“Like all avant-garde art… horror’s purpose is to force its audiences to confront the limits of their own tolerance.”
“Horror runs very deep”, says Darryl Jones, in his compact and entertaining history of horror, and “is part of what we are.” Coming in at under 200 pages, I was surprised that this story of horror, from Euripides to the Slender Man, arrived in a pocket-sized edition. If you’ve ever read one of OUP’s Very Short Introductions, you’ll know what to expect and I wonder why this book wasn’t called Horror: A Very Short Introduction.
I suspect, judging from the appealing physical design of the book – a lightbulb cut-out front cover revealing a blood-red landscape littered with the monsters discussed within – that the publishers are hoping to reach a wider market. Jones’ unstuffy (but meticulously well-researched) style helps make this a book that anyone with an interest in literary or cinematic culture will enjoy. For fellow horror aficionados, this book helps frame one’s passion in the contexts of society, politics, and psychology, and tries to offer explanations of why we like actively horrifying ourselves.
Jone starts by showing that “the spectacle of violence… is encoded in art from its very beginnings” with Euripides’ The Bacchae, a Greek tragedy first performed around 400 BC, in which King Pentheus is dismembered by Agave and her Maenads while under the influence of the god Dionysus. This “sets the bar very high for artistic representations of violence and gore” and yet horror has long courted controversy, from Matthew Lewis’s Gothic horror The Monk (in a 1797 review, Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that its scenes of lust and depravity were likely to corrupt readers) to the notorious so-called ‘video nasty’ films that were banned in the UK under the Video Recordings Act of 1984, displaying delightful titles such as I Spit on Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust.
Take Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which displays shocking scenes of mutilation, rape, and cannibalism, yet no one calls for Shakespeare to be banned from schools (other than the students, perhaps). Why? For Jones, tragedies like The Bacchae and Titus Andronicus are “horror for the educated classes”.
There seems to be a class bias in the urge to ban violent media. It’s as if the educated middle-classes can view such violence with a degree of critical detachment; others, however, may show a more Pavlonian response as they are exposed to violent media, becoming gradually desensitised, leading to a tendency to commit violent acts of their own. Jones reminds us that this Pavlonian hypothesis is well discredited; horror films don’t directly cause people to commit horrific acts.
I would have liked this introduction to have gone further because one question seems unanswered: why are some drawn to horror while others actively avoid it? If the real purpose of horror is to “force its audiences to confront the limits of their own tolerance”, is it simply that some people have a greater tolerance due to a variety of internal and external factors?
Following the introduction, the book is divided into chapters exploring different themes: monsters, the occult and supernatural, horror and the body, horror and the mind, science, and post-millennium horror. In doing so, Jones has found a way to touch on nearly every horror film or work of literature ever produced, whether or not they’re specifically named, because horror features tropes that are returned to again and again, reinvented as “it falls upon each generation… to create its own monsters”, and these themes leave very few stones unturned.
I enjoyed the psychoanalytical thread throughout the book. If you asked me whether I believed in ghosts, my response would be ‘in the literal sense, no’. However, I believe that people think they see ghosts and at the heart of these beliefs (and many more besides) is our psychology and the way we perceive the world.
A name which crops up frequently throughout the book is Sigmund Freud, firstly during the introduction in the context of the uncanny and later as psychoanalytic ideas are brought up for discussion. Jones refers to the uncanny as “existential uncertainty”, that feeling when everything is not quite what we thought it was, such as when you notice a door open that you thought was closed and you begin to question your surroundings and yourself. Freud wrote an essay in 1919 titled “The Uncanny” in which he defines the term as when the strange meets the familiar – an understood and “homely” reality is transgressed in some fashion. Interestingly, “uncanny” is derived from Scots in the sense “relating to the occult, malicious”.
This book may leave few stones unturned but, to me, an important omission in the closing chapter is a discussion of the world of video games. Video games are becoming increasingly sophisticated and not just technically, but as works of art and vehicles for moving storytelling. 2014’s survival horror Alien: Isolation featured an alien with artificial intelligence that would learn your behaviour and respond accordingly (there are only so many times hiding in that locker will work); 2002’s Eternal Darkness saw you struggling with your slipping sanity as you followed the lives of various characters throughout history battling to save humanity; indie-favourite Oxonfree from 2016 mixes teen coming-of-age films with weird fiction, where mysterious radio frequencies on a remote island distort reality and expose the ghosts left there to haunt, not once relying on a jump-scare to get under your skin.
Teresa Lynch at Indiana University studied the way that games evoke fear and found that the level of interaction in video games, in comparison to the passivity of watching a film, can trick the brain into thinking that what’s happening to the character is happening to the player, significantly amplifying the experience. I, for one, struggled to play 2017’s Resident Evil 7 as the level of tension was simply too much for me.
Understandably, in such a concise history, there’s little room for exploring every aspect of horror, but if I were to look anywhere for true innovation in this genre, it’s in video games.
Overall, this is a fascinating little book that made me only more eager to explore the horror in cinema and literature that I have missed and encourages me to delve deeper into the critical and academic study of the genre. Even if horror is a seasonal (trick or) treat for you, you will come away with a greater appreciation of that which haunts and unsettles you.