Quelle Horreur! Could Horror Really Be an Aesthetic Experience?
Horror is enjoying its most popular decade yet but what's the pleasure? A fix for the soft-core adrenaline junkie, the pursuit of control, or a cure for derealisation? I'm looking at the dominant theories surrounding horror and asking, are we overlooking the genre's true power as an aesthetic experience.
Toni Collette in Hereditary. Photography: © A24
Horror is a divisive genre. A spectrum of love, loathing, and derision built on the shared recognition that scary movies are fearful affairs. One would rightly believe they are the antithesis of enjoyment if so many did not outright adore them. The audience is split, but not over the validity of the sensations. It's a disagreement of their pleasure.
The paradox of horror is that this fear-inducing, discomforting genre generates a mass following at all since these feelings are widely considered physically unpleasant and inherently negative. In this framework, how audiences overcome painful and comfortable sensations to achieve pleasure leaves many questioning the nature of that pleasure. Or, at the very least, the psychopathy of the audience.
As one such viewer with no latent amoral or antisocial tendencies, I say that conflating fear with revulsion, disgust, and the plethora of other sensations synonymous with the genre is causing more harm than good. Disgust is an aversion to something we find offensive, but fear is a complex physical response designed for self-preservation. It's a survival mechanism that is primitive, powerful, and capable of producing intensifying physiological changes.
And it can also be arousing.
Excitation transfer theory would even go as far as to say that specific fearful experiences contribute to acute arousal long after the event has come to a close. Even anxiety can carry the same intense jumpiness and instability as lovesickness. It's the context that dictates whether the symptoms are that of anxiety or excitement.
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. Photography: © A24
It's all very integrationist in theory, a perspective that assistant professor in aesthetics and philosophy of art Katerina Bantinaki happily appeals to. In her paper, The Paradox of Horror: Fear as a Positive Emotion, she suggests that one could feel fear as a pleasurable emotion once they take a "positive stance" towards the experience.
In her view, it's how audiences approach the horror film that determines the extent of their pleasure since, being a staged experience, it offers a measure of safety despite its aim to chill and thrill. This emotional experience is potentially beneficial and rewarding, regardless if it is "affectively pleasurable or affectively painful"  because the viewer has willfully elected to opt-in for amusement.
It's an appealing theory that deftly navigates the dumbfounding perplexity of pleasurable fear, allowing the horror experience to take centre stage. But sidelining the very sensations that position horror as a body genre does a great disservice. Surely the involuntary somatic responses horror films can induce are central to its mechanics and a fundamental criterion of its success.
Suggesting that the experience of horror is gratifying regardless of the visceral sensations it elicits risks overlooking the various sub-genres within horror, each of which boasts a unique following. Horror film fans are as divisive as their celebrated genre, with disdain and intolerance occurring as much within the community as without. Pursuing only why individuals would subject themselves to the experience in the first place overlooks those with a genuine affinity for the craft.
Naomi Watts in The Ring. Photography©Dreamworks
As a lifelong psychological horror connoisseur, my tolerance for biological horror is non-existent regardless of how positive a stance I take to the genre as a whole. So intense is my aversion that even the appearance of bodily desecration within my palatable choice is enough to put me off the experience entirely.
Perhaps then, it may be best to consider that horror is alluring for the experience it provokes regardless of the approach we take to it - a popular stance for psychology-informed theorists. But I want to take this beyond the well-regarded understanding that fear feels good or that it's arousing for soft-core adrenaline junkies with an aversion to heights. Instead, I wish to focus on Julian Hanich's concept of cinematic shock and look at horror as an aesthetic experience as opposed to Bantinaki's moderate hedonic one.
In this regard, horror's attracting power stems from the pronounced self-awareness it can evoke, the measure of which effectively determines its success and enduring popularity among die-hard fans and casual thrill-seekers alike.
Most agree that horror's appeal and critical success is contingent on its capacity to provoke fear and/or repulsion. If one were to take the traditional view that these are inescapably unpleasant responses, one might argue that pleasure derives from mastery over the subject matter.
American philosopher Noël Carroll suggests that horror's allure is no more than the fascination with the monstrous other: that being which violates society's typical conceptual schemes and whose disturbing nature ignites an insatiable curiosity. Here, the viewer becomes an avid anthropologist, seeking to understand the creature's ills, observe their sickly existence, and determine whether they can be destroyed, all under the guidance of the plot. Thus, Carroll argues, the audience's subjection to abject sensations is merely a necessary evil in their pursuit of cognitive pleasure.
Even if we accept that this cognitive pleasure is so potent as to override all affective discomfort and fear, surely it would stand that the potency would wain upon repeated viewing. After all, horror lovers adore a rewatchable title as much as the next film buff. If the appeal of horror lies strictly within its stimulation of our morbid curiosity with the aversive and grotesque, it is lost once our curiosity has been sated.
In contrast, most audiences would attest that it is, in fact, the emotional responses that they seek as opposed to the intellectual stimulation, a claim bolstered by much psychological research and terrible horror plots. Clinical psychologist Dr Zach Sikora, PsyD, asserts that during " a staged fear experience," our brains will produce more dopamine, which elicits pleasure. It's not the feeling of fright that we derive satisfaction from but the other elements that go along with it. Dr Christopher Dwyer PhD outlines the biochemical rush of adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine that results in "a pleasure-filled, opioid-like sense of euphoria" - an arousal sustained afterwards through the excitation transfer process.
This is a more than satisfactory explanation for those who seek the thrill of the terror. Indeed, John Morreall argues that it is the very "stimulation provided by fear" that can provide the utmost pleasure to those who ordinarily lead "a relatively dull life." But what of body horrors that aim to revolt and disgust to excess? Bantinaki would argue that, here, enjoyment is a result of the viewer's ability to exert tolerance over "the negative physiological symptoms", which then allows them "to indulge in what is potentially enjoyable in these intense emotions."
Enter Hanich, whose response bypasses the hedonistic aspect of horror entirely and focuses, instead, on its unique aesthetic experience. He describes this being not just "a simple stimulus-response mechanism, but an active, voluntary encounter with an object that becomes an aesthetic object only through the attention we give it."
This feels somewhat similar to Bantinaki's integrationist approach but with subtle differences: there is no demand for any positive stance. Rather, Hanich positions cinema as the primer for the aesthetic experience since its entire design is crafted to direct the audience's full attention to the screen. And while there is an element of truth that the viewer still retains control over attending to the horror, Hanich stipulates that a key aspect of the aesthetic experience is the "safe ontological distance it presupposes." Once the cinema affirms the viewer's physical "absence from the scene of action" and intertwines their attention to the filmic world, the relinquishment of control tends to follow. This distance allows practical concerns to fade and other intense aspects, such as our lived-body experience, to be fully realised: what Hanich calls cinematic shock.
Emily Blunt in The Quiet Place © Paramount Pictures
Enveloped by darkness, surrounded by black-box interiors, and at the mercy of a floor-to-ceiling screen, audiences are primed to lose themselves. Add to that an intriguing plot, aural manipulation, and fascinating visuals, and the stage is set for a shock that disrupts the viewer's "perceptual flow so fast and so unexpectantly" that they lose all defensive control. The most obvious example being the jump scare.
In Hanich's view, this does more than simply provide an opportunity for viewers to exert mastery over their reflexes to frightening stimuli; it overwhelms them to the point that they recognise the "affective effectiveness" the cinematic shock has had on them. And because the ontological distance remains intact, the audience experiences a heightened sense of presence which is self-affirming. Rather than feel a pressing need to withdraw from the aesthetic object, audiences savour the mutual sensation of the 'startle effect,' often expressed through breathy sighs of relief and post-jump giggles (and maybe a healthy stirring of the excitation transfer process for a lucky couple).
But this startle response is not a pleasant sensation for everyone. Hardwired into our biology, it's designed to galvanise us in the face of a threat by rapidly activating the skeleton muscle and up-regulating the sympathetic nervous system. All of which can feel incredibly uncomfortable, for some more than others, which goes a long way to explaining horror's hit-or-miss reputation.
This is all well and good, but what of mutilation, torture, and the bizarre appeal of The Hostel franchise? Body horror tends to ramp up the grotesque with very little regard for the startle effect; the shock is in the details, not the silence. The philosophical field of aesthetics has long explored the connection between emotional responses and the appreciation of art - disgust being one of the more pronounced. The theory goes that some aesthetic emotions can be so profound as to birth an entirely new experience, the sublime being the most iconic.
Disgust stands out because it is highly visceral and intense, making us aware of certain areas of our body depending on the visuals we see. But it also prompts a cognitive reflection that is lacking in fear. Fear is the immediate awareness of danger but disgust, philosopher Aurel Kolnai explains, "has the power to impart directly what may be very clear-sighted partial awareness of its object, which may be quite intuitive in nature." In other words, disgust can prompt a further engagement with the aesthetic object - a fascination or understanding - which we can relate back to our own bodies, again, achieving what Hanich would consider a sense of being in the world. But, like the startle effect, this is not a comfortable sensation for every viewer.
Uncontrollable bodily responses are symptomatic of the genre, and unsurprisingly, jump scares and aversion tends to be the key markers of a horror film's success. Although Hanich grants that such a lack of control and powerlessness may cause come to feel uneasy, many others find the foregrounding of their body invigorating.
However, while the aesthetic experience facilitates this feeling of "being-in-the-world," this sensation is impermanent in a contemporary life filled with virtual spaces and digital images. One may argue it's damn near impossible to achieve. But perhaps this ephemeral quality is precisely why horror has enjoyed such a resurgence and continues to grow exponentially in the digital age.
Maybe we are all just seeking that initial high, a fleeting sense that 'I feel and, therefore, I am.'
1 Bantinaki, Katerina, “The Paradox of Horror: Fear as a Positive Emotion,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70, No. 4 (2012): 383-392.
2 Ibid, 383.
3 Hanich, Julian, “Cinematic Shocks: Recognition, Aesthetic Experience, and Phenomenology,” Amerikastudien / American Studies 57, No. 4 (2012): 581-602
4 Ibid, 590.
5 Ibid, 596.
6 Kolnai, Aurel. 2004. On Disgust. 1st ed. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 39