Towards a Personal Theory (and Defense) of Horror (Part One)

an essay by Jessica Critten

So I had this professor who would always scoff when I discussed horror in the same breath as great literature and art. He thought, as so many people often do, that horror is low art for braindead, sick people and that any connections I found between, say, books about Nazism and horror theory, were a stretch. Frankly, I’m tired of having to defend my area of academic study, but I wanted this guy–who I liked, otherwise–to understand not only what horror really means, but what it means to me. We could write our papers about anything we wanted, (and he was also fine with our going on tangents which is why this paper is kinda all over the place) so I wrote this. It is sort of my horror manifesto–My definition of horror, my ideas about why people enjoy it, and my take on how and why it is regarded in the larger culture. I’m drawing a lot from cultural and critical theory, because it’s my fav, and fundamental to a deeper understanding of the genre as a tool to understand society, and ourselves.

Sleep of Reason by Francisco de Goya

“We make up horrors to help us deal with real ones”-Stephen King

‘Horror’ is a notoriously difficult genre to define, because, in general, what is considered horrific is subjective. The definition of horror is also fundamentally tied to the question at the heart of horror theory and criticism: Why do people enjoy being scared, disgusted, horrified? Various academics have attempted to answer that question, and to various degrees of success. I will trace many of these efforts to answer the question of horrific appeal as a means to approach my own subjective theory about the meaning of horror and its overwhelming popularity.  This theory, although applicable to all horror texts—however they may be defined by the consumer—will use the horror film specifically as its subject, owing to the aforementioned popularity of the genre in this medium and the controversial nature of moving, visual representations of horrific subject matter.

This study is admittedly limited; for one, it does not utilize the proposed framework or theories to even begin an effort to determine quality. As with any genre some films are more thoughtful and powerful than others, but measurements of value are in themselves subjective and dependant on any number of personal markers. Also, it does not fully interrogate the ontological implications of the monster as ‘other’; that is, how does the monster, who embodies everything that we are not, relate to our understanding of ourselves? I’ve also skipped over examining in detail many of the proposed theories in practice in favor of presenting a more general overview of the genre. This general overview has also required that I leave out other compelling theories of horrific appeal like Torben Grodal’s which states that instead of breaking down order, horror films have the effect for audiences of actually giving them a sense of order and control in their own lives in comparison to the lives (and deaths) of the characters in the film.

I am going to approach this project by using critical horror theory to answer the questions what is horror, what does horror do, and why do people enjoy it? Much of the critical literature on horror skips over the fundamental question of what horror actually is, and goes straight into what horror does.[1] It may seem as though I’m stuck in semantics here—isn’t horror, after all, the things it does?—but establishing a working definition for ‘horror’ is necessary to establish a relatively standard criteria by which one can identify horror texts. Once something is generally determined to be a horror text, one can analyze it as such and begin to interpret what it does; that is, what are the psychological, cultural, social, political, physical processes with which it is engaged, and to what effect? From there, one can continue on to determine the appeal of the horror text (in this case, the horror film.)

In one of the seminal books on horror, The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, author Noel Carroll defines horror as that which elicits the emotional state of “art-horror.” Art-horror is to be understood as something decidedly different from the ‘natural’ horror that one may feel in real life, at ecological disasters or Nazism in World War II. As the name suggests, art-horror is the emotion elicited from a piece of art, differentiated from the horrors of real life because of the distance that art-horror has from the immediacy of real life, ‘natural’ horrific events. That is, if one was being beaten in real life, he or she would not have the time to step back and reflect on the horror of that experience. Art-horror not only allows for, but insists upon that reflection: “…the genre of horror takes its title from the emotion it characteristically or ideally promotes; this emotion constitutes the identifying mark of horror” (14). Carroll also discusses the urge to correlate horror with the appearance of a monster figure. He problematizes this assertion by arguing that although all horror films have monsters, not all monsters signify horror; fairy tales and science fiction texts contain monsters as well, but Carroll does not consider those texts as horror because they are not necessarily intended to evoke art-horror.

The most compelling aspect of Carroll’s definition, and the part from which I will begin to build my own understanding of the genre, is the basis of it: horror is such because it elicits a horrific response from the audience. Admittedly, in this state, this definition is not an especially sophisticated one; after all, the same basic thing could be said about any genre. But that is ultimately my point: any text can be a horror text if one experiences the state of art-horror while consuming it. Carroll gets extremely specific about what he does and does not consider a horror film; for one, the horror movie has to contain a monster borne of some kind of fantastical element, one that could not necessarily exist in real life. This excludes films otherwise thought of as horror, including ones that surround a strange and troubling event (as opposed to a disrupting monster) or films like Cujo or Silence of the Lambs which feature people and animals doing seemingly horrible things (and, arguably, eliciting horrific responses) but are not unexplainable creatures. This construction of the genre speaks to the theory of horrific appeal that he develops later in the book,[2] but is, in my opinion, much too restrictive. Carroll himself notes that the extent to which he develops his definition could be too limiting for some readers, “…but a theory such as the one proposed…may still enhance our grasp not only of horror itself, but also of its contesting neighbors” (Carroll 38).  His point is well taken, and at the heart of the importance of defining the genre in the first place.

[1] Many of the critical texts, save Carroll’s (see below), may offer passing, one-sentence definitions of horror, which can be accounted for by the critic’s general attitude towards the genre: the casual, or unappreciative reviewer could find the definition as self-evident—I know it when I see it; the more focused, sympathetic critic would acknowledge the complexity and difficulty of trying to define with certainly any genre, much less one so engaged with intense ontological and social issues.

[2] Carroll argues, and persuasively, that the horrific subject matter in horror films is incidental to the viewer’s need to see his or her curiosity about the monster figure satisfied. In other words, the draw of the horror film is similar to the draw of the mystery novel: discovery. The monster falls outside of our ideas about how the world works, so we want to see the monster conquered, and the status quo returned. I actually think fairly highly of parts of this theory, but I can’t really entertain it as a whole because it basically discounts any ontological, social, cultural, or political perspectives.

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