As a part of my being something of a genre-freak, I've built up a reasonably substantial collection of books on horror theory. Picking apart favourite books and movies to poke at their innards certainly isn't everyone's cup of tea, but then I'm one of those that tend to watch all the DVD extras and then look up all the trivia about films I've just watched.
One of the common subjects in these very varied theoretical texts is an examination of the definition of horror. Previously, I'd generally felt that horror was quite self-evident - you know it when you see it. (Clues including: black / red / lurid video covers; lashings of gore; creepy spooks; actors who are still mainly waiting tables.) However, in the course of reading these books, it has become evident that numerous theories exist relating to what exactly constitutes horror, and how the genre relates to existing philosophical and psychoanalytical thought.
As a fan of the (sometimes maligned) horror genre, it heartens me to discover that so much thought has gone into analysing horror, encompassing not just the highbrow but also the trashier end of the spectrum.
Here I'll attempt to summarise the horror definitions of some of these theorists; people far more competent and thorough in their research than myself, beginning with the first book of horror theory I ever got my mitts on - Noel Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart.
The opening chapters of the book are concerned with offering a definition of horror - specifically what Carroll terms "art-horror" (as opposed to horrific occurances in real life.) As demonstrated in his statement regarding the purpose of the text - to offer "an account of horror in virtue of the emotional effects it is designed to cause in audiences" (p. 8) - Carroll's approach is focused on the responses of the reader / viewer to the text, and he takes the generation of these responses as the basis for his definition of the genre. Carroll raises an interesting point in support of this theory; namely that the genres such as "horror" and "suspense" are named for the emotions aroused, in contrast to, for example, musicals and Westerns which are defined by their structure and setting respectively. However, Carroll's parameters for horror are somewhat restricted - he puts much importance on the presence of supernatural elements, and especially the presence of "monsters" as a prerequesite for a work to be considered "art-horror", to the detriment of many notable examples of the form. Carroll terms non-supernatural horror e.g. Peeping Tom , or the works of Poe as a different catergory: "tales of terror". This seems something of a false distinction - whilst there are many examples of works that hover on the edge of the genre (eg Alien; Delierance), to eliminate all non-supernatural horror is to exclude many works which strongly evoke the art-horror affect in the consumer - the primary defining characteristic of horror according to Carroll's own reasoning.
An example of what I see as Carroll's problematic categorisation is his classification of the Stephen King novel Cujo as a thriller / suspense as opposed to a horror, due mainly to the fact that the antagonist is non-supernatural - "just a dog." (p.38) Whilst it would be a mistake to automatically assign all of King's output to the horror category, I believe that Cujo definitely falls squarely into the genre, and the titular character is certainly more than "just a dog." The novel abounds with supernatural imagery - for example the bogey man in the closet and the suggestion that a notorious serial killer may be able to return from the dead. The rabid dog itself serves as a metaphor open to multiple interpretations - in the latter half of the book the narrative is stripped back to a simple confrontation between the family unit in the car versus the inscrutable threat outside. The lack of convoluted plotting enables the reader to view Cujo as symbolic of any threat to safety and security of the family; whether disease, violence, social unrest or the damaging effects of addiction - known to be a personal preoccupation for King at the time. The fact that Cujo is infected with rabies when bitten by a bat - a clear allusion to vampirism - suggests that he may be possessed rather than merely infected; this suggestion brings to mind the literary and mythical archetype of the "demon dogs", such as the three-headed guardian of Hades Cerberus, the beast in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and the vampire's canine form in Dracula.
On the subject of monsters, Carroll raises an interesting point – how what constitutes a “monster” is reliant on the other characters' responses to it. As he points out, a creature such as Chewbacca has an appearance which would define him as monstrous in a horror context, but in Star Wars he is “just one of the guys.” (p.16) However, the viewer's ready acceptance of Chewbacca as a benign character is not solely a result of character-mirroring - he is also an example of the archetype of the "friendly monster". This character type is especially prevalent in children's literature, examples including the Muppets, The BFG; Bigfoot & The Hendersons; Five Children & It and Monsters, Inc. Audience response to Chewbacca is as, or perhaps more, likely to be based on his similarity to an existing and familiar archtype than on immediate response to the characters in Star Wars.
Expanding on this, Carroll states that horror take their cues from the human characters – we flinch when they do; start in our seats when they are attacked by the monster, and so on – “Our responses are meant, ideally, to parallel those of characters.” (p.18). Whilst this is undeniably a characteristic of much of the genre – particularly slasher movies, and “tales of terror” such as MR James’ – the audience’s attitudes to the monstrous figure often diverge significantly from those of the characters. This is exemplified by a film that Carroll himself cites – David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Carroll argues that classifying the film as a horror feels “not quite right” (p39), despite the Brundlefly’ “undeniably impure” and “disgusting” nature. By Carroll’s definition, a horrific monster must embody “threat and impurity”, and he argues that the fly monster lacks threat throughout much of the film due to the concerned (but unthreatened) attitude of Brundle’s girlfriend Veronica, who supposedly “cues our response to the fly.” (p40). I would argue that, in this case, the responses of the audience and of the sympathetic character diverge greatly. We are privy to far more information than she is – the hubristic origins of Brundle’s malady, and the way in which he revels in his new-found strength and agility, despite being aware of its transgressive cause. Much of the tension and dramatic irony in the film stems from the fact that we know more than her, and this knowledge alerts us to the threat posed by Seth Brundle. The tag-line for the movie – “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid”, though a line spoken by Veronica towards the end of the film, reflects well the way the audience feel towards her – we fear Brundle, and believe she should too. Rather than taking our emotional cues from her, we are frustrated by observing the danger she is ignorant of, and desire her to “Be Afraid”.
Again, Carroll disregards the metaphorical significance of the monster-figure, an aspect that I feel is central to the definition of any text as a horror. Brundle’s mad-scientist nature reflects anxieties about the progress of science, with advanced knowledge being in the hands of a few; his bodily transformation / disintegration evokes concerns about the fluidity of identity and fear of disease. I believe that The Fly’s audience would regard the Brundlefly as abject, monstrous and threatening, despite a lack of direct mirroring of theoir emotions by the characters in the film.
Despite my reservations about some of the stricter definitions of “art-horror” that Carroll puts forward, his analysis is highly instructive and enlightening. It is also edifying to learn later on in the book that, along with the higher-brow regions of Hitchcock and De Maupassant, Carroll sees fit to apply serious analytical such works as Killer Crabs and Attack of the Giant Leeches (canonical masterpieces I have , sadly, as yet failed to track down.)
I have only discussed the first chapter of the book here – Carroll goes on to examine topics such as structures of horror narratives, the paradox of enjoying horror fiction, character-identification, and Todorov’s theory of the fantastic. The Philosophy of Horror is often cited by other academic texts, and is a major reference point in academic study of the horror genre.