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In defence of horror

A human eyeball shoots out of its socket, and rolls into a gutter. A child returns from the dead and tears the beating heart from his tormentor’s chest. A young man has horrifying visions of his mother’s decomposing corpse. A baby is ripped from its living mother’s womb. A mother tears her son to pieces, and parades around with his head on a stick… These are scenes from the notorious, banned ‘video nasty’ films Eaten Alive, Zombie Flesh Eaters, I Spit on Your Grave, Anthropophagous: The Beast, and Cannibal Holocaust.

Well, no. They could be – but they’re not. All these scenes and images can be found safely inside the respectable covers of Oxford World’s Classics, in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, M.R. James, James Joyce, William Shakespeare, and Euripides. Only the first two of these are avowedly writers of horror, and none of these books comes with any kind of public health warning or age-suitability guideline. What does this mean?

Euripides’s The Bacchae, first performed around 400 BC, is one of the foundational works of the Western literary canon. In describing graphically the actions of Agave and her Maenads, dismembering King Pentheus and putting his head on a pole, it also sets the bar very high for artistic representations of violence and gore. The episode of the baby ripped from the mother’s womb to which I alluded in the first paragraph is from Macbeth, of course – it’s Macduff’s account of his own birth. And Macbeth, though certainly no slouch in the mayhem department, isn’t even Shakespeare’s most violent play. That would be Titus Andronicus, whose opening scene makes the connections between civilization and horror very clear, as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, sees her son brutally killed by the conquering Romans:

See, lord and father, how we have performed
Our Roman rites: Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d,
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky.

What follows is well known: further mutilation, rape, cannibalism. Shocking, yes; surprising, no. After all, the greater part of the Western literary tradition follows, or celebrates, a faith whose own sacrificial rites have at their heart symbolic representations of torture and cannibalism, the cross and the host. A case could plausibly be made that the Western literary tradition is a tradition of horror. This may be an overstatement, but it’s an argument with which any honest thinker has to engage.

M. R. James [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
M. R. James, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The classic argument adduced in defence of the brutality of tragedy (a form which I have come to think of as highbrow horror) is the Aristotelian concept of catharsis, according to which the act of witnessing artistic representations of cruelty and monstrosity, pity and fear, purges the audience of these emotions, leaving them psychologically healthier. Horror is good for you! I confess I have always had difficulty accepting this hypothesis (though I recognize that many people far more learned and brilliant than me have had no trouble accepting it). It seems to me to be a classic example of an intellectual’s gambit, a theory offered without recourse to any evidence. And yet catharsis seems to me to be far preferable to another, more common, response to horror: the urge to censor or ban extreme documents and images in the name of public morality. If catharsis is Aristotelian, then this hypothesis is Pavlovian: horror conditions our responses; a tendency to watch violent acts leads inexorably to a tendency to commit violent acts. For many people, this seems to make intuitive sense (on more than one occasion, I’ve noticed people backing away from me when I tell them I work on horror), and it’s the impetus behind the framing of the Video Recordings Act of 1984, after which Cannibal Holocaust and all those other video nasties were banned. As a number of commentators and critics have noted, there’s no evidence for this Pavlovian hypothesis, either. Worse than that, there’s a distinct class animus behind such thinking. You and I, cultured, literate, educated, middle class folks that we are, are perfectly safe: when we watch Cannibal Holocaust (which I do, even if you don’t) we know what we are seeing, we can contextualize the film, interpret it, recognize it for what it is. The problem, the argument implicitly goes, is not us, it is them, those festering, semi-bestial proletarians whose extant propensity for violence (always simmering beneath the surface) can only be stoked by watching these films. That’s why no-one seriously considers banning The Bacchae or Titus Andronicus – why any suggestion that we do so would be treated as an act of appalling philistinism. They are horror for the educated classes.

Horror is, unquestionably, an extreme art form. Like all avant-garde art, I would suggest, its real purpose is to force its audiences to confront the limits of their own tolerance – including, emphatically, their own tolerance for what is or is not art. Commonly, when hitting these limits, we respond with fear, frustration, and even rage. Even today, this is not an unusual reaction on first reading Finnegans Wake, for example: I see it occasionally in my students, who are (a) voluntarily students of literature, and (b) usually Irish, not to say actual Dubliners. So we shouldn’t be surprised that audiences respond to horror with – well, with horror. But we need to recognize that the reasons for doing this are complex, and are deeply bound up with the meaning and function of art, and of civilization.

Headline image: Pentheus torn apart by Agave and Ino. Attic red-figure lekanis (cosmetics bowl) lid, ca. 450-425 BC, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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