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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Does - Can - Horror Really SCARE? Or Does It Only Disgust? Part 1

"Writers who used to strive for awe and achieve fear, now strive for fear and achieve only disgust” - David Aylward

Almost finished with chapter two of Noel Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror, (which I'm reviewing and researching for my Film & Philosophy grad class), in which he's trying to identify how and why audiences of horror cinema and readers of horror fiction can actually experience any kind of emotional fear of monsters and plots and situations they know aren't real, and in many cases couldn't exist in the real world.   

I'll sketch out those basic ideas tomorrow, but this chapter, especially, has provided lots of food for thought, as a reader and writer.  For regular readers of this blog, I'll admit again - I'm probably over-thinking things and splitting philosophical hairs - but I'm basically using the blog to thrash thoughts around about horror cinema and the horror genre in general for a presentation and an eventual paper in my Film & Philosophy graduate class at BU.  

Not expecting to reach any grand revelations about the horror genre or why I labor in it, necessarily, but as a writer - even, GASP, an artist - I think it's important to wrestle often with why and how we produce the work we do.  And doing it for graduate credit just makes it all the sweeter.  So, anyhoo...

Does horror really scare me?  If not...then why do I read it?

This chapter of Carroll's work really set me to thinking, as well as a recent vlog post by suspense novelist Mike Duran  Now, Mike was targeting specifically the genre of "Christian Horror", discussing how doctrinal constrictions at Christian publishing houses determine that novels end in certain, predictable ways that may undercut any "scariness" they might have.  But it really made me think: when was the last novel that really scared me?  (I'll address horror movies tomorrow).

And I had to pause.

Because I struggled to think of a novel that really scared me. 

In some ways, it goes back to something Carroll said in chapter one, which set me thinking about what it was that I wrote, what I wanted most to inspire in people.  Again, keeping in mind that trying to define and hedge borders around genres is sketchy business, here's what Carroll said that really spun the gears in my brain:

 "nevertheless, I do think that there is an important difference between this type of story - which I want to call tales of dread - and horror stories.  Specifically, the emotional response they elicit seems to be quite different than that engendered by art-horror.  The uncanny event which tops off such stories cause a sense of unease and awe, perhaps of momentary anxiety and foreboding.  These events are constructed to move the audience rhetorically to the point that one entertains the idea that unavowed, unknown, perhaps concealed and inexplicable forces rule the universe.  Where art-horror involves disgust as a central figure, what might be called art-dread does not" (pg. 42)

By this definition - I most want to write what Carroll calls art-dread, not art-horror. And, in a natural leap, what I READ informs what I write, so most the work I READ falls into the above category, also. (I also like to read and write genre-mixes - see Norman Partridge for my favorite, there - and my current WIP is definitely a genre mix).

Of course, when it comes to how the industry packages horror fiction and film, there's no distinction. It's all just "horror".  Charles L. Grant, Ramsey Campbell, T. M. Wright, Norman Prentiss, Mary SanGiovanni, Gary A. Braunbeck, Ron Malfi, Rio Youers, Dan Keohane even T. L. Hines, Travis Thrasher and Dean Koontz (because Peter Straub and Stephen King and Robert McCammon, also my favorites, can kinda do it all)....are all labeled "horror" writers, or writers of "dark fiction"...but their work hinges on - in my experience - more the definition of "art-dread" than "art-horror".  This is the stuff I read, I crave, not necessarily because it horrifies me or scares me, but because generally, in my opinion as a reader, their works often...

 "are constructed to move the audience rhetorically to the point that one entertains the idea that unavowed, unknown, perhaps concealed and inexplicable forces rule the universe."

Of course, certain novels by certain horror writers I enjoy because they do the same thing. For example, I haven't read all of Brian Keene's novels, but the ones I have and have really loved: The Rising, Dead City, Ghost Walk, A Gathering of Crows - have all dealt in these themes.  They had the usual trappings of horror, but they deal with those unknown, inexplicable forces of the universe.

But scare? Horrify?  


According to Carroll's definition, very few novels I've read have achieved the "horrification" (yeah, I sorta made that word up) he talks about. Certainly, several novels have reached the disgust level - won't name any names, but I've definitely read some novels in my time as a reviewer that have turned my stomach - but according to Carroll's definition, that's not good enough, because the work must achieve BOTH.

(are you getting by now how subjective this all is, based on the reader and viewer's preferences....?)

So, again: what novels have really scared me? (Notice: I didn't say disturb or fill me with unease and dread or made me cry or filled me with dramatic tension. I said SCARED ME).

I can only think of two, and ironically enough, it was the combination of real life events with the actual reading of these novels that provided that sense of horror:

1. In Silent Graves, by Gary A. Braunbeck - about a man who loses his wife and unborn child, and all the trauma he goes through (of course, surrounded by supernatural drama and trauma), I read this while my wife visited her sister in Colorado Springs for a week.  Any time someone takes a plane these days, the specter of 9/11 looms large.  So imagine, me reading this late at night in a dead quiet house with the kids sleeping and my wife several states away, having to return by plane, me counting the days until she was on the ground in New York and safe....reading about a man who'd lost his soul mate....yeah. Some definite shivers of fear, with this one.

 2. The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty.  Again, home alone at night, with Abby and the kids over at her parents.  Reading this in a dead quiet house out in the country, of course counting my own faith beliefs....yep.  This one did the trick, too.

And, believe it or not...that's it.  I'm sitting here, thinking there was a third one...but I guess not.

So. Only two novels I've ever read that have actually scared me.  All the rest of the horror novels or quiet horror novels or tales of dread or supernatural suspense or thrillers or what-have-you have definitely had what I'd consider to be highly effective, positive impacts - stories about those unknown powers of the universe - but I can only really say those two novels scared me, and because they both struck me HARD, where it hurts most: at family and faith.

Hmmm.  There's something there I want to say, something BIG, about the development of society in a post-modern world, the increase of slasher flicks discounting the supernatural, this quote by critic David Aylward:

"Writers who used to strive for awe and achieve fear, now strive for fear and achieve only disgust” 

...and what that says about society today, how today's horror films and novels can say SO much about us, spiritually and emotionally and philosophically...but I'm not THERE, yet.  Probably never will be, not completely. But hopefully, by the end of the semester - after a lot more reading and studying and blogging - I'll be THERE enough to write my paper, and post some conclusions (of sorts) here.

Tomorrow, I'll look at what kinds of movies scare me.  And not all of them are "horror"..... 


  1. Amen. I totally agree with many of your points and reflections. I think of horror as suspense, anxiety, and of course, that of the unknown.

    It is strange to say that I love horror, but definitely have only a select few authors that really scare me. "The Relic," by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child was one book that I can remember actually going to sleep afraid.

    Good luck with your class, sounds very interesting.

  2. Thanks - and I've never read "The Relic", but parts of that movie were definitely....something. Not out right frightening, but definitely suspenseful.

    Thanks for posting!

  3. Kevin, what an amazing analysis. I completely agree with you on some points, especially in regard to the post-modern world: I'm reading so much stuff now that only skims the surface rather than diving deep into universal themes, and I think this might be part of it. I will say, though, the last thing I read that truly SCARED me in the way in which In Silent Graves and The Exorcist scared you was The Shining, which I last read in 1997, again, like you, no one home, huge house (my housemate was away), in the middle of nowhere. I wonder: could the environment in which you read it or the circumstances in which you read it affect the scare-factor? It's just a thought.

  4. "I wonder: could the environment in which you read it or the circumstances in which you read it affect the scare-factor? It's just a thought."

    I definitely think so, among a variety of other factors: beliefs about the world and the "unseen" world in general and particular, thoughts about what "good and evil" are. That's mainly the thrust of my paper, I think - chart the development of horror literature and cinema, try and imagine what that says about us as a people and/or a society today.

    "I'm reading so much stuff now that only skims the surface rather than diving deep into universal themes"

    I think this is a key element that goes beyond even gore and bloodshed. I'm not much of a gore guy, but I HAVE read some splatterpunk - mostly John Skipp - and he ALWAYS goes beyond the surface, down into those universal themes, so his utilization of gore achieves the level of "disgust" that Carroll discusses in developing his definition of "horror", but by delving into those universal themes, he also achieves a level of fear, too.

    One thing I have noticed: a year and half ago, I decided to eschew a lot of the most current horror fiction and delve into fiction produced in the 70's, 80's, and 90's. There's a definite difference there in moral and spiritual tone. And I'm not saying they endorsed one view or the other, but their acknowledgement of that "unavowed, unseen" world made a difference in their work.

    And a good example of what most horror does for me: The Shining made me very sad, especially what happens to the father, and his eventual sacrifice. Not uncorking ideas ahead of time, but that's something I'm moving toward in this next section of Carroll's examination of horror: a reader/viewer's empathetic connection with main characters, how we feel and FEAR for them, which achieves what I believe is horror's greatest benefit: catharsis. A spiritual and emotional cleansing through the experience of strong emotion. Believed to be essential to Greek tragedies, which I'd be tempted to argue are only shades away from horror....

    Thanks for posting, and stay tuned!