Unreal Nature

August 23, 2013

The First to Die

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:09 am

… Not only do skeptics end up converted, but often they are the first to die …

This is from the essay ‘Horror’ by Aaron Smuts found in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film edited by Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga (2009):

… Why are vampires, werewolves, and other assorted horror monsters frightening for audiences that deny believing in such supernatural creatures? To appreciate the answers to this question, we must first look at a closely related puzzle. How are horror movies able to horrify when we are perfectly aware that what we are watching is fiction?

… many Americans never shed their schoolyard superstitions. The reason these kinds of beliefs are so prevalent is due to a fundamental dissimilarity between believing in something and believing that something does not exist. Beliefs that things do not exist are easily corrected; all we have to do is see the thing. I might not believe that flying snakes exist, but show me one and I’ll be converted to a believer in flying snakes. However, beliefs that things do exist are much harder to vanquish, since it is typically impossible to prove that something does not exist. How exactly would you get someone to stop believing in flying snakes?

… As Carroll has identified, one common horror plot structure involves the discovery and confirmation of the existence of a monster prior to its confrontation. Typically an extremely skeptical character, often in the guise of a scientist, will belittle accounts of the monster. Not only do skeptics end up converted, but often they are the first to die, as they are the least prepared to deal with a genuine threat. John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) follows a similar pattern. A group of physicists, mostly graduate students from Berkeley, are asked to investigate a mysterious canister locked away in the basement of a Catholic church. One of the students, a cocky Asian, repeatedly makes jokes about their assignment. Eventually it is revealed that the canister is filled with liquid Satan. Not only does the skeptical cut-up come to believe in the presence of Satan, he is one of the first characters to be dispatched by the dark lord’s minions. The skeptic in horror fiction serves to chip away at the doubting audiences’ certainty for the course of the fiction.

… why do people want to be scared by a movie or feel pity for a character when they avoid situations in real life that arouse the same emotions?

… If we do not assume that people derive pleasure from tragedy or that pleasure must be the sole motive for art experiences, the paradox of tragedy can be given a more general form that we can call the paradox of painful art … [which] can be stated as follows:

1. People do not typically seek out situations that arouse painful emotions.
2. People have painful emotions in response to some art.
3. People routinely seek out art that they know will arouse painful emotions.

… Control theorists argue that the putative painfulness of some artworks is mitigated by our ability to stop experiencing them at will. Compensation theorists argue that any painful reactions must be compensated for by other pleasures or values, either in the craft of the narrative or in the awareness that we are sympathetic creatures responsive to the suffering of others. Conversion theorists argue that the overall experience of painful artworks is not one of pain but of pleasure, as the pain is converted into a larger, more pleasurable experience. Power theorists argue that we enjoy the feeling of power that arises from either the realization of the endurance of humanity, or through the overcoming of our fear. Rich-experience theorists argue that there are many reasons why people do things other than to feel pleasure. The overall experience of painful art may be unpleasant, but the experience can still be seen as valuable, and as such, motivating.

… Daniel Shaw argues that horror fictions are often enjoyable because they allow audiences to identify both with a monster as it dispatches the more annoying teenagers, and with the victims, who often ultimately triumph. Since the notion of character identification is suspect, we might want to revise the claim to state that audiences sympathize with or admire the monster. Shaw’s principle example is Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs (1999), whose cunning and wit bring him into sympathy with the audience. Elsewhere, Shaw argues that typical monster movies can encourage similar responses from audiences enamored with a killer’s powers of destruction.

… In one of the more popular accounts of the appeal of horror, H.P. Lovecraft argues that people enjoy horror, roughly because it allows them to combat scientific materialism and to engage in feelings of cosmic awe. One could construct a Lovecraft-inspired resolution to the paradox as follows: horror provides something of a religious experience that helps alleviate the deadening effects of living in a scientistic culture. The feeling of awe compensates for whatever negative reactions one might experience while fearing the unknown. Clearly, such an explanation would be very limited, since the bulk of the horror genre fails to inspire anything close to awe. For instance, Freddy Krueger inspires nothing similar to awe, and neither do Romero’s clumsy zombies. Nevertheless, given the variability of the genre one suspects that the most compelling answers to “Why horror?” will have a limited scope — explaining the appeal of a certain type of horror movie rather than of the entire genre.

My most recent previous post from this collection is here.

-Julie

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