Why are we so transfixed by creatures that are half insect and half man? What’s so fascinating about giant jellyfish that rain down from Mars to take over our planet?
How can people be attracted by what is actually terrifying or repulsive? Why are we transfixed by imagery that it would seem most natural for us to avoid?
It could be argued that this is an abnormality or a perversion, but Noel Carroll (b. 1947) suggests in The Philosophy of Horror that this conclusion might be a misconception, given the vast numbers of human beings turned on by horror and fantasy.
Noel Carrol, an important American philosopher of contemporary art, believes that fantasy and horror operate by challenging and dissolving perceived limits of reality and so violate our normal perspective.
The Pretend Theory
Another American philosopher, Kendall Walton, (b.1939) proposes The Pretend Theory and maintains it’s all just make-believe. Walton does not accept that we have any real emotional responses to fiction. Women reading novels don’t actually feel emotionally involved with the characters, they just pretend they feel that way. So, says, Walton, we “make-believedly” fear the monster in horror movies, and, analogously, we “make-believedly” feel happy or sad for characters in fiction with whom we identify.” These, Walton believes, are quasi-emotions and when enjoying horror, we are merely feeling quasi-fear.
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Or – A Liberation of Repression?
Noel Carroll disagrees with Walton. If it were a pretend emotion, one would think that it could be enjoyed at will. Carroll offers an example: “I could elect to remain unmoved by TheExorcist. I could refuse to make believe I was horrified. But I don’t think that was really an option for those like myself who were overwhelmedly (sic) struck by it.”
Carroll’s stance is the opposite stance from Walton’s, and one that falls in line with much current thought. He points out that the main psychoanalytic theories of horror maintain that the horror genre releases repression in a way that is liberating and, as a result, promotes an accompanying feeling of pleasure.
Contemporary Horror Fiction and Our Cultural Anxieties
Rosemary Jackson, a contemporary theorist, believes, like Carroll, that the monstrous creatures of the horror and sci-fi genres are manifestations of what we have repressed. The fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made absent.
However, Carroll disagrees with Jackson in one respect, that repression is always at the centre of the problem (although he concurs, it may be – sometimes.) He says:
“We are not prepared with a ready cultural category for the insect slaves in the film This Island Earth. They are part insect and part man… The possibility is not something our cultural categories lead us to expect; many perhaps never dreamed of the possibility of such a creature until they saw This Island Earth. But this is not because we have been repressing the possibility of these monsters.”
So, while Carroll agrees that horror violates our culture’s norms, the creatures it engenders do not and generally cannot exist in our reality.
The Unthought in Horror Fiction
For Carroll, the issue is that the monsters of horror fiction are unthought. There is no reason to assume that these cases will always connect with repressed material. Further, why should we try to repress such figures, which are merely routine deformations, recombinations, subtractions, etc? This argument is out-of-place. “Who, for example, needs to repress a concept like jellyfish as big as houses coming from Mars to conquer the world?” says Carroll. “There are no such jellyfish.”
Lifting Repression is Pleasurable
The main hypothesis of Carroll’s philosophy seems to be that the act of repression is never pleasurable. What is pleasurable is the lifting of repression. It is fair to point out, however, that there is another hypothesis that repression – in itself – is pleasurable, although Carroll does not subscribe to this.
Carroll, N. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. (1990). Routledge, London.
Jackson, R. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. (1981). Methuen, London.
Walton, K. Fearing Fiction. (1978). Journal of Philosophy.