Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Getting started on my thesis

My last (!) term of school is approaching, and consequently I've been thinking about getting started on my thesis, which is pretty much all I have lined up for myself to do until June. I've written a few of my ideas here before; presumably I've been pruning and refining them some. Mainly I think I still need to narrow things down, things being defined as "what I am going to talk about," the hope being that once I've got things narrowed down I'll actually be able to figure out what I want to say.

So, here are my current thoughts on the matter of horror fiction and its usefulness to ethical/moral philosophy. (BE WARNED: this is a beast of a post, and I understand if you don't read it.)

In the Modern American Horror Film class I took last Spring, we read Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture (Kendall R. Phillips) a book with the thesis that horror films (at least, American horror films from Dracula to Scream) reflect the societal terrors of the era during which they were produced. Phillips and others make the (often convincing) argument that horror films are socially important.

What I want to know is, are horror films (and novels and stories, etc) also morally and philosophically important?

For me, philosophy refers to the individual, as opposed to society. When I look at individuals in stories, however, I must necessarily look at them as standing for multiple existent individuals--otherwise, I would simply be examining the moral life of a specific character of fiction. To be relevant, such examinations must be applicable to real people.

This should not be controversial; after all, Kant's Categorical Imperative implies that for any given situation, there is one moral way to act. The particulars and circumstances surrounding the individual in question cannot come into play.

I am obviously not the first person to question the philosophical validity of horror; Noel Carrol's The Philosophy of Horror does just what its title implies--creates/defines/uncovers a philosophy of the genre. I have only read part of the book so far, but as Carrol outlines his intent very clearly in the introduction, I feel comfortable saying that my purpose is more specific is (also, that we don't agree on everything--or at least, that our different goals necessarily require different approaches). For Carrol, in a (unfairly simplistic) nutshell, horror is about how the protagonist (and the reader/viewer, vicariously) feel simultaneously threatened and revolted by the monster. And a monster needs to be unambiguously threatening AND revolting in order to be a horrifying monster.

Okay, fine. However, I feel that for my question to be meaningful (Is horror morally relevant?), the concept of a monster, what it is that causes the sense of horror, and what role the protagonist plays all need to be more complicated than that. (Another distinct difference--Carrol's approaches focuses largely on the audience of the work of horror, and I don't intend to consider audience very much, if at all).

Right now, two...I'm not exactly sure what to call them, scenarios?...are occupying my mind, when it comes to common scenarios in horror works with potential moral/philosophical relevance: a) how the protagonists react to the situation they end up in and b) protagonist as monster/monsters that remind us of the terrible things about ourselves. I'll take them up separately, as far as I've thought them through so far.

I. The "Survivor Scenario"

To quote "Firefly's" Shepherd Book (who in turn is quoting the Qin Dynasty general Xiang Yu):

Live with a man 40 years—share his house, his meals, speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge—and on that day, you will finally meet the man.
While I don't necessarily agree with this concept in my own life, I think it's an interesting rhetorical and literary device, and one that rears its head fairly frequently in the horror genre.

When considering this scenario, the focus is off the monster, and really on what is happening to the people (protagonists, victims, etc) in the situation created by the monster. What does the situation do them? How does it change them? How do their attitudes toward each other change?

John Carpenter's The Thing and George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead are great examples from cinema. In The Thing, men at an Antarctic base turn don't know who they can trust after their base s invaded by a shapeshifting alien; in Night, survivors of a zombie outbreak become fatally distracted from the threat at hand by their need to be right. As for things I've read recently, Scott Smith's The Ruins and Stephen King's "The Mist" also both address the Survivor Scenario in similar fashion: in the former, six people who find themselves quarantined are manipulated into quarreling and taking sides, and in the latter, the only survivors (as far as they know) of an experiment gone terribly wrong and holed up inside a supermarket, a few individuals find remarkable courage as they struggle against the growing insanity and calls for sacrifice of the others.

Does it always come to pass that the protagonists turn against each other in these situations? If so, the Survivor Scenario seems a lot less complex and consequently, less useful philosophically. If it comes down to the simple principle that "When people end up in dire situations, they turn against each other," there isn't much work to do (likewise, the corollary of "if they don't turn against each other, they bond with each other" also doesn't leave a lot of room for exploration).

I plan to read Richard Matheson's "I am Legend" as a possible answer to this--after all, if the main character is alone, there is no ally to turn against or bond with (unless his dog counts; I haven't read it yet, and neither have I seen the recent movie version).

Whatever the answer ends up being, how the protagonists in a story respond to their situation is one of the things I almost always find most compelling about the horror genre.

II. The "Mr. Hyde Scenario"

If my clevel moniker is not clear enough, "The Outsider" and "Shadow Over Innsmouth" (both by H.P. Lovecraft) both provide examples of the other type of scenario that I see as potentially philosophically rich: protagonist as monster.

This scenario is closer to what Carrol deems philosophically relevant about horror in that some focus must be directed to the specifics of the monster--appearance/form, origin, and, especially compelling for me, the monster's relation to the protagonist/s. This last aspect can take a variety of forms; for example, in the Lovecraft stories I referred to (SPOILER ALERT!) the narrator/protagonist in each case comes to discover that he is the very monster that causes so much loathing (in the first case) or that he himself cannot abide (in the second). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is obviously another example of this, as is Frankenstein.

However, I'm also interested in monsters that aren;t so directly tied to the protagonists, but find some other way to cause the protagonists to look upon themselves in horror by recognizing something in the beast that is also in themselves. Though I don't believe Carrol addresses this role the monster can play in quite this way, it touches on some of what he says (and I believe that Julia Kristeva's writings on abjection will aso be useful). Take zombies as an example: they are not only threatening/horrifying because they lust after human flesh--because they used to be human, they remind humanity of our own mortality and the looming presence of death; they remind us of the most vile, shameful aspect of our physicality. Even less directly, the way a monster looks or behaves can act as metaphor for human action and behavior (I can't think of an example for this off-hand).

The way that both of these scenarios come together to help me is in their focus on the effect of the horrifying events on the protagonist.


Kendall Phillips said...

interesting stuff - i think the 'i am legend' novel will be quite an interesting as it is a potentially interesting take on the whole notion. and may actually play both scenarios together (but you'll see that once you've read the book - though not the recent movie which was good but lost the books poignant punch)

perhaps some kafka fits in as well but that may be too literary for your purposes.

anyway, good thinking and i look forward to reading more.


ayn said...

If this is THE Kendall Phillips, then I'm flattered you took the time to read through my mess of thoughts. I really enjoyed your book.

My intent for this paper (which is the culmination of my undergraduate program, and supposed to be about 30 pages) is actually to focus on short form literary works. I hadn't thought of Kafka; I guess I hadn't considered him as fitting into the genre (though only having read "The Metamorphosis" I can see tie-ins to a discussion of abjection). Was there a particular work you had in mind when you wrote that?

Elizabeth said...

You've obviously done a lot of thought on this since I talked to you last about it. Are you going to write as well as analyze, still, or are you planning on canning the fiction portion of the paper?

And, I dunno, but the "zombies as human monsters" can be broadened significantly to include not only zombies but most of the undead. In particular werewolves and vampires which are I think direct parallels for the evils of our more animalistic urges and violent bloodlust, respectively. Then again, any monster that takes on vaguely human form or can be in any way created from a human falls into that category. Er. I don't actually have any insight, I'm just blathering, so I'll stop.

But good luck with the BA!

ayn said...

You make fair points about any of the undead/used to be human monsters. Zombies are just one example that, as you know, are a particular favorite of mine.

There are examples of monsters that are so alien (often literally aliens) to humanity that perhaps they can't possibly remind us of ourselves and it is in their alienness that they are horrifying... But I'm less interested in this, I suppose. In the books we read (now I can't remember which one, or it may have been multiple) for my film class, one of them talked about an era where the villains and monsters in horror film were depicted as purely evil, and humans are set against them, perhaps not as purely good, but as morally superior. I'm less interested in this kind of scenario.

I don't know if I'm going to be writing and analyzing my own stuff anymore, considering that I didn't manage to finish writing anything this summer.

Kendall said...

Hi Ayn,

It is me (i hate to admit I have a 'google alert' set for the title of the book so anytime the title pops up on the internet i get a little note - normally it isn't anything interesting so i ignore it, but i thought your blog post was pretty cool thinking so i just wanted to add encouragment). So, thanks for the kind words about the book and good luck on the thesis!

Anonymous said...

so . . . . how's it going??