Introduction to the Pleasures of Horror and the Joy of Misery

Alex de Borba
Alex de Borba

This article investigates the appeal of genres which characteristically elicit negative emotional responses, deciphering the “unaccountable pleasure[s]” (Hume, 2004 [1742]:25) afforded by horror, tragedy and other narrative media defined by their aversive content.

Horror is often figured not only as paradoxical but as abhorrent: while tragedy’s perplexing pleasures have historically been seen as cause for introspection and philosophical inquiry, horror is as likely to be viewed as morally problematic, warranting urgent corrective action in the form of critiques, boycotts and even censorship.

For this reason, popular writings on the paradox of horror often adopt an implicitly defensive or supplicating posture, with many justifying the genre’s existence by means of appealing to its ostensible therapeutic properties: horror does not inflame our aggressive impulses but purges us of them: and it is attractive because it provides a safe outlet for our darkest, most misanthropic desires, ultimately reaffirming the status quo.

More scholarly considerations of the genre have also tended to present its pleasures as peculiarly psychological, with theorists such as Robin Wood, Judith Halberstam, Linda Williams, Barbara Creed, James Twitchell and Carol Clover interpreting horror narratives in terms of repressed wishes and culturally-reviled Others: if I find myself transfixed by ‘Psycho’ or repulsed by ‘Dracula’ it is in part because I am enacting the “work of abjection” (Creed, 1993:10), ritually disavowing the “castrating mother” figure (Creed, 1993:1) or racialised others who threaten to pollute the boundaries of the clean and proper self.

While not all of these accounts are intended as totalising or general “solutions” to horror’s appeal, and undoubtedly offer valuable insights into particular themes and narratives within the genre, such analyses serve once again to position horror as having a specialised function, a genre notable for being tasked with the “dirty job” (King, 1993 [1981]:205) of engaging and appeasing our fearful fantasies.

Any discussion of the paradox of horror unavoidably occurs against the background of its cultural disreputability, the perennial popularity of psychological “answers” to its enduring appeal. It is for this reason that this thesis begins with an exploration of horror’s seamy reputation.

Throughout the following articles I will examine, and contest, the charges most commonly levelled against horrific media, explaining why the genre owes its perpetually problematic status not to its effects but to the apparently paradoxical nature of its pleasures.

I have chosen to focus on horror’s cultural reception in such depth not chiefly in order to mount an extended apologia for the genre or to attempt to rehabilitate its (decidedly shabby) reputation, but because of the ways in which its continued ignominy usefully illuminates the operation of certain assumptions about narrative pleasure.

Horror is so often viewed as aberrant, and its pleasures as necessarily extra-aesthetic in nature, because of the way in which deep-seated misapprehensions about our engagement with fictions shape cultural discourse about aversive genres.

Marshalling evidence from across several disciplines, I will argue that, far from representing anomalies, curious exceptions to the customary “rules” of narrative pleasure, genres such as horror and tragedy, in fact, serve as more extreme instantiations of the same agonistic principle: fictions are overwhelmingly, and cross-culturally, organised around some central problem, conflict or goal-oriented activity.

These genres do not call for extraordinary explanation, or necessitate appeals to mysterious (and often subjectively-inaccessible) internal drives or processes. Rather, when we find horrific and tragic fictions attractive, it is mainly for the same reasons that we find any fiction attractive — because they succeed in eliciting our curiosity and engaging our emotions.

The view that agonistic curiosity provides the main impetus for our consumption of horrific and/or tragic narratives — and the suggestion that suspense or fascination is often integral to our interactions with fictions in general — has been expressed elsewhere, albeit in comparatively undeveloped, flawed or variously-interpretable forms.

In ‘Of Tragedy’, Hume conducts a tantalisingly brief and ambiguous exploration of the paradox of tragedy, which is both rich with insights into the genre’s seemingly-paradoxical pleasures yet, at times, frustratingly opaque (indeed, the variety of interpretations provoked by this essay serves as testament both to its perception and its polysemousness).

I have chosen to focus, and build, on his observations about the necessity of narrative conflict and his striking appraisal of the relationship between our enjoyment of a fiction and our affective engagement with it.

In Burke’s ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’, he suggests that our desire to witness scenes of misery and destruction — which he refuses to limit to fictions, arguing that audiences would unanimously abandon the performance of “a most sublime and affecting tragedy” (Enquiry:47) in order to flock to a public execution — in fact, represents the promptings of a divinely-instilled and adaptive drive to attend to other people’s suffering.

Like Hume, Burke also identifies tragedy’s pleasures with its pains, arguing that it is precisely because the tragic and the sublime arouse violent passions and sensations that we find them attractive.

Burke hypothesises that we seek out the negative pain or “delight” (Enquiry:136) afforded by sublime and tragic stimuli because it acts on the mind like a species of exercise: just as uninterrupted physical relaxation or indolence weakens the body, “tak[ing] away the vigorous tone of fibre which is requisite for carrying on the natural and necessary secretions” (Enquiry:135), so unimpeded mental relaxation is detrimental to one’s health, and we are in fact benefited by the rousing effects of a dose of diluted “terror” (Enquiry:134).

Noël Carroll’s ‘The Philosophy of Horror’ represents the most detailed exposition of the fascination hypothesis, with Carroll offering nuanced and persuasive analyses of recurrent horror plot-structures and themes in support of his account.

In contrast to Carroll, however, in whose coexistentialist account fear and disgust are incidental to our attraction to horror fictions — the compound emotion of art-horror representing “the price we are willing to pay [in order to satisfy our curiosity about] that which is impossible and unknown” (Philosophy: 186) — I will emphasise the central role negative emotions play in narrative pleasure.

As Hume notes, “we are pleased in proportion as we are afflicted” (Hume, 2004 [1742]:25): our sorrow in response to a tragedy’s content and our pleasure in its eloquence are crucially intertwined. I attempt to clarify the nature of this relationship between painful emotions and narrative absorption.

Although, as I have noted, several other theorists have espoused variants of the agonistic curiosity thesis, there are several major points of departure between my own account and previous formulations.

The majority of writers and audience members are intuitively aware of the conflict-driven nature of most narratives; it is well known that fictions stall in the absence of convincing and emotionally-arresting jeopardy, whether it is physical or emotional, grimly realistic or utterly fantastical.

However, despite the fact that “everybody knows” that stories require some kind of conflict, there have been surprisingly few in-depth analyses of why this might be the case. Those theorists, like Hume, Burke and Carroll, who note the significance of this association identify curiosity and affective entanglement as the main snares by which fictions secure our attention.

While building on this common observation, I undertake what I hope is a far more pervasive analysis, assembling a theoretical framework which renders the relationship between apparently aversive content and narrative pleasure explicable. Because my articles straddles disciplinary boundaries, adducing and interpreting the discoveries of theorists from a number of fields, I have been able to develop a comprehensive and empirically-grounded solution to the alleged paradox posed by horror and related genres that incorporates a detailed assessment of our interactions with fictions in general.

My model also differs from many existing solutions to the paradox in two other respects. First, like Burke, I suggest that our responses to horrific or tragic fictions are not completely divergent from our responses to factual narratives.

I will argue that fictions are in fact shaped by the same attentional biases that prompt us to attend to certain kinds of information or perceptual stimuli in real life, and that many of us are equally fascinated by factual tragedies and horrors.

Secondly, I will stress the ambivalent and at times genuinely painful nature of our engagement with aversive narratives.

Historically, theorising about the pleasures of tragedy (which considerably predates horror as a recognised genre) has sought to dissolve the genre’s paradoxicality by stressing its fictive nature and/or attributing its allure to its more comprehensibly pleasurable or rewarding features.

Indeed, Michelle Gellrich charges tragic theory with “digesting” tragic practice, arguing that much theory essentially amounts to an ethically and rationally ameliorative project, concertedly minimising tragedy’s subversive or disquieting aspects.

Even those theories, like Hegel’s, that focus upon the agonistic elements of tragedy arguably neutralise its representation of conflict by presenting it in rationalising and affirmative terms: while Antigone’s suicide and Creon’s loss of his family are terrible, their suffering is ultimately necessary or justified, embodying a higher telos.

Gellrich asserts that the need to find intelligibility in tragedy’s depictions of suffering and disorder results in an over-emphasis on the aspects of tragedy, and its pleasures, that conform to the requirements of such theories, and a concomitant lack of critical attention to the parts of tragedy that are interrogative and unsettling (Gellrich,1988).

My model also differs from many existing solutions to the paradox in two other respects. First, like Burke, I suggest that our responses to horrific or tragic fictions are not completely divergent from our responses to factual narratives.

I will argue that fictions are in fact shaped by the same attentional biases that prompt us to attend to certain kinds of information or perceptual stimuli in real life, and that many of us are equally fascinated by factual tragedies and horrors.

Secondly, I will stress the ambivalent and at times genuinely painful nature of our engagement with aversive narratives. Historically, theorising about the pleasures of tragedy (which considerably predates horror as a recognised genre) has sought to dissolve the genre’s paradoxicality by stressing its fictive nature and/or attributing its allure to its more comprehensibly pleasurable or rewarding features.

Indeed, Michelle Gellrich charges tragic theory with ‘digesting’ tragic practice, arguing that much theory essentially amounts to an ethically and rationally ameliorative project, concertedly minimising tragedy’s subversive or disquieting aspects.

Even those theories, like Hegel’s, that focus upon the agonistic elements of tragedy arguably neutralise its representation of conflict by presenting it in rationalising and affirmative terms: while Antigone’s suicide and Creon’s loss of his family are terrible, their suffering is ultimately necessary or justified, embodying a higher telos.

Gellrich asserts that the need to find intelligibility in tragedy’s depictions of suffering and disorder results in an over-emphasis on the aspects of tragedy, and its pleasures, that conform to the requirements of such theories, and a concomitant lack of critical attention to the parts of tragedy that are interrogative and unsettling (Gellrich,1988).

Certainly, many prominent theories of tragedy emphasise its affirmative aspects, as well as characterising our pleasure in positive terms (i.e. we do not simply enjoy being sad, but experience more comprehensibly enjoyable emotions or reflections in response to various features of tragedies e.g. imitation, the delineation of vice and virtue, feeling the “sweetly melting softness” (Wasserman, 1947:291) of compassion etc).

For example, theorists such as Schiller and D.D. Raphael argue that tragedy’s end, and the source of its pleasures, is its evocation of the sublimity of human effort, our heroic capacity to demonstrate moral resistance in the face of insuperable external forces.

We enjoy and esteem tragedy because, in Raphael’s words, the genre “exalts man in our eyes” (Raphael, 1960:31). Suffering of the wrong sort cannot, therefore, attain the status of the “tragic” — while, in colloquial terms, the dreary, unrelieved misery of those too downtrodden to even apprehend their plight might seem tragic, “[the pitiable] by itself is not tragic because it is not uplifting” (Raphael, 1960:32): tragedy (in the normative sense of the word), thus becomes anti-tragic (in the everyday sense of the word), a potent antidote to common or garden sadness.

Contemporary theorist Susan Feagin presents a similarly rosy view of tragedy’s pleasures, arguing that tragedy affords us “profound feelings of satisfaction” because it speaks to “important human interests” (Feagin, 2004 [1983]:186) rather than “superficial ones” (Feagin, 2004 [1983]:186): our positive valuation of a genre that is dedicated to depicting human suffering, to inspiring human sadness, is not due to some perverse desire to wallow in negative emotions but our normal, or even laudable, appreciation of the morally-edifying meta-responses it provokes.

Finally, while theories such as the Lucretian return upon the self do not present the pleasures of tragedy as particularly ethical or improving, instead of appealing to schadenfreude and self-interest, they still act as a neatening or rationalisation of what appears to be a decidedly paradoxical enjoyment of negative emotions.

I would argue that Burke and Kant’s theories of the sublime perfectly instantiate two poles of theorising about the problematic pleasures of genres such as horror and tragedy. While Burke’s theory ascribes our enjoyment to our direct responses, founded in instinct and entailing an ecstatic suspension of reason and self-awareness, Kant locates the pleasures of the sublime wholly in the favourable, self-directed meta-responses it elicits. Such theories simultaneously render our enjoyment more circuitous and more straightforward, purging it of any disquieting or paradoxical implications.

In contrast to this tendency, my theory is genealogically related to the rarer accounts of tragedy and horror that link our attraction to these genres to the intense and often alarming responses they elicit, and those that recognise the commonalities between our fictive and factive emotions.

I assess the strengths and shortcomings of the models of theorists such as Hume, Burke, Schier and Gaut, building on their insights as I construct my own solution to the paradox.

I will argue that our engagement with fictions, and with narratives in general, can often best be characterised less in terms of simple or easily-recognisable “pleasure” so much as a wholehearted absorption or fascination.

By organising my account of fiction’s appeal so that attentional and affective engagement, rather than any narrowly-construed pleasure, is foregrounded, I will attempt to dissolve the paradox entailed by painful genres, as well as elucidating our responses to fictional and factual narratives as a whole.

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