I am going to explain what the Paradox of Horror is and why some philosophers consider horror films as being a paradox. Of course, like any other paradoxes, some philosophers like Noël Carroll find a solution. I will briefly give Carroll’s solution to the Paradox of Horror. However, some other thinkers like Cynthia Freeland thinks that Carroll’s solution is not valid for all subgenres of horrors and I am going to mention her account on this issue. I will take realist horrors as the sample subgenre and give some counter examples to refute Carroll’s position.
First of all, to be able to explain all these things, I need to explain what the Paradox of Horror is and where it comes from. As we all know, horrors are very important genres that play an important role on the history of cinema. Besides being so horrifying and repulsive, they are so attractive that they are watched as much as any other kinds of films. Apparently, there is a contradiction here from the audiences’ point of view. They are both horrified and attracted by those films. This is the source of this paradox. How people can be attracted by characters or scenes which they never want to meet in their daily life because these characters or events are so scary and disgusting. Having pleasure from watching a horror film means having pleasure from normally aversive events and this is some kind of weird situation.
As the second part of my paper, I want to mention some philosophers who give explanations about this issue. For the beginning, as we always do, let me mention Plato’s account. Plato thinks that tragedies, we could consider its affects more or less the same with horrors, are bad for people because they appeal to audiences’ baser instincts. People who watch them can easily take them more vivid than reality itself. This confuses people. Secondly, I should talk about a little bit Aristotle’s position because in a sense it will be very helpful for us to understand Carroll’s position. Contrary to Plato, Aristotle thinks that tragedies are worth to watch because they make the audiences think that means they operate audiences’ cognitive status. This is good for audiences because they can control their emotional reactions by this way.
As I have said before, Carroll’s position to this issue is more or less on the same way with Aristotle. Carroll considers the objects of horror films as monsters that do not directly threaten us and are impossible beings. So, for Carroll, although the objects of horrors are so scary and disgusting, we still can feel comfortable because we know that they are in fact impossible. The thing in horror films which attract audiences is the cognitive pleasure just like Aristotle’s account. The interest people have in horror films is not in the objects of horrors but in the narrative. Narratives of horrors basically revolve around discovering, confirming and learning about the existence of something that is normally impossible. So, it may be the fact that people are not interested in the monster itself but whether it can really exist or not in the story.
From now on, one thing is clear that this interest people have in horror films is solely based on curiosity. Let me consider the order of the horrors generally. They usually start with the presupposition of the existence of monster, than proving it with gathering more clues. The next step is convincing more people to the existence of the monster and learning more about its nature and how to destroy it. So, it is clear that the desire to know in horror films is endless because of the unknowable nature of monsters. Hobbes, on the issue of curiosity, says that it is the appetite of the mind. Since the natures of monsters are so unusual and weird to us, horror fiction increases this appetite.
We have said things about why people have interests on horror films but the fact that they are disgusting and distressing is the thing which we should encounter with. Well, Carroll clearly says that the disgust or being horrified is the price audiences should pay for the pleasure they get from satisfying their curiosity. Carroll also claims that people can still be curious about objects of horrors even if there is no narrative because they are anomalies. He thinks that anomalies are interesting because they are different and impure.
As a counter position to Carroll, I want to mention Cynthia Freeland here. What she did is basically showing that subgenres like realist horrors cannot be explained by Carroll’s arguments even though they count as horror films too. Freeland criticizes Carroll’s approach to the objects of horrors. She thinks that these objects of horrors are not necessarily impossible beings like Carroll argued. Some horror films such as The Silence of The Lambs and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer includes characters which are totally or partly based on true stories. This means that people can be confronted with characters like them in real life. Actually, Freeland takes horror films as being a postmodern phenomenon because the fact and the fictitious are so mixed up in these films. Sometimes, the characters of films like Lecter Hannibal are true-based characters, but another time people describe real serial killer by mentioning fictitious characters. The reactions to these films are also so mixed up that the audiences both feel themselves as potential victims and comfortable because the violence is not directed to them.
Having both views let me make a little summary and then comparing of them. Carroll basically argues that horror films concern monsters that are not real. Our central interest in horror films is cognitive. Lastly, we are interested in horror films because of their plots. On the other hand, Freeland clearly shows that realist horrors which are widely accepted as a subgenre of horror include characters which are possible in real life like Lecter Hannibal or Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. She also claims that audiences are not just cognitively interested in these films giving the example that even the female characters in the film are attracted by these monsters sexually. Finally she says that the emphasis is on the spectacle of random violence rather than the plot.
Applying these premises to The Silence of the Lambs let me show which view is more convincing than the other. First of all, it is obvious that realist horror is a type of horror films because of this it can be categorized under the title of Paradox of Horror. Most of the people who watch Silence of the Lambs close their eyes on particular scenes or lock the door after watching the film. That means contrary to what Carroll argues, people sometimes feel stress caused by horrors in their daily life. Considering again Silence of the Lambs, I do not really think all the people who watch it enjoy the adventurous part of it. Most people who watch that film watch it because of the violence scenes it involves and this does not mean, of course, that all these people are insane or psychopath. I think Carroll is right at some point which is the curiosity. People watch these kinds of films to satisfy their curiosity. This is, in a sense, the same with the desire for roller coasters. People want to try them because they are curious about how it feels to make such speed or to fall from that much high. These are not the kind of things that people can experience in their daily life. But still it does not prevent them to wonder. Like they are screaming on the roller coaster, they close their eyes while watching horrors that means realist horrors evoke real reactions. Curiosity does not necessarily follow being abnormal or unknowable. A possible being or situation can also give rise to curiosity like serial killers or jumping from a very high place.
To sum up, how people can be attracted by characters or scenes that they want to avoid in their real life is a kind of question that worth to answer. Still, I do not find both Carroll’s and Freeland’s sides totally convincing. They both have some plausible basic parts but sometimes these kinds of discussions depend on the context. It cannot be denied that realist horrors cause real reactions but still there can be some realist horror films that people watch just for its plot.