Saturday, 29 October 2011

Halloween Guide to the Philosophy of Film Horror

love Pictures, Images and Photos
Animated.gif of an image of Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), posted online by skyggebarnet
Father Damien Karras: Why her? Why this girl?
Father Merrin
: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as... animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.
Philosophers getting excited about horror films may seem incongruous to the average intellectual reader, and saying that one has a "philosophy of horror" may simply sound pretentious. Maybe it’s the bad critical reputation of most monster movies, a perennially popular genre (especially with teenagers) that has always taken its lumps, both aesthetically and morally. Plato wanted to ban all representations of the monstrous from his ideal Republic, and his successors have condemned such depictions ever since. [We] believe that there is ample reason for philosophers to become interested in horror films, for they raise a number of complex and interrelated questions that lie at the heart of philosophical aesthetics.
     Primary among these is the question of horror-pleasure. Why are those of us who enjoy the genre so attracted to watching things that, in real life, would be repellent to us? Like the more traditional aesthetic issue concerning tragic pleasure, there is something puzzling about enjoying in fiction what is painful in reality. Freudian film scholars Laura Mulvey and Robin Wood offered the first compelling solution to this puzzle, and it has been tough to beat. Wood’s thesis that monsters represent a return of the repressed, gratifying the instinctive drives of the id in a cathartic fashion, had almost no serious rival in critical literature from the mid-1970s until 1990. Elizabeth Cowie [also] offers an elaboration on that long-dominant paradigm in her essay [a version of which is linked to below].
      Serious philosophical discussion of horror theory was triggered by Noël Carroll’s seminal treatise, The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart (1990)[...]. Carroll’s cognitivist approach to solving what he calls "the paradox of horror pleasure" was painstakingly modeled on David Hume’s theory of tragedy. We do not take pleasure in the painful and repugnant monster, according to Carroll, but rather in having our curiosity satisfied about its impossible nature, and whether and how the narrative’s human protagonists will dispatch it successfully. His denial that we take pleasure in the monster itself, along with his requirement that the object of horror must be an impossible being—one not believed capable of existing according to the tenets of contemporary science—have generated a good deal of critical ink. [Steven J. Schneider and Daniel Shaw, 'Introduction', Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror (New York: Scarecrow Press, 2003)]
It struck me that certain genres, such as suspense, mystery, comedy, melodrama, and horror, are actually identified by their relation to certain emotions. As a case study, I went about analyzing horror. I began by looking at what kind of horror we expect from horror fiction. At the time, a leading theory of the emotions was what was called the cognitive theory of the emotions, which tries to identify emotions in terms of their object – that is, the criterion that determines whether or not a state is this or that emotion. For example, in the case of fear, in order to be afraid you have to be afraid of a certain kind of thing, namely something that meets the criterion of harmfulness. I argued that horror was made up of two emotions we are already familiar with, fear and disgust. So I crafted my theory of the nature of horror by saying that horror is defined in terms of its elicitation of fear and disgust. Then I needed to say what the object of those two component emotional states were. For fear, there was a long history of analysis of the formal criterion as the harmful, and I drew on that. For disgust, I hypothesized the criterion was the impure.
     [..] I think that film theory should be closer to the practice of filmmaking and fiction-making in general. There shouldn’t be these two cultures. I think in some ways the theorists have made these two cultures exist by being unconcerned with the problems of construction. The Philosophy of Horror is very concerned with the problems of construction. It’s a philosophy of horror, but in the same way that Aristotle’s Poetics is a philosophy of tragedy. Aristotle wrote a philosophy of tragedy, but he called it a poetics, where poetics is a notion that comes from poesis, which comes from making. So poetics is about construction. His philosophy of tragedy is a philosophy of construction of tragedy, and I had hoped that my Philosophy of Horror would be a philosophy of construction of horror in much the same way. [Noël Carroll in Ray Privett and James Kreul, 'The Strange Case of Noël Carroll: A Conversation with the Controversial Film Philosopher', Senses of Cinema, Issue 13, 2001]
Film Studies For Free joins in the usual, general, Halloween hullabaloo with a scary little contribution of its own: a list of links to online and openly accessible philosophical considerations of the horror film genre.

Many of the below studies have been inspired by the extensive considerations of film horror by philosopher Noël Carroll or engage with the themes raised by his work.  

FSFF commends these to you with a little bloggish shudder: they are, after all, somewhat terrifyingly good...


    Michael Guillen said...

    Freaky cool.

    Catherine Grant said...

    Mwahahaa. Thank you!

    ilovethatfilm said...

    One argument against Carroll must be why do we watch and enjoy a film like Blair Witch when our curiosity abou the monster is never satisfied?

    Thanks for posting this, it's given me some interesting links to look through!