A Philosopher's Blog

Using Tragedy to Define Horror

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 14, 2010
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Put roughly, Aristotle’s account of tragedy sets forth three main requirements for tragedy. The first is that the work is supposed to produce the emotions of pity and fear in the audience. Second, the main character must be not exceptionally good but is also not morally bad. The third involves the means by which these emotions are to be produced. Put simply, a person must pass from happiness to misery through an error in judgment. A work that meets these conditions can be considered a tragedy and one that excels at meeting them would be a good tragedy[i].  While this is an oversimplified account of tragedy, it does provide the model to be used in the discussion of horror.

As has been noted, the end of tragedy is the production of particular emotions. This is true of horror as well. As Lovecraft says,  “…we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point.”[ii]

While tragedies are calculated to produce pity and fear, works of horror are aimed to produce horror in the audience. While the feeling of horror might be regarded merely as a stronger form of fear, strong fear is more correctly known as terror.

The feeling of horror involves more than merely being terrified. It also involves more than being terrified by startling or gruesome things, such as those in Psycho or Seven. While such works are superficially similar to horror, they are, in Lovecraft’s view, works “of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”

What then is the true definition of horror? Lovecraft asserts that horror is  “a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” [iii] This definition seems reasonable for it captures an intuitive view of horror-that it is an emotion beyond merely mundane fear.  This feeling, then, is the true feeling of horror and is the feeling that the creator of true horror must aim for if she hopes to succeed.

Of course, it cannot be expected that a work must always produce a feeling of horror in everyone at all times in order for the work to fall within the genre of horror. This condition would be all but impossible to meet[iv]. Rather, one must say that a work would need to tend to produce such an effect in the audience.

But, it must be noted that the production of horror is not in itself a sufficient condition for the classification of a work as a work of horror. That this is the case can be shown in an analogy. Works of terror, such as Psycho, aim at creating strong fear in the audience. It is easy to imagine, for example, some people who are so absolutely terrified of deer that even seeing cartoon deer causes them to experience terror. Despite this, one would not classify Bambi as a work of terror. Similarly, simply because a work produces horror in an audience does not entail that it must be a work of horror. For it to be a work of horror, the horror must be produced in the right way. Before proceeding to the topic of the proper cause of horror, the nature of the characters in horror will be considered.

Aristotle notes that the main character in a tragedy cannot be exceptionally good. Seeing such a person meet a tragic fate would be odious and offensive-the audience would more likely feel anger and outrage rather than pity and fear. However, the main character must not be a bad person. Seeing a bad person meet a bad fate is more likely to satisfy the audiences’ craving for justice than to create pity and fear.  Ideally, the main character falls into a moral middle ground. Since most people fall into that category as well, their identification with the character is strengthened and hence so is the potential emotional impact of the work.

Thus, the nature of the main character can have a significant impact on the emotions produced by a work of tragedy. It is contended that the same holds true for works of horror. What remains to be determined is the ideal sort of character for horror.

It might be thought that the ideal character for horror is one who is exceptionally good. After all, seeing an exceptionally good character plunged into horror should make the audience’s feeling of horror that much greater. However, as in tragedy, choosing such a character is likely to backfire-the audience is likely to become offended when such a character experiences such horrible things. Further, since most people are not exceptionally good, the typical audience member would not identify closely with the character and this would tend to reduce the emotional impact of the work. Thus, the main character in a work of horror should not be exceptional good.

The matter of morally bad or defective characters is more controversial. In fact, it is something of a tradition for works of horror to focus on horrible things happening to bad people (often in retribution for their evil actions). For example, Tales from the Crypt, Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone often featured episodes that fit this pattern. While the audience might feel some sympathy towards the bad character and feel some horror at her fate, the badness of the main character would reduce the horror of the work. First, any feelings of horror would be tempered by the knowledge that the bad character at least partially deserved his fate. This would, as with a tragedy, reduce the emotional impact of the work-at least the emotion of horror. Such a work would be more of a morality play (or a tale of vengeance) as opposed to a work of horror. Second, since most people are not bad, the audience would most likely fail to identify closely with the character. This would likely result in some emotional distancing and hence the effect of the work would be lessened.

The ideal character for horror would seem to be the same as the ideal character for tragedy-someone who is neither exceptionally good nor bad.  First, It is more likely that the audience will be able to identify with such a character. This increases the likelihood of sympathetic involvement and such involvement can enhance the emotional impact of a work. Second, while the character’s involvement in the horrible events would be seen as at least partially undeserved, he would also be regarded as having some relevant flaws that contributed to his fate. This combination would enhance the emotion of horror. An excellent example of such a character is Charles Dexter Ward in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward[v]. Like many of Lovecraft’s characters, Ward is driven by his curiosity to dabble in forces best left alone and this choice leads to his destruction at the hands of a resurrected ancestor. The audience can rightly regard Charles as bringing on his horrible fate, yet also correctly see the fate as far more than he deserved.

Now that the nature of the horrific character has been discussed, the final matter to be addressed is the proper cause of the emotion of horror.

According to Aristotle, the tragic effect is brought about when the main character is brought from happiness to misery by an error in judgment. Because the character is not brought to her fate by depravity or moral badness, the audience can feel pity for the character and fear that they might meet a similar fate. Thus, the production of pity and fear by the appropriate means is the hallmark of tragedy.

In the case of a work of horror the goal is to produce the emotion of horror. As argued above, this must be done by the proper means. Not surprisingly, the main character must experience horrible events calculated to produce the effect of horror. As with a tragedy, the victim of horror typically undergoes a transition. In horror, this transition would take the form of a change from a state of normalcy to a state of horror. As argued above, this fate should not result from evil or depravity but from a flaw or flaws in a generally laudable character.

Such a transition also takes place in works of fear and terror: the main character is taken from the realm of the normal and brought into the realm of fear or terror. For example, the aptly titled Cape Fear and many Hitchcock films fit this mold.  The events and things that produce fear are generally well known. For example, “secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule”[vi] are all things that can create fear and perhaps even terror. However, it is contended that such things are not the stuff of horror. What then, is the proper genesis of horror?

According to Lovecraft, there are two key aspects to horror. First, “ A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present.”[vii]

Because people seem to naturally fear the unknown, unknown forces are quite effective in the generation of fear and terror. For example, an unknown party committing gruesome murders is a stock element in much film and literature. However, such works do not go beyond fear and terror. To get beyond mere fear and terror, something extra is needed. If the forces involved are both unknown and outer in nature, then this something extra can be present and the impact can go beyond fear and into horror.

Further, it is common for works of fear and terror to reach a resolution in which the nature of the forces is exposed. For example, the identity of the secret killer is revealed. If a work includes an explanation of events and the unknown is made known, then what might be called a “Scooby Do effect” occurs-the masks are removed and it is seen that nothing is as terrible or horrible as one might imagine. Put more precisely, almost no matter how terrible something is, once it is known it is somehow lessened and limited-at the very least one no longer worries that it might be something worse. The horrific effect is thus best served by leaving the unknown intact at the end of the work.

An excellent example of a work that meets this condition is The Haunting. The nature of the force (if there is in fact a force) is unknown-the mind is left in ignorance to speculate on the horror. Because one does not know what the force is, it could be anything…anything at all.  As such, the film is a very effective work of horror. Psycho is scary and is extremely effective at creating fear. But it is not a work of horror. Too much is revealed and the killer, despite his madness, is still just a man. And men, even madmen, are known to us.

Second, “there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain –a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”[viii] Just as people feel fear at which they do not understand, they also feel fear when they are vulnerable to a threat. The greater the threat and the greater the vulnerability, the greater the fear. If the vulnerability extends to the very foundations of the universe and the threat is extreme, the effect can go well beyond fear and into horror.

A person with a gun might cause fear, so too might a shark. We fear them because they are sources of danger to us. They are, of course, natural things. We are vulnerable to such things, but they too are vulnerable in mundane ways. Hence, we fear them but are not horrified by them. Creatures like wraiths, vampires, Shoggoths, demons, the thing and the alien are beyond the natural laws we accept. So are people with unnatural powers, like the girl named Carrie. They are not like us and seem to be exempt from the rules that govern us. As such, they can go beyond inspiring mere fear and terror. They can inspire horror.

As the examples show, the suspension of natural laws need not be supernatural in nature. While horror is traditionally regarded as involving the supernatural, works like At the Mountain of Madness, “Who Goes there?” and Alien show that horror need not be confined to the supernatural realm. This is hardly surprising-as technology and science grow into areas once dominated by religion, our demons will increasingly come from the icy void of space rather than the fires of hell.


[i] Naturally there are many other factors that go into the assessment of a tragedy but these considerations go beyond the scope of this work.

[ii] Lovecraft, H.P. . “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”H.P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horror Ed. Stephen Jones and Dave Carson. New York:Barnes & Noble Books,1993. 1-65.t, p.4.

[iii] Lovecraft p.3.

[iv] Under this requirement the only works of horror would be perfect works of horror-those that produce the emotion without fail. Only IRS forms are likely to meet such a requirement.

[v] Played by Vincent Price in the improperly titled The Haunted Palace.

[vi] Lovecraft, p.4.

[vii] Lovecraft, p.4.

[viii] Lovecraft, P.4.

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44 Responses

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  1. freddiek said, on July 14, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Please, please put Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ at or near the top of your ‘100 Best Works of Horror’!

  2. T. J. Babson said, on July 14, 2010 at 9:16 am

    “a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.”

    This could be describing the effect Mike aims for during his lectures 🙂

  3. magus71 said, on July 14, 2010 at 9:39 am

    I feel one important aspect of storytelling and horror in particular, is not showing or telling everything.

    For instance, in Alien, when they board they forst board the ship that’s been infested by Aliens and there find the eggs, they enter what is apparently the helm of the ship. We are shown a race of gianst in space suits, dead. It’s never really touched on again, and we are left wondering what they were, how they lived and died.

    What ruined the Star Wars series (besides Anakin being a total wimp, and Ja Ja Binks, that is)? When we learend everything. No more mystery behind Vader’s mask. Everything was too neatly tied in. The sense of wonder was gone. Boba Fett was no longer an unknown.

    So, in horror, there must be a sense of wonder tied into terror.

  4. freddiek said, on July 14, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Not being a big fan of fantasy, I usually find most works of horror or terror that come up short in plausibility either risible or nauseating or somewhere in between. That’s just my reaction.

    The further a work strays from the real, into the realm of inexplicable ghosts and characters with unnatural powers, the less effective it is for me.

    I haven’t seen ‘The Shining’ for some time, but I seem to recall that everything “horrific” that mattered in the movie, including the workings of the Overlook Hotel was plausible. The twins, the blood-gushing elevator, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” etc. manifest the inner workings of Danny’s and Jack’s heated minds.

    Occasionally,Kubrick allows the external and the internal to interact to considerable horrific effect. We come to realize”The horror! The horror!” that we’re faced with at the end: With or without the hotel’s ‘history’, in that isolated environment, Jack and Danny and Wendy would have had similar fates. Their fate was sealed early in the movie as we watched their car ascend the mountain in that fantastic foreboding shot. And we’re left with a question at the end. Jack’s appearance in the photo. Does it represent the fact that Jack’s character type exists across the ages? That it’s always there, even in the most normal-looking people?

    In between, are images that you’ll never forget.

  5. WorstProfEver said, on July 14, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Agree that The Shining is up there — it’s not just that you don’t know what’s going to happen next, it’s that you’ve seen enough to know that anything could

    Good questions raised above — wonder how Aristotle would classify Jack?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 14, 2010 at 7:57 pm

      A classic of horror.

      The character played by Jack or Jack himself?

      • WorstProfEver said, on July 16, 2010 at 12:39 pm

        The character. I’m sure Aristotle would be all about real Jack’s lifestyle, if not his philosophy.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 17, 2010 at 6:17 pm

          Perhaps a tragic character? He goes through a pattern of a tragic fall in some ways. Of course, his family escapes and he dies, which doesn’t quite match the usually tragic death fest.

  6. magus71 said, on July 14, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Mike,

    I think I’d disagree that Psycho isn’t horror. Afterall, the bad guy was dressing up as his dead grandmother and talking to himself. You only find this out at the end and it was pretty freaky.

    • freddiek said, on July 14, 2010 at 11:54 am

      I agree. Michael says “And men, even madmen, are known to us.” But, their minds aren’t “known” to us.

      We don’t have anything like a good handle on the physiology of the brain. Check the latest news about Alzheimer’s. And the testimony of psychologists and psychiatrists as expert witnesses is not ‘fact’. It’s simply informed information for the jury’s consideration.

      fMRIs are moving us closer to a factual understanding of the functions of man’s brain, but I think it’s going to be some time before we have to consider an issue like whether what is currently considered a work of psychological horror no longer fits the genre because the minds under consideration are “known to us”.

      • kernunos said, on July 16, 2010 at 5:06 pm

        Science probably has an even less understanding of Autism.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on July 14, 2010 at 7:56 pm

      It is freaky, but it is a work of terror/suspense. Bates, for all his craziness, is still just a guy. A guy in a dress at that.

      • freddiek said, on July 14, 2010 at 11:06 pm

        I believe your case rests firmly on your Aristotelian approach. But I also think there’s reasonable room for disagreement outside the Aristotelian world. The terms ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ have long been freely interchanged, and professional film critics are, shall we say, not at all averse to calling ‘Psycho’ a horror film.

        http://www.alternativereel.com/includes/top-ten/display_review.php?id=00027

        http://www.filmsite.org/subgenres2.html

        Check out the Rotten Tomatoes collection of original reviews of ‘Psycho’. The phrase “Horror film” is frequently used to label the film.And as much maligned as Wikipedia is, I’ll throw this one in:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film

        Perhaps this is more a matter of genres v. sub-genres rather than genres v. genres.

      • kernunos said, on July 16, 2010 at 5:08 pm

        I would think if I were a woman back when the movie came out I would have horror/terror in the back of my mind whenever I took a shower by myself in the house.

        • freddiek said, on July 16, 2010 at 7:26 pm

          Admit it. . .you still look for shadows beyond the shower curtain. 🙂

  7. freddiek said, on July 15, 2010 at 8:01 am

    While we await moderation, I’ll try again with fewer links per post:
    Your case rests firmly on your Aristotelian approach. But I also think there’s reasonable room for disagreement outside the Aristotelian world. The terms ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ have long been freely interchanged, and professional film critics are, shall we say, not at all averse to calling ‘Psycho’ a horror film.

    http://www.alternativereel.com/includes/top-ten/display_review.php?id=00027

    Check out the Rotten Tomatoes collection of original film critics’ reviews of ‘Psycho’. In their reviews he phrase “horror film” is frequently used to label the film.

  8. freddiek said, on July 15, 2010 at 8:06 am

    Ah. That worked. Apparently wordpress can’t or won’t handle more than three links per sausage package.

    http://www.filmsite.org/subgenres2.html

    And though I hesitate to use the much-maligned Wikipedia, I’ll throw this one in:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film

    Perhaps this is more a matter of genres v. sub-genres rather than genres v. genres.

    • freddiek said, on July 15, 2010 at 8:08 am

      More than two links, I should say.

  9. kernunos said, on July 16, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    I offer up a simple idea yet a film that afflicted more young children with horror/terror than any other film I can think of. Jaws. Yes, simple, yes just a fish but what is more unknown than what lurks below you in the depths?

    • freddiek said, on July 16, 2010 at 9:48 pm

      “. . .but what is more unknown than what lurks below you in the depths?”

      . . .what lurks within our own depths, perhaps? But maybe the shark wasn’t so simple. Maybe he was a creation of “Moby Dickian” complexity. . .!

  10. BRANDED MOVIE said, on July 25, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    Want to invite you to check out our behind the scenes blog for the upcoming horror film BRANDED!

    http://www.branded-movie.com

    on twitter at
    http://www.twitter.com/brandedmovie

    • freddiek said, on July 25, 2010 at 11:58 pm

      Post again closer to the date of release. I’ll need to be reminded to remember to ignore the movie.

  11. Asur said, on January 9, 2011 at 1:43 am

    Terror is to fear as horror is to dread.

    Dread is fear in anticipation of some possible future event; if the event becomes certain, then dread passes to simple fear. The uncertainty of the event is the necessary element of the unknown.

    Likewise, horror is terror in anticipation of some possible future event.

    I like HPL, but there’s too much mythos in how he sees pathos.

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