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Morbid Fascinations: Carroll On Horror

Morbid Fascinations:
Carroll on Horror
The Philosophy of Horror; or Paradoxes of the Heart by Noel Carroll is an in depth look at the reasons why so many people are intrinsically drawn to images of horror and gore and death in film, art, and life. Carroll discuss the many avenues that people have taken in the past to explain this phenomenon,
this apparent paradox of how “artistic presentation of normally averse events and objects can give rise to pleasure.”(Carroll, p 161) This paradox is a particularly interesting subject with a multitude of explanations and ruminations with only a few
actually encompassing the full range of the genre. Horror has an immense following in literature, film, and all other forms of art. Carroll attempts to explain the fascination with art-horror and the implications of the greater social functions that the experience of horror in film and other media perform.

Carroll asks the problematic question “Why Horror?” why is this genre of categorically repulsive material so compelling to its viewers? There are many theories as to why, but most fall short and no not encompass the true nature and breadth of the genre. One arguments put forth by H.P. Lovecraft is the idea of ‘Cosmic Awe’. This idea, this attempt to explain away our enjoyment of the grotesque and horrific, is based on the assumption that “humans are born with a kind of fear of the unknown which verges on awe”(p 162). Fear is ordinarily an unpleasant feeling and not one that one would want to reproduce on purpose artificially; however fear combined with awe of the
sublime is something all together different and could be pleasurable. Horror inspires wonder and keeps alive “the instinctual feeling of awe about the unknown”(p 162). Carroll is not satisfied with that explanation because it does not include all works of the genre and therefore can not be a defining quality much less and answer to the paradox. Many films fall short of arousing Cosmic Awe, yet they are still
Carroll also dismisses the theory of Horror as a religious
experience. Some films may inspire religious awe with god-like
seductive powers of their monsters, but like the Cosmic Awe
theory it is not true of all. These do play a part in defining
the enjoyment of some elements of the horror genre.

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The psychoanalytical reasons for the paradox are more
broad in their scope. Horror has interwoven within its
structure many of the myths and images that are used for
interpretation in psychoanalysis so it is understandable that
horror can be read by these myths. Freudian analysis is
particularly useful in looking at the symbolic elements in
horror that may draw its audience to it. Wish Fulfillment is
one area that is looked at. According to Carroll Horror films
like nightmares are simultaneously attractive and repellent
because they harbor both the wish and its inhibition. “The
paradox of Horror can be explained…by saying that the
ambivalence felt toward the objects of horror derives from a
deeper ambivalence about our most enduring psychosexual
desires”(p 170). Carroll expands that narrow definition by also
including repressed anxieties. Psychoanalysis is an avenue that
has its possibilities but not all monsters are repressed
anxieties or sexual desires.

Finally what Carroll’s proposes is a new theory of his own
that suggests that :
For What is attractive–what holds our interest
and yields pleasure–in the horror genre need
not be, first and foremost, the simple
manifestation of the object of art-horror,
but the way that manifestation or disclosure
is situated as a functional element in an overall
narrative structure(p 179)
It is in the whole narrative that the fascination is
derived from rather then just the grotesque or a particular part
of the piece. It is the interest in the outcome of the
questions that were raised by the film. Carroll’s theory
applies to all categories and sub-categories of art-horror. The
other methods of reasoning have a place in the discussions of
the attractions to horror but only in specifics and not to the
genre as a whole.

Carroll’s point is a simple one yet it does elucidate the
paradox. “Horror attracts because anomalies command attention
and elicit curiosity”(p 195). This is true in life as well.
There is a profound morbid fascination that takes over people as
they pass by accidents on the highway, tune into details about
vicious murders, and stare at those afflicted with anomalies.
There is this urge to observe death and decay from a safe
distance. There is an innate desire to “Observe a horror and be
social with it if they would let [you]” as said by Ishmael in
Moby Dick.
Horror can also be seen to have an ideology and serve as a
part of the function of society. They can be seen to serve the
purpose of the fairy-tail to warn young people about the dangers
out there. This is illustrated by the “fool around and you’ll
get what you can expectdeserve”(p 196) clich? in horror movies.
The Films can be looked at as anti-establishment as well as
upholding the status-quo. “Works of horror represent
transgressions of the standing conceptual categories of the
culture”(p 210). It depends on the film and the interpretation
as to what the political end may be.
Carroll’s views can be enlightening when applied to
horrors movies. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser for example is easily
interpretable in the direction of Carroll’s views. There is
ambivalence whether demonic creature “Pin head” serves as a
inspiration towards Cosmic Awe, a religios experience, or even
as a suppressed pyschosexual desire and anxiety. The character
and what he represents seems to encompass all of those and only
Carroll’s category seems to fit.
This movie is particularly grotesque and there is much
carnage and gory reshaping of the human body. Carroll’s idea
that it is curiosity and a urge to witness the end of the over
all narrative applies well to this. Good does not triumph and
the monster is not subdued, and this plays into Carroll’s theory
that the ideology of film can not be simply defined one way; the
normal-abnormal-normal formula is not always present. There is,
however, another idea that was not raised by Carroll. Horror
films such as Hellraiser can be used as a tool that
paradoxically quiets our fears as it simultaneously excites
them. The viewer remaining unscathed can witness the
destruction of human flesh and render it unreal because it is in
fact ‘only a movie’. Our fears about of own mortality and
corporeality is lessened by the excursion into destruction. The
body being manipulated and taken apart on screen is an outlet
for our fears and a means to gain power over them. By watching
our greatest fears we can gain control over them and put them in
perspective. This morbid fascination is in effect a catharsis.

Carroll’s views on horror give great insight into the
genre and the multitude of past theories. The public’s
fascination with the macabre and art-horror in particular is a
fascinating yet completely understandable phenomenon. “Why
horror?”– As long as there is depravity, fear, and death, there
will be the a line outside the movie theater buying tickets to
the new slasher flick.

Cinema and Television


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