The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart

Noel Carroll

In this often intriguing formulation horror is "subjected to theoretical regimentation" (p. 7), in a "conceptual analysis interwoven with empirical hypotheses" (p. 8). However, one of this study's stylistic problems for non-specialists is jargon. Even allowing for the necessary philosophical terminology, the writer has otherwise demonstrated in the argument that relatively plain speaking is perfectly adequate and clear. Perhaps there is an unconscious attempt to make the subject more legitimate--or arcane--through rhetorical overkill, in case of objections about the seriousness of the topic. The writer's assurance and comprehension show that any such attitude is quite unnecessary. The topic is shown to be self-justifying: it does not require the invocation of wordiness.

Carroll's first chapter, "The Definition of Horror," discovers and discusses such notions in the topic of "art-horror" (pp. 9-10) as the synchronization of emotion between fictional character and experiencing audience, the combination of threat and the repellant in the horrific entity, and the nature of the attendant cognitive state. Here, too, are the "recurring strategies for designing monsters" (p. 42) through "fantastic biologies" (p. 50)--whose summary as "fusion, fission, magnification, massification and horrific metonymy" (p. 52) concludes a particularly useful and instructive, even entertaining, scheme.

Chapter 2, "Metaphysics and Horror, or Relating to Fictions," considers "the way fictional monsters can excite real emotions" (p. 59), as Carroll travels through the distinctions of illusion theory, pretend theory, and thought theory. The notion that "the audience's emotional response is rooted in entertaining thoughts, while the character's responses originate in beliefs" (p. 92) is, again, the sort of original formulation in The Philosophy of Horror which is valuable and instantly persuasive. Here as elsewhere Carroll has supportive illustrations from fiction and film--even if they rather seem to succeed, rather than precede, the theoretical angles, generality anticipating the particularity.

Chapter 3, "Plotting Horror," presents characteristic types of generic plots and their respective stages, with some standard components and functions, or variants of these, also adduced. The resultant permutations and combinations cover a considerable range, though the common, banal theme of "discovery" (p. 127) finally simplifies this metastasizing scheme. A related examination of suspense, leading to the idea of "alternate outcomes" (p. 138), involves "erotetic narration" (p. 130), or (very simply) a question-and-answer structure. Here the explanation and theory tend to diminish the ostensible subject, a complication seemingly beyond what is necessary. Some correlative but basically supernumerary features of "the fantastic," after Tzvestan Todorov, fill out this chapter.

The last chapter, "Why Horror?" examines, denying or qualifying, relevant theories from H. P. Lovecraft, Rudolf Otto, Ernest Jones, and others in a long, almost centripetal argument. In examining the central paradox of our deliberate self-exposure to fictive horror, it is not too surprising that the writer's ultimate election of the "cognitive attractions of the drama of disclosure" (p. 186) has been presented earlier. The "breakdown of our conceptual categories" (p. 189) in the horrific has also been heard from. However, here Carroll's survey-argument has a uncharacteristic dearth of examples. It becomes, effectively, a purely technical study of narrative device, and it is evident that the exactnesses of fiction do not prove to be the writer's best analytical forte. The possibility of the horror genre's serving ideological ends, such as "an allegory of the reinstatement of the status quo" (p. 202) finally seems more hopefully prospective than convincing. However, a final section on the nature and characteristics of "Horror Today" is very good indeed, with a straightforward clarity and almost redemptive significance.

There are several matters of style and structure which may imply the need, now belated, of a severer editorial conscience. The study of "recurring patterns" (p. 8) in the horror genre seem often to have possessed the writer's own style. This "treatise" (p. 10) is plagued by an incessant repetition, a rewording and restatement of principles. This is experienced as a constant recapitulation of hypotheses in virtually (and maddeningly) the same terms. As the argument is not especially convoluted, this seems a disservice to the simplicity, and force, of the book's theses. In addition, the writer has created some exceedingly long complex sentences which dramatically erode, rather than energize, any point at hand. There is rather a lot of this, unfortunately.

Having recently completed Andrew Tudor's Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie (1989), I greeted the present analysis with a great hope for the other side, the essence as opposed to the schematic ape. Though I was sometimes frustrated by the writer's expository manners, here are undeniably an appropriate earnestness, conviction, and comprehensiveness. The Philosophy of Horror is never apologetic rationalization, and it will satisfy the requirements of even the most demanding theorist of the genre and its form.



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