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The Nature of Horror

Author(s): Noel Carroll


Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 51-59
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
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NOEL CARROLL

The Nature of Horror

FOR NEARLY A DECADE and a half, perhapsespe- Romero's Night of the Living Dead or Scott's
cially in America, horror has flourished as a Alien. We shall call this art-horror.It is differ-
major source of mass aesthetic stimulation. ent from the sort of horror one expresses in
Horrornovels seem available in virtuallyevery saying "I am horrified by the prospect of
supermarketand pharmacy, and new titles ap- ecological disaster" or "Terrorist acts are
pearwith unnervingrapidity.One authorin this horrifying." Call the latter usage of "horror"
genre, Stephen King, has become a household natural horror. It is not the purpose of this
name, while others, like Peter Straub, though essay to analyze naturalhorror, but only art-
less well known, command large followings. horror- "horror," that is, as it serves to name
Popular movies, as well, have remained so a cross-art genre whose existence is already
obsessed with horrorsince the success of The recognized in ordinary language. Indeed, one
Exorcist that it is difficult to visit your localmight regard the first part of this article as an
multiplex theater without meeting at least one attempt to rationally reconstructthe latent cri-
monster. Horror and music explicitly join teriafor identifyingart-horrorthat are operative
forces in many rock videos, notably Thriller, in ordinarylanguage.
though one must remember that the iconogra- In order to avoid misunderstanding, it is
phy of horrorsupplies a pervasive colorationof necessaryto emphasize thatby "art-horror"we
much MTV. Of course, nonmusic TV itself are referringnarrowlyto the effects of a specific
offers several horror programs, such as Tales genre. Of course, one might be horrifiedby the
from the Dark Side, while Broadway was re- events in a nonhorrornovel, for example, one
cently terrorizedby Gorey's versionof Dracula. might be horrified by the murder in The
Horrorfigures even in fine art, not only directly
Stranger. Nevertheless, though such horror is
in works by Francis Bacon, H. R. Giger, and generatedby art, it is not part of the phenome-
Sibylle Ruppert,but also allusionisticallyin thenon we are calling "art-horror.""Art-horror,"
pastischesof many postmodernartists. In short, by stipulation, is supposed to refer to the
horrorhas become a staple across contemporary product of a genre that crystallized roughly
artforms, popular and otherwise, spawning around the time of the publication of Mary
vampires, trolls, gremlins, zombies, were- Shelley's Frankensteinand that has continued,
wolves, demonically possessed children, space often cyclically, to persist through the novels
monstersof all sizes, ghosts, and other unname- and plays of the nineteenth century and the
able concoctions at a pace thathas made the lastliteratureand films of the twentieth.2Moreover,
decade or so seem like one long Halloween it must be noted that though our emphasis is on
night. Thus, the time is ripe to initiate an genre, we shall not respect the notion that
aesthetic inquiry into the natureof horror.' horrorand science fiction are discrete genres.
The type of horror to be explored in this Much science fiction of the bug-eyed monster
paper is that associated with readingsomething school, for instance, is really a species of
like Stoker's Dracula or Blackwood's "An- horror, substituting supernatural forces with
cient Sorceries" or with seeing something like futuristictechnologies. This is not to say that all
science fiction is a subcategory of horror, but
NOEL
CARROLL at Wesleyan only that much is. Thus, in our examples, we
is professorof philosophy
University. will move freely between what is called horror
? 1987 The Journalof Aesthetics and Art Criticism
52 CARROLL

and science fiction. would not be a sufficient condition. For mon-


It should not be assumed that all genres can sters inhabit all sorts of stories, such as fairy
be analyzed in the same way. Westerns, for tales, myths, and odysseys,3 that we are not
example, are identified primarily in virtue of wont to identify as horror.
their setting. Novels, films, plays, paintings, What appearsto distinguish the horrorstory
and so on that are grouped under the label of from mere stories with monsters, such as fairy
"horror" are identified accordingto a different tales, is the attitudeof charactersin the story to
sort of criterion. Like suspense novels or mys- the monsters they chance upon. In works of
tery novels, novels are denominatedhorrific in horror, the humans regard the monsters that
respect of their intended capacity to provoke a they encounteras abnormal,as disturbancesof
certainaffective response. Indeed, the genres of the naturalorder. In fairy tales, on the other
suspense, mystery, and horrorderive their very hand, monsters are part of the everyday furni-
names from the affects they are intended to ture of the universe. In "The Three Princesses
promote-a sense of suspense, a sense of mys- of Whiteland," for example, the lad is beset by
tery, and a sense of horror. Again, not all a three-headedtroll; however, the writing does
genres are identifiedthis way-a musical is not not signal that he finds this creatureto be any
tied to any specific affect. But the genres that more unusual than the lions he had previously
are named by the very affect they are designed walked past. A creaturelike Chewbacca in the
to provoke suggest a very tantalizing strategy space opera Star Wars is just one of the guys,
throughwhich to pursue their analysis. though a creature made up in the same wolf
Like suspense, works of horrorare designed outfit, in a film like The Howling, would be
to elicit a certain kind of affect. We shall regardedwith utterrevulsion by the humans in
presume that this is an emotional state whose that film. In examples of horror, it would
emotion we call art-horror. Thus, one can appear that the monster is an extraordinary
expect to locate the genre of horror,in part, by character in our ordinary world, whereas in
a specification of art-horror,the emotion that fairy tales and the like the monster is an
works of this type are designed to engender. ordinarycharacterin an extraordinaryworld.
Such an analysis, of course, is not a priori;it is One indicator,then, of that which differenti-
an attempt, in the traditionof The Poetics, to ates works of horrorproper from monster sto-
provide clarificatory generalizations about a ries in general is the affective responses of the
body of work that we antecedently accept as charactersin the stories to the monsters they
constitutinga family. meet. Thoughso far we have only spoken about
Initially, it is tempting to differentiate the the emotions of charactersin horrorstories, the
horrorgenre from others by saying that horror preceding hypothesis is nevertheless useful for
novels, stories, films, plays, and so on are getting at the emotionalresponses that works of
markedby the presence of monstersof either a horror are designed to elicit from audiences.
supernaturalor sci-fi origin. This distinguishes For horrorappearsto be one of those genres in
horrorfrom what are sometimes called tales of which, ideally, the emotive responses of the
terror, such as Poe's "The Pit and the Pendu- audience run parallel to the emotions of char-
lum" and "The TelltaleHeart," or Hitchcock's acters. Indeed, in works of horrorthe responses
Psycho, which, thougheerie and scary, achieve of charactersoften seem to cue the emotional
their hairraisingeffects by exploring extreme responses of the audience.
psychological phenomena that are all too hu- In "JonathanHarker'sJournal" in Dracula,
man. Similarly, by using monsters or other we read
supernaturalentities as a criterion, one could
separate horror stories from Gothic exercises As the Countleanedover me and his handstouchedme,
such as Radcliff's Mysteriesof Udolpho, where I could not repressa shudder.It may have been that his
suspicions of otherworldly beings are intro- breathwas rank, but a horriblefeeling of nausea came
duced only to be explained away naturalisti- over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.
cally. However, even if a case could be made
that a monster or a monstrous entity is a This shudder,this recoil at the vampire'stouch,
necessary condition for horror, such a criterion this feeling of nausea structuresour emotional
The Nature of Horror 53

reception of the ensuing descriptions of mind to sleep." Shortly after this, the monster,
Dracula;for example, when his protrudingteeth with an outstretchedhand, wakens Victor, who
are mentioned we regard them as shudder- flees from its touch. In "The Sea-Raiders," H.
inducing, nauseating, rank, and not something G. Wells, using the third person, narratesMr.
one would either want to touch or be touched Frison's reactionto some unsavory, glistening,
by. Similarly, we model our emotional re- tentacled creatures: "he was horrified, of
sponse upon ones like that of the young woman course, and intensely excited and indignant at
in Night of the Living Dead who, when sur- such revolting creatures preying on human
rounded by zombies, screams and clutches skin." In Muir's "The Reptile," MacAndrew's
herself in such a way as to avoid contact with first response to what he takes to be a largish,
the contaminatedflesh. The charactersof works deadly snake is described as "the paralysing
of horrorexemplify for us the way in which to grip of repulsion and surprise." And for a more
react to the monsters in the fiction. Our emo- contemporaryillustration, consider the dream
tions are supposed to mirrorthose of the posi- portent Jack Sawyer encounters in The Talis-
tive human characters.This is not the case for man, by King and Straub:
every genre. If Aristotle is rightaboutcatharsis,
the emotional state of the audience does not some terrible creature had been coming for his
double that of Oedipus at the end of the play. mother-a dwarvish monstrosity with misplaced eyes
Also, when a comic charactertakes a pratfall, and rotting, cheesy skin. "Your mother's almost dead,
Jack, can you say hallelujah'?"This monstrosity had
he hardly feels joyous, though we do. Never- croaked, and Jack knew-the way you knew things in
theless, with horrorthe emotions of the charac- dreams-that it was radioactive, and that if it touched
ters and those of the audienceare synchronized, him he would die.
as one can observe easily at a Saturdaymatinee
at one's local cinema. What examples like this (which can be mul-
That the audience's emotional response is tiplied endlessly) indicate is that the character's
modeled on that of charactersprovides us with affective reaction to the monstrous in horror
a useful methodological advantagein analyzing stories is not merely a matter of fear, i.e., of
the emotion of art-horror.It suggests a way in being frightened by something that threatens
which we can formulate an objective, as op- danger. Rather,threatis compoundedby revul-
posed to an introspective, picture of the emo- sion, nausea, and disgust. The monster is so
tion of horror.That is, ratherthan characteriz- unwholesome that its very touch causes shud-
ing art-horrorsolely on the basis of our own ders. And this corresponds as well with the
subjective responses, we can ground our con- tendency in horror novels and stories to de-
jectures on observations of the way in which scribe monsters in terms of, and associate them
charactersrespond to the monsters in works of with, filth, decay, deterioration,slime, and so
horror.That is, if we proceedunderthe assump- on.
tion that our emotional responses as audience The reports of characters' internal reactions
members are supposed to parallel those of to monsters-whether from a first person, sec-
characters, then we can begin to portray art- ond person (e.g., Fuentes's Aura) or authorial
horrorby noting the typical emotional features point of view-in horrorstories correspondto
that authorsand directorsattributeto characters the more behavioralreactions one can observe
beleagueredby monsters. in theaterand cinema. Just before the monsteris
How do characters respond to monsters in visualized to the audience, we often see the
horrorstories? Well, of course, they're fright- character shudder in disbelief, responding to
ened. After all, monsters are dangerous. But this violation of nature. Their faces contort.
there is more to it than this. In Shelley's famous They freeze in a moment of recoil, transfixed,
novel, Victor Frankensteinrecountshis reaction sometimes paralyzed. They start. Their hands
to the first movements of his creation: "now are drawn toward their bodies in an act of
that I had finished, the beauty of the dream protection but also of revulsion and disgust.
vanished and disgust filled my heart. Unable to Along with the fear of severe physical harm,
endure the aspect of the being I had created, I there is an evident aversion to making physical
rushed out of the room, unable to compose my contact with the monster. Both fear and disgust
54 CARROLL

are etched on the characters' features. Within only physical perturbationsbut beliefs, beliefs
the context of the horrornarrative,the monsters about the propertiesof objects and situations.
are identified as impure and unclean. They are Moreover, these beliefs are not just factual-
putridor moulderingthings, or they hail from e.g., there is a large truck coming at me-but
oozing places, or they are made of dead or evaluative-that large truckis dangerousto me.
rotting flesh, or chemical waste, or are associ- Now when I am in a state of fear with regardto
ated with vermin, disease, or crawling things. this truck, I am in some physical state-perhaps
They are not only lethal but they make one's my muscles go limp-and this physical state
skin creep. Charactersregard them not only has been caused by my cognitive state, by my
with fear but also with loathing, with a combi- beliefs that the truck is headed toward me and
nation of terrorand disgust. that it is dangerous. My muscles going limp
But before we attemptto work these obser- could be associatedwith many emotional states;
vations into a theory of art-horror,a few com- what makes my emotional state fear in this case
ments should be made about the structureof are my beliefs. That is, cognitive states differ-
emotions.4 We are presupposingthat art-horror entiate one emotion from anotherthough for a
is an emotion, one reflected in the emotional state to be an emotional one there must also be
responsesof charactersto the monstersin works some kind of physical agitation that has been
of horror. Furthermore,we are presumingthat engenderedby the presiding cognitive state.
art-horroris an occurrentemotional state, as is We can summarizethis view of the emotions
a flash of anger, rather than a dispositional by saying that an occurrentemotional state is
emotional state, such as undying envy. An one in which some physically abnormalstate of
occurrentemotional state has both physical and agitation has been caused by the subject's
cognitive dimensions. Broadly speaking, the cognitive construaland evaluationof his or her
physical dimensionis a matterof felt agitations. situation.This is the core of an emotional state,
In respect to art-horrorsome of the generally though some emotions may involve wants and
relevanttypes of physical agitationsare muscu- desires as well as construalsand evaluations.
lar contractions,tension, cringing, shuddering, Using this account of the emotions, we are
recoiling, tingling, frozenness, momentaryar- now in a position to organize our observations
rests, paralysis, trembling, perhapsinvoluntary about the emotion of horroror art-horror.As-
screaming, and so on.5 In order to be in an suming that "I-as-audience-member"am in an
emotional state, one must undergo some con- analogousemotional state to that which charac-
comitant physical agitation; one could not be ters are described to be in, then "I am
said to be angryunless your negative evaluation occurrentlyart-horrifiedby Draculaif and only
of the man standingon your foot were accom- if (1) I am in some state of abnormalphysical
panied by some physical state, like being "hot agitation (shuddering, tingling, screaming,
underthe collar." etc.) which (2) has been caused by (a) my
However, though in order to qualify as an thought: that Dracula is a possible being, and
emotional state, a state must correlate with my evaluative beliefs that (b) said Dracula has
some physical agitation;the specific emotional the propertyof being physically (and perhaps
state one is in is not determinedby the kinds of morally) threateningin the ways portrayedin
physical agitationsone is suffering. That is, no the fiction, and that (c) said Dracula has the
specific physical state representsa necessary or propertyof being impure, where (3) such be-
sufficient condition for a given emotional state. liefs are accompaniedby the desire to avoid the
When I am angry, my blood runscold, whereas touch of things like Dracula. Of course,
when you are angry, your blood boils. In order "Dracula" here is merely a heuristic device.
to be in an emotional state some physical Any old monster X can be plugged into the
agitationmust obtain, thoughan emotionalstate formula.
will not be identifiedby being associatedwith a One thing to note about the preceding defi-
unique physical state or even a unique assort- nition is that it is the evaluative beliefs that
ment of physical states. primarilyserve to individuateart-horror.And,
What then individuates emotional states? moreover, it is crucial that two evaluative
Their cognitive elements. Emotions involve not beliefs come into play: that the monster is
The Nature of Horror 55

regarded as threatening and impure. If the as well as in virtue of being formless, like dirt,
monster were only evaluated as potentially for example.
threatening,the emotion would be fear; if only Following Douglas, then, we initially specu-
potentially impure, the emotion would be dis- late that an object or being is impure if it is
gust. Art-horror requires evaluation both in categorically interstitial, categorically contra-
terms of threat and disgust. It might also be dictory, categoricallyincomplete, or formless.8
mentionedthat though the third criterionabout This list may not be exhaustive, nor is it clear
the desire to avoid physical contact seems that its terms are mutually exclusive. But it is
accurate,it might have to be droppedin favor of certainly useful for analyzing the monsters of
saying that it is a frequent but not necessary the horrorgenre. For they are beings or crea-
ingredientof art-horror.6 tures which specialize in formlessness, incom-
Undoubtedly, the use of "impure" in our pleteness, categoricalinterstitialityand categor-
definition will strike some as too vague. But ical contradictoriness. Let a brief inventory
perhapswe can relieve some of those anxieties carry this point.
concerning vagueness by saying something Many monstersof the horrorgenre are inter-
about the kinds of objects that standardlygive stitial and/or contradictory in terms of being
rise to, or cause, reactions of impurity. This, both living and dead: ghosts, zombies, vam-
moreover, will enable us to expand our theory pires, mummies, the Frankenstein monster,
of art-horrorfrom the realmof definitionto that Melmoth, and so on. Near relatives to these are
of explanation, from an analysis of the applica- monstrousentities that conflate the animateand
tion of the concept of art-horrorto an analysis of the inanimate:hauntedhouses with malevolent
its causation. wills of their own, robots, and the car in King's
In her classic studyPurity and Danger, Mary Christine. Also, many monsters confound dif-
Douglas correlates reactions of impurity with ferent species: dragons, werewolves, humanoid
the transgression or violation of schemes of insects, and humanoidreptiles.9The creaturein
culturalcategorization.7In her interpretationof Howard Hawks's classic The Thing is an intel-
the abominationsof Leviticus, for example, she ligent, two-legged, blood-sucking carrot. In-
hypothesizes that the reason crawling things deed, the frequent reference to monsters by
from the sea, like lobsters, are regarded as means of pronouns like "it" and "them"
impureis thatcrawlingwas a defining featureof suggests that these creaturesare not classifiable
earthboundcreatures, not of creatures of the accordingto our standardcategories.
sea. A lobster, in other words, is a kind of Demonically possessed characters typically
category mistake and, hence, impure. Simi- involve the mixtureof at least two categorically
larly, all winged insects with four legs are distinct individuals, the possessee and the pos-
abominatedbecause though four legs is a fea- sessor, the latterusually a demon, who, in turn,
ture of land animals, these things fly, i.e., they is often thought of as a categorically transgres-
inhabit the air. Things that are interstitial, that sive figure (e.g., a goat-god). Stevenson's most
cross the boundariesof the deep categories of a famous monster is two men, Jekyll and Hyde,
culture's conceptual scheme, are impure, ac- whereas the Frankensteinmonster is a compos-
cording to Douglas. Feces, insofar as they ite of many different men. 10
figure ambiguously in terms of categorical op- Categoricalincompletenessis also a standard
positions such as me/not me, inside/outside, feature of the monsters of horror:ghosts and
and living/dead, serve as ready candidates for zombies frequently come without eyes, arms,
abhorrence as impure, as do spittle, blood, legs, or skin, or are in some advanced state of
tears, sweat, hair clippings, nail clippings, disintegration.And, in a relatedvein, detached
pieces of flesh, and so on. Douglas notes that body partsare quite serviceable monsters, as in
among the Lele people, flying squirrels are the cases of severed heads and especially sev-
avoided since they cannotbe categorizedunam- ered hands; for example, DeMauppassant's
biguously as either birds or animals. Also, "The Hand" and "The Withered Hand,"
objects can raise categorical misgivings in vir- LeFanu's "The Narrative of a Ghost of a
tue of being incomplete representativesof their Hand," Golding's "The Call of the Hand,"
class, such as rotting and disintegratingthings, Conan Doyle's "The Brown Hand," Nerval's
56 CARROLL

"The Enchanted Hand," Dreiser's "The way of answeringthis is by means of an Illusion


Hand," Harvey's "The Beast With Five Theory: When people see Dracula onscreen,
Fingers," and so on. The rate of recurrence they literallybelieve he is before them attacking
with which the biologies of monstersare vapor- virgins or turninginto a bat. But this seems to
ous or gelatinous attests to the notion of the be an improbablehypothesis, since audiences
formlessness of horrific impurity, while the do not behave as though they believed that
writing style of certain horrorauthors, such as Dracula was present in the movie theater or
Lovecraft and Straub, through their vague, anywhere nearby. If they did, they'd head for
suggestive, and at times inchoate descriptionof the hills or at least reach for their rosarybeads.
the monsters, leaves an impressionof formless- An alternativeapproachis the Pretend The-
ness. " And of course, some monsters, like the ory. This approachgrantsthatpeople know that
scorpion big enough to eat Mexico City, are Dracula does not exist-that he is fictional-
magnificationsof creaturesand crawling things and goes on to explain our emotional response
already judged impure and interstitial in the in termsof pretense.We are not really horrified,
folkways of the culture. for we know Dracula is nonexistent, but we
Douglas's observations, then, may help pretendto be horrified.13 The problemwith this
dispell some of the fuzziness of the impurity line of approach,however, is that though inge-
clause of our definition of art-horror.They can nious, it does not seem descriptively accurate.
be used to supply paradigmaticexamples for When I am art-horrifiedby Dracula I am in a
our applicationof the impurityclause as well as genuine emotional state, not a pretendstate.
a roughguiding principlefor isolating impurity, One needs something between the Illusion
viz., that of categorical transgression.Further- Theory and the PretendTheory, something that
more, Douglas's theory of impuritycan be used does not commit the audience to a belief in
by scholars of horror to identify some of the Draculabut also leaves the audiencein a state of
pertinentfeaturesof the monsters in the stories genuine emotion. An alternative might be the
they study. Thatis, given a monster,the scholar Thought Theory. That is, saying we are art-
can ask in what ways it is categoricallyintersti- horrifiedby Dracula means we are horrifiedby
tial, contradictory(in Douglas's sense), incom- the thought of Dracula where the thought of
plete, and/or formless. These features, more- such a possible being does not commit us to a
over, afford a crucial part of the causal belief in his existence. Here, the thought of
background of the reaction of impurity that Dracula, the thing that art-horrifiesme, is not
operates in the raising of the emotion of art- the event of my thinking of Dracula but the
horror.They are partof what triggersit. This is content of the thought, viz., that Dracula, a
not to say thatwe realize thatDraculais, among threateningand impurebeing of such and such
other things, categorically interstitial and that dimensions, might exist and do these terrible
we then react, accordingly, with art-horror. things. Nor need it be assumed that I am
Rather, monster X's being categorically inter- reflexively aware of the content of my thought.
stitial causes a sense of impurityin us without Dracula is presented onscreen and I am art-
our awareness of what causes that sense. In horrified by the prospect that there could be
addition, the emphasis Douglas places on cate- such a being perpetratingsuch deeds. Since it is
gorical schemes in the analysis of impurity only the thoughtor the prospectof Draculathat
indicatesa way in which we can accountfor the frightens me, I don't run from the theater, nor
recurrentdescriptionof our impuremonstersas am I as anxious as I would be if I believed that
"unnatural." They are unnaturalrelative to a a real vampire was only ten rows away. It
culture's conceptualscheme of nature.They do appears to be an incontrovertiblefact that we
not fit the scheme; they violate it. Thus, mon- may be frightenedby the thought of a state of
sters are not only physically threatening;they affairs that does not correspond to the world.
are cognitively threatening.They are threatsto One may be frightened by the prospect or the
common knowledge.12 thoughtof U.S. troops invading CentralAmer-
One question that inevitably arises when ica. The commitment to thoughts here may
examining a phenomenon like art-horroris: raise fundamentalphilosophical quandariesfor
how can people be horrifiedby a fiction? One some; however, in the question of art-horror,
The Nature of Horror 57

our dependence on thoughts appearsmore pal- monster. The energies of the narrativeare then
atable than the postulationof pretendemotions devoted to proving the monster's existence.
or audience beliefs in vampires. Such a plot celebrates the existence of things
The theory of art-horroradvanced above has beyond the boundariesof common knowledge.
not been derivedfrom a set of deeperprinciples. The OverreacherPlot, of which Frankenstein
The way to confirm it is to take the definition and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are leading
and the partial typology of the structuresthat examples, proposes a central figure embarked
gives rise to the sense of impurityand to see if on the pursuitof hidden, unholy, or forbidden
they apply to the reactions we find to the knowledge. Once the scientist, alchemist,
monsters indigenous to works of horror. In my priest, etc., acts on this forbiddenknowledge-
own research, though admittedly casual, these e.g., brings a corpse to life-inestimable,
hypotheses, so far, have proved rewarding. maleficentpower is releasedand the consequent
Moreover, these hypotheses seem worthwhile destructionis the stuff of the story. Whereasthe
candidatesfor more rigorousattemptsat corrob- protagonists in the Discovery Plot must go
oration than I have the trainingto pursue. beyond the bounds of common knowledge,
I have also found collateral support for this overreachers are warned not to exceed them.
theory of art-horrorinsofaras it has enabled me But both the majorplots of the horrorgenre take
to frame interestinganswersto furtherquestions the compass of common knowledge as their
about horrorand paved the way for speculation basic donnee and explore it, albeit for different
in unexpected directions. That is, the theory thematic effects. This, of course, fits very
affordsthe basis for a continuing, highly coher- nicely with a theory that regards cognitive
ent researchprogram.Thus, before concluding, threat as a major factor in the generation of
I will mention some of the explanatory"fringe art-horror.
benefits" of the theory in the hopes that these (3) The geography of horror stories often
will enhance its attractiveness. situates the origin of monstersin such places as
(1) It is a remarkablefact aboutthe creatures lost continents and outer space. Or the creature
of horrorthat very often they do not seem to be comes from under the sea or under the earth.
of sufficient strength to make a grown man That is, monstersare native to places outside of
cower. A tettering zombie or a severed hand and/or unknown to the human world. Or, the
would appear incapable of mustering enough creaturescome from marginal,hidden, or aban-
force to overpower a coordinatedsix-year-old. doned sites: graveyards,sewers, or old houses.
Nevertheless, they are presented as unstop- That is, they belong to environs outside of and
pable, and this seems psychologically accept- unknown to ordinary social life. Given the
able to audiences. This might be explained by theory of horrorexpounded above, it is tempt-
noting Douglas's claim that culturally impure ing to interpretthe geography of horror as a
objects are generally taken to be invested with figurative spatializationof the notion that what
magical powers and as a result are often em- horrifies is that which lies outside cultural
ployed in rituals. Monsters, by extension then, categories and is, perforce, unknown.
may be similarly imbuedwith awesome powers (4) Finally, we began by noting that we are
in virtue of their impurity. in the midst of a period in which art-horroris
(2) Horror stories are predominantly con- one of the major avenues of mass aesthetic
cerned with knowledge as a theme. The two stimulation.Thus, it would be interestingif our
most frequent plot structures in horror narra- theory of art-horrorcould contribute to our
tives are the Discovery Plot and the Over- understandingof why at presentthe fascination
reacherPlot. 14 In the Discovery Plot, the mon- with horroris so unquenchable.
ster arrives, unbeknownstto anyone, and sets Adopting the role of armchair sociologist,
about its gruesome work. Graduallythe protag- one notes that the present art-horrorcycle is
onist or a group of protagonistsdiscover that a approximatelycoincident with a moment that
monsteris responsiblefor all those unexplained many have chosen to call postmodernism.Pro-
deaths. However, when the protagonists ap- ponents of postmodernism hail it as a period
proachthe authoritieswith this information,the marked by the philosophical triumph of
authorities dismiss the very possibility of the antiessentialismand by the purportedrecogni-
58 CARROLL

tion that our concepts cannot be tethered by nineteenthas a variationon the Gothic form in England(and
criteria.15 Deconstructionis the watchword. in related developments in Germany). For an overview of
this tradition, see Elizabeth MacAndrew, The Gothic Tra-
Now many may, as I do, question the philo- dition (ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1979). I am at pains to
sophical pretensionsof the postmoderns.But in stress the historicityof the phenomenain question to avoid
their disavowal of criteria they may have cap- the fashionablecharge of ahistoricismso frequentlyleveled
tured the spirit of the times. As social expres- at philosophers of art nowadays. I am not offering a
transhistoricalaccountof horror,but a theoryof a historical
sion, rather than as persuasive philosophy, genre and its affects.
postmodernrhetoricmay reflect the recent ex- 3 Todorovwould classify these stories underthe head-
perience of the collapse of the conceptual fixi- ing of "the marvelous." Though I have been influencedby
ties, or more aptly, the presuppositionsof Pax Todorov in this essay, I have not taken advantage of his
Americana. In this respect, the currentascen- categories because I want to draw a distinction within the
category of supernaturaltales between those which indulge
dancy of the genre of horrormay be the mass art-horrorand those that don't. See Tzvetan Todorov, The
popular expression of the same anxiety con- Fantastic (Cornell University Press, 1970).
cerning criteriathat preoccupies the more eso- 4 This essay closely follows the account of the emo-

teric forms of postmodernism.For as our theory tions outlined in William Lyons, The Emotions(Cambridge
University Press, 1980).
suggests, art-horroris an entertainmentpredi- 5 This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it supposed that
cated on the dislocation of cultural criteria an exhaustive list is possible.
throughcategoricalinterstitiality,contradictori- 6 Our account obviously depends on a cognitive-

ness, and so on. That is, our theory puts us in a evaluative theoryof the emotions. Such theories, of course,
position to interpretthe currenthorrorcycle as have been confrontedby counterexamples.For instance, it
is said thatwe are in emotionalstates while dancing and that
an exoteric variant of the postmodemnistsense that is a matter of rhythm and physiology rather than of
that at present our conceptual frameworksare, cognition and evaluation. I am disposed to think that if we
putatively, precariouslyunstable. are in an emotional state when dancing, then that has to do
with our evaluation of the situation, our evaluation, for
' I have alreadyattempteda theoryof horrorcinema in example, of what the dance stands for or celebrates, or our
my "Nightmare and the HorrorFilm: The Symbolic Biol- evaluation of our bond with our partner or the larger
ogy of Fantastic Beings," Film Quarterly (Spring 1981). community of dancers or our audience or our relation to
An expanded version of this essay was reprintedin The accompanyingmusicians. Or the evaluation might have to
Anxious Subject, Moshe Lazar, ed. (Belmost, CA, 1983). do with ourselves, with the joy thatcomes fromjudging that
The presentessay is meantto supersedethe earlierone. My we dance well, or from appreciatingbeing coordinatedand
emphasis now is on a more cognitively orientedapproachto active. That is, if we are in an emotional state while
horror than in the previous essay, which was heavily dancing, it seems attributableto many sorts of evaluative
dependent on psychoanalysis. This change in direction, I beliefs. Simply being in a rhythmicallyinduced, trancelike
think, provides a more comprehensive account of the state, directed at no object, does not seem to be an
"repelling" aspects of horrorthan do my psychoanalytic emotional state. However, even if I am wrong here, it does
hypotheses. This theoreticalshift, however, is not meant to not seem that such counterexamplesshow that there are no
preclude psychoanalytic interpretationsof given works of cognitive-evaluative emotional states. And, of course, I
horror. I would still defend most of the psychoanalytic would hold that horroris one of them.
interpretationsof individual works propoundedin "Night- This move, though, invites the response that, like the
mareand the HorrorFilm," as well as most of the structural putative dance emotions, shock is a rhythmicallyinduced,
accounts of horrorimagery and narration. nonevaluativeemotion, and that horrorand art-horrorreally
In the earlieressay, it was noted thatan adequatetheory belong to the genus of shock. I would not want to deny that
of horrorwould have to accountfor the way thathorrorboth shock is often involved in tandem with art-horror,espe-
attractsand repels its devotees. In this respect, the present cially in theater and cinema. Just before the monster
essay is not a full theory. It only explores the negative or appears,the music shoots up, or thereis a startlingnoise, or
repelling component of horror. A revised account of the we see an unexpected, fast movement start out from
attractivenessof the horrorgenre remains to be made. For "nowhere." We jump in our seats, and perhaps some
materialon the seductive fascination of horror, see Philip scream. When we then recognize the monster, that scream
Hallie, TheParadox of Cruelty(WesleyanUniversityPress, of shock gets extended and applied as a scream of horror.
1969), pp. 63-84. This is a well-known scare tactic. However, horroris not
2 Of course, horrific imagery can be found across the reducible to this sort of shock. For this technique is also
ages, including, in Petronius's tale of the werewolf found in mysteries and thrillers,where we don't feel horror
(Satyricon), Apuleius's story of Aristomenes and Socrates at the gunman who suddenly steps out of the dark. This
(TheGoldenAss), and in the medievaldanses macabresand varietyof shock does not seem to me to be an emotion at all,
characterizationsof Hell such as Vision of St. Paul, Vision but rathera reflex, though, of course, it is a reflex that is
of Tundaleand, most famously, Dante's Inferno. However, often linked with the provocation of art-horrorby the
the genre of horroronly begins to coalesce between the last artisansof monster spectacles. And, anyway, it must also
half of the eighteenth century and the first quarterof the be stressed that one can feel art-horrorwithout being
The Nature of Horror 59

shocked in the reflex sense of the term. as horrifying because they suggest virtually formless
7 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London, 1966). mounds of human flesh. See his Lying Figure with a
8 "Object' and "entity" are stressed here in order to HypodermicSyringe.
block certaincounterexamples.Categoryerrorsand logical 12 Consideringthe opening distinctions in this essay, a
paradoxes, though they may horrify philosophers, are not question arises at this point concerning the reason why the
normallyregardedas impure. But neitherdo they belong to monstersof fairy tales do not raise horrorresponsesin either
the domain of "objects and entities." For the purpose of the human charactersthey meet or in their readers. Surely
analyzing art-horror,the domain of objects that are to be these monsters are categorical violations. My provisional
assessed in terms of impurityare beings. answer to this relies on noting the way in which fairy tales
' Sibylle Ruppertmixes differentspecies in her horrific
characteristicallybegin with formulas like "Once upon a
charcoal drawings, such as The Third Sex. Also see Lucas
time.' Perhapsthis functionsto remove them from the rules
Samaras's Photo-transformation.H. R. Giger's work not
only compounds the categorical opposites of the organic of prevailing categorical schemes.
1' See Kendall Walton, "'FearingFictions,' Journal
and the mechanical, but also those of inside and outside.
10 A typology of the combinatory structureof horror Of Philosophy 75 (1978).
" These plots are described at greater length in my
imagery-stated in terms of the notions of fusion and
fission-is available in Carroll, "Nightmareand the Horror "Nightmare and the HorrorFilm."
Film.' 5 Jean-FrancoisLyotardand Jean-LoupThebaud,Just
" Though not strictly horrorimages in the termsof our Gaming (University of Minnesota Press, 1985).
theory, Bacon's paintingsprobablyoften evoke descriptions