Eric G. Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace, and five books on the relationship between literature and psychology. The following piece is adapted from Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away.
February is one of my favorite months of the year, a time to appreciate romance with all manner of crimson-colored trappings—hearts and roses, of course, but also, for those most drunk on love, blood. What’s a Valentine’s Day, after all, without an affectionate recollection of one of the greatest cult horror films of all time, My Bloody Valentine? Show your sweetheart your true devotion by screening this 1981 slasher—Quentin Tarantino’s favorite in the genre, by the way. Nothing says “I love you” like a man dressed as a miner sending people to hell with a pick-axe.
Below, I try to understand why such gory films remain so popular in our culture and wonder if watching horror flicks—the good (Rosemary’s Baby, for instance), the bad (My Bloody Valentine, alas), and the ugly (savage fare like Hostel)—might actually be good for us.
Many challenge the catharsis theory, and not for the same reason Pauline Kael does (it’s confusion, not purgation, that draws us to horror). A popular argument against the idea goes like this: Watching violence doesn’t cleanse us of destructive impulses at all, but actually exacerbates them. Certain reformers, usually right-leaning espousers of “family values,” are of course in love with this notion, since it justifies their projects to clean up our smut-filled and violence-ridden society (going to hell in a handbasket) through censorship laws. Some studies have shown that violence in media does indeed cause aggression in “real life.” But the evidence, as we saw in the earlier discussion of Gerard Jones, is far from conclusive. Meanwhile, regardless of scientific data, many humanists and artists continue to take Aristotle seriously, maintaining that the catharsis theory convincingly explains how we experience violent media and why macabre spectacles are valuable.
I put myself in this last category, and not because I’m a fan of Aristotle (really more of a Platonist), and not because I want to close ranks with my fellow humanists (English professors are some of the most tedious people on earth), and not because I’ve never really met a social scientist that I liked (I’m sure the problem’s with me), and not because (am I lying to myself ?) I need to ennoble what I like to do anyway: watch horror films.
I’m a defender of the catharsis theory, at least partially, and probably more than I’d like to admit, because I hate Tipper Gore. Not necessarily Tipper in her current form—troubled, I imagine (but maybe relieved), by her separation from Al—but the Tipper of 1985, when she went before Congress to lobby for warning labels on records containing lyrics that might be inappropriate for children.
Though I was only a freshman in college and woefully underinformed about current events, much less free-speech-versus-censorship debates, I took an interest in the hearings because I was obsessed with loathing poor Tipper. Fresh from resigning from West Point in protest of all things self-righteous, and otherwise in a general funk of sullen rebellion against my goody-goody Southern Baptist upbringing, I saw in Tipper everything I hated about the world just then: upright living, positive thinking, the G rating, and sentimentality, not to mention big hair. I also happened to be a fan of her opponents in the debate. First, Twisted Sister’s front man, Dee Snider, with his crazed waist-length blond coif and loud French-whore makeup and deeply guttural passion for not taking shit from anybody. Next, Frank Zappa. I didn’t know his music well but I liked his two children, Dweezil and Moon Unit, mainly for their names, and I liked that Frank said to Tipper, “May your shit come to life and kiss you on the face.”
Watching those hearings on afternoons when I should have been reading Aristotle, I felt a visceral aversion to anything even approaching censorship. I realize that this was a simpleminded view—some things, of course, need censoring, such as child pornography—but it expressed a sensibility I still retain, and that I can now articulate more clearly: rarely, in the human world, can we establish clear causality.
This conviction—and not Tipper, truth be told—is the real reason that I can’t join those scientists who dismiss catharsis and condemn violence in the media. I emphatically agree with Jones, who reminds us that a plethora of factors, some unknown and some graspable, generate any given human event—such as a nine-year-old saying “fuck” or a high school boy, hopped up on Hostel and Saw, committing a violent crime. To try to reduce these or any other societal phenomena to a particular cause—profane lyrics on a rap album or a horror film’s gore—is to ignore the world’s complexities, nuances, and contradictions. It’s also, this reductive thinking, a kind of puritanism, whether it’s applied to profanity, sex, or violence, since puritanical logic, in a general sense, is the narrow-minded attribution of evil to a set number of causes a little too well defined.
And so, now, twenty-five years after Tipper the good mother went head-to-head with Zappa, formerly of the Mothers of Invention, I continue to have a personal aversion toward people—be they social scientists or ministers or strict parents or conservative pundits—who claim that cinematic violence is responsible for some of our culture’s ills. And now I’m prone, of course, to lean the other way: morbid curiosity arises from heterogeneous and complicated factors, and is quite possibly of value to society, either as a catalyst for purgation of aggression or the incorporation of the shadow.
Say that this view is an example of my immaturity, that I’m letting teen petulance inform adult views. Say that I’m narrow-minded in my unwillingness to engage the sophisticated research of social scientists. Call me perversely contrarian, someone who needs to counter mainstream sentiment in order to get attention. Say what ever you want: I’ll stick with Hitch and Stephen King and claim that violence in cinema isn’t such a bad thing and might well be good for you. (Though I must admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable finding myself on the side of Dee Snider again; he’s traded heavy metal for the horror film, writing and starring in the 1998 release Strangeland, about a sadist named Captain Howdy [Snider’s character] who kidnaps teens and subjects them to gruesome body modification rituals.)
It’s really not all about my aversions, of course. I’m drawn to the catharsis theory—as well as the notion of the shadow—because both ideas have helped me explain how my fascination with the macabre has made my life fuller and richer.
If it’s not clear by now, I’m a serious horror film fan, though I haven’t seen Strangeland and probably won’t. I’m especially in love with the artier ones, like Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (the original), Kubrick’s The Shining, the first Alien film. I’m also an addict of the cinema’s early efforts at terror: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Bride of Frankenstein. And more recent literate fare draws me as well: Seven, Twenty-Eight Days Later, Verbinski’s The Ring, Pan’s Labyrinth, Let the Right One In. I also adore Hitchcock’s dark psychodramas and I admit a penchant for more straightforward scariness—Carpenter’s first Halloween, Craven’s initial Nightmare on Elm Street, even Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
One common thread among these—a strand shared with action films, violent television, and video games—is almost so obvious that we forget it: each relies on the storytelling techniques that separate fiction from nonfiction. Real life is mostly jumbled, confusing, and unpredictable. Fictional narratives often counteract the chaos with clear causal connections, reassuring rhythms of rising and falling action, characters who are complex yet consistent, revelations coming at just the right time, parts conforming to a harmonious whole, and conclusions that unify seemingly disparate events. These stories are meaningful: they push toward a discernible end and offer coherent messages.
In his Philosophy of Horror, Noël Carroll has argued that one of the primary attractions of scary movies is cognitive satisfaction. For Carroll, horror movies don’t draw us so much for physical or emotional stimulation as for the pleasures of their plots, which explore problems—such as how to understand a monster and how to contain it—in riveting, suspenseful narratives that conclude with all questions answered. Take the Dracula story. The vampire fascinates us. We marvel at his supernatural powers, but also fear them. As the tale unfolds, his mysterious abilities are examined, explained, and eventually neutralized. We love this rhythm of problem and solution.
We miss this cadence when we witness violent images devoid of narrative finesse. Imagine an amateur videotape of a dinner party. Several people, maybe twelve, sit around a large table. In the center is a living monkey. With a hammer, one of the diners knocks the monkey unconscious. He splits open the skull, scoops out the still-beating brain, and serves it on a platter.
Switch scenes. There is a slaughter house. Bewildered, bellowing steers stagger through a chute. At the end of the line, a worker strikes each cow in the head with a sledgehammer. Another man slices the throats. Still another hangs the bloody beeves from hooks.
Another sequence: a surgeon and his team surround a young girl prepared for an operation. The doctors sever the child’s face from her skull and turn it inside out.
These are not images from a surreal Buñuel film, nor are they from Faces of Death, the 1978 mondo movie depicting actual dying. Instead, these crude, raw scenes were part of an experiment designed to determine reactions to seemingly real violence, and to understand how these differ from responses to obviously fake Hollywood mayhem.
In the study, male and female college students were shown the three films described above—none of which, I should add, was enhanced by sound effects, such as a musical score. Each student had the power to shut off the video whenever he or she wished. Most quit watching about halfway through, expressing disgust with the gory scenes. In contrast, students found an excessively violent scene from Friday the 13th, Part III, fully scored, to be “involving, exciting, and not boring.” When this same clip was shown without the audio enhancement, it was less riveting.
It appears that the trappings of Hollywood movies, especially sound tracks, can make a horrific experience grippingly dramatic. The psychology professor Clark McCauley, who conducted the experiment, accounts for this result by invoking a Sanskrit text, the Natyasastra, written around AD 200–300. This work explores the concept rasa, “aesthetic or imaginative experience.” In discussing tragedy—which shares traits with horror—the Natyasastra claims that although we try to avoid actual sadness, we are attracted to aesthetic renderings of grief because they pull us away from our “preoccupations with ourselves” and open us to the suffering of others. We transcend narcissism and empathize.
This transcendence grows from catharsis: normally self-interested feelings, like pity and fear, are purified of their egotism and connected to more altruistic concerns, such as how to assuage the suffering of the collective. Fiction encourages this emotional free play. We are invited to explore without the pressure of consequences.
McCauley applies the Natyasastra to horror films. The fear and disgust inspired by such films invite us to sound the depths of our humanity, to contemplate the origins of our own disgusts and fears, or to put ourselves in the place of the characters in the story, killer and victim alike. In either case, if we could respond positively to the invitation, we might be expanded, awakened, enlightened—to a great and possibly transformative degree when we behold the more brilliant works of horror.
Of course, life is messy, as likely to be selfish and stupid as expansive and wise, and so it’s the rare occasion that making or watching a film is devoid of egotism’s blindness. Some scary movies will exploit suffering more than open us to its transforming depths. And most fans of the horror genre are probably going to be ignorant of their favorite films’ invitations to transcend selfishness. Still, the potential is there: viewing a scary movie, especially one by a true artist—a del Toro or a Kubrick or a Polanski—can, however infrequently, call forth what is best in us and maybe make us a little more empathetic and charitable than we were before.