nihilism and the horror genre - part 2

In regards to the graphic novel underlying the just-released movie “20 Days of Night” director David Slade says in an interview with SCI FI WIRE, “It's actually a hard, bleak, nihilistic story.”

Nihilistic - a word I’ve often come across in the description of films that don’t have happy “Hollywood” endings, that is, stories in which good fails to triumph over evil. Sometimes the word is just used in an imprecise, colloquial way. “I'd have flagged it as pointless if it had not been so nihilistic,” writes an IMDB user about that French horror film Inside. “It's not like the recent "torture movies" of late, which tends to have some kind of happy ending.” Sometimes, the word is better used, like in this discussion of Chinatown. (My take on Chinatown: Polanski’s nihilism has all the dishonesty that comes with the arbitrary in terms of plot but ultimately director-controlled flight path of a bullet.)

However, the philosopher in me bristles at the misunderstanding of the term, an abuse that cheaply equates nihilism with the active destruction of values and sometimes even celebrates that destruction. There’s a paradox involved in this petty bourgeois kind of nihilism, though. To explain, it helps to understand what nihilism as a philosophical position is. The entry on nihilism in Wikipedia is a useful primer (given how long it’s been since I took philosophy classes, I certainly found it useful, at least, and close to what I remember).

In essence, however, nihilism can take on various flavours:
  • the denial of all values
  • the denial of existing things (ontological)
  • the denial of truth and knowledge (epistemological)
  • the denial of ethics
Without getting into an academic discussion (and fully realizing that these few paragraphs are enough to get me into trouble), my own view is that nihilism doesn’t make sense from ontological or epistemological standpoints. But it does make sense when defined to say that life, existence, everything, does not have meaning or value. This is the abyss that terrifies; that there is neither objective meaning nor divine order to create meaning for us. Yet, clearly, the nihilist who fully embodies this nihilism would, to be consistent, actually have to be dead. When alive, however, meaninglessness is not a sustainable state. Whether it’s Will to Power, the nature of consciousness, a simple desire to live, or something else, nihilism is, in my interpretation of it, both the recognition of objective meaningless and the subjective response to overcome that meaninglessness. (Bring in the existentialists!) In other words, the nihilist’s task is to overcome his or her own nihilism – through an act of creation. It should even be said that all meaning is essentially self-created, even those meanings and values we attribute to outside entities like deities because, ultimately, those entities do not exist.

So before I drift too far afield, here’s the point. Horror movies are not truly nihilistic because – and this assumes that horror writers actually have reasons to end stories the way they do – while asserting the fallibility and weakness of good in the face of evil, they also evoke a feeling of horror and despair. In other words, the incapacity for good to triumph translates to the futility of good trying to overcome evil (because evil will win out in the end), which translates to meaninglessness, which in turn is negatively valued as something horrible, frightening, and bleak. Negative values are thus not nihilism, but a mere fatalistic reversal of positive values; petty bourgeois nihilism.

To be truly nihilistic, however, it would have to be the case that the actions of evil are just as meaningless as the actions of good. This means there is no more value to the monster’s killings than to the hero’s failures. There is as much futility to committing evil acts and resisting good as there it to committing good acts and resisting evil. The question is: why bother do anything?

To call a horror story nihilistic, then, when the genre is really about those things that frighten us is to lend it a philosophical imprimatur it doesn’t quite deserve. Sometimes, a bad ending is just a bad ending. Of course, sometimes a bad ending is just a setup for a sequel.

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