Columbia Forum

George Stade on the value of horror fiction
Phillip Lopate '64, coming of age as a moviegoer at Columbia
The "small, quiet worlds" of watercolorist Donald Holden '51
"Lost and Frozen" by Jeffrey Harrison '80
Charles Van Doren revisits Morningside Heights

The apparitions of horror

"A teacher is someone who conducts his education in public," says Professor of English and Comparative Literature George Stade. Noting that under this definition, his own education would be winding down with his impending retirement after 36 years teaching at Columbia, Stade offered his speech, "Literature as Equipage," at the College's Dean's Day on April 17 as "a defense of literature and an apologia for teaching it." In this excerpt, Stade discusses a subset of popular literature, "an extended form of literature that is fairly clear of paradox, irony, and ambiguity,"usually neglected in academic circles: horror fiction


Professor Stade suggests a social function for horror fiction to alumni at Dean's Day.



Even the tolerant listener who has provisionally gone along with me this far may well be thinking "What about the spookeroo?" What good does it do us to be scared by things that don't exist, such as werewolves and vampires? Certainly the popular genre most condescended to is the chiller. People read horror fiction as they used to read pornography, on the sly. Reviewers with intellectual pretensions titter in print. Academic critics distance themselves with donnish humor and ponderous scholarship. The prevailing tone of the scant discourse about horror fiction is an amused derision that cuts both ways at the chiller, for being what it is, and at the discourser, for having an interest in it. And yet recent critics, some of them very highbrow, have worked at tidying up overlapping concepts such as the grotesque, the uncanny, and the fantastic. But what we mean when we use the word "horror" remains unclear.

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.

The popular 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 them.