The Thinking 

On the Appetite for Horror

October 24, 2011



I have a somewhat different understanding from “Spengler’s” of the sado-masochistic cinema-entertainments that go by the name of horror movies. Taking pleasure in violence comes naturally to human beings. St. Augustine recognizes this in his comments on infancy in The Confessions, Book I. An infant is an inarticulate tyrant who would compel and punish if only he could. Child rearing is thus the essential program of taming the savage, of socializing and humanizing it, of coaxing it to internalize morality.

That cruelty is natural, the character of primitive religion fully demonstrates – for all primitive religion centers on sacrifice and scapegoating. A pattern in the last century of archeology is that the idyllic picture of this or that prehistoric or early-historic people – it might be the Minoans of Crete, skilled artists and architects, or the “Pueblo” societies of the American Southwest, with their beautiful ceramics – turns out to be false and the people to have practiced ritual murder.The Greeks of the Classical period reviled the custom of human sacrifice, but they blithely kept up their annual pharmakos rituals, in which parties chosen by lottery or a popular vote were driven, often savagely, into exile from the city. The Romans had gladiatorial displays and public mass executions. René Girard explains the function of these barbaric usages: They produce unanimity at the expense of the victim; they re-solidify the fragile community, and they discharge on the scapegoat anger and frustration that would otherwise need to circulate destructively within the group. 

One of the struggles associated with the dissemination of the Gospel is the struggle against these natural propensities of the human primitive and his community. One of the anecdotes in St. Augustine’s autobiography (Book VI) concerns his friend Alypius, who had been addicted to the spectacle of torment and murder in the arena. He gradually weaned himself, but one day while on an errand ran into reprobate friends who coaxed him to the games. Alypius tried to keep his eyes closed, but, as the autobiographer affirms, when he heard the crowd shouting, he had to look; he could no longer help himself. Violence has this compelling quality, which is what enables it to function sacrificially, in the manner described by Girard. Christian societies, responding to the anti-sacrificial, anti-violent message of the Gospel, gradually suppressed cruel entertainments, not completely, but largely – until the latter part of the twentieth century. 

It belongs to the pattern of liberal “liberation” from inherited constraints that the taboo against enjoying violence undergoes deconstruction along with every other inherited prohibition. The “liberation” of pornography runs in precise parallel with the “liberation” of the arduously suppressed appetite for blood-spectacle. Technology abets the moral slide by creating simulations of torture and murder indistinguishable from the actual thing. Nowadays, close-up cinematic exploitations of gross violence like the endless Saw franchise, aimed at high school and college audiences, pull in those audiences and pile up receipts at the box-office. The excuse for these is that the acts are “not real.” But because they are indistinguishable from reality, the excuse rings hollow. What the people who visit the theater or rent the discs to see such movies are saying is that they like to observe the torture and murder of human beings. And what this propensity tells us is that millions of young people have grown up without internalizing the Gospel condemnation against cruelty. As a recrudescence into primitive behavior, finally, the appetite for cinematic cruelty is related to another phenomenon: The seemingly spontaneous savage beatings perpetrated by swiftly forming gangs on hapless victims the videos of which circulate on the Internet.


                                                  — Comments —

Ben J. writes:

I have never shared my generation’s fascination with zombies, vampires, horror films, and what Mr. Bertonneau perfectly described as the pornography of explicit violence. I’m sure my Christian upbringing has a great deal to do with that. I posses the training and tools to do great violence swiftly and efficiently, but that knowledge and training has made me shun violence all the more. It is something I would not hesitate to use to defend my life or the lives of the innocent, but that is violence’s only place. To me violence is anything but entertaining.

I prefer to focus on things that are edifying. The paintings and poetry you sometimes place on your site are a very good example. This past Friday I attended a wonderful production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the University of Colorado. The piece was beautifully and traditionally set, and well performed. I praise God for the genius He gave W.A. Mozart, and the talents He gives to singers and musicians. The simple yet inspired music of Mozart has always been spellbinding to me. At a few points during the performance I would look around, and every face was smiling brightly. I thoroughly enjoyed it, no un-dead or gore required.
Samson writes:

Halloween is one of my very favourite times of year, and I have a personal fascination with horror – and yet for a long time I’ve wondered why.

Why does horror thrill us?

The explanations offered by your normally astute readers don’t satisfy this time. The 9/11 explanation (from the initial article) for a recent increase in the genre’s popularity is silly. Even the worthy Mr. Bertonneau is off the mark, I think, when he suggests that “violence” has something to do with it. Violence is not a core or essential component of horror (if you think it is, go wander about your local graveyard at night. You will find it frightening in spite of its tranquility).

So why does horror thrill us? Partly, I think the answer is: it just does. Why does beautiful art move us? Why are excited by a “suspense” movie? We just are. There’s a sheer thrill associated with being scared and with contemplating the ghastly, and there’s no way to explain why any more than you can explain why a given piece of music evokes a certain emotion. It just does.

But there are other possible explanations. I might put a fascination with the undead into the same category as the temptation to explore the occult – there’s something exciting, even intoxicating, about the idea of the supernatural – about having knowledge and power beyond our mundane experience.

Finally, although a Christian, I initially found Spengler’s theory that an “absence of faith” leads to a fascination with monsters to be uncompelling. At the very least, I’d like to see this hypothesis developed further. It’s possible that we enjoy horror because it affords us a view of what existence without God really is, and we have a need to grapple with the possibility of a Godless existence. But I’m not convinced.

All in all, I’m still searching for a satisfying account of why I am drawn to “horror.”

Laura writes:

Mr. Bertonneau’s comments specifically addressed violent horror, not just the supernatural or frightening. He made an important point here when he contrasted the movie The Body Snatchers with more recent torture-and-murder horror:

Immense contemporary popularity belongs, not to scary films like The Body Snatchers (there is nothing like it today), but to ultra-realist torture-and-murder films like Saw and Hostel. The spate of Night of the Living Dead spin-offs, like the current AMC television series The Walking Dead, is more closely related to the ultra-realist torture-and-murder genre than to the “dead soul” genre. 

Spengler was analysing the obsession with horror, to the point of glorification. (I agree that his 9/11 theory was silly.) He wrote:

The “horror” genre supplied one out of 10 feature films released in the United States in 2009, according to the International Movie Database. During Universal Studios’ heyday in the 1930s, the proportion was one in 200; only a decade ago it was one in 25. Vampire teen heartthrobs meanwhile take first place on some lists of best-selling books.

By way of contrast, 716 horror features were released in 2009, compared to 39 Westerns, a ratio of almost 20 to one. During 1960-1964, Americans saw more Westerns than horror movies.

There is value or catharsis in contemplating a Godless existence, but not in glorifying demons or giving them a mystique they do not possess. The problem with the demonic as it is so often portrayed in popular culture is that it is not an accurate picture of the demonic, which wins its influence over human beings through the psychological realm.

Thomas Fink writes:

I just got that E. Michael Jones book mentioned by Fitzgerald: Monsters from the Id – The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film. Like Libido Dominandi – Sexual Liberation an Political Control from the same author it brings some pieces into the puzzle, which makes the causes and effects of liberal madness, at least for me, much more perspicuous.

Some quotes:

“The Enlightenment tried to drive out religion and morality, but found that they returned in the form of a monster. That monsters have destroyed the fondest hopes of the Enlightenment should be obvious by now. The Enlightenment is dead. Its only lasting legacy will be the horror stories told by its survivors.”

“Horror is a product of a guilty conscience that will not admit its own wrongdoing. Individually and as a culture, we can escape the eternal dynamic of horror only by acknowledging the demands of an objective moral order.”

And James 1:14-5:

“Everyone who is tempted is attracted and seduced by his own wrong desire. Then the desire conceives and gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown it too has a child, and the child is death.”

Mr. Bertonneau writes:

In response to Samson, there is admittedly some ambiguity in the generic label “horror.” Thus the Wikipedia list of “Horror Films of 2010” jumbles together what I take to be ghost-, spirit-, and poltergeist-stories with vampire-films and those that I gather under the narrower term “ultra-realist torture-and-murder films.” Nevertheless, the majority of films on the list belong plausibly (by inference from the title) to the narrower category. I assume, for example, that the attraction of Piranha 3-D is in seeing human swimmers eaten alive by carnivorous fish. Every zombie film that I know is an “ultra-realist torture-and-murder” film, beginning with the original Night of the Living Dead. Teenagers and college students attend screenings of these films to see cannibals eat human beings alive and human beings blow out the brains of the zombies. When simulated evisceration and brain splattering become forms of entertainment, we should worry. The Saw invites the audience to find pleasure in forms of lethal mechanical torture that would have shocked Caligula. Victims succumb to dismemberment, disembowelment, incineration, having their skulls slowly crushed, being twisted until the spine breaks, and being frozen to death under a spray of super-cooled water while hanging naked from hooks. The director instructs the characters to plead and groan, but they inevitably die. When I question my students about their appetite for this fare, they often reply that it’s “funny.” Yes, that’s what they say. I repeat, we should worry.

Samson writes:

Well, what Mr. Bertonneau wrote makes much more sense now, and it seems as though I was not adequately knowledgeable about the modern “horror” genre – I didn’t know about all these ultra-violent films. When I use the term “horror fiction”, I’m thinking of writers like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories are “weird” and “scary” but not violent, or at least not always and the violence is usually not the central point of interest.

So one question becomes: is enjoying violence an altogether different phenomenon from enjoying “weirdness,” in spite of the way that the Wikipedia list (for example) groups these together? Certainly I don’t enjoy violence, or laugh at it, in spite of my fascination with “scary weirdness.”

Thomas F. Bertonneau writes:

I’m glad that Samson and I can find common ground. If only Hollywood had treated Poe and Lovecraft with respect. Lovecraft is a remarkable case because cultic violence is a theme of his fiction; his stories almost always feature recursions to sacrifice, the possibility of which he understood to belong to human reality, even to the complacent reality of North American bourgeois existence. And then again, even though Lovecraft was a non-believer (with decreasing harshness as he aged), he retained a sense of the sublime, which is a kind of transcendence. (There is one decent Lovecraft film, the 2006 adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu [1926] produced by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society of California; other HPL adaptations are, unfortunately, in the simulated evisceration category, a complete betrayal of Lovecraft.) The screen translations of Poe always turn him into a purveyor of supernatural horror, without justification because Poe rigorously excluded the supernatural from his fiction, as did Lovecraft. By the way, The Body Snatchers is superbly horrifying because the horror is predominantly moral, the loss of self through absorption in an emotionless collective, the annihilation of love and family.

Jesse Powell writes:

I think the appeal of horror movies is related to our own nightmares and dreams. The fact that we sleep and dream is quite amazing from the point of view of evolution; one would think that being periodically incapacitated for eight hours every night is very unwise as it makes one supremely vulnerable to attack and yet sleep is something that all animals do. Dreaming seems to be the main thing going on when we sleep. Our bodies are paralyzed while our minds create fantastical adventures for us called dreams. Some of these dreams rehearse scary scenarios and are called nightmares. I think horror movies are like the nightmares in our dream states except reenacted on a screen instead of created within our own mind. 

From an evolutionary point of view, the purpose of dreaming is to reenact events in real life with some alterations in order to better understand how the events of real life work or might work. Dangerous or scary scenarios that represent possible scenarios that might happen in real life are what nightmares are made of. The purpose of nightmares is to reenact threatening situations and “practice” what one should do in those threatening situations. After “practicing” in ones dream state one will be better prepared to deal with a dangerous situation if it ever happens to you in real life. 

People who are anxious or face threatening situations in their real lives will tend to have nightmares or anxious dreams more often. An interesting article relating how real life events are connected to our dream world can be found here.

I think the growing popularity of the horror movie genre is related to people feeling a growing sense of emotional danger in their lives. This emotional danger comes from family breakdown and the problems people have in their relationships with others. Failure in ones personal life does indeed lead to an overall sense of danger and foreboding, that the world has gone mad and is a hostile and even dangerous place to live in. 

Many of Lady Gaga’s music videos have horror related themes; some of her videos are indeed like mini-horror films in their own right. Gaga’s horror themed music videos are insanely popular among the young. 

I want to point out that there is an entire genre of music called “Industrial Music” where horror themes are quite common in the lyrics and in the music videos. Some of the band names in this musical genre are “Kevorkian Death Cycle,” “Agonized by Love,” “Evil’s Toy,” and “Suicide Commando.”

Laura writes:

There is no explanation, from an evolutionary point of view, for how human beings began to see coherent visions in their dreams.

Roger G. writes:

From Wikipedia:

Titus Andronicus is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, and possibly George Peele, believed to have been written between 1588 and 1593. It is thought to be Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and is often seen as his attempt to emulate the violent and bloody revenge plays of his contemporaries, which were extremely popular with audiences throughout the sixteenth century.[1]

Laura writes: 

The bloody violence of Titus Andronicus is secondary to the psychological drama. And, the revenge plays of the sixteenth century did not involve the sort of visually realistic orgies of gore described by Mr. Bertonneau.

Diana writes:

I agree with those who have said that human beings have always had a fascination with the macabre, and that we shouldn’t overinterpret the current vogue for horror. Frankenstein was written in the 18th century and Hollywood began making film adaptations of it in the 1930s. [Laura writes: Again, I would like to point out that none of the commenters on this topic categorically objected to the macabre or horror. They specifically addressed the contemporary obsession with horror and the specific forms this has taken.]

I object to two manifestations, which I believe are truly unique to the present. One, the splatter factor. Recall that the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS had not a single violent scene. The horror was completely implied. Second, that adults must participate in the current culture of vampires and dressup and whatnot. Do you remember when Halloween was a holiday just for kids? And not a major one at that. Now, adults get into the act.

I must admit that I got into the act. I began to go to Halloween parties, and so on. I always felt a little weird doing so, because the notion that Halloween was for kids was so ingrained. Three years ago, I declared independence. Coming home late at night from some stupid shindig, I said to myself, “who needs this?” and I resigned from Halloween forever. It’s for kids. But a good deal of “adult”
Manhattanites don’t agree with me and they celebrate Halloween as if it is their special holiday.

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