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Review of Horror: Special Issue of Film and Philosophy
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Daniel Shaw, ed., Horror: Special Issue of Film and Philosophy (2001)

Reviewed by Matt Hills

This ‘special edition’ offers up a fascinating collection of essays. The theoretical approaches on show here are legion. They involve revisiting film theory (Levine on Mulvey); yoking philosophical masters and their texts to popular culture (Nietzsche and Heidegger turn up a good few times; see Crogan, Shaw, Stoehr, and Gilmore); challenging or defending psychoanalytic approaches to horror (in Freeland’ s and Schneider’s contributions, respectively), and contesting Noel Carroll’s (1990) canonical Philosophy of Horror (see Laine and Meyers and Waller), as well as exploring horror film musicology (Wierzbicki).

With such a varied set of theoretical intertexts being drawn on to activate new meanings around horror film, it is perhaps unsurprising that another essay, Anat Pick’s discussion of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, explicitly addresses the issue of intertextuality. Pick explores Jackson’s use of “fantastic intertexts”, arguing that fantastic intertextuality (predominantly via the figure of Orson Welles) places Heavenly Creatures within a tradition of cinematic fantasy. This bid for historical alignment, and the cultural value of duration rather than devalued ephemerality, is accompanied by intertextualities which position Jackson’s work outside the (again, devalued) gore subgenre (29).

The intertexts mobilised and suppressed in Heavenly Creatures work consistently to bid for the film’s status as an aesthetic (and potentially auteurist) artefact rather than a “merely” generic object. Pick relates the “quality of horror” to a definitive movement away from gore (see 32-3n12). Admittedly this is qualified by the observation that Jackson’s pre-HC filmography “whilst in some ways conventionally “gory”, already displays a certain outlandishness which aspires beyond even that of the gore movie.” (33). However, this leaves intact the opposition between ‘gore-as-convention’ and ‘outlandishness’, implying, perhaps simplistically, that self-conscious aestheticisation works against the (sub)generic norms of representational gore. This neglects the ways in which gore has often been excessively aestheticised in the subgenre’s history (in the Italian giallo films of Argento, for example), constituting a further set of traditions rather than a challenge to ‘generic conventionality’. Whilst Pick seems happy to claim historical intertexts for HC, no such luxury is extended to the gore subgenre.

Other theoretical intertexts are invoked across these essays, and arguably they serve a similar function to the “fantastic intertexts” of HC, positioning horror films as valuable cultural objects and in relation to a tradition of philosophical reflection. Taking the valorisation of historical duration to an extreme, Richard Gilmore hypothesises that a propensity for horror film viewing might be explained via evolutionary psychology. Gilmore discusses how the behaviours of horror film audiences may ‘originally’ have had adaptive advantage “millions of years ago” (131):

a young human child cannot avoid watching the slaughter of some members of their own human group (perhaps even their own family), at the hands of other humans, or some non-human beast. Hence, perhaps, our fascination in horror with the non-human. The most adaptive behaviour would be to hide passively and quietly, experiencing the extreme horror in the scene, while feeling a certain pleasurable frisson (130).
Gilmore’s argument proceeds by a) identifying what it means, essentially, to consume horror films, and then b) reading these ‘essential’ properties into a prehistoric scenario-cum-explanation. This procedure is open to at least two objections: Gilmore’s essentials of film-viewing may be non-essential, and his scenario aimed at explaining these ‘essentials’ might, in any case, fail to do so in significant ways. Taking the former argument, we could note that Gilmore implies that horror film viewing is passive (minimally, physically passive) and quiet. Has he never sat with a horror film audience that shouts at potential victims to (mock-)warn them? Or which cheers on the killer and, later, the film’s final girl? If we refuse to accept that the horror film is inherently consumed quietly, then Gilmore’s scenario makes little sense. As for the condition of (physical) passivity, this can be contested via horror’s audiences who walk out of the cinema halfway through a film (fans are unlikely to do this, but sections of the empirical audience may be sufficiently disgusted that they walk), or switch off a video. Are we to assume that these audience members lack a specific genetically conferred adaptive advantage?

Moving to the final objection that I levelled at Gilmore’s evolutionary psychology, why does his hypothetical scenario assume that the silent viewing of horror confers adaptive advantage? Might it not have conferred greater advantage, at the dawn of man, to be able to escape from the site of an attack, or to help raise the alarm? Wouldn’t feeling sufficiently disgusted that one was forced to fight, flee, or otherwise act, confer greater evolutionary benefit? (In which case, my own hypothetical non-viewers or ‘horror film refusers’ could be proposed as the true carriers of a genetically conferred evolutionary advantage – but what makes this hypothesis any more or less convincing than Gilmore’s?)

Gilmore’s arguments are not restricted to the essentialist domain of evolutionary psychology. Analysing the “message” of the beginning of The Night of the Living Dead, Gilmore ponders whether it is a matter of “regression, repression, discovery, transgression, expression of thanatos and libido, fantasy, sublime, ridiculous, uncanny or what?” (139) Philosophy and its practitioners seemingly don’t need to make a choice among these options: “or what?” remains a valid part of horror’s over-determined being. This is an unusual, concluding moment of unknowingness among so many instances of argument and counter-argument.

Gilmore’s closing statement echoes the introductory piece set out by Film and Philosophy editor, Daniel Shaw, insofar as Shaw also focuses on the many proliferating theories of horror. In ‘Power, Horror and Ambivalence’, Shaw summarises assumptions made by recreational terror theorists (Paul and Pinedo)… Freudians (Wood and Clover)… Ideologists (Ryan and Kellner)… Formalists (Carroll)… and Feminists (Freeland), before putting forward his own hypothesis that horror is fundamentally concerned with a power struggle between protagonists and a terrifying force. Shaw doesn’t suggest that the problem with philosophies of horror is that they might all be right, but implies instead that the real problem lies in finding the right philosophy of horror. And like the general theories of horror coming before it, Shaw’s version has the benefits of being economical, quickly grasped, and abstract enough to cover a wide range of cases. Like any good theory, it pushes us to see horror films in a different light, and doesn’t commit us to a raft of assumptions as to “human nature” (unlike Gilmore’s evolutionary hypothesis).

And yet Shaw’s account also remains open to the kinds of objections raised against his rivals. Carroll, for example, is forced to argue that certain texts – described as ‘horror’ by many audiences – are not horror as he discusses it, being either “art-dread” rather than art-horror, or psycho-thrillers. And Shaw is pushed into a similar position, albeit one that carves the horror genre into horror (proper) and “nihilistic horror”, which doesn’t fully satisfy Shaw’s criteria (11). This doesn’t withhold the label of “horror”, as Carroll does, but it introduces similar intra-generic distinctions (that are not shared by other horror audiences or in the ordinary languages of generic distinction) in order to rule out or recontain an entire class of horror texts that betray Shaw’s supposedly general theory.

To this problem could be added others, such as whether all horror films dealing with a narrative “battle for mastery” similarly foreground this struggle, or whether it is subordinated in some instances to the aesthetic representation of monstrosity/murder (perhaps we could mention certain giallo again here?), or even whether some (proto-eco-)horror films (Creature from the Black Lagoon, to take an oft-discussed example) indicate that any struggle for mastery is itself pathological and is not to be enjoyed, sympathised, or empathised with. Horror may contain just enough spectacle and moralism to question any general theory based on a narrative model of power that is fought for, won and lost. Akin to Wood’s template that horror concerns relationships between normality and ‘the monster’, Shaw’s thesis may thus not be able to deal with all of horror’s generic mutations.

However, agonistic struggles are usually never far away from the narratives that structure academic work, and a sharp editorial decision places side-by-side, as if uncannily doubled, two essays on the subject of the uncanny and the double (Freeland and Schneider). These contributions create debate within the journal issue, although Freeland and Schneider approach Freud so very differently that their interpretations are in danger of becoming incommensurable. Schneider counters many of Freeland’s objections (that psychoanalysis is unscientific and unverifiable, contra cognitive science) by putting forward his own hypothetical version of psychoanalytically-derived empirical testing (59). It is refreshing to see psychoanalysis used in a way that does not simply reduce it to a form of textual analysis, but rather holds onto the fact that psychoanalytic theorising did not begin its cultural life as a convenient (or grand-theoretical) textual hermeneutics, but rather as a set of clinical tools, open to the analysand’s subjectivity, and open to modification on the basis of observable reality.

Freeland, for her part, alleges that the Freudian notion of the uncanny involves a “search for “deep” (unconscious, repressed, primitive) emotional concerns” and therefore tends to “elide… the aesthetic” (39). Freeland’s ‘surface/depth’ opposition is curious, especially given that Freud clearly discusses in ‘The Uncanny’ how aesthetics can effect the production of the unheimlich:
In the Herodotus story our thoughts are concentrated much more on the superior cunning of the master-thief than on the feelings of the princess. The princess may very well have had an uncanny feeling… but we have no such sensations, for we put ourselves in the thief’s place, not in hers… (Freud 1990 [1919]: 375).
Freud’s commentary raises the issue of where our feelings lie as readers and audiences of the horrific/uncanny: do we feel for or with a character? These issues of affect are tackled in Film and Philosophy by Tarja Laine, in an intriguing essay which disputes Noel Carroll’s (1990) contention that horror audiences sympathise rather than identify with characters. Laine complicates this account by arguing that “the balance of fearful tension and relief that is of crucial importance to horror-pleasure cannot be produced without an identificatory relationship that manifests itself in either empathy or sympathy” (85). However, rather like Freud before her, Laine assumes an ideal reader – or rather an ideal emoter – and so empirical questions of audience affect (and whether horror fans’ affects differ from the those experienced by non-fan viewers) are masked. Laine’s subjectivity fleetingly enters the argument on occasion, but this fluctuation between an abstract “spectator” and the author’s lived subjectivity (84) serves only to emphasise the epistemological leap from personal “instance” to general theory.

Laine’s critique of Carroll is complemented by Chris Meyers and Sara Waller’s article entitled ‘Disenstoried Horror: Art Horror Without Narrative’, as well as contributions from Kevin Stoehr and Michael Levine. Where Meyers and Waller challenge Carroll’s emphasis on art-horror as a narrative form (117), Stoehr wonders whether the dread of ‘nihilistic horror’ can be object-less (91), and Levine suggests that many ‘paradoxes’ explored by analytic philosophy of film, such as Carroll’s paradox of horror, are actually false (67). Each article, either explicitly or implicitly, issues a challenge to Carroll’s Philosophy of Horror. Each suggests potential defects in Carroll’s work: Meyers and Waller, for example, argue that it is not ‘the monster’ that is aesthetically essential to horror, but rather a sense of “epistemic deficit” (125) such that audiences are unsettled and shocked by the unknown/unknowable. This epistemological rather than ontological account of horror promises a radical rethinking of horror and its forms. But it also threatens to remake the philosophy of horror into an unsettling and shocking object, since philosophy too seems to be always marked by Gilmore’s “…or what?”, and hence by a sense of its own inevitable epistemic deficits. These deficits return however long they may have been repressed, and are reconfirmed whenever it is felt they have been surmounted. Perhaps the most uncanny doubling of all lies, then, between horror and the philosophy of horror.

Freud, S. (1990) [1919] ‘The Uncanny’ in Art and Literature, Penguin, London


2002 © Matt Hills

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