teenage series and films like the BBC’s ‘Dr Who’, Timothy Walter Burton’s ‘The Nightmare before Christmas’, Joseph Hill Whedon’s ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and Ivan Reitman’s ‘Ghostbusters’ through to more adult features like Ronald Brian Underwood’s ‘Tremors’, Stephen Edwin King’s ‘The Mist’, Samuel M. Raimi’s recent ‘Drag Me to Hell’ and Umberto Lenzi’s horror exploitation film ‘Cannibal Ferox’.

Horror monsters, it seems, are disgusting on two counts. On the one hand, they are interstitial, and whether in stories or in real life that which we find disgusting is typically something that cannot be located within stable, familiar classifications. Noël Carroll cites a number of everyday life examples, including certain cultures’ avoidance of “ambiguous” animals like flying squirrels and lobsters, and our dislike of things like false teeth, spittle, blood, sweat, nail and hair clippings, that transgress the categories of “me/not me, inside/outside, and living/dead”. In this respect a threat need only be chimerical to be potentially monstrous, but it is also the case that animals (and other, usually organic, objects) we typically find threatening and disgusting (such as spiders, insects and snakes), but which are not themselves — or at least not in any obvious sense — category-defying, can enhance the monstrousness of the fictional entity (hence a giant intelligently predatory spider is more effective than a giant intelligently predatory sheep).

The second piece of evidence is grounded in the observation that the expressions and feelings of the audience of art-horror tend to “parallel” those of its characters. This is an unusual feature of the genre. As Noël Carroll points out, we do not feel jealous when Othello does, and “when a comic character takes a pratfall, he hardly feels joyous”, but he claims that the aim is for horror audiences to feel a version of what the victims and witnesses of horror monsters feel. This presents a “methodological advantage” in that in order to identify the responses of the audience it is possible to step beyond introspection and seek to identify the responses of the characters. And through analysing “expressions and gestures” the emotion Noël Carroll finds “regularly recurring” alongside fear is disgust.

In the novel ‘Dracula’, for instance, Abraham Stoker writes, “As the count leaned over me and his hand 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.”

Disgust has been categorized as a universal emotion by virtue of a methodology of cross-culturally recognizable facial expressions. Like fear, therefore, it ought to be easy to identify on the faces of characters in films. In ‘The Exorcist’, for example, the mother of the possessed girl Regan puts her hand to her mouth and looks sick on several occasions, perhaps most obviously when, with Regan under hypnosis, the possessing demon makes its first unambiguous appearance. Here she backs off, staggering, her hand fixed over her mouth with a stare of intense fear. But instead of the rounded sockets of alarm, her eyes are framed by eyebrows that tilt slightly upwards, indicating distress, curiosity, and essentially disgust.

A further argument (not Noël Carroll’s) supporting the view that disgust is a defining component of art-horror concerns the future-oriented nature of fear. Horror (in its narrative form) is about build-up and suspense, the fearful anticipation of what is to come. But what about when it does come? What about when the victims are confronted by the creature in all its horrific reality? Usually of course fear remains — much of the time when the victim is alive there are worse things that can happen (though this is not true of, for instance, the cocooned people in the Alien’s human larder), but there is also something that is happening. One response can be anger, others can be despair, pain and loss, but one we do indeed typically see — and indeed one that is fairly specific to the horror genre — is disgust. In short, fear and (some forms of) anxiety correspond to what is to come, disgust corresponds to what is in the present.

Before turning to an examination of horror imagery and themes in Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre’s existentialism I want to briefly mention another angle on art-horror that is given less space by Noël Carroll — the unknown. “To make anything very terrible,” says Edmund Burke in his ‘Enquiry’, “obscurity seems, in general, to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger […] a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Everyone will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can have clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings.”

In a sense the unknown can be understood as another term for the interstitial; an entity is unknown (as in not understood and perhaps not previously encountered) by virtue of not adhering to familiar categories. As Noël Carroll discusses at length, as far as narrative construction goes the mystery surrounding a monster prior to its full exposure is a key ingredient of horror plots, but it is also the case that some horror texts — albeit possibly fringe members of the genre — play on adversaries that are so distant and mysterious that they are unable to disgust us. Fear and anxiety are instead predominant, as are feelings of awe that tie art-horror to religious experience (and indeed the sublime). Noël Carroll discusses Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s ideas on our fearful yet “awed listening” to what lies beyond “the known universe’s utmost rim”, but most monsters do not invoke such feelings, and at best he sees this as typifying only a sub-category of the genre.

In this article, I am primarily limiting myself to the existentialism-horror themes apparent in Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre’s work, and the mystery and otherness of ‘Being’ is not one of them. However, in the work of other existentialists — particularly, of course, the Judeo-Christian variety, but also Martin Heidegger — mysticism does have a place, and thus affective responses to what is radically other could present another possibility for an investigation of this type.

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