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Daniel Shaw


Professor of Philosophy, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. --http://www.lhup.edu/dshaw/home.html


“It feels good, Will, because God has power, and if one does what God does enough times one will become as God is” --Hannibal Lecktor (sic) discussing the pleasures of killing with Will Graham in Manhunter

Like tragedy, the horror genre generates an ambivalent reaction in its appreciators. Our enjoyment of horror is clearly more problematic than, say, indulging in the pleasures of a good romantic comedy.Monsters, aliens and psychopaths, committing acts of radical and unrelenting violence, should simply disgust and repel us, and to some degree they do.

[S]ince the ‘90s, the most discussed solution to the ambivalence problem in philosophic circles has been Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror Or Paradoxes of the Heart.  Carroll singles out an emotion called “art-horror”, to which good horror films give rise.

“Art-horror” is a combination of disgust, revulsion and extreme terror engendered by our encounter with the “impossible beings” that populate horror films.  These feelings, while unpleasant in themselves, are transformed into a pleasurable experience by the structure of a well-made narrative.

For Carroll “the emotion of art-horror is not our absolutely primary aim in consuming horror fictions...Rather, art-horror is the price we are willing to pay for the revelation of that which is impossible and unknown, of that which violates our conceptual schema.” (186) Our ambivalence about the monster is hence a combination of disgust at its aspect and curiosity as to its bizarre nature.

Curiosity is at the heart of most narratives, “However, the horror fiction is a special variation on this general narrative motivation, because it has at the center something which is given as in principle unknowable.”(162)

Such possible creatures as Norman Bates in Psycho, Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs and the Mantle Twins in Dead Ringers are therefore ruled out as art-horrific beings.

He concludes that “the pleasure derived from the horror fiction and the source of our interest in it resides, first and foremost, in the processes of discovery, proof and confirmation that horror fictions often employ.”(184) His account is modeled on David Hume’s theory of tragedy. In “Of Tragedy”, Hume contended that we do not take pleasure in the suffering of the tragic protagonist, but rather in the aesthetic form of a well-made work.Those aesthetic pleasures predominate over our painful experience of tragic suffering.Utilizing the power of the tragic sentiments, which Hume took to be unmitigatedly unpleasant, the well-wrought tragic narrative creates an overall experience of much greater intensity than if the original emotions were more lukewarm.

. -- http://www.lhup.edu/dshaw/pohor.html, accessed Feb 2004

Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror

  1. Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror by Daniel Shaw, Steven Jay Schneider [Amazon.com]

    Over the past few years, one of the hottest topics in the realm of philosophical aesthetics has been cinematic horror. The emotional effects it has on audiences, the mysterious metaphysics of its impossible beings, the controversial ethics of its violent aesthetic— these are just a few of the concerns to have drawn the attention of scholars and students alike... not to mention the genre’s legions of fans.

    Since the publication of Noël Carroll’s groundbreaking study, The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart (Routledge, 1990), a plethora of articles have been authored by seemingly normal philosophers about the decidedly abnormal activities of the antagonists of fright flicks. Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror is a collection of original and reprinted essays by top scholars in the increasingly interrelated fields of Philosophy, Film Studies, and Communication Arts that deal with the epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and genre dynamics of horror cinema past and present.

    “With this important collection in hand, you can stop whistling in the dark and start thinking seriously about scary movies. Why do we voluntarily watch films that shock, frighten, and horrify? Why do we actually like Hannibal Lecter and other monsters and monstrosities? What defines the horror movie as a genre? What are its connections to tragedy? The essays in this book draw insightfully on classic sources including Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger to answer these and other terrifying questions. In addition, all the major contemporary theorists in the philosophy of horror are represented, including Noël Carroll, Cynthia Freeland, and Robert Solomon The resulting fusion of classic and contemporary insight is this unique and enlightening volume, Dark Thoughts.” —Professor William Irwin, editor of The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! Of Homer.

    “The horror film is a fascinating genre from many perspectives, not least of them the philosophical. For those interested in a philosophical approach to horror, read this book! In Dark Thoughts, the editors gather together a remarkable set of essays by philosophers and film scholars, among them well-known names and relative newcomers. Along the way, Dark Thoughts explores the major issues raised by the horror film, and it does so from diverse perspectives. The approaches range from the psychoanalytic to the cognitive, from Nietsche and Heidegger to Carroll and Freeland. This is a welcome and useful addition to the literature on the horror film.” —Professor Carl Plantinga, co-editor of Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion.

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