Sunday, December 18, 2016

Film Essays: Why Horror?

This week this blog is going to read a couple (much more well known and influential) essays about the appeal of genre films. Then we'll engage the ideas, see which parts make sense and fit the evidence, and what they miss. We're starting off with Noel Carroll's chapter "Why Horror?"

To briefly summarize what we're responding to, the thesis is basically this:

Why are audiences drawn to movies about disgusting, frightening things? Horror movies usually involve a process of discovery, which is cathartic for obvious reasons. However finding something revelatory to discover is hard, so one easy method is to choose impossible things beyond our normal comprehension. Many of the things we find impossible are best described by Mary Douglas as "interstitial" figures, occupying a place between categories that makes us uncomfortable. This is particularly true for impure horror fascination.

Much of the logic follows reasonably enough, and Carroll isn't wrong, so much as significantly understating and underestimating the phenomenon.

He gets that horror is about the alien truth, which is a difficult concept. And true enough, he is correct that many horror stories are about the delectable process of discovery. A discovery narrative without a good revelation does indeed fail - think of how often fans are upset at “Lost” style shenanigans, or other genre work that hooks the viewer with compelling mysteries that it never satisfyingly pays off.

But not enough horror is about discovery for this to make sense. He points to police procedurals as another art form based around discovery, but a vastly higher proportion of police procedurals have this element than horror. He claims this is just his general or specific theory, and not really the universal theory, but the gap between the size of these sets is just too large.

He also over relies on Douglas. Objects between the categories are indeed discomfitting - this term is over used as the uncanny valley, but better examples pop up in concepts like the Lacanian objet a and how we discuss transness. Interstitial spaces can be a good source of horror, but it certainly aren’t the only one, or even a plurality of sources.

So, what fills in the gap for “Why Horror?” that Carroll misses?


A lot of readers dismiss this blog as a sort of of post-modern “there is no truth, everything is subjective” critical theory. And that’s an easy mistake to make, given that “objective truth” is usually an ideological fairy tale that seeks to “apolitically” establish some objective base, when that base is entirely politically and cultured determined. Think of the idea that your salary is an “objective measurement” of your value, and then all the subjective factors that went into it (how your boss gets along with you, how hip your career field is, how stable your employer is, how well you negotiate, etc etc.) The same goes for saying something like “Well Fox and MSNBC are biased, so CNN must be objective because it’s in the middle.” Even that middle comes with many ideological filters.

So there is no truth then, all is what the viewer wishes to see? No.

There is chaos. There is meaningless. There is the fact that you will die. There is the fathomless gulf between the stars. The more we break down our world and seriously try to analyze and predict it, the more we realize our intellectual tools are hopeless to the task.

Every philosopher breaking down the normative-positive distinction knows that the only “objective moral truth” is that there is no objective moral truth. This nihilism can be expanded to any field.

Sometimes this chaos is understood as the failure of categories. Those symbolic definitions separating A from not-A (male from female, Republican from Democrat, upper class from lower class) are so easily counter-exampled, after all. You don’t really have two convenient groupings, but rather a mess of a whole bunch of people all over the place. This provides those interstitial impurities Douglas talks about.

But it comes in other forms as well. A sheer monstrousity of scale can accomplish it, such as with mountains or the various works of art in the thread that initially started this conversation. Or sometimes it’s just pure nihilistic despair that the universe does not give a fuck about you, your conceptions, any anything fitting inside a frame of reference you might have.

(A traumatic moment is pretty much the “cheapest” way to achieve this. You think you are safe, or everything is calm, and the movie chooses that moment to surprise you, reminding you that nothing in the world is guaranteed, especially peace.)

This is why a recurring theme in horror is just how unfair it is. A wannabe-hero (not the Final Girl) will attempt some defeat of the enemy or desperate survival that should work, or should maybe work, but it will inevitably fail. But not because the wannabe wasn’t strong enough or the plan failed in an expected way. No, usually the Hand of God will come down and smack them to say they never had a chance. Think of the wheeling ship in Prometheus, or the electric wall in Cabin in the Woods.

(A cabin in the woods is, of course, a symbol for a tiny island of order in a sea of chaos.)

The real objective truth is that you never had a chance.

Horror captures this really, really well. In particular, HP Lovecraft’s horror was built on this grand edifice of cosmic entities so powerful and alien that not only can we not understand them, but that any attempt to understand them will drive us mad. Horror so frequently contains this trope of the insane person who knows more and is more in touch with the universe than the naive, still rational protagonists.

In the face of that insane nihilism, we must make the unincentivized ethical choice of… what to do next. Do we pick up an axe and fight back, knowing we will die anyway? Do we give up? Whatever we do, we do in spite of an uncaring universe. This is why the Final Girl is so often a revolutionary figure - in persisting without hope, she creates meaning for herself. And it is a meaning that can never be disillusioned by the rest of the world, because it begins with knowing the world will provide no reassurance or comfort anyway.

This insane uberreality and the ethical spontaneity of the hero, are what really drive the process of fascination and revelation that Carroll is looking for in his essay. And unlike discovery, can be encapsulated in non-narrative art horror.

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