Saturday, February 26, 2011

Philosophy of Horror

Fear and horror is one of the most negative emotions we can experience, something we want to avoid. Yet, horror is one of the most popular genre of fiction, for audiences and writers alike. Why?

In The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart, the well known philosopher and film theorist Noel Carroll argues that our perverse desire to be terrified by horror films has its root in our sense of awe toward the unknown. Being scared by horror films inspire this kind of awe according to him.

This explanation, while making sense, never fully satisfied me. My own theory has been something that can be called a masturbation theory of fiction. It goes like this:

(1) We as a species developed through evolution a host of emotions that are functional for our survival and therefore for procreation (despite their potential for backfiring, especially in the modern world). Anger provides us with a surge of energy for a (necessary) fight. Sadness keeps us from wasting precious energy in futile efforts. Fear and disgust drive us to adopt protective behaviors (running away, ducking down, turning way, throwing up, keeping distance, etc.).

(2) Any systems, once in place, need to be activated on a regular basis. So do emotions. In early days of the human species, there were plenty of immediate and "legitimate" triggers for these basic emotions. In the modern world, we don't have to worry about lions attacking us or wolves stealing our food. In the modern world, our emotions work largely on the plane of the social and psychological rather than that of the physical. I also suspect that they are not exercised in enough frequencies and intensities. Therefore, we invented a gym for exercising our underused emotional muscles, which is the genre fiction.

But then, we are a more complicated species than just that. More often than not, horror films do much more than just stimulating our fear circuits, but tie our reptilian experience with what might be called the cerebral. The result is a fatal concoction of the conceptual and the primordial -- the idea felt urgently in your gut.

In Dario Argento's Opera (*spoiler*), the young opera singer's plea not to be another version of her mother, but a person of her own, is expressed acutely through the horror story. Roman Polanski's The Tenant addresses the issue of identity. Even our ordinary vampire stories and zombie movies is about our fear of giving oneself up to a passion or preserving one's "soul."

(But then, some horror movies are hardly more than pornography of another kind.)

Finally the point: All this rambling is brought to you by my experience with a recently machinima piece called Destiny's Keeper by Keith Eiler (a.k.a. malletpropstudios, a.k.a. Gnasche). It is a well made movie with a Lynchian feel to it. The story can be a little bit cryptic at first view, especially if you're distracted (?) by the disturbing (by which I mean 'great') sounds and visuals. But once you get the story, the horror is elevated to a whole other level. Watch it here or below.


Careoll, N. (1990). The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The novelist and the composer

by Kate

The production of our next machinima project, The Gift, has taken off nicely and been steadily gaining altitude. This project is especially dear to me, although one may argue you feel just the same way for each and every project during the production.

Initially, the protagonist of The Gift was an aspiring novelist. Eventually, in a major revision, Phil (named after Philip Carey from Of Human Bondage) was re-born as a classical music composer.

I think changing Phil's medium of expression led to a great improvement. For one, I think it made the story more cinematically appealing by allowing music to take a more central role. It also helped me keep the script more compact. But one thing that strikes me after the fact is how music makes a perfect element of this story.

At this point, I would like to present excerpts from two poems by W. H. Auden, published right next to each other in a collection: The Novelist, and The Composer.

In the first poem, Auden says a novelist should:

among the Just

Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,

And in his own weak person, if he can,

Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.

I cannot claim I know exactly what Auden meant, but these lines resonate in me quite profoundly. The truth is I suspect I write because life is imperfect. In writing, I deal with all the injustice and filthiness of human existence, just as I do in life. In writing, however, I deal with them not as the object or as the agent but as a student and observer, and this enables me to cope with "all the wrongs of Man," or the wrongness of existence.

On the other hand, music can be, in my mind, a purer form of art. Music, at its best moment, completely transcends the human world and puts you in a radically different mode of being. Yes, music can tell a story, and music can mimic life, but music can also induce an experience of the purest joy, the highest pleasure, an aesthetic ecstasy, like a lightning that strikes directly at a mysterious spot in the brain without ever touching an earthly object.

Anyway, here is how Auden put it more accurately than I ever could:

Only your notes are pure contraption,

Only your song is an absolute gift.


You, alone, alone, O imaginary song,

Are unable to say an existence is wrong,

And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.