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The Horror Anomaly
Daniel Toré contemplates the ethics of finding pleasure in displeasure.
I was no more than eight years old, sitting crossed-legged on the floor, when I watched Michael Myers leap out of nowhere to pin a teenager to a wall with a knife in the film Halloween (1978). It was shocking, I was terrified – choking – but I was also exhilarated! But then I thought, What the hell is wrong with me?
Poster © Compass International Pictures 1978
Having been baited by my giggling much older brother to watch this film together, something changed in me that night. From then on, every weekend when we went to the video rental store (yes, I am that old), I would stand, open-mouthed and dumb-struck by the images and colours on the chunky VHS boxes on the horror display. Not knowing it at the time, I had begun a life-long loving relationship with extreme cinema. It didn’t go as far as to see me skipping through a field hand-in-hand with Pinhead from Hellraiser (1987); but it did stretch to me going to the cinema by myself to see It, Part One (2017) (we had just moved abroad and didn’t know anybody, and my heavily pregnant wife insisted that the stress of the movie would make her go into labour there in the seat). But every time I sit down to enjoy some new release that promises to be ickier than the last fourteen instalments in that particular franchise, I stop to seriously ask myself – am I wrong for enjoying this?
I mean, it certainly seems immoral. Should my ever-patient and loving wife walk in on me watching that guy from The Office getting sown like Frankenstein into a fish-puppet in House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and ask why I’m watching this, my answer is a sincere “It gives me joy!” But I feel as though I at least owe it to myself, if not to her, to consider if I may not be a bit odd. This perhaps seems to be primarily a question of aesthetics, which is among other things concerned with asking why exactly we like to experience the things we like to experience. But in fact, what I want to answer here is a moral question: Is it morally wrong to enjoy (often brutal) horror movies?
Good Horrific Culture
Horror is an unavoidable aspect of entertainment. Many big TV shows, films, books, games, and other media have a frightening element to them. Stranger Things, The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, and anything written by Stephen King, are perpetually popular. With Get Out (2017), horror won an Oscar. There are also cinematic classics like The Shining (1980). Even non-horror franchises have terror in them: think of Voldemort or Aragog in Harry Potter, or audiences erupting with joy when somebody gets leapt on and half-eaten in Jurassic Park. Even those who genuinely dislike horror can enjoy the monsters in these other forms of entertainment. However, I actively seek out the monsters, with the intention to feel fear and disgust for fun. One could infer that I was mentally scarred by horror at a young age, but… nah. Horror is always popular, and countless others as well as myself have learnt to find fun in feeling dread and repulsion. But at the same time, I don’t spend my Friday nights hanging out in graveyards, nor do I eat mouldy food on purpose (I haven’t done that in ages). So, what exactly is the difference?
To borrow some ideas from philosopher Noël Carroll’s book The Philosophy of Horror (1990), we might begin by pointing out the difference between natural horror and art-horror. Natural horror includes the real world events that incite the pain we feel or which is felt by others: wars, tsunamis, or dropping your pizza on the floor and it falls out of the box. Should Leatherface actually be chasing me through the backfields of Texas with a chainsaw, I don’t think I would be having a good time. But art-horror is different. The art-horror we are concerned with I will define as the horror we read on a page or see on a screen that is intended to be entertaining (so the news doesn’t count, because no one sane watches that for fun). Admittedly, there can be similar moral issues muddled in with natural horror as there are with art-horror, such as morality of the enjoyment of pain in real life, or of the enjoyment of inflicting pain, but I don’t have the space to explore that here.
In his Poetics, Aristotle says something that might be applied to natural versus art-horror: “objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.” The key word here is ‘reproduced’: there is a significance we enjoy when seeing upsetting things reproduced for us, but not when they’re real. A contemporary Aristotle might also argue that the enjoyment of horror comes not from the outward appearance (the blood and guts everywhere), but the catharsis we get as an audience. Catharsis is psychological release or purification; as the man himself said, catharsis “is the human soul purged of its excessive passions” (Poetics). As humans we collect a myriad of frustrations throughout the day: slow lines in the bank, nit-picky bosses, or students who just won’t sit down no matter how many times you tell them, even though it clearly says on the whiteboard that this is quiet reading time! Art-horror is like a tool we use to purify ourselves of these frustrations in a safe way, and in this I see no reason to take a moral stance against it.
Annoyed because he doesn’t get to skip hand in hand through fields
Hellraiser film image © Entertainment Film Distributors 1987
The Horror of Horror
This is not to say that there are not objectionable things in horror films. I can give several first-hand accounts of some pretty unpleasant things I have seen in movies that made me need to go and lay down for 2-3 working days. Neither does Aristotle’s pretty descriptions of art and what is happening in us when we observe art-horror fully answer our general question, Is it immoral?
The horror director Sam Rami himself admitted that he could not defend a particularly problematic scene in his own film The Evil Dead (1981), before allowing the British Board of Film Censors to remove part of that sequence. And despite the fact that the images are reproduced, I am enjoying something intentionally repulsive, or being entertained by someone going through something unpleasant, and this absolutely presents a moral question. To see for instance someone’s eyes being punctured with needles in the movie Audition (1999) and say to ourselves ‘Well, this is just fine!’ must reflect some ethical values, right? Think of all those parents in the 90s who walked in on their children playing Mortal Kombat and reeled in disgust about how it’s damaging society by teaching children that it’s okay to pull out a ninja’s spinal cord with their bare hands. I used to think those parents were just a bunch of squares who didn’t get it, daddio. But now I’m a parent, and I’ve stopped to think more than once about letting my kids watch Pokemon because it is just too violent for their innocent little minds.
We can certainly imagine the duty ethicist Immanuel Kant getting into a particularly nasty sweat when thinking about these kinds of issues and their moral implications. His theory of good ethical behaviour is, among other things, based on the question, If everyone did that, would it be fine? (I paraphrase). It’s not so hard to imagine a society where everyone enjoys horrific and violent imagery quickly getting desensitised and slipping back into spending their Sundays watching gladiators disembowelling one another in the hot sand.
However, those in the alternative, consequentialist ethical camp may argue that actually, art-horror promotes more happiness than it does pain. Utilitarian ethicists such as John Stuart Mill theorised that the ethical value of something is found in the happiness it promotes: the more happiness, the greater the moral worth. On his side of the fence, we could argue that no one is actually hurt in these films – they are professional actors making a living – and their work gives us pleasure. Everybody wins!
In further defence of art-horror, we may point out that a crucial element in ethics is the intention behind our actions rather than simply the actions themselves. For example, I sit in my car, fully aware that it’s capable of causing harm; but my intention is only to get myself to work on time. But should I get into my car with the wanton intention to plough into the first jogger I see, there would be an ethical problem even before I’ve turned the ignition. I have never put on a horror film with the intention to witness something grotesque; instead, my intention is to be entertained. The morally significant aspect here is simply my intention to relax and find enjoyment. Ergo, I am doing nothing wrong.
However, this feels like trying to ignore the issue or claim that it was never a problem in the first place. If it’s my intention to watch gore and discomfort for relaxation and enjoyment, then the question of the morality of my intention remains – not to mention the question of why I have this intention in the first place. To see this clearly, consider that should I nestle down for a quiet night in by putting on the 86 minute pseudo-documentary showcase of torture The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007, but not released until 2017) with the mere intention of being entertained, this does not resolve the moral problem of watching it – instead the problem is drawn into focus.
We could lean into a more psychological perspective too, and point out that two different areas of our minds are at odds here; our bloodthirsty Id wanting to satisfy some base desire for carnage, coming into conflict with our Superego, who cracks the whip to get the bloodthirsty lion back in the cage – all this conflict itself resulting in a mental reward of rushing positive emotions.
But what do we mentally get from horror? Imagine an animal slinking its way through the woods. We’ve set up a screen, and surrounded it with leaves so it cannot be discerned. Then, as the animal unwittingly passes, we play footage of one of its kind being violently killed. It seems clear to assume that the animal would immediately high-tail it out of there as a response to the distressing sights and sounds. So there must be something unique to us as humans that makes this sort of thing a desirable experience to some of us.
At face value it seems hard to imagine how fear is enjoyable, but a close look reveals otherwise. There is a stimulation, and also the affirmation in embracing our fears, especially in a controlled environment, such as roller-coasters, or trying unusual foods, or skydiving, or even standing up to an authority figure. I’ll give you an honest example. I am an arachnophobe. I used to not even be able to think about spiders without squirming. But, like most arachnophobes, I am sort of drawn to their cold dead eyes – similarily to how Bruce Wayne puts on the Batman cowl because he’s afraid of bats. I remember watching The Return of the King (2003) for the first time as Frodo climbed the stairs to Shelob’s Lair (she’s a giant spider). During this already tense scene, my brother (the same one that got me to watch Halloween in 1978) leaned over and whispered in my ear what Frodo would find up there (I’m starting to realise that my brother may be the problem here). Knowing that the main character would walk into a pitch-black tunnel, alone and confused, with a gigantic demon-spider scuttling towards him from the dark, gave me a fear like I’ve never experienced. Yet it was amazing at the same time! A moment of pulse-pounding terror I will never forget, which I will always consider one of my best cinema experiences, despite, paradoxically, being one of the most excruciating.
Moreover, according to Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651), it is our curiosity which separates us from the animals. Humans seek out the causes of our experiences and actions, whereas animals live in a perpetual now. And it is curiosity that drives exploration. Our curiosity for the unknown, the unexplained, the unusual, gives us a perfectly natural desire to explore these things. Thus it is curiosity about what will happen in a horror film that drives our desire to buy a ticket. There is a pleasure in fulfilling that desire by having an answer to that curiosity: ‘’Where are all the virgins in London disappearing to? Oh, it was an evil sentient blob from outer space that’s been swallowing them. Boy, that sure feels good to know.”
Poster © Universal Pictures 2017
Several Questions & Answers
However, we are no closer to answering if one is morally bankrupt for loving this stuff. To help me gain another perspective, I interviewed another horror fan and film expert (and long-suffering friend of mine) Lucy Buglass, a senior staff writer from the fantastic review website watchtowatch.com. I asked her the following five questions:
1. What are your views of the horror genre in general? Does it give us something we don’t get from the rest of the entertainment industry?
2. What is it that we enjoy about horror? Is it just that blood and guts are cool?
3. Is there a different kind of enjoyment we get from gore movies? There seems to be a difference between a psychological puzzle like Silence of the Lambs and a blood-splattered mosh pit like Tokyo Gore Police or BrainDead.
4. Is it wrong to enjoy these things? Let’s think of films that are intentionally grotesque – a step further even than Saw or Hostel, such as, the Guinea Pig series, Men Behind The Sun, or The Poughkeepsie Tapes? Are these films morally defensible?
5. As a summary, is it immoral to enjoy horror?
In response Lucy made a number of fascinating points from her unique standpoint as a film expert, which give me a greater understanding of the intention behind art-horror; and by better understanding the intention we may better infer the meaning. Let me do my best to summarise the arguments she made.
The horror genre is a surprisingly difficult thing to pin down. It is more a case of ‘family resemblances’ in a Wittgensteinian sense than of a specific trait that we can point to and scream ‘’There be horror!” The frightening element could be found in a lurking unknown etherealness; or the gore of someone’s brain exploding; a Hitchcockian feeling of suspense; in realistic depictions of the minds of killers; or by showing us something wholly alien and eldritch – or any or all of the above at once. This is all to say that rather than there being a single ‘horror’ trait that all horror movies have in common, horror looks different every time. To quote Lucy: “Horror is inherently versatile.” The horror genre has a unique ability to play with other genres, maybe even find humour in its own grimness, as with Shaun of the Dead (2004), which manages to make us laugh at a zombie apocalypse. This is something unique to the genre that gives it a constant and dedicated fan-base, who are not seeking ‘pleasure in displeasure’, but simply seeking entertainment.
Furthermore, no matter the subject of a horror film, or the type of terror happening on screen, there’s always a larger point being made. A filmmaker rarely makes a film purely for the sake of shocking an audience, but instead uses the shocking imagery with the intention of communicating something else. Thus horrific images, creepy monsters, or whatever it may be, are used as tools for manipulating the audience’s emotions for a desired effect. Take Get Out, for instance, which uses the true horrors of racism, human experimentation, and betrayal as a way of making a point about societal prejudice, stigmas, and insecurities. Often, particularly extreme movies are protests, such as A Serbian Film (2010) written and directed by Sr đ an Spasojevi ć , who described his hellscape picture as “a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government… It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about…” Compare this with the Jackass franchise, where real people are actually hurt on camera for the delight of the audience without any greater meaning whatsoever.
And a good time was had by all
Texas Chainsaw Massacre film image © Bryanston Distributing Company 1974
In my fourth question I asked Lucy about intentionally grotesque movies such as Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005): don’t these look like just excuses to hack people up? She pointed out that the violence is used to make wider comments about society and the human condition. The Saw series, for example, represents the brutal trials we face in our own lives and how they can either destroy or improve us. Lucy also commented on how the horror genre can be used to show off just how far special or practical effects have come, but they are never used flippantly.
I mentioned the 1988 Hong Kong exploitation movie The Men Behind the Sun, which I personally regard as one of the hardest watches I’ve ever endured (seriously, it’s not nice). But its director Mou Tun-Fei says that that’s exactly the point: the film is a graphic depiction of the atrocities the Chinese people faced during World War II at the hands of imperial Japan, and it’s deliberately unbearable as a protest against war-crimes and to raise awareness of these evils. We only need to look at Men Behind the Sun 4: The Nanking Massacre (1995) for proof of that intention.
But what’s the personal purpose of these societal comments? Lucy, without prompting from me, argued that they are a source of catharsis for the viewer. Horror is a way of working-through or relieving our emotions. In a similar way to how comedies play with our emotions to create pleasant responses, horror movies bring up difficult emotions so that we may be mentally relieved, and in this sense one is not more or less moral than the other. Lucy continued that she has known multiple trauma victims who have felt supported or seen by horror movies when their source of trauma is represented on the screen, especially when a victim overcomes their attacker and is rewarded with any kind of happy ending. This seems like a more ethical outcome than the entertainment industry ignoring victims entirely.
From our discussion incorporating theories presented by various philosophers, both ancient and modern, I feel confident in concluding that art-horror is not immoral, nor is it immoral to enjoy it. After all, it seems clear that art-horror is a source of catharsis and the result of natural curiosity, and without wider ethical complications. This is not to say that everyone ought to enjoy horror, or that there is no reason to find moral objections to certain things in certain horror movies. But the true anomaly of horror is not the problem of finding pleasure in displeasure, but of confusing what’s morally wrong with what you dislike.
© Daniel Toré 2023
Daniel Toré is a philosophy teacher in Sweden and member of the British Wittgenstein Society.