One explanation may lie in certain
oddities about the emotion of horror, if an emotion is what it is.
Horror, to cite one oddity, is typically a response to something
that is not there. Typically, that is, it attends such things as
nightmares, phobias, art and literature, hallucinations, delusions.
It attends apparitions of the supernatural, of course, but for me
the whole realm of the supernatural is a delusion, alas -- although
the horror is real. Horror can be distinguished from terror, which
is sudden fright in the presence of a material cause, a charging
lion, say. Material threats can be dissipated by material causes,
such as a well-placed shot from a .450 Nitro Express. The frights
of nightmares, daymares, and nightmarish literature cannot be
dissipated by a bullet, unless the bullet is silver, unless it is
invested with magical, that is delusory, properties.
Phobias at first glance seem to have
material causes. But if you have a phobia of earmuffs or peaches,
of toadstools or dripping faucets, of dirt on your hands or
red-haired men, it is because they remind you of what horrifies
you, and not because of what materially they are. Situations that
should theoretically produce terror, such as premature burial or
shrinking rooms, can turn horrifying if you invest them with
psychological meaning, as Poe did.
genre most condescended
to is the chiller
A second oddity of horror, as
distinct from terror or disgust, is that what it evokes is
frequently as attractive as it is repulsive; there is as much
fascination as dread. The apparitions of horror are attractive
because they represent wishes -- they do what we want to do or want
to have done -- but they are dreadful because the wishes are taboo.
In that respect the vampire baring his teeth for a kiss is
exemplary. Ernest Jones remarked that "morbid dread always
signifies repressed sexual wishes," and he might be right. But in
some of the classic tales of horror, some of those by Poe and Le
Fanu and M. R. James, for example, the sexual wishes, if there at
all, are buried so deep that I for one can't find them. The more
proximate source of the horror of horror fiction boils down to
threats and promises of madness, mutilation, and death. These
things are fearful in themselves, but in horror fiction, as in our
fantasy lives, there is a special frisson about them, for they feel like punishments for
sin. Dracula will not come into your house unless you invite him.
If you do he rewards you with the kiss of death that is your
punishment for inviting it. If his victims seem innocent, it is
because they don't, won't, know their own minds.
Tales of mild-mannered men changing
to ravening wolves, for example, or timid and lovelorn
ventriloquists controlled by their raunchy dummies, of virtuous
Jekylls undone by vicious Hydes, of virginal maids and respectable
housewives possessed by malicious demons, of twins, one good, one
evil (but which is which?), of high-minded doctors like Victor
Frankenstein and their low-minded monsters, all look to me like
parables of dissociation: the ethical self gives in, loses control
to a secret sharer. He goes after what the ethical self doesn't
want to know it wants. Looked at from the other side, the ethical
self, in an attempt at exorcism, separates off a portion of the
personality it no longer wants to live with.
We are now ready to address the
question of what horror is good for. We can make the plausible
assumption that our emotions were once good for something, that
they helped us survive. My guess is that as terror evolved as the
emotional concomitant to a material danger to life and limb, horror
evolved as the emotional concomitant to the breaking of a taboo.
The emotion of horror, then, would be a signal that we are
indulging actually or imaginatively in something we have forbidden
ourselves in compliance with an internalized group prohibition. The
bodily weakness, sense of suffocation, and inability to move
prevent us from indulging ourselves further.
Thinking big, we can suggest a
social function for horror fiction. On the one hand, it stimulates
imaginative indulgence in activities we forbid ourselves in the
flesh. To that extent the chiller is morally subversive. On the
other hand, the indulgence is depicted as monstrous, and the
monsters who do all the indulging are finally defanged by the good
guy or nice girl or sacrificial hero. Other things being equal, the
composer of chillers who performs the social function best, Stephen
King for example, will be one whose conscious values coincide with
those of the group, whose phobias are also taboo -- with the
understanding that where there are taboos, there is an itch to
violate them. The violation arouses a compulsion to restore