October 30, 2012

The Critique of Pure Horror

Jason Zinoman
July 16, 2011

WITH gruesome television series about vampires, werewolves, serial killers and zombies earning huge ratings, and a new cinematic bloodbath opening seemingly every week, the cultural appetite for horror raises a curious question: why do so many of us enjoy being disgusted and terrified?

The question has long puzzled parents and mystified spouses, but it has also increasingly engaged the attention of academics. Scholarship on the horror genre has grown so much over the last three decades that a peer-reviewed journal devoted to it, Horror Studies, was started last year. While much of the field’s research is sociological or cultural, focusing on what scary movies reveal about the time or place in which they were made, a small library of books and essays has also tried to explain the visceral appeal of shivers down your spine.

For horror studies the “It’s alive!” moment was the 1979 publication of “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” an essay by the film critic Robin Wood. At a time when horror was treated by many as a second-class genre, Mr. Wood introduced the now-familiar idea, rooted in psychoanalytic theory, that scary movies provide a valuable window onto what our society “represses or oppresses.” The monster, he wrote, represents the marginalized, the sexually or politically subversive, the taboo: the 1931 film “Frankenstein” identified the creature with repressed homosexuality; the first zombie in the 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead” was a manifestation of family dysfunction.

Mr. Wood did not try to explain why such transgressive elements can be pleasurable, but other scholars borrowed his framework to do just that. In the 1986 article “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine,” Barbara Creed, a film professor at the University of Melbourne, located the appeal of horror’s blood and gore in a nostalgia for the uninhibited time in childhood before filth became taboo.

The 1987 essay “Her Body, Himself,” by Carol J. Clover of the University of California, Berkeley, argued that horror movies offer their teenage male viewers an illicit opportunity to revel in their feminine side. Contesting the claim that horror encourages a sadistic male gaze, Ms. Clover took a closer look at the low-budget exploitation film, in which typically all the female characters are murdered, save for the sole woman who struggles to survive and ultimately escape the villain. Classic examples include Jamie Lee Curtis’s role as Laurie Strode in “Halloween” and Marilyn Burns’s as Sally Hardesty in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

Ms. Clover argued that this was one of the few film genres that regularly asked male audiences to identify with a triumphant female protagonist. It gave teenage boys license to indulge a gender-bending fantasy that was, she wrote, “unapproved for adult males.”

While these scholars argued that horror taps into positive emotions that are otherwise repressed, other psychoanalytic theories saw horror in the opposite light: as a safe and cathartic way to deal with darker feelings. In his 1980 essay “The Aesthetics of Fright,” the critic Morris Dickstein described horror as a “routinized way of playing with death, like going on the roller coaster.”

But not all theories of horror have been psychoanalytic, trading on notions of repression and release. In 1990 the philosopher Noël Carroll, a staunch critic of the psychoanalytic approach, published “The Philosophy of Horror,” in which he proposed that the pleasure of horror movies is due not to whatever psychic substratum the monster represents, but rather to the peculiar curiosity it inspires.

The defining characteristic of the monster, Mr. Carroll argued, is that it’s hard to classify, categorically incomplete or contradictory, or just generally hard to understand. The monster in the “Frankenstein” series, for instance, is what Mr. Carroll called a “fusion figure,” made of spare parts, including different brains. The horror is rooted in the unknown, but this strangeness also sparks curiosity and fascination. Horror plots are often constructed to emphasize the mystery of the nature of the monster. Most of “The Exorcist,” for example, is taken up with the intricate detective work of a mother trying to figure out what is wrong with her daughter.

One virtue of Mr. Carroll’s theory is that it captures the paradoxical nature of horror’s allure: the very oddity that makes monsters repulsive is precisely what makes them attractive.

In today’s age of increasingly explicit cinematic violence, the scholarly focus has gravitated to the basic pleasures of gore. In “The Naked and the Undead,” Cynthia Freeland, a feminist critic who teaches philosophy at the University of Houston, argues that certain kinds of graphic violence are so skillfully theatrical that they evoke a “perverse sublime.” Their far-fetched extremity also gives the audience the distance needed to relish the bloodbaths. Ms. Freeland cites the ghoulishly over-the-top scenes in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” including a sparks-flying chain saw duel between the masked killer Leatherface and a vamping Dennis Hopper that, just to make things more interesting, adds a hatchet and grenade into the mix.

In an essay that will be published later this year in “The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film,” Adam Lowenstein, an associate professor in English and film studies at the University of Pittsburgh, also emphasizes the aesthetic of horror. For him, meticulous camerawork, pacing and artful splatter are a kind of carefully staged showmanship that the audience appreciates as pure performance. He calls it “spectacle horror.” When Laurie Strode discovers a trio of dead bodies in “Halloween” — one emerging swinging from a closet, another from a cabinet — it’s a highly staged sequence in which the director, John Carpenter, is “quite literally pulling the strings on this series of attractions,” Mr. Lowenstein writes.

What are we to make of all these theories? Now that horror is a standard feature of the mainstream cultural menu, the genre has increasingly become like any other where craft and beauty are drawing cards. But what will always distinguish horror is its unique capacity to make us tremble. And it’s unlikely that any single theory will ever entirely explain that appeal, for fear is as personal and subjective as beauty.

To be sure, the psychoanalytic approach, drawing as it does on feelings and impulses born early in childhood, captures something important; adults forget just how terrifying being a small child can be. But children also adapt quickly, and not all frights are unpleasant: peekaboo, after all, is one of the first games any child plays, and “Hansel and Gretel” introduces readers to cannibalism before inviting them to celebrate the burning of a witch.

If getting scared is one of our first pleasures, then maybe horror movies are just a reminder of how much fun we used to have.

Jason Zinoman, a frequent contributor to "The New York Times", is the author of “Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror.”