nihilism and the horror genre - part 1

I dislike horror fiction as a genre. With the express goal of evoking horror, it is manipulative by definition, prone to formulaic plots (e.g. evil force kills people) and even more formulaic twist endings (e.g. evil force survives - surprise!). While it’s understandable that invulnerable infallible good guys are dramatically unsatisfying, it annoys me to no end that evil characters in horror fiction are rarely held to the same standard. If it weren’t for the often gruesome and gory violence, there wouldn’t be anything about horror fiction to get particularly worked up about beyond storytelling quality, but violence and gore are intrinsic parts of the genre, except, of course, in sibling genres like ghost stories or Rod Serling-like oddities. (And yes, I do recognize that there are exceptions to the rule. I did enjoy, for example, the "Silent Hill" movie.)

Of course, the fact that we live in a violent world makes it inevitable that violence will play a part in the stories we tell. To some extent, it is necessary as storytelling helps us, within limits, process our experience of the world. But I struggle with the notion of violence as entertainment – and there’s no question that, for many fans of horror, it is the violence that seals the deal. (Read the fan comments for horror movies like the recent French Film Inside at IMDB and you’ll see what I mean. One user writes “It is a very bloody movie mostly in the 2nd half but the one thing that puts it way over the top for the main-stream crowd is how it handles a woman who is 9 months pregnant. While I won't give away the ending (that's been done already in some spoiler sections elsewhere here ) lets just say the producers definitely took a road less traveled.. hehe” Hehe? The ending involves a pair of scissors, based on the spoiler, and this user says “hehe?”)

I admit that I can’t relate to this particular point of view. And I don’t buy into the more highfalutin rationales offered for gory violence as entertainment:
  • Horror points out that evil exists in the world, that sometimes evil wins. (Really? We need horror fiction to tell us something we know by reading the news and actually living in the world? Granted, horror fiction isn’t the only genre afflicted with delusions of imparting wisdom to the masses, but it certainly has the weakest legs to stand on.)
  • Catharsis. I don’t think the Greeks achieved anything by introducing the world to the concept of catharsis, which wikipedia defines as “a sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter or any extreme change in emotion that results in the restoration, renewal and revitalization for living.” Then again, it’s entirely subjective and I admit that while catharsis isn’t something I experience often (if at all), especially with horror, other people might. But achieving catharsis doesn’t do anything about solving life’s problem. There’s no practically knowledge to be gained by it. So we watch a bleak horror film, get cathartic…and then what? We certainly don’t gain any useful knowledge in condemning or combating the evil that the metaphysics of the horror genre insists on waking us up to.
  • Fictional violence is different from real violence. By far the most sophisticated argument I’ve come across, with an easy superficial appeal, it is also one of the most disingenuous. True, no one is actually getting hurt when the violence is fictional, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is our relationship and reaction to violence. Consider – and this is threading on risky philosophical ground, I admit, for the sake of keeping things simple – that ethics aren’t real, in the sense that ethics are metaphysical and not physical. When we say, “murder is wrong,” we’re not talking about any particular instance of murder, but of a moral judgment to which we compare reality. From an ethical standpoint, then, it is the definition of violence that counts – a definition expressed just as easily through fiction as through real actions. In other words, the concept of violence is just as much the object of condemnation as the act of violence; the two are inexorably tied together. Here’s a thought experiment: If we were to see a violent film and that it was equally possible that the on-screen death was real instead of fake, what would it say about us if we entertained?
This has nothing to do, by the way, with whether or not other people are right or wrong to enjoy horror. Sometimes people just enjoy scary stories. But insofar as I’m concerned, I find that beyond deficiencies involving how horror as a genre works, violence presented as entertainment (something we willingly subject ourselves to) leaves me feeling morally queasy. I just don’t enjoy seeing people get hurt and don’t see the horror genre as a means of coping or overcoming the horrors of the world. Unless a particular piece of horror offers a window into examining and understanding horror, it typically just strikes me as exploitative.

Now that I’ve provided background on my views of horror as a genre, I can actually get to the point I’m aiming for…in my next post.

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