Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Ethics and Horror

Eventually I'm going to leave Mexico and return to Chicago, where I will being to focus more exclusively on the topic of my BA project: horror literature/film and whether the genre does anything unique for ethical philosophy. Inspired by an interview with George A. Romero on NYTimes.com, I've decided to hash out a few more of my general thoughts on the topic, in anticipation of more in-depth inquiry.

Now, just as it is difficult to imagine literature as separate from examinations of ethics (as I have mentioned before), it is equally difficult to think of horror as separate from ethics: since the crux of ethical discussion is determining the difference between right and wrong, and horror situations inevitably deal with something that just terribly
wrong.

This is not to say that I think any horror story (for my purpose"story" will refer to both literature and cinema) is a good specimen for examination, just as any novel in general isn't a perfect choice for look at ethics. All contain ethics because pretty much every novel is about people and (in my view) ethics is a fundamental aspect of humanity. In the same way, just because horror always deals with things that are (for one reason or another) wrong, does not mean any example provides adequate fodder for the conversation.

For me, what makes the difference is an element of choice. What drives the study of ethics in the first place is that we still aren't sure 100% of the time when we're doing the right thing, and the truth is that dilemmas seldom divide cleanly into right and wrong options, anyway. Ethics is stil a topic of discussion because humans are still failing to uncover a formula to tell us exactly how to behave in any given situation. The really fascinating part of Kant's Categorical Imperative

A story about someone who is unequivocally evil is much less interesting (for my purposes) than a story about someone who is forced to make--or accidentally makes, or justifies making--a choice that most of humanity would find repulsive, unacceptable, unforgivable, but that we may possible be able to imagine ourselves choosing as well (and this relation to the protagonist is just as, if not more, revolting than our initial reaction). Horror is much more intriguing when it is directed at oneself (either on the part of the protagonist or the audience) than when the perpetrator is someone that no one in their right mind would identify with (Freddy Krueger; Indian Jones' Nazis).

A possible exception to this may be gore: brutal acts of torture etc can be just as repulsive when carried out by a familiar and unequivocally evil villain as by someone you don't expect it from (though I'd argue the acts are made worse when they come from someone we identify with), but here we find new qualifications. Excessive gore and violence needs to serve a purpose in these stories beyond the cringe/gross out factor for them to be valid specimens for ethical examination/. Of course it isn't right to [insert horrific physical act here] to anyone...so a grander, more macro purpose is desired. To quote the Romero article,
(which some people see as just such a formula) is not that there is a definitive answer to every dilemma but in determining the maxim by which the answer can be known--which is much harder.
“I don’t get the torture porn films,” Mr. Romero said. “They’re lacking metaphor. For me the gore is always a slap in the face saying: ‘Wait a minute. Look at this other thing.’ ”
For Romero, that other thing is often commentary on society (social norms, race relations, necessary revolutions or their notable absence), and I believe gore can serve to highlight other concepts as well.


I'm trailing off here as this is as far as I've thought this through today and I have countless other things to get to. Hopefully pictures and maybe some Mexico updates later on.

4 comments:

Alex said...

'Excessive gore and violence needs to serve a purpose in these stories beyond the cringe/gross out factor for them to be valid specimens for ethical examination/. Of course it isn't right to [insert horrific physical act here] to anyone...so a grander, more macro purpose is desired.'

::cheers::

I totally agree (with most everything you have said, not only the bit about gore. Gore has been overused in the past few (10?) years in cinema in what I find to be a totally confusing way... It's just pointless.

Anyway, the whole BA project sounds awesome. I need to start reading philosophy again. I miss it so!

ayn said...

I don't want to give the impression that I don't approve of gore in cinema (or literature for that more; I've read some really sickening things that are just as bad as anything you could see); I actually enjoy it. But it's not enough on its own; it needs a context.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I find real violence so unbearable to view and yet revel in hyperviolence in entertainment (not that I need to make much of an argument for disapproving of the real thing over entertainment). Anyway, what my point really was in the post is that for my intellectual purposes, a movie like "Hostel" probably isn't going to be as useful as a movie like "Pan's Labyrinth" (although, I must admit I haven't seen "Hostel," and if I remember correctly it may want to say something Fight Clubish about modern man returning to primitivism...though either way that's not a topic that particularly interests me [in fact, I reject it]).

Alex said...

I do not mean to say that gore should never be used either.

I've sort of dropped out of watching "Horror" films as they have been dubbed nowadays because most of them do simply revert to the "gore-tastic" school of moviemaking. "

Violence is a very powerful thing when used correctly, and the points that you bring up about the movie getting scarier the more you can identify, or at least recognize the villain is a very good one.

When we first talked about this idea of yours (a few months ago?) I brought up the SAW movies for at least trying to bring suspense of moral ambiguity back into the formula. I still haven't seen SAW, and probably won't because it and it's successors seem to revel in gore as well, but I think I've got a slightly better idea of what you're working with now, and it does look like it would make for a very interesting investigation.

But for instance: Pan's Labyrinth . I would never have thought to call it a horror movie. I'm sure there are many more that fill a similar space. You seem to be looking at movies that examine ethics in some sort of extreme circumstance, yes?

For Pan's Labyrinth it's a fairy tale world that the girl (I forget her name) gets thrown into, and as she delves deeper into the the spanish civil war and her own fairly world(or perhaps a simple delirium), she has to make harder and harder decisions culminating in the possible sacrifice of her own brother.

I guess the word "horror" is just a little bit misleading, for me at least.

ayn said...

I probably won't see "Saw" because from what I've heard the story sounds very contrived.

I wouldn't necessarily lable "Pan's Labyrinth" a horror film, either; with that reference I was looking for another example of gore. But, defining "horror" as a genre is something I'm going to have to do.

Well, I guess the definition is fairly simple: intent to inspire fear. No matter what else is going on in the story, it's supposed to scare you. The definitional work I'm going to have to do will be more along the lines of explaining why I've selected the examples I'll select.

I haven't gotten far enough to pick things yet. Whatever I do for the written portion of my BA, it's definitely not going to be as broad as "Ethics in horror." I'm hoping to find something rather specific with no more than a couple stories/books and a couple movies. I'll be studying Frankenstein in the fall, and I'm thinking about pairing it with "Spirit of the Beehive," a Spanish civil war movie about a young girl obsessed with Frankenstein's monster (that is considered the predecessor of "Pan's Labyrinth"), but it's also not strictly a horror film. We'll see.