David Kordahl

Varieties of Horrific Experience

In Lit, Politics on 2010/12/05 at 6:01 am

Horror writer Stephen King—probably America’s best-loved writer—wrote a study of his chosen genre early in his career, a (relatively) obscure, baggy volume entitled Danse Macabre. In its “Forenote,” King claims that the book is intended as an answer to those repetitious reporters who following each of his books’ releases would ask him, Why? Why write such grisly things? With DM available, he could simply tell them, “Go read my book.”

For most of the book, King gives a discursive overview of his turf, but he eventually provides a theoretical response to the reporters’ FAQ. The answer—or, rather, the moral justification (the “reason,” for genre connoisseurs, being simply that it’s fun to be safely frightened)—is that horror, far from being a potential corrupter of the youth, “is as conservative as a Republican in a three-piece suit.” King’s vision of Horror is that it is the group of artistic works that present the dark secrets of humanity in such a way that the very darkness of these things is emphasized, emphatically. When the typical tropes of serial killers, mad scientists, and vampires/zombies are presented as horrific, the subtext is actually a tacit endorsement of the anti-[serial killer/mad scientist/vampire/zombie] status quo. E.g., to hate serial killers is to hate random murder and to love law enforcement; to hate mad scientists is to support gov’t regulation of scientific research; and to loathe vampires and zombies is to affirm the specialness of the human soul (or maybe the power of the Catholic Church against evil—pick an implied moral as you wish).

King’s statements concerning the uses of horror are probably more interesting as a comment on his own approaches to writing than as a guide to the literature in general1, but they present a particularly simple Straw Man that I’m interested in. Keep them in mind while I present a conflicting POV in the next few paragraphs.

Another horror maverick who has grown more respectable in his dotage is the Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, whose body-horror classics like Rabid, Scanners, and Videodrome plumbed the terror arising from unforeseen interconnections of the mind and body. The one of these I watched most recently was Rabid. Rabid (Inept American Title: Rage) was influential in its day because it was the 1st feature film to treat vampirism as a medically explicable infection; today, the “vampire virus” idea having been treated ad nauseum via countless zombie movies, it’s more interesting for those fantastically icky special effects that all of Cronenberg’s horror movies are known for (see: the phallic stinger emerging from Marilyn Chambers’s armpit when she needs to suck men’s blood). It was controversial in its day for more than one reason (like many Canadian films, it was gov’t-financed, and since it starred the hard-core actress Marilyn Chambers [of Beyond the Green Door fame], some critics who mattered alleged its porniness), but the criticism that Cronenberg singled out as especially specious was that his movie was reactionary and “conservative.”

In the DVD Director’s Interview in which this was discussed, Cronenberg offered an opinion of the Horror genre that I’m repeating here as a foil to King’s. Certain critics pointed out that Rabid played upon its audience’s fear of sexually aggressive females and, hence, claimed it was a reactionary comment upon the then-recent Sexual Revolution. Cronenberg’s (rather weak) argument to the contrary was that the Horror genre is de facto liberal; the intrinsic appeals of works in this mode to the irrational and unknown elements of the self automatically force one to question the status quo. Since Horror encourages thought about and reactions to actions/events outside of the old societal norms, it’s almost always accurate to categorize Horror as a sneakily subversive influence.

So…who’s right? King or Cronenberg? Is Horror society’s Saviour, or its Destructor? Is it ‘conservative’, or ‘liberal’? Nice, or Naughty?

About here, I’m willing to admit that anyone who’s even a casual fan of Horror will be able to spot the problems with my setup for herself. Fear, by itself, doesn’t denote a distinct ideological bias. It’s the object of the fear that determines the politics of a work.

And this is a sticky point, because for an objet d’art to have the power to induce fear in its reader, the reader must come halfway toward the work and admit some of the basic premises for its magic to work. Some examples. The Turner Diaries, the schlocky thriller that provided Tim McVeigh with his blueprint for the OK City Bombings, doesn’t come off as scary or even plausible to anyone who hasn’t already come halfway toward its gun-totin’ White Supremicism; it is only offensive and has no power to convince. Alternatively, unless you’re already critical of Wall St. and its Reganite ways, it’s hard to imagine that a book like American Psycho could be viewed as anything other than an over-the-top serial killer/fashion narrative. Yet to receptive audiences, each of these books has been greeted with extreme acclaim, the acclaim that meets books that are able through simplification to clarify what the receptive audience had always suspected was the case all along.

(Of course, certain Horror works play on such quiet and natural premises [e.g., it’s not a good thing for characters to get unexpectedly stabbed in the back, attacked by faceless monsters, buried alive, etc.] that it’s not immediately obvious that these are ideological premises at all. Be aware, however, that just because something is implicit in most everyday social situations doesn’t make it ideologically neutral; the most commonly held beliefs are the sorts of tacit assumptions that Horror can exploit most broadly, to the greatest effect.)

The reason that the world is in general so confusing is that it’s impossible to separate things out into separate categories and deal with the complications one by one. Everything comes all at once, without any built-in pause for reflection. I have no doubt that if (by some weird act of Fate) either S. King or D. Cronenberg were to happen upon this blog, neither would recognize his own view of Horror in my gross caricature, but that is by design: to make this seem like a puzzle to be clarified, I have simplified and made dogmatic those statements which were probably meant by their speakers to be exploratory complaints and vague suggestions. So it is with Horror: only in the rarest cases might you come upon the odd strictly regressive or strictly progressive curio. Most cases will have one shock, one jolt, one idea, all coming right after each other—and, embedded as they are in the flesh of story, the philosophical biases are usually only implied. Then it’s up to hacky blog posters to prepare obsessive discussions that claim otherwise.

  • Not that this is especially strange for writers; DFW’s essay on John Updike is a perfect case in point.
  1. I’m wondering how this sort of discourse (reductive or no) could be applied to other stories. Say, Lars Van Trier’s Kingdom – which I’m watching right now – and what my own reaction will be when I finish the series. What I’m most thinking about is how one might play – within a movie or novel – with the ideas of King, Cronenberg, and yourself about how audience’s ideologies shape how they respond to horror, and how one could best leverage the ideas to make the results scary.

    For potential examples, see two articles I believe we’ve discussed before – The AV Club’s write-up of The Devil’s Rejects ( http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-new-cult-canon-the-devils-rejects,2544/ ) and DFW’s essay on David Lynch, in which he argues that the discomfort Blue Velvet creates isn’t rooted in young Jeffrey’s discovery that his seemingly idyllic town is full of perversion, but that perversion is a part of him. Both movies play with the sympathies of the audience by getting them to identify with characters, then feel uneasy about that identification. Don’t these essays suggest that audiences’ reactions to these particular examples are rooted not in underlying, tacit agreement with the movies’ point of view, but tension with it?

  2. You might be right, at least in that there’s more to this business than was covered in the above post. Your criticism reminds me of a contention that I had with those maddening Greek dialogues that have Socrates teaching his students things they supposedly already know. (Like, there’s one where the student ‘discovers’ that he knew the Pythagorean theorem all along.) This is a weird, but typical, Platonic mistake: a willful misinterpretation of the difference between experiential discovery and remembering the truth. There are a lot of things that you don’t actually have an active opinion about at any particular point in time; it’s only when you’re forced to cogitate that a temporary opinion is forced into place, through either logical or existential (?) discovery. In that respect, I suppose that my theory about Horror is kind of wrong, although I tried to qualify this via the pentultimate parenthetical paragraph. There are a bunch of things that through ignorance one has no opinion about, but there are also all sorts of things that one actually has a stable opinion about, even if one hasn’t been forced to state that opinion clearly.

    However, I don’t think the examples that you cited break my point. The fear that one feels is usually out of a disagreement with what’s being seen on the screen, which is King’s argument in Danse Macabre; by presenting content as horrific, it emphasizes that this isn’t the sort of thing that one should have to see every day. And while DFW’s discussion of Lynch is pertinent (esp. when he discusses racial homogeneity as an indicator of the ‘non-political’ nature of Lynch’s films, making them, to him at least, more admissions about Human Nature than about today’s particular socioeconomic climate), it is possible to fear the human as he is. Or the marauding loonies bound on retribution, as the case may be.

    In short, you can get me to agree with just about anything, if I’m able to couch it in enough bland qualifiers.

  3. Whoa whoa whoa, don’t give up on your point just yet! I think the examples I cited are more the ‘exceptions that prove the rule’ when it comes to part of the idea in your original point. A lot of people found Blue Velvet unsettling in a way that they didn’t find, say, Cujo scary, and Wallace hits on a reason why: it was confronting them with notions they found hard to contemplate, (I would say, and King would probably also say if he remembered writing the book) in a way Cujo wasn’t. So horror movies can pitch toward their audience’s biases (as in Dracula, about which I’ve written), and when they go out of their way to undermine that, the results can be especially memorable.

    But then, I’m not sure that image of horror movies differs from most popular entertainment in that regard. Especially humor and particularly satire – Michael Moore or Glenn Beck, its difficult to be amused unless you accept they are digging at some kind of truth.

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