Why we love horror: the sublime and monstrous Other

This article is the second part in a series that began with Beyond Fear. Here’s a quick summary: I argued for a distinction between horror and fear, and said that horror is appealing because it suggests mundane reality hides something supernormal. Since this is also true of fantasy, I have also argued that these genres are related in a fundamental way.

I have stated in passing that horror is dark, and fantasy by comparison is bright. That is not a generalization I think many will contest, and it will bring us greater clarity about the differences between them. Both genres suggest that something exists beyond the mundane world: what I will call the fantastic Other. Think about that term for a moment – let it settle into your mind.

I think you will agree that in some contexts, a nebulous word like Other could be quite glorious, or very ominous indeed. The fantastic Other might be the dweller in your attic, the monster beneath your staircase, or Dr. Seuss’s “Vug under a rug” (which didn’t give me many sleepless nights as a child, I swear): in short, it may be monsters and demons. But then again, the Other may be Aslan, may be Jack Frost, may even be Santa Claus; in short, it may be saints and angels.

I have outlined, here, a strict dichotomy – that the fantastic Other breaks down into two kinds: the sublime Other, and the monstrous Other. But I know that we are generally suspicious of dichotomies these days. After all, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” I know that whenever boundaries are suggested, areas of overlap must be acknowledged before one may go on.

So let it be known that the sublime and monstrous Other have not always been separated, and it is only recently that we have tended to separate them, and only more recently we have discovered we were wrong to do so. I view that as more evidence for my claim that fantasy and horror are related: they are sprung from the same fountain.

Take, for instance, the mermaid, the leprechaun, or Germanic fairy tales. We often hear today that fairy tales were much darker than we now think they were, and that it was Walt Disney who separated them into black and white categories (but of course, the Romantics did that long before Disney): the mermaids may have been glorious, fantastic creatures, but they were also seductive, murderous, and cunning. The leprechauns may have been a charming folk that horded pots of gold, and granted wishes to those who caught them, but they were also tricksters who would steal your baby and replace it with an ugly one. David Douglas McAnally assures us that leprechauns were “not wholly good nor wholly evil.”

This fantastic other was, in short, both monstrous, and sublime.

In fairy tales, too, the woods hide secrets that are both terrible and wondrous to behold: take Hansel and Gretel who stumble on the gingerbread house (sublime!), only to be captured by a witch intent on cannibalism (monstrous!).

But what we have in this older kind of story, the kind which combined what we now call horror with what we now call fantasy, was rather unlike a modern fantasy story, because – for all its impossibilities – it was a rather realistic one. Life is full of things both terrible and wonderful, and sometimes they are found in the same places. Nowhere is this more evident than in human beings themselves, for as we know too well, the best and worst sort of person can be combined in a single being.

Yet even before Romanticism, the sublime and monstrous Other were sometimes separated: there is actually nothing sublime about the Banshee, and there is nothing monstrous about the Lady of The Lake. And before we condemn, and (especially!) before you take me to condemn modern fantasy and horror stories for escaping an ambiguous dimension, let me remind you of something else you probably know.

In addition to the regular human being who is both flawed and virtuous, on rare occasions, we meet two special kinds of people: those in which it is almost impossible to name a flaw, and those in which it is almost impossible to name a virtue. Although such people are rare, we do know them. Or if we do not know them, we certainly know of them – we have read about them in papers, and we have read the biographies, both of man’s gold, and man’s dross. We are envious of one, we are repulsed by the other, but we are wholly transfixed by both the saint and the psychopath.

Whether we like realism better than romanticism, the fact that the monstrous and the sublime Other have been purified into respective genres is one we have come to examine rather than to judge. We want to understand fantasy and horror, and we can begin by seeing them as the separation of the ambiguous Other into two incarnations very different in character, but equally intriguing.

The Grotesque

Now to the question of horror as a modern genre. I have already said it arouses the sentiment that something exists beyond mundane reality – but what kind of thing? I obviously mean to say the monstrous Other, but I will also be more specific.

In horror, the veil of reality is torn to reveal something appalling beneath its surface. In tamer kinds of horror, this something could be flesh and bones. In Frankenstein, the human being is deconstructed into parts of rotting corpses dug up from old graves, and stitched together with thread.

There are three kinds of monstrous Others in Shelley’s tale: the monstrous Other relative to Science, which is not merely a wonderful tool for improving life, but a method for creating disjointed and unearthly beings. There is the monstrous Other relative to the human body; beyond the veil of human beings as we perceive them lies the fact that they are composed of ugly stuff, and although we think ourselves special, it takes only some very clever chemistry to bring that stuff to life. There is, finally, the monstrous Other relative to society in Frankenstein; polite people of Christian values in a Victorian society denounce the monster as a godless creature with no rights, in spite of his reason, love, and emotions. Society turns out to be the veil of something cruel, and unaccepting.

But I have called this kind of horror tame – why, seeing as it is rather morbid? I say it, because horror can go much farther, and it has. Body horror always concerns the monstrous Other relative to the human body, and there are examples I am not willing to share on this blog, but you are likely enough familiar (Frankenstein’s monster is tame by our standards). Beyond that, horror has given us monstrous Others relative to nature itself, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. It has given us the monstrous Other relative to the human psyche (not just to the human body), as in Psycho. It has very often given us the monstrous Other relative to childhood and innocence, with all its murderous clowns, and demon-possessed playthings. Internet culture has brought this kind of monstrous Other farther along in creepypastas, where innocuous children’s shows become the façades of bloody and hellish enterprises. In some works, horror has even given us a monstrous Other relative to metaphysics and ultimate reality, but this in particular is a subject I will devote another article to.

At bottom, horror is a genre that tells us there is something outside our ordinary experience of the world, and it is grotesque. It is a deconstruction of ordinary life into something corrupt, ugly, or unsettling. Those who extol a work for its subtle approach to horror – the kind that is known to be especially ‘psychological’ – sometimes praise it for being merely ‘wrong’, though they may find it difficult to explain precisely in what sense it is ‘wrong’.

The word ‘wrong’ as a description of something particularly horrifying or ‘creepy’ tells us something important: that in addition to the aesthetic dimension of the grotesque, there exists a moral dimension to the monstrous Other. There is usually a sense in which it is bad, if not wicked, cruel, callous, or malevolent. But this is another subject to be addressed more fully later on.

The Glorious

You know the next logical step already: fantasy works like horror, except for the sublime Other. Since these articles are mainly about horror, an extended explanation is unnecessary, but here are some brief illuminations.

Take Harry Potter, with its castles, wizards, magical sports, and mythic creatures. J.K Rowling’s magnum opus is effectively a sublime Other relative to the country of England, in which ordinary train stations hide better, glorious train stations. Remote hillsides harbor stone castles (a sight known in that part of the world), and these stone castles in turn harbor glorious schools. Even the staircase in 4 Privet Drive harbors something glorious: the boy who lives; the Chosen One to save the wizarding world from darkness.

Harry Potter is one, glorious conspiracy on every level of human life. Animals (Hedwig), natural spaces (the Forbidden Forest), public spaces (London), even the transportation system are complicit.

I noted in the last section that the monstrous Other possesses a moral dimension. The same is certainly true of the sublime. It is obvious in Harry Potter who is good, and who is bad; that the sublime Others dress in righteous robes, taking the role of hero at every turn. In Harry Potter, the sublime is held in moral contrast with the grotesque. As before, I must suspend further elaboration on this point until later on.

Terrible and wonderful truths

At this point, I can now give my full explanation why people love horror, and why they love fantasy: people love both because they love to feel there is more to the world than meets the eye. But people love fantasy in particular because it reminds them of truths that they may only dimly know: glorious truths that illuminate reality, cause it to transcend, and reveal the higher potential or fuller nature of things they are already familiar with. These are glorious truths.

To quote a famous author:

“Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
– G.K Chesterton

But then, what about horror? horror is the whole subject of these articles, and I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time talking about fantasy instead. That is because I think the first cannot be fully appreciated apart from the second. And if you can appreciate the sorts of truths that fantasy communicates to us, perhaps you will also appreciate the truth which horror communicates.

Horror is about the other kind of truth – the truths that are not glorious: the terrible, awful truths. Frankenstein rings true in certain ways; it reminds us of a society that is not so virtuous as we imagine, of a science that is not as beautiful as we thought, of human bodies which are not as permanent as we believe.

These are truths that humanity finds occasion to be reminded of again, and again. Ecclesiastes is a book of the Old Testament which contains the sort of hard, terrible truths that I am talking about:

“All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
Ecclesiastes 3:20

These words are not taken from a book in the horror genre, but one which was Divinely inspired. Hopefully you know already that the book does not end there – neither Ecclesiastes, nor the Bible. It teaches that all men return to dust, but also teaches that they are more than dust, and the final end of man is not in this world.

But having said that, so far as the words go, they obviously were not written to be comfortable. They were written by a disillusioned king at the end of his life, reflecting on all the pointless vanities in which he had indulged. The verse is not something one says at a party – it’s not something one says to cheer up a friend. It is a truth we’d rather not think about, and yet some part of us yearns to face it headlong, and stare at it for all its worth; that is what horror gives us the opportunity to do.

Something strange

If you have thought, up until now, that I am setting up fantasy and horror as equal and opposite genres, you are wrong: because there is a very curious lack of balance between them. Think of all the horror works you have been exposed to, then think of all fantasy works you have been exposed to, and ask yourself this question: does the monstrous Other ever appear in a fantasy work? And does the sublime Other ever appear in a work of horror?

Strangely, the answer to the first question tends to be an emphatic ‘yes’, while the answer to the second question is almost always, ‘no’. In literature and art, the sublime Other is well complemented by the monstrous: Harry Potter has its death eaters, its Voldemort, its Dark Spells and its Dementors. Lord of The Rings has its Sauron, its Orcs, its Nazgul and its Barrow-wights. The Chronicles of Narnia has its death of Aslan, as the majestic lion – the sublime Other – is surrounded on all sides by misshapen and ghoulish parodies of Narnian races – the monstrous Others.

And yet, we rarely if ever find the opposite in works of horror. If we do, it is almost always just at the end, or at the very start, as though the sublime Other can only be present in a horror story as parentheses, but never as points along the way. I have tried with great difficulty to think of any examples to explain, but quite frankly, I have never known a work of horror to contain any element of sublimity.

In short, a work of fantasy can be – on the whole – sublime, even if it is laced with monstrous Others. And yet, a work of horror can only be monstrous on the whole if it never permits entry to the sublime Other in the first place.

To me, this suggests that fantasy and horror are not equal genres, and I have a theory about this inequality which I will explain in the next article. Until then!

Click here to read part 1 of this series. The next part will be included as a link when it is posted.