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Scary as Hell: The Roots of Cinema Horror

Scary as Hell: The Roots of Cinema Horror

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Published by David Pendery
Scary as Hell: The Roots of Horror analyzes the seemingly paradoxical human interest in horror narrative. Analyses to date have universally been over-simplified, and overlook essential conditions and responses that take place during the consumption of horror narrative. A key misunderstanding has long been that analysts have taken the central question of the interest in horror to be: “Why do we find pleasure in what by nature is so distressful and unpleasant?” However, this approach over-weights the pleasure (such as it is) that horror consumers feel, and all but ignores the fundamental fear response experienced by consumers of horror narrative. This fear response is the starting point of an analysis of the human interest in horror. This key emotional response (the presence of which in consumers of horror narrative is supported by extensive research) is tightly linked to goal-directed, high-level cognition in humans, with these conditions functioning in feedback looping mechanisms in human psychology and physiology. This interplay is further conditioned in an external framework of socio-biological conditions and adaptative pressures. These conditions have resulted in human personality traits and behaviors that are prepared for danger at a high pitch--a condition which I will argue is virtually permanent in human life. The socio-biological framework and adaptive pressures yield other assets in human personality (qualities, preferences, attitudes, goals, etc.) and society (representation and genre, power structures, gender and group roles, etc.) that also condition and add elements to the human interest in horror narrative. Given this variety of inputs, in this paper I argue that the most accurate and complete explanation of human interest in horror narrative is a diverse synthesis, drawing from psychology, biology, brain science, evolution, sociology and aesthetics.
Scary as Hell: The Roots of Horror analyzes the seemingly paradoxical human interest in horror narrative. Analyses to date have universally been over-simplified, and overlook essential conditions and responses that take place during the consumption of horror narrative. A key misunderstanding has long been that analysts have taken the central question of the interest in horror to be: “Why do we find pleasure in what by nature is so distressful and unpleasant?” However, this approach over-weights the pleasure (such as it is) that horror consumers feel, and all but ignores the fundamental fear response experienced by consumers of horror narrative. This fear response is the starting point of an analysis of the human interest in horror. This key emotional response (the presence of which in consumers of horror narrative is supported by extensive research) is tightly linked to goal-directed, high-level cognition in humans, with these conditions functioning in feedback looping mechanisms in human psychology and physiology. This interplay is further conditioned in an external framework of socio-biological conditions and adaptative pressures. These conditions have resulted in human personality traits and behaviors that are prepared for danger at a high pitch--a condition which I will argue is virtually permanent in human life. The socio-biological framework and adaptive pressures yield other assets in human personality (qualities, preferences, attitudes, goals, etc.) and society (representation and genre, power structures, gender and group roles, etc.) that also condition and add elements to the human interest in horror narrative. Given this variety of inputs, in this paper I argue that the most accurate and complete explanation of human interest in horror narrative is a diverse synthesis, drawing from psychology, biology, brain science, evolution, sociology and aesthetics.

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Published by: David Pendery on Jun 22, 2012
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02/01/2013

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cary as
 H 
ell:
T
he
oots of Cinema
H
orror 
By David Pendery
Introduction
From the time I was a youth in the 1970s, and to the present, I have had a fondnessfor horror film. A few of my favorite horrifying film narratives have included
 Night of the Hunter 
(1955),
 Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte
(1964),
Night of the Living Dead 
(1968),
 Damien: The Omen II 
(1978),
 Halloween
(1978),
The Shining 
(1980), and
The Blair Witch Project 
(1998).During the many years I have absorbed the terrifying isolation, ruthless attacks,shocking violence, “interstitial” monstrosities, (Carroll 185), and eerie supernaturalthemes in these and other films, I have always had a lurking recognition that horror cinema is a peculiar genre that engenders puzzling, seemingly contradictory emotionaland cognitive responses. More than a few times I have asked myself a question that has perplexed those interested in horror and the tragic since Aristotle. Simply put, “Why do Ilike this stuff?”. A more complete version of this question typically reads: “Why do Ifind pleasure in what by nature is so distressful and unpleasant?” (based on Carroll 159).Over the years, I have considered explanations ranging from the psychoanalytic to themythological/archetypal, from the aesthetic to the cognitive/evaluative, from thecathartic to the gender-based. Sometimes these theories yielded hints at the answer I was1
 
after, but none reached the emotional and cognitive roots that I knew must be thelifeblood of my interest in cinematic horror narrative.Recently I have begun to realize that much of the opacity surrounding this topicstems from errors and misunderstandings germane to the interpretation of “the question”itself. On its face, “Why do I find pleasure in what by nature is so distressful andunpleasant?” over-weights the
 pleasure
(or 
reward 
) that horror consumers feel, and all but ignores the fundamental
 fear 
experienced. This flawed disposition can be madeclearer by slightly altering the question to read: “Why am I
not afraid 
of what by natureis so distressful and unpleasant?” This re-wording highlights how this approach assumesthat horror consumers are
not afraid 
during their favorite pastime. But the fact is thathorror buffs
are afraid 
during the consumption of horror. The omission of fear in studiesof horror is odd, given research I think few would disagree with that shows that fear isthe central emotion in response to horror (see for example Zuckerman, “Taste for Vicarious Horror”), to say nothing of the familiar shrieks, gasps, anxious clutches andshivers that almost everyone has either experienced or observed during horror narratives[1]. Ignoring the fear response or over-emphasizing the enjoyment of horror can lead toconclusions such as that the central reward that horror consumers crave is a “good storywell told;” or that horror consumers are essentially wicked personalities who celebrateseeing helpless victims destroyed by monsters (human or otherwise); or that horror talesrepresent allegories that illuminate cruel, perverse corners of human psychology andsociety. Answers like these -- focusing on genre considerations, unsupported conjectureabout human psychology, or politically motivated attacks on various ideologies or groups of people -- almost wholly overlook the human fear response to horror narrative.When analyses like these refer to the dark side of horror at all, it is rarely to the fearfulfeelings proper that horror consumers experience, but usually to various repellent2
 
features of the genre itself. Some analyses do examine something like
discomfort 
thathorror consumers feel, but at heart they miss the fear response, and ultimately sidestepthe question that I think is most salient to our topic: “What are the roots of the humaninterest in horror?”.The human fear response is complex enough to analyze in relation to horror, and yetthere is quite a bit more data and interpretation that must be incorporated into a completeanalysis of this topic (examinations of fictions have, after all, always been complex). For as noted, there
is
pleasure (reward is the more accurate term) that horror buffs feel,intimately linked to the fear response. Additionally, the mostly autonomic fear responsesreferred to thus far function with goal-directed, higher-level cognition in humans, inintricate feedback looping mechanisms. These internal factors have developed in anexternal framework of socio-biological adaptation since earliest human history, whichhas resulted in personality traits and behaviors that are (in one respect) prepared for danger at a high pitch -- a condition that I will argue is virtually permanent in humanlife. The socio-biological framework and adaptive pressures yield other assets in human personality (qualities, preferences, attitudes, goals, etc.) and society (representation andgenre, power structures, gender and group roles, etc.) that also condition and add the“final touchesto the human interest in horror narrative. Given this panoply of inputs, Iwill argue that the most accurate and complete explanation of human interest incinematic horror narrative is a diverse synthesis, drawing from psychology, biology, brain science, evolution, sociology and aesthetics.In this paper I rely heavily on the work of Dr. Marvin Zuckerman, whose theory of sensation seeking has for years held the door open to the answer to “the question” athand. To be sure, Zuckerman’s ideas (which have been extensively supported by other researchers and analysts) are well-known and influential. And Zuckerman has himself 3

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