Thomas Fahy, Ed. The Philosophy of Horror. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.259 pp. Cloth. ISBN 978-0-8131-2573-2. $39.95.
The Philosophy of Horror, a collection of essays edited by Thomas Fahy, belongs to a series of volumes called The Philosophy of Popular Culture. The classification is important here as books in the series are targeted toward a general audience and endeavor to introduce traditional philosophical concepts through examples in popular culture. In addition to an introduction by the editor, The Philosophy of Horror contains fourteen chapters that are largely (with two exceptions) grounded in particular media artifacts that span television, film, and print. Mostly based in traditional conceptualizations of the horror genre, the volume also notably includes media that might be classified as “thrillers” (e.g., Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume), a move that acts to expand the definition of horror beyond a genre in order to encompass an emotional state or a type of relationship between audience and artifact.
Indeed, editor Thomas Fahy creates this framework through his introduction wherein a story about skydiving allows him to describe the emotive experience of interacting with a piece of horror fiction. Referencing the book’s namesake, Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart, Fahy notes that, at its core, horror presents a paradox: twin forces of attraction and repulsion, fear and relief, or suffering and justice appear as consistent themes throughout the works that are described with the label of horror. As any scholar of horror will well note, although the setting may appear fantastical, the central issues in any piece of horror are grounded in the human experience. To this end, Fahy notes that the following key philosophical concepts are evidenced throughout the book: morality, identity, cultural history, and aesthetics.
Taking the broadest view of horror, the book’s first two chapters—Philip J. Nickel’s “Horror and the Idea of Everyday Life: On Skeptical Threats in Psycho and The Birds” and Philip Tallon’s “Through a Mirror, Darkly: Art-Horror as a Medium for Moral Reflection”—each attempt to discern and elucidate the function of horror. Ultimately, both essays reflect upon horror’s ability to explore the fundamental human sense of vulnerability and fragility; in one respect, this sense of insecurity certainly relates to the perennial issue of mortality that pervades most horror but also to the larger philosophical question of morality for horror also forces the question of who gets to live and why. Importantly, however, both authors move past the susceptibility of the human body in order to discuss a wider range of vulnerabilities: in the tradition of the postmodern, absolutes are questioned and assumptions are questioned in ways that ultimately lead individuals to become introspective as they examine their own preconceptions regarding how the world works and which moral positions are justified.
In addition, however, the kind of questioning suggested by the book’s first two essays naturally sets the stage for an examination of identity; the process whereby one deconstructs one’s value system almost necessarily involves a period of reflection on who one is to begin with. Dealing with the theme of identity most directly, Amy Kind’s “The Vampire with a Soul: Angel and the Quest for Identity” thinks through the implications and responsibilities of having a soul. The key contribution Kind puts forth is to divorce the possession of a soul from notions of personhood, instead pondering the way in which a soul makes one an individual. For us as humans, this distinction makes little sense but the realm of the fantastic offers a great space for us to consider how alternate beings (in this case demons, but we might also include androids) do not necessarily become “human,” but can in fact become individuated.
Moreover, just as Kind’s essay speaks to a need to reevaluate the world and our preconceptions of it, Jessica O’Hara’s “Making Their Presence Known: TV’s Ghost-Hunter Phenomenon in a ‘Post-’World” uses the trope of paranormal investigation television to think through ways in which the world around us is perceived and how those insights are examined. O’Hara’s work also bridges the gap between identity and cultural history for it, on one level, necessarily juxtaposes the present with the past; one way in which to read the popularity of shows about ghosts is to consider that they may speak to the cultural renegotiation between private and public space in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Although one might make an argument that these ghost shows more prominently feature domestic spaces and therefore privilege the private sphere, a stronger position might suggest that, at their core, ghost stories also speak to the most grievous defilement of privacy and security: the home invasion.
This theme of unease with the domestic space is also echoed in John Lutz’s “From Domestic Nightmares to the Nightmare of History,” which looks at subjugation in The Shining on three levels: domestic, colonialism, and commodification. Much more than a clichéd “things are not what they seem” The Shining ruminates on abuse(s) in various settings and the way in which these themes are circulated throughout our identity as Americans. Unlike the narratives of the ghost hunters, cultural black marks like slavery, internment, and colonization evidence a need for resolution that allows us to appropriately repent and then move forward as we wash our hands of responsibility regarding the violation.
And violation, it would seem, is also a core component of Jeremy Morris’ “The Justification of Torture-Horror: Retribution and Sadism in Saw, Hostel¸ and The Devil’s Rejects” and Fahy’s “Hobbes, Human Nature, and the Culture of American Violence in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.” The films of the torture-horror genre—specifically, here, those that have been released in the mid-2000’s and have been wryly labeled “torture porn” for their graphic and voyeuristic elements—obviously and overtly speak to a type of violation of the body that clearly aligns with a desecration of the self and, resultantly, one’s identity. Returning to the ever-present paradox in horror, Morris looks at the unstable definitions of torturer and tortured and questions how we, to a degree, participate in both roles. Moreover, we once again witness the familiar themes of powerlessness and agency that appear in O’Hara’s essay on ghost hunting while also transforming these issues into something more visceral and personal. Films like Saw and Hostel not only cause us to contemplate the unpleasantness of having torture visited upon ourselves but also ways in which we are complicit in torture or, as an extreme, might participate in the torture of others in order to preserve our own safety. Along with Fahy’s essay on Capote’s In Cold Blood, Morris asks us to think past “senseless” violence in order to consider the unsettling realization that we are all harboring secret monsters and capable of untold brutality if pressured.
In a way, Fahy’s essay works to transition between Morris and Lorena Russell’s “Ideological Formations of the Nuclear Family in The Hills Have Eyes” as it continues to ruminate on the capacity for violence even as it gestures beyond violation of the person toward a transgression of interpersonal structures. In the case of Fahy and Capote, we are witness to the aftermath that permeates a small town in the wake of a vicious murder while Russell chooses to examine the way in which The Hills Have Eyes comments on the breakdown of the nuclear family. Centering her arguments in the ideology of the family, Russell presents a series of arguments about the family that continue to resonate today; in particular, one of the strongest points that Russell makes is to consider how the original film and its remake speak to the growing divide between urban and rural sensibilities (here it should be noted that the horror films of the 1970s often spoke to this disjuncture, although such critique was not usually tied so closely to family structures). Like with most films in the genre, the real horror is realizing that the term “monster” is relative and that we are all monsters in a given light; moreover, the danger presented by those who are like us is often the more hazardous as it represents the threat that we never see coming.
Shifting away from identity and toward cultural history, we also have John Lutz’ “Zombies of the World, Unite: Class Struggle and Alienation in Land of the Dead,” and Paul A. Cantor’s “The Fall of the House of Ulmer: Europe vs. America in the Gothic Vision of The Black Cat.” Although well argued, Lutz’ essay adds the least to the its respective field of study as it retreads upon the position that zombies can be read as critiques on class and race in America. Cantor’s essay, on the other hand, provides an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the essays in the book as it uses The Black Cat to think through foreign perceptions of America in the post-World War I period.
This element of critical commentary focuses on the aesthetic in the final essays of the book—Susann Cokal’s “’Hot with Rapture and Cold with Fear’: Grotesque, Sublime, and Postmodern Tranformation in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume,” Robert F. Gross’ “Shock Value: A Deleuzean Encounter with James Purdy’s Narrow Rooms,” Ann C. Hall’s “Making Monsters: The Philosophy of Reproduction in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and the Universal Films Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein,” and David MacGregor Johnston’s “Kitch and Camp and Things That Go Bump in the Night; or Sontag and Adorno at the (Horror) Movies”—and resembles more traditional forms of film analysis. Of the four, Johnston and Gross’ essays are the most enlightening, although the latter may well represent the most challenging piece to read in the entire book.
With its range in topics and perspectives, The Philosophy of Horror is a good choice for those who are fans of horror or who are looking to situate themselves within the field of study. The essays in this volume may very well spark a reader’s interest and introduce new arguments but will also undoubtedly leave them reaching for a more substantive volume on their subject of inquiry.
Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies how the definition of “the body” is being contested in American culture. Particularly interested in the confluence of horror, religion, gender, and youth, Chris is currently working on projects that explore the ways in which children are configured in the shadow of apocalypse, catastrophe, and trauma.
Although I occasionally make fun of him, I’m starting to understand how the little kid from The Sixth Sense (I don’t remember the character’s name either) felt—except, instead of dead people, I see sex. Okay, granted, it’s not quite the same, as I don’t have crazy dead ghosts yapping in my ear and making some future therapist a bunch of money. But, all the same, I can’t stop noticing things even though I might want to.
“Fox is messed up,” I lamented to my coworker Michael. “Every time a girl has sex on Dollhouse, bad things happen to her.”
I should back up a second and say that I wanted to be a fan of this show—I was checking the website for weeks in advance and I’ve seen every episode to date. Overall, it’s not bad (and there’s nothing else on during the timeslot), but it’s certainly not great and there is that pesky problem with the show’s conservative attitude toward sex.
On one hand, the show certainly isn’t afraid to show its characters in sexual situations (the majority of the episodes to date have featured a prominent group shower insert that has very little to do with anything) and the title sequence features a (half?) naked Eliza. I get that her lack of clothing is supposed to comment on her character, but she’s still naked.
Despite the saturation of sex in the show’s environment, Dollhouse demonstrates very poor consequences for women who engage in sexual activity. Where to start?
The main character, Echo, has sex with a pretty attractive, rich, and normal-seeming guy who, upon climax, begins to hunt her down. Literally. With a bow and arrow. (On a side note, can we talk about how this scenario plays into many women’s worst fear that a guy, once slept with, will turn into a monster? This situation is not quite as literal as Angel turning into a soulless vampire after he slept with Buffy, but why does this keep coming up in Joss’ shows?)
A secondary character suffers an episode of rape committed by her handler (I don’t have time to discuss the many issues at play here) and then has her memory erased. I can see the small value in making people forget some traumatic incident that happened to them (especially given the world of the show) but I can’t help but feel incredible sorrow for the character—she was raped and is not going to even know that it happened. For the rest of her life, other people will know what truly happened to her, and how she was violated, and she will not; I can see the upside to this but I also see a huge downside.
Finally, we have a desperate neighbor who is doing everything she can to sleep with one of the male leads, finally does, and then is brutally attacked. If you’ve seen this past episode, you can argue that she takes charge and dispatches her assailant, but I would also mention that her civilian persona still has to deal with the aftermath.
In case you’re keeping score, half of the men who have had sex on the show have suffered no consequences and half have died (I strongly suspect that these male characters perished more because they were assholes and perished while they were trying to kill someone else, than because they were slated to suffer consequences from engaging in sexual intercourse). The “good guys” who have had sex are doing just fine.
I don’t have many qualms with the show overall and I don’t necessarily think that women should have to not face consequences for having sex—all I’m saying is that the depiction of sex should be more balanced (like Fox!). The danger, I feel, lies in our tendency to soak up these skewed external messages of sex subconsciously and to make them our own.
I had gone with my friend Kim to a concert the night before and it had been a long evening. I will be the first to admit that I usually stay up late, but getting out of a venue after six hours of hearing sets from Snow Patrol, The Killers, and Death Cab for Cutie, would be draining for anyone. Kim and I had both refrained from calling in sick to work and were now commiserating with each other.
“It was raining on the freeway this morning,” Kim lamented via e-mail.
“I have to navigate the treacherous waters of the office holiday party,” I countered. “It’s like Buffy having to live on Earth after glimpsing heaven.”
To be honest, it wasn’t much different from any other day but it was in the wake of one of the best shows of my life and the relative low could not be avoided. Being surprised by Kanye West’s performance was enough to push me over the edge and I would be in the relative doldrums for a few days.
I sat at my desk contemplating the message that I had just crafted. Had I just made a Buffy reference? Sure, I’m not the biggest fan of the show, but, like with the Facts of Life, you take the both the good and the bad (aspects of pop culture). The merits of Buffy itself are another discussion entirely, but one of the things that always struck me about this series was the way that it incorporated sex. Thankfully, although a show containing teenaged characters, the show itself transcended the issues that make up the typical high school fare. In the run of the show, audiences were exposed to Warren, a guy so desperate for a girlfriend that he created a robot (go back and check out the allusions to sexual gratification); Oz giving into his animalistic nature and cheating on Willow; and Buffy engaging in loathsome sex (her internal judgment, not mine) while the walls were literally and figuratively coming down around her. But, of all of the issues surrounding sex and sexuality on the show, the one that continually got to me was the recurring theme of sex and death.
These two things are of course linked: one brings you into this world (usually) and one takes you out of it. We can get philosophical and mention the cycle of life or our subconscious desire to cheat death by having children, but I find it fascinating to examine how these two forces affect our daily lives—we seem to have a bit of trouble with both in America, don’t we?
Americans are complex beings and our psyches often do not make a whole lot of sense. We have trouble dealing with death and sex but we are ready to accept sensual vampires—Twilight, True Blood, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m looking at you. Vampires are an incarnation of death (fine, the undead) whose act of feeding involves the intimate placement of a mouth on a neck and live only by seeing others die. Not to mention that the process of siring involves killing and birthing in the very same act!
I firmly believe that both events are natural (although they definitely have unnatural manifestations at times) and that neither should be feared. Yet, while I have my personal opinions on this subject (and there’s enough material to write a moderate essay), what’s more important for me is that you ask your own questions and find your own answers. When you have a second, think about how you relate to sex and how you relate to death: these two things will, in part, tell you how you relate to life. From le petite mort, to necrophilia, to autoerotic asphyxiation and the reduction of blood flow, the connections are there, if we choose to see them.