Toward an Esthetics of Horror

(c) 2009 by Daniel Ust. All rights reserved.

I. Rand on Horror

Horror as an art form seems to embody everything Objectivism should be against. It portrays a world dominated by fear, where the bizarre or the supernatural destroy values and life. Before relegating Horror to the reject pile in Objectivist esthetics, it should be examined with an eye toward finding any redeeming features.

Ayn Rand deals explicitly with Horror in The Romantic Manifesto. She dismisses it as "the metaphysical projection of a single human emotion: blind, stark, primitive terror" (p. 113). She believes this to be more psychologically than philosophically based. Horror writers, according to her, are not projecting what they believe the world essentially to be like but essentially to feel like.

The examples she uses, Edgar Allen Poe's tales and "Boris Karloff movies," betray that she was not well versed in Horror (pp. 112-3). While one need not become a scholar of Horror, her range of examples is equivalent to someone dismissing Romanticism after reading some of E. T. A. Hoffman's short stories and seeing a performance of Cyrano de Bergerac. Even so, from a sense of life perspective, the main component of Horror fiction is fear, as Horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft agrees. [1]

II. Components of Horror

Is fear the only component Horror should be evaluated by? Horror writers vary, which should not be surprising. Lovecraft and Poe are at the fatalistic end of the spectrum, while writers like Ramsey Campbell often wind up with characters winning over the monsters. Triumphant heroes sounds like the stuff of Rand novels and not of Horror, but happy endings often are found in the latter. This difference is not superficial. The endings are often integrated with the story. A Lovecraft tale exudes a sense of doom from start to finish, e.g., "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". Thus the general direction of the Horror tale is another component to judge it by.

Another dimension of Horror is how the "weird" aspects — the extraordinary if not downright unnatural parts of it — manifest themselves. A trichotomy which is both popular and seemingly valid is the division of Horror into the marvelous, the uncanny, and the fantastic. [2] The marvelous is where the weird is taken to be a bona fide supernatural occurrence. This overlaps with Fantasy fiction such as the works of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein. Horror writers in this vein include Lord Dunsany, Bram Stoker, and some of Stephen King.

The next category, the uncanny, too extends beyond the realm of Horror into absurd and existentialist literature. In it the weird aspect is taken to be psychological — it's all in the mind. Poe is the archetypal writer of this variety of Horror, "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat" being prime examples. The uncanny need not signify madness. The gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe also fit into this pigeonhole because the alleged ghosts are found by the end of the story to have natural explanations. The main characters merely misread the phenomena. (Gothic literature is another genre that should be explored by Objectivists, as it had a huge impact on the Romantic movement which Rand so admired.)

The fantastic is perhaps the category which best fits horror. It relies on not allowing the reader to figure out whether the weird is real or merely a figment of the imagination. This heightens the experience of dread and cashes in on Edmund Burke's view of clear ideas as little ideas — i.e., of clarity being manageable, while murky ideas evoke the sublime. [3] (Burke's views on the sublime apply to Horror and influenced writers like Lovecraft.) If fear of the unknown is the most powerful fear, then murkiness — the ambiguity of not knowing whether the monster exists or is just an illusion — is a double fear. One doesn't know if the unknown is even there to begin with. Almost all of Lovecraft's works, some of the short stories of Algernon Blackwood and Ramsey Campbell, and Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" are all instances of this.

The portrayal of metaphysical eruptions of lawlessness and the refusal to be clear about their nature seem anathema to an Objectivist worldview. This is not merely an issue of context. Lack of clarity occurs throughout our lives and the Objectivist should merely try to alleviate it where practicable. She should not go on a campaign to clarify every single item or issue. Most likely, such toil would not only end in failure but would absorb her whole life. The fantastic aims at unclarity as a goal — not merely something to be tolerated. Still, the fantastic is only one aspect of a certain strand of Horror.

III. Sense of Life, Catharsis, and Entertainment

Should Horror be dismissed by people who agree with Rand's esthetics and her philosophy? This is a question which many Objectivists and their sympathizers find easy to answer in the affirmative. Yet there are two reasons to answer in the negative — at least for the moment.

The first is that one's sense of life is not open to immediate and direct change. It is doubtful one can create a list of good sense of life qualities which can then be programed merely by changing what novels one reads, what music one listens to, or one's style of dress. Changing one's sense of life must be a slow and arduous process — assuming such change can be effected and that it is desirable. A rationalistic — taking principles not as guides to thought and action but mere rules to be imitated without question — approach that permeates the styles of living of many admirers of Rand grabs on to simple formulae, such as Don't read Horror, Don't listen to Folk Music, and Read Victor Hugo. An approach more in tune with the spirit of Objectivism is to explore one's sense of life and be open to the possibility that what one feels at first as negative might not be so. This has been pointed out by others in regard to other genres of art, and there is no reason to suspect it doesn't hold here.

The second reason comes from Aristote's notion of catharsis as treated in in his Poetics and interpreted in Richard Janko's essay "From Catharsis to the Aristotelian Mean". [4] In Janko's view, catharsis involves fine tuning character, specifically one's emotional makeup. Art can serve this purpose by showing how to feel (as well as act) the right way in extreme situations. In much the same way as working out will tone up muscles even though few weight lifters have to fight hand-to-hand or move boulders for a living, literature tones up the feelings though few spectators would find themselves in the position of Hamlet, Howard Roark, or the characters in a Lovecraft story.

If this is so, Horror may just provide another means of attaining catharsis, and, thereby, of emotional growth. Particular works could then be judged by their contribution to this end. It would seem that the fantastic subgenre of Horror would fail in this respect, but this must be put into the context of the stories themselves. Some of the attraction of Horror probably has to do with a desire to live in a world that is not boring and where choices matter. This projection of a meaningful world, where one can live or die depending on one's immediate choices or on one's success or failure at understanding the extraordinary, is the hallmark of much Horror, though not much fantastic Horror. An example of the former is Bram Stoker's Dracula.

As for those who might declare "I like certain horror stories and that's that!", I can only ask them to plumb the depths of their feelings. Life should be lived consciously. One should not engage one's every whim — which leaves one as a plaything of one's subconscious — or be compulsively on guard for bad emotions — which makes for self-alienation not self-perfection — but attempt to understand as much as is practical one's feelings and motivations and cultivate the proper traits. This is no easy process, and the role art plays in it has yet to be treated in depth, but Aristotle and Rand provide good starting points.

This aside, aren't there certain aspects of this form of art that are mere entertainment and have little or no bearing on character beyond that? One would not think someone a bad person because they liked Thai cuisine over, say, Cajun cuisine. Does the same apply to tastes in art, at least some of the time? It is possible that the "optional" could apply here as it does in some aspects of ethics and epistemology. [5]


1. See his Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover, 1973[1945]), p. 12.

2. See Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (New York: Oxford, 1990).

3. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful with Several Additions (New York: Collier, 1909[1757]), pp. 52 ff.

4. In Amelie O. Rorty, editor, Essays on Aristotle's Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

5. See Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991).

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