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.
WARNING: The following contains images that may be considered graphic in nature. As a former Biology student (and Pre-Med at that!), I have spent a number of hours around bodies and studying anatomy but I realize that this desensitization might not exist for everyone. I watched surgeries while eating dinner in college and study horror films (which I realize is not normal). Please proceed at your own risk.
At first glance, the anatomical model to the left (also known as “The Doll,” “Medical Venus,” or simply “Venus) might seem like nothing more than an inspired illustration from the most well-known text of medicine, Gray’s Anatomy. To most modern viewers, the image (and perhaps even the model itself) raise a few eyebrows but is unlikely to elicit a reaction much stronger than that. And why should it? We are a culture that has grown accustomed to watching surgeries on television, witnessed the horrible mutilating effects of war, and even turned death into a spectacle of entertainment. Scores of school children have visited Body Worlds or have been exposed to the Visible Human Project (if you haven’t watched the video, it is well worth the minute). We have also been exposed to a run of “torture porn” movies in the 2000s that included offerings like Saw, Hostel, and Captivity. Although we might engage in a larger discussion about our relationship to the body, it seems evident that we respond to, and use, images of the body quite differently in a modern context. (If there’s any doubt, one only need to look at a flash-based torture game that appeared in 2007, generating much discussion.) Undoubtedly, our relationship to the body has changed over the years—and will likely continue to do so with forays into transhumanism—which makes knowledge of the image’s original context all the more crucial to fully understanding its potential import.
Part of the image’s significance comes from it’s appearance in a culture that generally did not have a sufficient working knowledge of the body by today’s standards, with medical professionals also suffering a shortage of cadavers to study (which in turn led to an interesting panic regarding body snatching and consequentially resulted in a different relationship between people and dead bodies). The anatomical doll pictured above appeared as part of an exhibit in the Imperiale Regio Museo di Fisica e Storia Naturale (nicknamed La Specola), one of the few natural history museums open to the public at the time. This crucial piece of information allows historical researchers to immediately gain a sense of the model’s importance for, through it, knowledge of the body began to spread throughout the masses and its depiction would forever be inscribed onto visual culture.
Also important, however, is the female nature of the body, which itself reflected a then-fascination with women in Science. Take, for example, the notion that the Venus lay ensconced in a room full of uteruses and we immediately gain more information about the significance of the image above: in rather straightforward terms, the male scientist fascination with the female body and process of reproduction becomes evident. Although a more detailed discussion is warranted, this interest spoke to developments in the Enlightenment that began a systematic study of Nature, wresting way its secrets through the development of empirical modes of inquiry. Women, long aligned with Nature through religion (an additional point to be made here is that in its early incarnations, the clear demarcations between fields that we see today did not exist, meaning that scientists were also philosophers and religious practitioners) were therefore objects to be understood as males sought to once again peer further into the unknown. This understanding of the original image is reinforced when one contrasts it with its male counterparts from the same exhibit, revealing two noticeable differences. First, the female figure possesses skin, hair, and lips, which serve as reminders of the body’s femininity and humanity. Second, the male body remains intact, while the female body has been ruptured/opened to reveal its secrets. The male body, it seems, had nothing to hide. Moreover, the position of the female model is somewhat evocative, with its arched back, pursed lips, and visual similarity to Snow White in her coffin, which undoubtedly speaks to the posing of women’s bodies and how such forms were intended to be consumed.
Thus, the fascination with women’s bodies—and the mystery they conveyed—manifested in the physical placement of the models on display at La Specola, both in terms of distribution and posture. In short, comprehension of the museum’s layout helps one to understand not only the relative significance of the image above, but also speaks more generally to the role that women’s bodies held in 19th-century Italy, with the implications of this positioning resounding throughout Western history. (As a brief side note, this touches upon another area of interest for me with horror films of the 20th century: slasher films veiled an impulse to “know” women, with the phrase “I want to see/feel your insides” being one of my absolute favorites as it spoke to the psychosexual component of serial killers while continuing the trend established above. Additionally, we also witness a rise in movies wherein females give birth to demon spawn (e.g. The Omen), are possessed by male forces (e.g., The Exorcist), and are also shown as objects of inquiry for men who also seek to “know” women through science (e.g., Poltergeist). Recall the interactivity with the Venus and we begin to sense a thematic continuity between the renegotiation of women’s bodies, the manipulation of women’s bodies, and knowledge. For some additional writings on this, La Specola, and the television show Caprica, please refer to a previous entry on my blog.)
This differential treatment of bodies continues to exist today, with the aforementioned Saw providing a pertinent (and graphic) example. Compare the image of a female victim to the right with that of the (male) antagonist Jigsaw below. Although the situational context of these images differ, with the bodies’ death states providing commentary on the respective characters, both bodies are featured with exposed chests in a manner similar to the Venus depicted at the outset of this piece. Extensive discussion is beyond the scope of this writing, but I would like to mention that an interesting—and potentially productive—sort of triangulation occurs when one compares the images of the past/present female figures (the latter of whom is caught in an “angel” trap) with each other and with that of the past/present male figures. Understanding these images as points in a constellation helps one to see interesting themes: for example, as opposed to the 19th-century practice (i.e, past male), the image of Jigsaw (i.e., present male) cut open is intended to humanize the body, suggesting that although he masterminded incredibly detailed traps his body was also fragile and susceptible to breakdown. Jigsaw’s body, then, presents some overlap with Venus (i.e., past female) particularly when one considers that Jigsaw’s body plays host to a wax-covered audiotape—in the modern interpretation, it seems that the male body is also capable of harboring secrets.
Ultimately, a more detailed understanding of the original image would flush out its implications for the public of Italy in the 19th century and also look more broadly at the depictions of women, considering how “invasive practices” were not just limited to surgery. La Specola’s position as a state-sponsored institution also has implications for the socio-historical context for the image that should also be investigated. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, scholars should endeavor to understand the Medical Venus as not just reflective of cultural practice but also seek to ascertain how its presence (along with other models and the museum as a whole) provided new opportunities for thought, expression, and cultivation of bodies at the time.