Dr. András Molnár works as assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Szeged, and is PhD candidate at the Doctoral School of Literature of the Faculty of Arts, University of Szeged. His main research interests include United States constitutional law and Lovecraftian weird fiction. He also translates short stories from English to Hungarian. He is a founding member of the Hungarian H. P. Lovecraft Society. Email:
Why Horror Seduces
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017
One of the principal questions that arise in the discussion of horror fiction is why beings, events, and phenomena that are represented as menacing and repulsive tend to be regarded as alluring in the eyes of its audience. This is the occurrence that Noël Carroll famously calls the “paradoxes of the heart” (8). This conflict of interpretations is rarely addressed openly by theoreticians discussing horror fiction, even though a salient aspect in the evaluation of pieces of horror fiction is how genuinely frightening the entities, places, or situations are. Of course, representing negative phenomena is not characteristic exclusively of horror fiction: for instance, Aristotle explained the effects of tragedy, a genre which by definition involves a change from good fortune to bad (21), by referring to the audience’s compassion toward the hero. Horror fiction, however, features invented—typically supernatural—monsters, and it seems that their appeal is the result solely of their monstrosity without any added value (in contrast with, to continue Aristotle’s example, the value represented by tragedy’s hero).
In Why Horror Seduces, Mathias Clasen offers a solution to the paradox with the aid of the evolutionary social sciences, explaining the genre from what he calls the “biocultural” approach (20). His central claim is that “horror fiction is crucially dependent on the evolved properties of the human central nervous system,” and that this claim has necessitated a “scientifically valid” understanding of the genre (4). He argues that the development of horror fiction is a result of human evolution, and thus the workings of the genre can best be explained through evolutionary terms. His argumentation is expounded in thirteen chapters arranged into three parts. Parts 1 and 2 complement each other as discussions of theory and practice, respectively; the third part, however—consisting only of Chapter 13—is on its face only loosely related to the main course of Clasen’s thoughts, as it discusses the future of horror and considers the various new forms in which horror can be presented to the audience.
Part 1 discusses the definition of horror, its effects on the audience, and its appeal. Here Clasen questions the approach to horror that views the genre solely as a cultural phenomenon (12). The primary targets of his criticism are Marxist and psychoanalytic studies. Clasen perceives and criticizes an ongoing trend in contemporary scholarship that he labels—following Gottschall (2010)—the “liberationist paradigm,” a disposition which stems from literary and film studies’ constant urge to provide a raison d’être for itself in the shadow of the natural sciences and their obvious usefulness in the eyes of the scientific community as well as the wider population (16). Clasen is also highly critical of psychoanalysis, an approach that, in his view, though coherent in its own terms, is based on mistaken premises, and leads to distortions by drawing conclusions that are exaggerated, implausible, and not confirmed by empirical evidence (17). This criticism and the author’s skepticism towards psychoanalysis permeates his treatise, and makes it clearly visible that he aims to contribute to a paradigm shift in the study of literature and film towards a methodology entrenched in natural sciences.
Clasen attributes salient significance to the fact that 99 percent of the existence of the human species was spent hunting and gathering, and this timespan left a deep mark on the human psyche (25). This resulted in an encapsulated psychological condition that could not be erased by the civilized millennia of humanity, and therefore fear cannot be “reasoned away”; in other words, people fear many things even though they can rationally see that they are not dangerous (27). The function of fear-inducing stimuli is to hold a person’s attention, and this has a reason grounded in evolution: selection favors those who pay attention to signs of peril (41). This function works in the case of external sources of fear (like dangerous animals), as well as “micropredators,” which can be avoided with the help of disgust (48).
The mechanisms of horror may be based in our evolution in nature throughout hundreds of millennia, but the function of the genre did not disappear with the emergence of civilization. Clasen points out that we use fiction in general to prepare for extreme situations and expand our emotional experiences (55). We possess the ability to get involved in fictitious events and situations. This involvement is effective in internalizing the morals of such situations, and it is also a safer way of learning about certain situations than if we were experiencing them in real life (56). Of course, this should be understood in an abstracted way: while it is highly improbable that one encounters zombies, vampires, ghosts and similar monstrosities, horror fiction may aid us in improving our reaction to and ability to cope with unexpected situations (58-59).
The chapters encompassed by Part 2 discuss classics of horror fiction in books and movies. While it would be mistaken to call Clasen’s selection arbitrary—he evidently and consciously focuses on the greatest American classics of the genre in the second half of the 20th century—this part seems to be a short introduction to the premises of Clasen’s biocultural approach by applying them to specific pieces of horror fiction. This part is opened by a sketchy outline of the evolution of the genre of horror that holds nothing new to anybody acquainted with horror, or even popular culture in general. The aim of the chapter is plainly to inform “outsiders” of the main touchstones of (Anglo-American) horror fiction from the late 18th century to the rise of new media at the dawn of the 21st century. The author then goes on to explain how Matheson’s I Am Legend features the vampire as “an unnatural predator” (79), how Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby targets our “evolved fears of intimate betrayal” (91), how Romero’s Night of the Living Dead represents the archetypical zombie figure as “predatory” and “infectious” (96-97), how Spielberg’s Jaws evokes the audience’s fear and mammalian vengefulness through the central monster’s agency (106), how the realistic characters of King’s The Shining demonstrate that the “moral vision of evil” as “antisocial” and still a part of human nature (122-123), how Carpenter’s Halloween is centered around conspecific predation (127), and how Sánchez and Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project is able to “produce very strong emotional responses” (143) in the audience despite—or because of—its technical simplicity.
In a way, Parts 1 and 3 provide a framework for the argumentation expounded in Why Horror Seduces: Clasen contests the liberationist paradigm, but he also offers a different legitimacy instead, so that literary and film studies are not left purposeless. The new legitimacy is market utilization. Clasen devotes a relatively fair amount of space to discuss how our scientific knowledge of the psychological constitution of human beings is reflected in new methods in the entertainment industry. Clasen himself is experienced in this field, since he participated in the establishment of Dystopia Haunted House in Denmark as scientific advisor (157). He discusses how new forms of media from video games (154) to immersive virtual reality technology (154-155) to haunted attractions and other forms of interactive horror experience (156-161) work to arouse genuine terror in consumers, and his account of the effects of Dystopia Haunted House (157) is disturbing even to read. Clasen’s prediction appears self-evident, as the tendency seems clear from the enumerated ways of entertainment: a greater degree of immersion and interactivity in horror entertainment is likely to follow (161). This conclusion, however, is not one-sided; innovations in entertainment are unlikely to replace “traditional narrative horror in literature and cinema,” since “they don’t offer the psychological, social, and existential insight offered by the best horror in narrative media” (161).
Horror fiction has been given various labels and definitions throughout the history of cultural theory. Clasen chose a simple functionalist approach; for him, horror is a “kind of fiction that is manifestly designed to scare and/or disturb its audience” (3). This choice is reminiscent of Carroll’s definition—even though the latter places special emphasis on the representation of monsters—and it demonstrates Clasen’s efforts to set aside cultural approaches to horror and turn to the natural sciences instead in order to gain more revolutionary and empirically more solid insights. This approach is consistent with the aim of Why Horror Seduces, but, when compared with Clasen’s statement about the persistence of horror film and literature, it leaves open the question of what it is that makes literature and film relevant in the field of horror in a time of the proliferation of innovative ways to arouse terror in the audience. In other words, Clasen states that literature and film will not lose their stature in the realm of horror because of the depth of the insight they provide in opposition to other means of experiencing artificial terror. This prediction begs the question: what exactly is this surplus of “psychological, social, and existential insight” offered by horror stories in books and films, and how closely is this surplus related to horror, considering that the definition of this genre rests on its ability or purpose to evoke fear, a result that may be reached more vividly by innovations more recent than books or film. While I am more than happy to agree with Clasen’s remark about the ongoing relevance of horror literature and cinema, I think a full exploration of the surplus these media offer requires a return to cultural studies, an approach that evidently diverges from the author’s marked emphasis on the natural sciences. While Clasen’s criticism concerning the doubtful reliability of psychoanalysis and the exaggerations of the liberationist paradigm, as well as his call for more rigorous scientific methods, are on the mark, this does not mean—nor does Clasen suggest—that we should completely abandon viewing the genre of horror in its cultural context. It is only in this way that a satisfactory explanation of what horror literature and film offers us besides terror can be provided.
- Aristotle. 1996. Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath. London: Penguin Books.
- Carroll, Noël. 1990. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge.
- Gottschall, Jonathan. 2010. “Literature, Science, and a New Humanities.” in Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader. Ed. Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan Gottschall. New York: Columbia University Press. 457-468.