The science of horror, the horror of science.
Unlike many critical works on horror, which have widely focused on the psychodynamics of the genre's literature and cinema, Jason Colavito's Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge and the Development of the Horror Genre takes a fresh and needful approach, casting horror in an epistemological light. He argues that horror "records humanity's uneasy relationship with its own ability to reason, to understand, and to know; and that horror stories are a way of understanding and ultimately transcending the limits of mind, knowledge and science through fear" (3). A decidedly scientific raison d'etre thus prescribes the genre and inevitably links it to sf. Historically, however, the latter has been a mode of representing our dreams and fancies, whereas horror has consistently occupied the realm of nightmares. Colavito makes this distinction in his introduction and proceeds to discuss and examine an impressive breadth of written and visual texts. He is careful to note that his book is not intended to be comprehensive or encyclopedic; the abundance of horror is simply too great. Nonetheless, Knowing Fear does catalogue a large number of representative primary and secondary sources while exerting a shrewd critical perspective in the form of literary and film theory. Colavito's scope is as ambitious as it is readable and altogether enjoyable. With several previous books on the topics of horror criticism, H. P. Lovecraft, and science and horror to his credit, he demonstrates a deep and canny understanding of the genre, even if his expectations and desires are at times questionable.
Comprised of seven parts, Knowing Fear progresses chronologically, beginning with eighteenth-century Gothic touchstones and culminating in twenty-first-century narratives of fatalism and extreme violence. Each part is divided into the same three categories--"Science and Society," "Literary Developments," and "Horror in the Arts"--in which Colavito respectively establishes historical and thematic contexts, assesses key pieces of literature, and then assesses key horror films, stage adaptations, and/or artworks. In the "Horror in the Arts" subchapters, he also attends to additional media (e.g., radio, television, music, video games, "real-life horrors"). Hence, these subchapters exhibit the most diversity in terms of subject matter with the passing of time and inevitable changing of trends and tastes.
All told, Knowing Fear covers over 250 years of horror entertainment. Colavito demarcates a thematic evolution of the genre: each time-frame introduces a new breed of horror, and each breed, stemming from its forerunners, is a result of scientific advances. He outlines this evolution nicely in his introduction after a short discussion of the "mythic origins of knowledge-horror" (7). He briefly fields the question of what constitutes modern horror, the birth of which he attributes to Western civilization, and he repudiates criticism that has failed to acknowledge horror as its own genre instead of a branch of sf and fantasy. "I believe it is a genre unto itself, one whose animating feature is neither setting nor plot nor even the presence of an indescribable monster but instead the feeling of fear" (14). This point may seem obvious to horror aficionados, who recognize horror when they see it, even when it emerges within a multigeneric framework, but the book always attempts to cater both to laypeople and hardliners. According to Colavito, the major categories are supernatural horror, the weird tale, contes cruelles, psychological horror, dark fantasy, and sf, although he admits that horror can be found in virtually any mode of art--even, egads, the Lifetime network!
The introduction finally thematizes the book's seven parts, generally referred to as Gothic Horror (c. 1750-c. 1845), Biological Horror (c. 1815-c. 1900), Spiritualist Horror (c. 1865-c. 1920), Cosmic Horror (c. 1895-c. 1945), Psycho-Atomic Horror (c. 1940-1975), Body Horror (c. 1965-c. 2000), and Horror of Helplessness (c. 1990-Present). Horror fans and scholars will recognize how Colavito systematizes some of these dates, usually by way of dominant texts or historical events.
The first part, "Darkness and Enlightenment: The Gothic and Its Aftermath (c. 1750-c. 1845)," posits that the Gothic, as a mode that captured "gruesomeness and morbidity combined with the particular element of fear, [...] was identifiably the first and earliest school of horror" (25). He cites Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) as the prototype horror novel and emphasizes how the destabilization of Enlightenment thought and the rise of "Romanticism, irrationalism, and the horror of knowledge-and its absence" spawned the horror genre (36). Other significant texts he mentions are Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1797), Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk (1796), and several works by Edgar Allan Poe. As in other chapters, novels or stories are summarized and then analyzed and interpreted to varying degrees. Some readers may find the summaries needlessly long and tedious or short and deficient. But they are well-written and certainly excavate a lot of ground with respect to Colavito's emphasis on the influence of science. Concerning the arts, there was not a proliferation of horror during this period before the dawn of electric infotainment, which wouldn't come to fruition until the twentieth century. Still, horror art existed from the beginning, surfacing in the form of woodcuts, memento mori pictures, wax museum exhibits, and stage adaptations, the latter of which presaged cinematic special effects by way of the phantasmagoria, "a pre-cinema form of image projection related to the magic lantern [that] was often and publicly used to create the illusion of translucent ghosts or skeletons and to heighten the dramatic effect in nineteenth century productions" (152). Use of the phantasmagoria also presaged horror's subsequent critical decline, detractors arguing that the "high art of theater" had been violated and demeaned by "stage-trick and scenery" (61). Much contemporary cinema of the speculative variety, then, dominated by the use of special effects at the expense of narrative, is directly connected to the phantasmagoria. Both machineries are products of consumer desire. Colavito suggests, if only peripherally, that horror is a raw extremity of capitalism, a desiring-machine fed and fed upon by a vampiric spectatorship hungry to experience fear and fantasize/fetishize violence and death. In this way, the horror genre has always implicated its audience as active participants in the spectacle of horror, coding and recoding our collective emotional spectrum.
The Castle of Otranto is the central, originary literary text in part 1. Other books on horror with similar intentions--Gina Wisker's recent Horror Fiction: An Introduction (2005), for instance--go back much further, positing Beowulf (c. 700) and Elizabethan/Jacobean drama as derivative sources. Colavito makes it clear in a disclaimer on the first page of the first chapter, however, that his discussion begins with the Gothic. Such disclaimers reappear in different manifestations throughout Knowing Fear as he apologizes for being unable to account sufficiently for horror's textual girth. They become tiresome. But scholars of the speculative genres are a rigid bunch, and they don't like to see their favorite texts (obscure or canonical) omitted, disregarded, or glossed over, despite the scale and direction of a given work. In this capacity, Colavito seems acutely aware of and tuned in to his readership as he saves his ass from the dogs of criticism with epidemic vigilance.
Part 2, "Between God and Beast: Biological Horror (c. 1815-c. 1900)," charts the phase from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1817) to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), horror's indubitable masterworks from which much material has been and continues to be extrapolated. In addition, Colavito concentrates on other canonical Victorian writings, such as John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819), Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (serialized in 1899), and H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896). All of these novels engage the theme of the body and transformation. Writers moved away from the Gothic preoccupation with ghosts to a fascination with monsters. This was especially true near the end of the century as the sparks of a violent technoculture began to fly off the sociocultural whetstone. Colavito attributes this shift in focus to a "paradox of progress [that] led to a schizophrenic century, one simultaneously defined by progress and by brutality, by science and by savagery. It is therefore unsurprising that this period created the horror fiction icons that ever after defined the genre" (77). Actual examples of such a science/savage hybrid are located primarily in the exploits of serial killers (e.g., Jack the Ripper and Dr. Henry Howard Holmes) and the popularization of freaks (e.g., P. T. Barnum's traveling circus), genuine monsters who made the horror genre what it is today, or at least ushered the genre down a certain path.
In part 3, "The Ghost in the Machine: Spiritualist Horror (c. 1865-c. 1920)," there is a kind of reversion to Gothic praxis as the ghost reenters the picture, only this time within a technological framework. Colavito elucidates how "ghosts and other spiritualist horrors represent the era's anxiety about the spirit and the soul in an age of mechanization and materialism" (113). While this phase overlaps with part 2, focal texts underscore the mind over the body, among them Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera (1909-10), several stories by Ambrose Bierce, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892). In my mind, Gilman's is the most important "ghost story" here, the best of which represents various psychological hauntings incited by scientific/medical theory and industry. This part concludes with overviews of spiritualist horror on the stage, the screen (e.g., Robert Wiene's expressionist touchstone The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ), the canvas (e.g., Edvard Munch's The Scream ), and namely the photographic portrait. Introduced in 1839, photography is the seminal point of origin for the torrent of images that generates modern technocapitalist life. Colavito explains how the photograph altered Victorian perceptions of art and representation, functioning as imagistic memories of people, i.e., functioning as frozen ghosts. "[W]hen the subject of a photographic portrait had died, his image could continue as a ghostly echo of a living soul that once breathed and walked the earth" (147). Soon "spirit photographers" entered the scene. They endeavored to capture a subject's body and soul on camera, a technique easily accomplished during the long exposure time of early photography when subjects would move during the shot and produce an ethereal vestige around their bodies. The machinery of photography thus epitomizes the merger of spiritualism and science characteristic of this style.
Fin de siecle trepidation and upheaval are historical staples. As Elaine Showalter explains, "The terminal decades of a century suggest to many minds the death throes of a diseased society and the winding down of an exhausted culture" (1). For all of their negative effects, however, millennial turns always produce something aesthetically innovative and influential. For the horror genre, no doubt the turn of the century had a lot to do with the relocation from the interior to the exterior of the body in part 4, "Terror from the Outside: Cosmic Horror (c. 1895-c.1945)." More consequential for this part and for part 5, "The Age of Alienation: Psycho-Atomic Horror (c. 1940-c. 1975)," were the World Wars that, each in their own right, redefined the dynamics of violence, evil, and the self-destructive agility of the human condition. With the only overlap in chapters occurring during WWII, these two sections exhibit a fixation on diverse aliens, ranging from the bug-eyed monster to the human itself. Here more than ever do the genres of horror and sf entwine and become inter-reliant; after all, there could be no War of the Worlds (1898), a core text referenced in both parts, without what are arguably the genres' foremost entities: the monster of horror and the high technology (in the form of spacecraft and ray guns) of sf. In spite of their similarities, Colavito pointedly differentiates the Cosmic from the Psycho-Atomic. "Cosmic horror had proposed a world-view defined by anxiety and the lurking fear that unseen and unknown terrors awaited just beyond the pale of the visible normal world. But with the coming of the Second World War, true horrors beyond human imagining had stripped away the veil cosmic horror used as its signature device" (225). Whereas both forms promulgate aliens, the PsychoAtomic hinges on mediatization, i.e., a visual and informational accessibility made possible by the propagation of television and movies. This form owes much to Fascism, Stalinism, and above all Nazism and the Cold War, foregrounding "realistic" (i.e., non-supernatural) psychological conflicts alongside growing fears of a nuclear holocaust.
Beyond War of the Worlds, Cosmic horror's library holds Robert W. Chambers's The King in Yellow (1895), Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" (1915), stories by Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, and the canon of H. P. Lovecraft, who receives the most attention. In cinema, Colavito mainly addresses formative monster flicks--F. W. Murneau's Nosferatu (1922), Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), and James Whale's Frankenstein (1931)--and their numerous sequels and offshoots. Literature of the PsychoAtomic turns heavily to short stories with the increase of pulp magazines and fandom, albeit key novels of the era are deliberated and, in some cases, glossed over: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Robert Bloch's Psycho (1959), and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962). Thereafter, the focus redirects to comics, cinema, and finally radio and television. Nearly all of these texts revolve around a troublemaking monster (in the guise of a psychotic human, aggrieved mutant, or pissed off alien). Special attention is paid to Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Stephen King and slasher narratives govern part 6, "The Human Machine: Body Horror (c. 1965-c. 2000)," which registers both a movement towards a new type of horror and a return to older aesthetics. It was at this point in Knowing Fear where I realized that the entire horror genre, generally speaking, could be viewed as a thoroughfare down which the figure of the scientifically constructed monster evolves from fantastical to "realistic" entity, something that truly comes to fruition in part 7, "A Failure of Free Will: The Horror of Helplessness (c. 1990-Present)," the most provocative section in the book. We see a full-fledged movement towards realism, i.e., we see a diffusion of narratives depicting characters and events that could exist and take place in the real world. Part 6, however, still showcases a fair share of supernatural havoc-wreakers who derive from traditional figures (e.g., the ghost and the vampire) and predominantly Satan and Hell. In Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1971 novel; 1973 film), the Hellraiser franchise, the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, and others, Satan, or at least that which Satan represents, informs the diegesis of body horror with increasing huzzah. Regrettably, Colavito does not speculate about this surge of interest in fallen angels (many body horror antagonists were once innocent and good-intentioned). But it can be inferred that, in light of "profound advances in medical science, including reproductive technologies, genetic manipulation, and cloning, which left the body a foreign and vulnerable commodity ripe for horror's exploitation" (284), there was a reactionary fallback onto religion and the realm of the spiritual, for better or for worse--typically for worse. At any rate, this part marks a terminal transition for horror. Authors, filmmakers, and artists turn the body inside-out, so to speak, graphically exposing its literal and figurative innards to the point of no return. This applies to violence as much as sexuality. The genre began to rely more and more on sheer explicitness, i.e., on bad language, gratuitous sex, and the execution of horrific acts "in which the body was laid bare and raw" (297). The question for Colavito thus becomes: when everything is shown, and when the showing of everything takes precedence over narrative, what direction can horror possibly go in?
He spends part 7 and a short conclusion fleshing out this question, which ultimately remains in limbo. Most conspicuous is Colavito's unease about where things stand now. Arguing that "movies helped drive ideas out of horror" (404), producing a corpus distinguished by stylized gore, fatalism, and a "failure of free will" (349), he accuses films the likes of Saw (2004), Hostel (2006), and House of a Thousand Corpses (2003) of complicity while explaining how horror has reverted to its grandparent literature with creative remakes such as Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Mary Reilly (1996), and The Mummy (1999). Moreover, horror cinema has also begun creatively to remake itself--e.g., Halloween (2007), House of Wax (2005), The Omen (2006), The Hills Have Eyes (2006)--which can be attributed to an exhaustion of ideas coupled with a desire to use and/or see the marvels of cutting-edge special effects. Some consideration is given to television and video games (I would have liked to see more on gaming). As for literature, there is a lot, and most of it is "to some degree homage, pastiche, sequel, or reworking of earlier horror themes-postmodernism taken to its logical extreme" (363), but none of it is covered in much depth, and prolific contemporary authors (e.g., Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Laurell Hamilton, John Saul) go unmentioned.
In the conclusion, Colavito says that the most successful horror masquerades as ancient tragedy, and he laments the diversion from this formula, ending with a moral imperative that postmodern horror is bad because it is essentially too pessimistic. He wants a bone of optimism thrown his way, but horror increasingly denies him that bone. There is certainly something to be said for this claim. But why must horror be what it used to be? Why must it be auspicious, especially when it is and always has been powered by the engine of fear? What about the stylistic potential of cinematic technologies, which are still in their infancy? In more ways than one, and in more genres than horror, style will continue to usurp narrative, but it won't altogether dispense with narrative. They are codependent. The loud flame needs the quiet ember.
Colavito's ethical coda is the least compelling part of Knowing Fear. But it does evoke questions and concerns for further discussion and would be effective in a classroom setting. I plan to adopt Knowing Fear in a Great Books course I am teaching next year; the text is structured in such a way that a course may easily be built according to its chronology and thematic organization. Academia aside, this is among the finest introductions to the horror genre I have read. As Beth Kattleman writes in a recent review, it is particularly successful at measuring the "symbiotic relationship of horror and culture" (1088), although I disagree with Kattleman's claim regarding Colavito's repeated attacks against horror theorist David Skal, against whom she contends Colavito has some personal vendetta. It seems to me that Skal merely functions as a representative of the kind of psychoanalytic horror theory that he aspires to forego. Knowing Fear firmly interpolates horror within the matrix of science and knowledge. It is this interpolation that sets the book apart from its many predecessors.
Kattelman, Beth. Rev. of Knowing Fear: Knowledge and the Development of the Horror Genre. Journal of Popular Culture 48.6 (2008): 1087-88.
Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Wisker, Gina. Horror Fiction: An Introduction. London: Continuum, 2005.
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|Author:||Wilson, D. Harlan|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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