Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror is a seminal text in the field of horror studies. He focuses a great deal on audience reception and uses an earlier version of affect theory 1 to understand why people get pleasure out of feeling fear. He also seeks to understand and label the exact sort of fear that is felt from viewing or reading fictional events. I didn’t read the entire text, but instead strategically selected key chapters to study.
Thesis: This book aims to define and describe the emotion which the horror genre works to create. He labels this emotion “art-horror.” The book also seeks to work through two major paradoxes of the horror genre: (1) the fact that people can be frightened over things they know do not exist in reality; and (2) that people love to watch and read horror fiction, a genre defined by the unpleasant feelings of horror and disgust.
Notes & Quotes:
I loved his summary of the foundations of “cycles” of the horror genre. In particular, I enjoyed his focus on the audience. Too often, critics will examine only the literature itself without asking why a certain genre is so popular and why, more specifically, horror and gothic plots are so continuously repeated and rewritten. In describing the audience of the current cycle (which he says begin in the 1970’s), he notes that:
…the markets for horror literature and film did not spring from nowhere. The audience, one would imagine, comprised primarily baby-boomers. These audiences, like a large number of the artists who came to specialize in horror, were the first post-war generation raised by TV. And one would hypothesize that their affection for horror, to a large extent, was nurtured and deepened by the endless reruns of the earlier horror and sci-fi cycles… (3)
The Definition of Horror
Thesis: Art-horror is an emotion which is characterized by a physical response to the thought of a monster. A monster can be defined as any nonexistent (according to reigning scientific belief) being which is both threatening and impure (impurity can be created via category jamming, contagion, and/or disgust). The audience realizes that the monster is both threatening and impure, and learns how to react to the monster, via the reactions of the fictional human characters.
Notes & Quotes:
His theory of art-horror is cognitive/evaluative. He believes that emotions are first caused by beliefs, thoughts, or ideas, and only after this mental work can a physical response occur (26). I disagree with him here, I think the reality might be a bit more muddy. For example, there are horror films that cause viewers to feel fear without knowing exactly why or what the object of fear is. Instead, these films rely on a weird sense of the uncanny and often use physical sensation to transmit the horror. For example, the sounds of eerie music can create a sense of fear without having any pure cognitive work involved. However, since this example doesn’t employ a monster of Carroll’s definition, perhaps this also doesn’t work with his definition of art-horror. Anyway, here is his definition of emotion:
…an occupant emotional state is one in which some physically abnormal state of felt agitation has been caused by the subject’s cognitive construal and evaluation of his/her situation. This is the core of an emotional state, though some emotions may involve wants and desires as well as construals and appraisals. (27)
I really loved his focus on the physical reaction that is a major part of the art-horror emotional state. I immediately thought of the multitude of times I have suddenly noticed that I spent the entire movie with my shoulders up to my ears and my fists clenched without knowing, or when I have jumped out of my seat, covered my eyes, winced, etc. I don’t know of any other genres that create such a physical role for the audience. With every new horror film that claims to be the scariest film of all time, there are also always stories of people throwing up, fainting, and even dying in the theatre.
He rightly notes, however, that, sometimes the monster within the horror film is not only physically threatening, but cognitively threatening as well. Because a possessed doll, for example, may not pose too much of a physical threat in itself, it is cognitively threatening because,
They are un-natural relative to a culture’s conceptual scheme of nature. They do not fit the scheme, they violate it. (34)
Finally, in this chapter, Carroll provides some description of the “geography of horror” which can be very helpful to ecohorror readings. He notes that wild places are the ideal horror sites for monsters to exist. This also reminded me of Carol Clover’s “Terrible Place,” which she describes as the habitat of slasher killers. Carroll states,
…the geography of horror stories generally situates the origin of monsters in such places as lost continents and outer space. Or the creature comes from under the sea or under the earth. That is, monsters are native to places outside of and/or unknown to the human world. Or, the creatures come from marginal, hidden, or abandoned sites: graveyards, abandoned towers and castles, sewers, or old houses- that is, they belong to environs outside of and unknown to ordinary social intercourse. Given the theory of horror expounded above, it is tempting to interpret the geography of horror as a figurative spatialization or liberalization of the notion that what horrifies is that which lies outside cultural categories and is, perforce, unknown. (34-5)
His first two examples (“lost continents and outer space”) particularly also reminded me of Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind which also includes outer space in his definition of “wild.”
Fantastic Biologies and the Structures of Horrific Imagery
Thesis: This chapter focused on how terrifying monsters are constructed in horror fiction. Carroll highlights five “major tropes” for presenting and creating art-horror monsters: fusion 2, fission 3, magnification 4, massification 5, and horrific metonymy 6.
Notes & Quotes:
I appreciated Carroll’s connection between the creation of monsters and the specific cultural context in which the monster is made:
But it is also true that in much horror, especially that which is considered to be classic, the opposition of such cultural categories in the biology of the horrific creatures portend further oppositions, oppositions that might be thought of in terms of thematic conflicts or antinomies which, in turn, are generally deep-seated in the culture in which the fiction has been produced. (48)
The Nature of Horror: Summary and Conclusion
Thesis: Horror emerged in the 18th century because of the Enlightenment.
Notes and Quotes:
Although Carroll focuses on the 18th century during his summary of the two previous chapters, this helps us to consider why horror feels particularly popular during other eras. For example, many horror and film critics claim that we are currently living in a golden age of horror because of the Trump administration and Brexit. In these articles, it is largely argued that horror either defines our current cultural emotion and/or that it can work as a sort of safety valve, allowing us to confront real-world horrors through a fictional, far more safer, facade. Kevin Wetmore’s Post-9/11 Horror does a great job making a similar argument, focusing on the traumatic horrors of 9/11 and the horror films that followed.
For Carroll, horror was born during the Enlightenment because horror needs reason and rationality to be the norm:
…there may be a connection between the horror novel and the Enlightenment that can be based on conceptual consideration rather than empirical ones. Throughout my discussion so far, I have stressed that the emotion of art-horror involves a notion of nature that the monster-upon whom the emotion is focussed-violates…. But to have a violation of nature, one needs a conception of nature… The scientific world view of the Enlightenment… supplies a norm of nature that affords the conceptual space necessary for the supernatural, even if it also regards that space as one of superstition. (57)
Fearing Fictions: On the Paradox Thereof and its Solution
Thesis: In this chapter, Carroll tackles the paradox of horror: how can audiences feel art-horror when they know that their fear is based on fictional objects? Carroll moves through a number of different theories that have been created by other scholars seeking to understand why humans are able to feel (and fear) as a result of fiction. In the end, he decides that the “thought theory” is the most reasonable. The thought theory basically contends that we don’t need to believe in the object of fear to feel real fear at the mere thought of the object (80).
Notes & Quotes:
Carroll separates beliefs and thoughts, stating that you can still vividly imagine or think about something without believing in it. He also notes that you can experience emotions from your thoughts. For example, he describes the common experience of standing on a cliff and imagining jumping off of the cliff. Although the person thinking about jumping is not really believing that he or she will jump, they still experience fear at the thought of falling.
…we are horrified by the idea of them…we can be horrified by thoughts engendered in us by the horrifying descriptions of authors. (82)
The thought theory relies on making a distinction between thoughts and beliefs, on the one hand, and a connection between thoughts and emotions, on the other. (83)
Carroll also includes Peter Lamarque’s theory that “fictional names are used indirectly or have indirect reference to the sense of the sign” (85). Because horror fiction is incredibly concerned with the emotions they create within its audience, every sentence must be imbued with a “sense” (ibid.). By using Lamarque’s theory of signs having a sense, Carroll displays how emotion can be transmitted in horror through mere words or names. He uses “Dracula” as an example:
…what is the sense of the name “Dracula?” It is the colligation of properties and attributes that Stoker imputes to the Count in the text of his novel. This assignment of attributes occurs through the descriptions of Dracula in the text, which descriptions are to be understood in their customary sense. “Dracula” is a label to which those description attach, so to speak. (85)
The Paradox of Horror
Thesis: Carroll argues that the attraction to the horror mode is based on fascination and curiosity. “Horror attracts because anomalies command attention and elicit curiosity” (195).
Horror and Ideology
Thesis: Horror is neither inherently progressive or regressive. It has an amazing power to contain ideology can can be used as a vehicle for a multitude of different political perspectives.
Notes and Quotes:
I think his view that horror is neither inherently progressive or regressive is a really important point to remember. Too often, horror fans and scholars (myself included) believe too much in the power of horror as a politically transgressive genre. The genre and mode of horror should not be viewed as the reason for transgression, as many conservative horror films have proven (Friday the 13th comes to mind), but instead, the auteurs attached to the film should be credited.
He describes progressive examples of horror, including Karl Marx’s use of horror iconography in his description of capitalists as vampires and werewolves; and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead cycle’s use of locations and zombies as criticism of racism and consumerism.
However, horror can be deeply conservative. Stephen King famously (but incorrectly, as Carroll notes) described the horror genre as “Republican as a banker in a three-piece suit.” This is a reading of horror films as a method of purging the abnormal from the normal. This is a very ritualistic version of horror in which the film allows space for abnormality to occur, however, but the end of the film there is an ultimate reinstatement of the normal (200). Although this does happen a lot in horror, it’s not the ultimate definition of the mode or the genre. This is especially the case in our current horror cycle 7, where there is a plethora of nihilistic horror films that end in the monster surviving and all of the human characters dying (The Blair Witch, Saw, Cabin Fever, The Thing, The Wicker Man, etc.)
This “purging” definition of horror reminded me a lot of the plots of American Psycho and The Purge series. Seen in this way, these films parody the conservative horror film, removing the less worthy “abnormal” members of society (women, the poor, racial minorities, etc.) so that “normality” (white, male, affluent) may continue to reign.
Thesis: Here, Caroll wonders why horror is so popular today, but also notes that it is impossible to conclusively explain this fact. He does, however, state that our present horror mode is very similar to postmodernism.
Notes and Quotes
The present horror cycle and postmodernism correlate insofar as both articulate an anxiety about cultural categories; both look to the past, in many cases with pronounced nostalgia, both portray the person in less than sacrosanct terms. Moreover, this cluster of themes becomes intelligible when one realizes that both the horror genre and the flap about postmodernism have emerged on the heels of the evident collapse of Pax Americana. That is, the horror genre with its anxiety over the instability of cultural norms and postmodernist relativists of every shade, along with their mutual penchants for nostalgia, arise at just that point in history when the international order set in place at the end of the second world war seems to have fallen into unnerving disarray. (212)
Contemporary horror fiction, then, articulates the anxieties attending the transition from the American Century to the “we know not what” for mass audiences, in a manner analogous to the way postmodernism articulates intimations of instability for intellectuals… even if postmodernism is not a kind of nihilistic response to the demise of Pax Americana, it may still be the case that contemporary horror fiction embodies such cultural anxieties. Its expatiation on the instability of norms- both classificatory and moral- its nostalgic allusions, the sense of helplessness and paralysis it engenders in its characters, the theme of the person-as-meat, the paranoia of its narrative structures, all seem to address an uncertainty about living in the contemporary world which is made more urgent since within memory… there was a time…when things seemed stable and a sense of certainty prevailed. (213-214)
I really like Carroll’s attempt to explain the overwhelming presence of nostalgia in horror fiction. It makes me wonder, however, why the 1980’s seem to reemerge so much within horror films today. Perhaps this is just horror’s self-referential nature, or the fact that the children of the 80’s and 90’s are today’s consumers. I say this simply due to my interest in neoliberalism’s relationship to the horror genre. If our current version of late capitalism exists because of its foundations in the 1980’s, why do we continuously look back to this decade as a time period of stability and comfort? Again, this could be simply because this is the decade that many current adult consumers remember fondly as the era of their childhood. This idea of nostalgia is especially interesting when examining IT (1990) and the 2017 remake. In the original IT, adults in the 1980’s are coping with traumatic events from their shared childhood in the early 1960’s. In the remake, audiences were presented with children in the 1980’s (the second half of the film has not yet been released, but it can be assumed that it will be set in the present day). Current audiences of the remake (including myself) have fond/traumatic memories themselves of watching the original IT on television.
Secondly, I think his view of the horror film as presenting humanity as mere “meat” and the paralysis depicted in horror films are great jumping-off points for readings of neoliberal horror. Our cultural vision of human life has changed under neoliberalism (partly also due to new technologies), including the definition of “worthy” human life. Additionally, the system of late capitalism can be a paralyzing force that can feel unstoppable.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge, 1990.
- He never uses this term, nor does he cite any affect theorists, but his focus on the senses and physiological state of the audience is reminiscent of affect theory ↩
- Fusion is created in horror via two categories in one body. For example, “creatures that transgress categorical distinctions such as inside/outside, living/dead, insect/human, flesh/machine, and so on” (43). i.e.: mummies, zombies, cyborgs, possessed children, Freddy Krueger, etc. ↩
- With fission monsters, “contradictory elements are, so to speak, distributed over differentthough metaphysically related, identities” (46). These elements can be spread in the same body but across time (i.e.: the werewolf, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, etc.) or across space (i.e.: Dorian Gray, William Wilson, etc.). ↩
- Monsters can become monsters just by making them huge. Think about the shark from Jaws or any sort of large insect ↩
- Whenever you see a horrifying swarm of creatures in a horror film, this is a massified monster. Gremlins are part of this category. ↩
- When monsters are not blatantly monsters, or their monstrousness is not something that can be seen, horrific metonymy is used. In this category, “the horrific being is surrounded by objects that we antecedently take to be objects of disgust and/or phobia” (51). For example, Dracula is surrounded by rats and bats (impure creatures) and Patrick Bateman is repeatedly shown in the film American Psycho with blood on or around his body ↩
- The present horror cycle is defined by Carroll as beginning in the 70’s, however, most cite Psycho (1960) as the beginning of our modern horror cycle. Carroll, by contrast, doesn’t even consider Psycho to be a horror film due to its lack of a monster (by his definition). I heartily disagree. ↩