Sunday, February 24, 2013

The horror, the horror

Why do people enjoy being scared? It surely is not the case that scary movies are not really scary, nor that the pleasure comes from the relief when the fear stops. It seems at least possible that people enjoy scary films for the same kind of reasons that they enjoy sad movies, songs, and stories. And why is that? The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" suggests a kind of answer: "I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me. Yeah." If you're feeling sad you're likely to want to have your feelings articulated, and recognized. Not necessarily shared, that is, but acknowledged as something that people do experience. It's a kind of validation, as well as sympathy. Fear might also need to be articulated and validated. For instance, if it is usually only very vaguely felt, or if attempts to articulate it are quickly censored because they sound crazy or evil. If this is right then popular movies might be very revealing of a society's psychological state. And that sounds plausible anyway.

Last night I watched two horror films: Nosferatu and [REC] 3 Genesis. Both are kind of silly, but in different ways. Nosferatu is, not surprisingly, very dated, and the acting seems terrible. On the other hand, even now the images (some of them, anyway) are powerfully striking and, appropriately, haunting. [REC] 3 (the "rec" is for the letters used to indicate that a camcorder is recording: think The Blair Witch Project) is much more forgettable, and the weakest of the [REC] series, though still, to my mind, worth seeing. When the bride picks up a chainsaw to fight off the zombies you know you are in Japan being catered to by crowd-pleasers.

Nosferatu reminded me of the links between the plague and legends of vampires. It also seems portentous to watch an angry German mob run through a town after a scapegoat. Creepy. But what could the contemporary fascination with zombies mean? Perhaps nothing, of course, but my pet theory is that we are afraid that our own society is being taken over by people who are dead on the inside, and that this internal death is contagious. That we are already succumbing to it. This might be thought of as part of the death of God (freedom and immortality die along with him, and so we become mere things), or as the death of the Overman. The disenchantment of the world means, among other things, the disenchantment of human beings. Free will might be thought of as something like a compliment that we cannot help but pay to each other, but it isn't so hard to deny the compliment to those we don't really interact with (Descartes's hats and coats below in the street, "the they"), and these seem to be increasing in number and influence (see here, for instance). And much the same goes for consciousness. (Doesn't it? I haven't thought this anything like all the way through.)

We can, and perhaps cannot but, have an attitude toward a soul when it comes to people we really live with. But all those others out there, and people we live only virtually with, can't really be treated the same way. What kind of attitude can I have toward someone on the other end of an internet connection? I realize that means most of the people who will read this, i.e. the ones I will never meet, and I don't mean to be rude. But we cannot literally see eye to eye like this, or make any use of facial expression or bodily posture. I can only have an attitude toward you in a limited sense of the word. And what about people who are not themselves even in person, only representatives of some corporate position, say, or speakers of jargon? I am not of the opinion that they have souls, to misquote Wittgenstein. And then Schopenhauer's argument against solipsism comes up: you can't prove that you are fundamentally different from everyone else, but you would have to be crazy to think that you are. This goes two ways. It's a kind of argument against zombies, but also an argument against one's own non-zombie-ness. That is, if they are all zombies, and I must be the same as them, then I must be a zombie too. Just being surrounded by them, even if you are still human, is bad enough. And however incredible that idea might be, it's still scary.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I never have enjoyed and still don't enjoy being scared.

    But this probably doesn't count for much. I have always thought that the best reply to Colin Radford's famous argument that it's irrational to mourn the fate of fictional characters is simply that if someone (e.g. Radford) is able to take this view at all, he is already psychologically abnormal enough to prevent him from being able to generalise reliably from his own experience.

    I might well use your reading of the contemporary appeal of zombies in my next book (due out in late 2015 and now in the mental drafting stage). Colin Crouch's Post-Democracy is truly wonderful, and it's also a book which has affected my own recent writing on politics and political science more than most other books. It's too bad that I have become disinclined to even look at Crooked Timber ever again, because another book in this category is Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, and it gave rise to a discussion on CT a year or two ago where the vast majority of commenters attacked it with a jaw-dropping, self-congratulatory, sneering and snarling viciousness; in fact it literally made me feel physically ill. Still, nice to see that they haven't gone over to that sort of thing completely.

  3. Yes, those comment threads can get quite bad. I don't read Crooked Timber as much as I used to, but mostly because I'm busier these days, or feel it, than I used to be.

    I'm not sure how much I like being scared either. Horror movies are not my favorites, but if I'm watching one and it isn't scary then that's a sign that something has gone wrong. So I want them to be scary not because I want to be scared but because I want them to be competent. Lasting creepiness is probably better than sudden frights, but I don't know why that would be. More stimulation to the imagination? A more accurate echo of my normal feelings? I hope not, and don't think so. I still like my theory about the contemporary appeal of zombies, though, however half-baked it might be.