pollution and horror

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Jack Morgan once offered the following explanation for the appeal horror has:

“As opposed to the comic sense of life or tragedy’s dignified sense of death, horror embodies a sense of anti-life or unlife; it takes note of the demarcation between the wholesome and the unwholesome, the healthy and the monstrous – a clarity essential to the organic life. “We love and need the concept of monstrosity,” Stephen King writes, “because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings”. That is the fundamental sense underlying horror’s various traditional tropes and conventions. In this genre the healthy mind reconnoiters the regions of the [-p.66] unhealthy. Noel Carroll correctly notes that horror creatures – and this would apply to the genre more broadly – provoke not just fear, but loathing.” (p.65)

The Gothic underscores the multifold miasmas, poisons, fungi, plagues, viruses, that are out there and able to destroy our individual or collective systemic order. “It is not the physical or mental aberration in itself that horrifies us,” Stephen King writes, “but rather the lack of order these aberrations seem to imply”. Horror focuses upon the terror of that which is bio-antithetical, bio-illogical, a fear as viable today as it was in the middle-ages or in the imagined middle ages of 18th century Gothic literature.” (p.70)

“The most famous of Poe’s tales concerns disintegration and decline – a single, organic dissipation taking in family line, the contemporary Ushers, the house and grounds. Life is flow, dynamic movement, constant refreshment, elasticity; thus, we are repulsed by what is stagnant, stale, desiccated, musty – we recognize all the latter as anti-life, entropic, unwholesome.” (p.72)

“…the remote vicinities within the dwellings in Gothic tale – cellars, attics, chambers long closed off, and so on. From what are they closed off? Essentially from life – air, sunlight, human presence and care. They are repulsive in that they bespeak abandonment and unlife.” (p.73)

The loss of all bearings, the absence of moral-ethical-rational compass, is an integral part of the horror illusion.” (p.76)

“But how to explain what Aiken and Barbald in 1775 noted: “the apparent delight with which we dwell upon objects of pure terror, where our moral feelings are not in the least involved, and no passion seems to be excited but the depressing one of fear…?” How is it that horror, as Emily Dickinson said of Hawthorne’s work, at once “appalls and entices?” How to account for the popularity of horror in its literary expressions – a highly unlikely popularity it would seem given the theory advanced here that the genre turns on our organic apprehensions – our fear of infirmity, pollution, and physical degradation?
It is first perhaps necessary to note the obvious fact that there is no pleasure to be gained from confronting the morbid and repulsive in real life; a ritual hunt-dance is not to be confused with the hunt per se. Ours is of course an aesthetic interrogation; it goes to the experience of the virtual morbid in the virtual space/time of literary art. The process is in part intellectual, but the experience of horror, like that of comedy, is centered in a bodily registration, a body-informed imagination. …
An hypothesis might be advanced here in keeping with the generally physiological nature of the thesis so far discussed. A small quantity of morbid material – smallpox vaccine for instance – provokes the body’s healthy energies to muster themselves, and tones them. Small doses of arsenic and like substances, according to homeopathic theory, can have the effect of invigorating the body’s immune responses, awakening listless organic functions.
Brought to a kind of analog confrontation with the horrid through the Gothic tale, readers are likewise reminded of the nature of their own participation in a biotic harmony and well-being. The virtual claustrophobic heightens our awareness of space in actuality; of good, well-oxygenate [-p.78] air in actuality; of our freedom in actuality. The demarkation between the healthy and the morbid is brought to consciousness and vivified. Our bodies take pleasure in the fact that we are not locked in some Gothic crypt nor the dismal, thirsty decks of the San Dominic, or walled-up hopelessly in the catacombs beneath an Italian city.” (pp.77-78)

“Through its negations, the macabre – canceling out its own morbidity – brings us round to a biological affirmation as comedy does, to an energized sense of our being-in-the-world. Stephen King recalls the effect 1950s horror films had on him: “There was that magic moment of reintegration and safety at the end…. I believe it’s this feeling of reintegration, arising from a field specializing in death, fear and monstrosity that makes the danse macabre so rewarding and magical”.” (p.78)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Jack Morgan (1998) ‘Toward an organic theory of the Gothic: conceptualizing Horror’ Journal of Popular Culture 32:3, pp.59-80

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