Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Heroism in Horror: Introduction

"The Horror Story, in either variant represents the metaphysical projection of a single human emotion: blind, stark, primitive fear. Those who live in such terror seem to find a momentary sense of relief or control in the process of reproducing that which they fear--as savages find a sense of mastery over their enemies by reproducing them in the form of dolls...[S]uch writers are not presenting their view of life; what they are saying is they feel as if life consisted of werewolves, Draculas and Frankenstein monsters." ---Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto; "What is Romanticism?"

This is one of the few definitive statements made by Rand on the subject of the Horror genre of writing. Of all of her aesthetic statements, this, while being one of her most bold, is conversely one of her least controversial statements. You'll often find people who would tear the rest of her aesthetics to shreds but who are in complete agreement with this statement.

That always personally caused me problems. As a teenager and young adult I cut my teeth on horror. The stories I'm drawn to now often bear little resemblance to horror, but at the same time when I look at my own writing and my own tastes I see that horror has left a permanent mark. The question I found myself asking for many years was, "Is this something I'm comfortable with?"

When I first discovered Rand, I had an AHA moment reading the essay "Bootleg Romanticism" for the first time, since it outlined in vivid detail many ideas which, while very important to me, my own intellect had barely scratched the surface. Reading that essay helped me determine, once and for all, what I saw of value in things like superhero stories.

But since then, to some degree I'd been living a contradiction. My approach to superheroes was at peace for the first time, but now I had a completely new problem to deal with. Horror in many ways works as an exact opposite to romantic/heroic fiction, with the Slasher Film and the Superhero Comic working almost as opposite sides of the same coin.

In the superhero story, the individual or group representing justice is imbued with special talents which make conflict against evil a stacked deck (even more so than the fact that evil by definition is seeking out an irrational goal). It's as if since a hero represents an often unexamined "good" that intrinsically makes him more capable in all things. Granted, if it were left as this, the stories' would have very little credible or interesting conflict. This leads to creating an equally capable villain by which the hero will be judged.

A flaw in this system is that while the hero's "good" qualities are to be taken for granted and above evaluation, no villain sees himself as such. This leads to a situation where a villain is given a substantial amount of back-story and justification sometimes leading becoming genuinely sympathetic, and his hero becoming

In the slasher story, the roles are reversed. A character by virtue of his evil is granted supreme competence. His evil is often of such a grand scale it becomes beyond being worth any analysis. Granted, some fans of this type of story will tell you that's what makes it better, and the story is ruined if you understand the killer's mentality or justification too deeply. By converse, the heroes of the story are simply normal men. They have nothing which guarantees their survival, quite the contrary, actually; most of them will not survive this situation.

But this is where something interesting comes into play. The heroes have motivations. They want to protect their own lives or that of the ones they love. They want to reach a point in their lives where this will simply be an unpleasant footnote about this point in their life and it will not define them.

One of the defining elements of horror is that it stands in striking opposition to Rand's view of what a story requires. It isn't a situation played out that you'd like to live through or at least witness. It's a situation you would be happy to have lived through, but not one you would relish or wish to revisit. The draw is the idea of being stuck with an unenviable metaphysical situation, and coming though to the other side, preferably unscathed, but at the very least a bit stronger than you were before and a bit wiser.

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.--Daniel Ust Toward an Esthetics of Horror

The truth is that, at its worst, horror is little more than a metaphysical license to give up, simply viewing the world as both incomprehensible and malevolent and abdicating any legitimate responsibility one might have to dealing with reality and one's own life.

But at its best, ironically, Rand described it very well when she spoke of one of the few horror stories she saw value in:

All of these forms of literature are rational when they serve
some abstract purpose applicable to reality. . . .

The best example of this kind of fantasy is "Dr. Jekyll & Mr.
Hyde". The literal subject of the story -- a man who changes himself
physically into a monster -- is impossible, but this is only a
symbolic device to convey a psychological truth. The story is a study
of a man with contradictory premises. By drinking a special medicine,
Dr. Jekyll indulges in the fun of turning himself into a monster. At
first he is able to control the process, but then he reaches a stage
where he cannot control it anymore, where he turns into the monster
whether he wants to or not. This is what in fact happens to bad
premises: at first they might be hidden or controlled, but if
unchecked, they take control of a personality.

"Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" is a brilliant psychological study
projected into a fantastical form. The issue of the story is
rationally applicable to human life, and very important.
--Art of Fiction Pages 169-70*

The issue of many horror stories can, in fact, be "rationally applicable to human life, and very important." On the way to fighting for your ideal, you often have to first fight through something terrible to even reach the point of fighting FOR something wonderful. The truth of the matter is even Rand herself knew this.

Coming Next: We the Living.

*thanks to Stuart Hayashi for helping me find that quote.