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Tragically Defining Horror

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Put roughly, Aristotle’s account of tragedy sets forth three main requirements for tragedy. The first is that the work is supposed to produce the emotions of pity and fear in the audience. Second, the main character must be not exceptionally good but is also not morally bad. The third involves the means by which these emotions are to be produced. Put simply, a person must pass from happiness to misery through an error in judgment. A work that meets these conditions can be considered a tragedy and one that excels at meeting them would be a good tragedy[i].  While this is an oversimplified account of tragedy, it does provide the model to be used in the discussion of horror.

As has been noted, the end of tragedy is the production of particular emotions. This is true of horror as well. As Lovecraft says,  “…we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point.”[ii]

While tragedies are calculated to produce pity and fear, works of horror are aimed to produce horror in the audience. While the feeling of horror might be regarded merely as a stronger form of fear, strong fear is more correctly known as terror.

The feeling of horror involves more than merely being terrified. It also involves more than being terrified by startling or gruesome things, such as those in Psycho or Seven. While such works are superficially similar to horror, they are, in Lovecraft’s view, works “of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”

What then is the true definition of horror? Lovecraft asserts that horror is  “a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” [iii] This definition seems reasonable for it captures an intuitive view of horror-that it is an emotion beyond merely mundane fear.  This feeling, then, is the true feeling of horror and is the feeling that the creator of true horror must aim for if she hopes to succeed.

Of course, it cannot be expected that a work must always produce a feeling of horror in everyone at all times in order for the work to fall within the genre of horror. This condition would be all but impossible to meet[iv]. Rather, one must say that a work would need to tend to produce such an effect in the audience.

But, it must be noted that the production of horror is not in itself a sufficient condition for the classification of a work as a work of horror. That this is the case can be shown in an analogy. Works of terror, such as Psycho, aim at creating strong fear in the audience. It is easy to imagine, for example, some people who are so absolutely terrified of deer that even seeing cartoon deer causes them to experience terror. Despite this, one would not classify Bambias a work of terror. Similarly, simply because a work produces horror in an audience does not entail that it must be a work of horror. For it to be a work of horror, the horror must be produced in the right way. Before proceeding to the topic of the proper cause of horror, the nature of the characters in horror will be considered.

Aristotle notes that the main character in a tragedy cannot be exceptionally good. Seeing such a person meet a tragic fate would be odious and offensive-the audience would more likely feel anger and outrage rather than pity and fear. However, the main character must not be a bad person. Seeing a bad person meet a bad fate is more likely to satisfy the audiences’ craving for justice than to create pity and fear.  Ideally, the main character falls into a moral middle ground. Since most people fall into that category as well, their identification with the character is strengthened and hence so is the potential emotional impact of the work.

Thus, the nature of the main character can have a significant impact on the emotions produced by a work of tragedy. It is contended that the same holds true for works of horror. What remains to be determined is the ideal sort of character for horror.

It might be thought that the ideal character for horror is one who is exceptionally good. After all, seeing an exceptionally good character plunged into horror should make the audience’s feeling of horror that much greater. However, as in tragedy, choosing such a character is likely to backfire-the audience is likely to become offended when such a character experiences such horrible things. Further, since most people are not exceptionally good, the typical audience member would not identify closely with the character and this would tend to reduce the emotional impact of the work. Thus, the main character in a work of horror should not be exceptional good.

The matter of morally bad or defective characters is more controversial. In fact, it is something of a tradition for works of horror to focus on horrible things happening to bad people (often in retribution for their evil actions). For example, Tales from the CryptOuter Limits, and The Twilight Zone often featured episodes that fit this pattern. While the audience might feel some sympathy towards the bad character and feel some horror at her fate, the badness of the main character would reduce the horror of the work. First, any feelings of horror would be tempered by the knowledge that the bad character at least partially deserved his fate. This would, as with a tragedy, reduce the emotional impact of the work-at least the emotion of horror. Such a work would be more of a morality play (or a tale of vengeance) as opposed to a work of horror. Second, since most people are not bad, the audience would most likely fail to identify closely with the character. This would likely result in some emotional distancing and hence the effect of the work would be lessened.

The ideal character for horror would seem to be the same as the ideal character for tragedy-someone who is neither exceptionally good nor bad.  First, It is more likely that the audience will be able to identify with such a character. This increases the likelihood of sympathetic involvement and such involvement can enhance the emotional impact of a work. Second, while the character’s involvement in the horrible events would be seen as at least partially undeserved, he would also be regarded as having some relevant flaws that contributed to his fate. This combination would enhance the emotion of horror. An excellent example of such a character is Charles Dexter Ward in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward[v]. Like many of Lovecraft’s characters, Ward is driven by his curiosity to dabble in forces best left alone and this choice leads to his destruction at the hands of a resurrected ancestor. The audience can rightly regard Charles as bringing on his horrible fate, yet also correctly see the fate as far more than he deserved.

Now that the nature of the horrific character has been discussed, the final matter to be addressed is the proper cause of the emotion of horror.

According to Aristotle, the tragic effect is brought about when the main character is brought from happiness to misery by an error in judgment. Because the character is not brought to her fate by depravity or moral badness, the audience can feel pity for the character and fear that they might meet a similar fate. Thus, the production of pity and fear by the appropriate means is the hallmark of tragedy.

In the case of a work of horror the goal is to produce the emotion of horror. As argued above, this must be done by the proper means. Not surprisingly, the main character must experience horrible events calculated to produce the effect of horror. As with a tragedy, the victim of horror typically undergoes a transition. In horror, this transition would take the form of a change from a state of normalcy to a state of horror. As argued above, this fate should not result from evil or depravity but from a flaw or flaws in a generally laudable character.

Such a transition also takes place in works of fear and terror: the main character is taken from the realm of the normal and brought into the realm of fear or terror. For example, the aptly titled Cape Fear and many Hitchcock films fit this mold.  The events and things that produce fear are generally well known. For example, “secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule”[vi] are all things that can create fear and perhaps even terror. However, it is contended that such things are not the stuff of horror. What then, is the proper genesis of horror?

According to Lovecraft, there are two key aspects to horror. First, “ A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present.”[vii]

Because people seem to naturally fear the unknown, unknown forces are quite effective in the generation of fear and terror. For example, an unknown party committing gruesome murders is a stock element in much film and literature. However, such works do not go beyond fear and terror. To get beyond mere fear and terror, something extra is needed. If the forces involved are both unknown and outer in nature, then this something extra can be present and the impact can go beyond fear and into horror.

Further, it is common for works of fear and terror to reach a resolution in which the nature of the forces is exposed. For example, the identity of the secret killer is revealed. If a work includes an explanation of events and the unknown is made known, then what might be called a “Scooby Do effect” occurs-the masks are removed and it is seen that nothing is as terrible or horrible as one might imagine. Put more precisely, almost no matter how terrible something is, once it is known it is somehow lessened and limited-at the very least one no longer worries that it might be something worse. The horrific effect is thus best served by leaving the unknown intact at the end of the work.

An excellent example of a work that meets this condition is The Haunting. The nature of the force (if there is in fact a force) is unknown-the mind is left in ignorance to speculate on the horror. Because one does not know what the force is, it could be anything…anything at all.  As such, the film is a very effective work of horror. Psycho is scary and is extremely effective at creating fear. But it is not a work of horror. Too much is revealed and the killer, despite his madness, is still just a man. And men, even madmen, are known to us.

Second, “there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain –a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”[viii] Just as people feel fear at which they do not understand, they also feel fear when they are vulnerable to a threat. The greater the threat and the greater the vulnerability, the greater the fear. If the vulnerability extends to the very foundations of the universe and the threat is extreme, the effect can go well beyond fear and into horror.

A person with a gun might cause fear, so too might a shark. We fear them because they are sources of danger to us. They are, of course, natural things. We are vulnerable to such things, but they too are vulnerable in mundane ways. Hence, we fear them but are not horrified by them. Creatures like wraiths, vampires, Shoggoths, demons, the thing and the alien are beyond the natural laws we accept. So are people with unnatural powers, like the girl named Carrie. They are not like us and seem to be exempt from the rules that govern us. As such, they can go beyond inspiring mere fear and terror. They can inspire horror.

As the examples show, the suspension of natural laws need not be supernatural in nature. While horror is traditionally regarded as involving the supernatural, works like At the Mountain of Madness, “Who Goes there?” and Alien show that horror need not be confined to the supernatural realm. This is hardly surprising-as technology and science grow into areas once dominated by religion, our demons will increasingly come from the icy void of space rather than the fires of hell.


[i] Naturally there are many other factors that go into the assessment of a tragedy but these considerations go beyond the scope of this work.

[ii] Lovecraft, H.P. . “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”H.P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horror Ed. Stephen Jones and Dave Carson. New York:Barnes & Noble Books,1993. 1-65.t, p.4.

[iii] Lovecraft p.3.

[iv] Under this requirement the only works of horror would be perfect works of horror-those that produce the emotion without fail. Only IRS forms are likely to meet such a requirement.

[v] Played by Vincent Price in the improperly titled The Haunted Palace.

[vi] Lovecraft, p.4.

[vii] Lovecraft, p.4.

[viii] Lovecraft, P.4.

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God and Time Travel

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Like most philosophers, I like science fiction and stories about time travel. Recently I watched the episode Time of the SyFy  seriesStargate Universe. This episode got me thinking about time travel and God, oddly enough.

Imagine, if you will, the following science fiction situation. Sally is working on a time travel project and during one experiment, her own smartphone appears in the lab. Startled, she checks her pocket and finds that her phone is there. Yet it also appears to be on the table. Picking it up, she finds that video has been recorded on it. Much to her horror and dismay, it seems to be a video of her saying that she has killed her husband for having an affair with her friend, only to find out after that she was wrong.  In the video, she can she the body of what seems to be her dead husband. The video closes with her future self saying that she is sending back the phone to tell her past self to not kill her husband; future Sally then shoots herself in the head as the phone is being sent into the past.

Being something of a skeptic, Sally checks the phones carefully and finds that (aside from some blood on the future phone that matches her husband’s blood type) the two are identical. This convinces Sally and she does not kill her husband.

Now, let God be brought into the picture, at least hypothetically. If one prefers to leave God out of this game, then an omniscient observer who judges people for their deeds and misdeeds can be used in His place.

In this scenario, what would God actually “see” and how would He judge?

On one hand, the future Sally did kill her husband and send the phone back. After all, without those events, then the phone would not have the video recorded on it and would not have been sent back As such, God would judge that Sally was guilty of suicide and murder, hence worthy of divine punishment. Also, both Sally and her husband would be dead and thus would have gone off to the relevant afterlife (assuming there is such a thing).

On the other hand, the time traveling phone prevented Sally from killing her husband and committing suicide. Thus, Sally would not be judged for these deeds. Also, neither Sally nor her husband would be dead. In effect, that future event never will be, although it must have been (otherwise there would be no phone).

One easy way out of the problem is to follow John Locke’s approach in his discussion of personal identity: since God is good, he would not allow such confusing events (in this case, time travel) to come to pass. Of course, this is not very satisfying as an answer.

Another easy way out is to deny the entire scenario and say that time travel is impossible because of exactly this sort of nonsense. But, where is the fun in that?

Another way out is to use the branching worlds approach: what seems to be time travel is actually travel between possible worlds. So, the phone did not come from Sally’s future. Rather, it is from a possible world in which Sally did kill her husband. So, the Sally of that world is a killer and a suicide; but her actions saved her counterpart Sally from her fate.  So, God takes care of the killer Sally and the lucky Sally avoids her fate. Hardly fair, but that is nothing new.

But, let us suppose that the scenario happens as described. From God’s perspective, it would seem that time travel would create all these loops and changes throughout time. Or perhaps not. One classic view of God and time is that God perceives all of time “at once.’ To use an analogy, God’s perspective is like being able to see the entire filmstrip of a movie at once. The past, present and future are just positions on the strip relative to a specific film cell. Hence, He does not see any changes in the past-He merely sees as the events that did occur, shall occur and are occurring all “at once.”  So, God would “see” the phone appear from a future that never was to save Sally from committing a murder that never will be.

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