Kevin Lucia on The General and Universal Theories of Horrific Appeal – It’s All About the Story
Earlier in the year, a fantastic horror writer named Kevin Lucia was finishing grad school and, on his blog, presented a fascinating 9-part series on the nature of horror. I fell in love with this series, and Kevin has very graciously allowed me to reprint it here so others can enjoy it, too. Visit me every Thursday through October 18 for the next installment, and on October 25, some of his fiction—free—as a Halloween treat!
Kevin Lucia is a Contributing Editor for Shroud Magazine, and a blogger for The Midnight Diner. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles, and he’s currently working on his first novel. Visit him on the web at www.kevinlucia.com.
The General and Universal Theories of Horrific Appeal – It’s All About the Story
To be honest, I feel like my last post about Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, “Attraction to Monstrous Power & Psychoanalysis” was pretty weak. It was right after school, and I’d forgotten about the psychoanalysis part, wanted to skip it and go straight to this, but didn’t want to leave anything out. Then, I was left with a blog post that didn’t seem nearly long enough, but too long to add in Carroll’s actual theories on “horrific appeal”.
So here it is, today. Carroll’s answer as to why so many folks are attracted to horror, drawn to something that scares, terrifies, disgusts, or repulses them. Why we seek those things out – both in print and on screen – and, in my own addendum, why horror writers labor in this field to begin with.
First, Carroll begins by relating horror to tragedy, riffing off Hume and Aikins‘ take on Aristotle’s Poetics, (and that just tickled me so much I ordered it, for myself). The question they asked was, like Aristotle in regards to tragedy, how it’s possible for audiences to derive pleasure from any genre whose objects cause distress and discomfiture (pg. 179)? In real life, these things would be distressing or displeasing.
So why? Why seek them out in art and fiction?
Carroll makes an excellent point before getting into the meat of things; that, for the most part, like tragedies, horror generally takes a narrative form. So, because of this, Carroll suggests that – though important ingredients in the formula – it’s NOT the monsters or objects of terror that interest us, that we derive pleasure from, but that the narrative itself holds the most interest for us.
In other words, as always…..
It’s all about the story.
So, according to Hume, audiences don’t take pleasure in bad things happening, but rather we’re interested in the rhetorical framing for these events, we derive pleasure in watching events unfold towards an unknown conclusion. In other words – using tragedy here as an example – the interest audiences take in the deaths of Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, or even Romeo & Juliet, is not sadistic, but….
“…is an interest that the plot has engendered in how certain forces, once put in motion, will work themselves out. Pleasure derives from having our interest in the outcome of such QUESTIONS satisfied.” (pg. 179)
So, connecting this to horror: it’s not the tragedy or the death or the object of horror audiences and readers are attracted to, it’s how well these things are worked into the story’s narrative, and how they are resolved. Carroll has been building up to this point, because throughout the work, he’s analyzed the different narrative structures of horror film and fictions, and he’s found this:
“…these stories (horror), with great frequency, revolve around probing, disclosing, discovering, and confirming the existence of something that is impossible, something that defies standing conceptual schemes. It is part of such stories – contrary to our everyday beliefs about the nature of things – that such monsters exist. And as a result, audiences expectations revolve around whether this existence will be confirmed in the story.” (pg. 181)
Because, according to Carroll, the center of the horror fiction is something that is unknowable, something which cannot exist, given our acceptable schema for the world. So, according to Carroll, the real drama in a horror story resides in establishing the existence of the monster and in disclosing its horrific properties. Then, once this has been done, the monster must be confronted, so the narrative is then driven by the question as to whether or not the creature can be destroyed.
So, leaping from this, Carroll posits:
“…these observations suggest that the pleasure derived from the horror fiction and the source of interest in it resides, first and foremost, in the processes of discovery, proof, and confirmation that horror fictions often employ.” (pg. 184)
In other words, Carroll believes we’re attracted to the majority of horror fictions because of how the plots of discovery and the dramas of proof intrigue us. Arouse our curiosity. Abet our interest, in ways that are satisfying and and pleasurable.
He makes a point here to mention that feeling disgust is an integral part of this process. In other words, monsters in these types of tales must be disturbing, distressful, or repulsive on SOME LEVEL, if the process of their discovery is to be rewarding in a pleasurable way. It’s not that we crave disgust, according to Carroll, but that disgust is just something that happens naturally in the disclosing of the unknown – whose disclosure is a desire the narrative instills in the audience, then proceeds to satisfy.
And for that desire to know about the unknowable – the monster MUST be unknowable in some way, or impossible, or the familiar warped into the repulsive – so that the monster defies our conception of nature.
So that basically, Carroll’s General and Universal Theories of Horrific Appeal spin on the idea that because the majority of horror fictions are narrative-based stories bent on discovering unknown or unknowable things, that even as audiences are necessarily disquieted or distressed or even disgusted and repulsed by the revelation of these things, we are drawn to how these things unfold within the structure of the narrative, our desire to know is what draws us into these stories, and that – like with Hamlet’s death – we aren’t sadist and violent and depraved in consuming different types of horror, we simply want to discover, to know, to see how it all ends. We are fascinated with the process of the investigation, exploration, discovery, and then – if possible – overcoming of unknowable, impossible things. **
So. On to my final look at this, Noel Carroll’s sections entitled “Horror and Ideology” and “Horror Today.”
**Carroll does make a point that it’s very likely some folks seek horror fictions out for their gore and violence and bloodshed, once again, not because they’re demented sick freaks, but because they perceive viewing these films as an endurance test, a test of their “courage” or “manhood.” He, however, does not believe this to be largely the case, and also believes that those types of movies NOT be held up as a standard for horror in general.