Friday, July 4, 2014

Horror as tragedy? Pt. 2

In my last post, I looked at how traditional understandings of tragic plot structure might be said to compare to Noel Carroll's Overreacher Horror plot. But, what about the actual aesthetics of tragedy? How might they relate to horror? The purpose of this post is to give an example that might point to the answer.

An Example of The Dionysian/Apollonian Duality in The Shining.

Nietzsche’s philosophical conception of The Dionysian and Apollonian dealt with the genre of Tragedy specifically. And – as stated above - the critique of Tragedy would seem to be the model of philosophical literary criticism. How, then, can we start applying this to horror?

One answer might come from American horror literature giant Stephen King. When speaking of the Apollonian/Dionysian duality in the Horror genre, King says of his own works that, “I use the terms Apollonian (to suggest reason, creativity and rationality) and Dionysian (to suggest passion, destructive action and sensuality).”  

Nietzsche’s most obvious influence on King might be demonstrated in a work like The Shining.
First of all, and perhaps most obviously, “to shine” means, for the young, Schopenhaurian Nietzsche, at least in some capacities, synonymous with “to oraculate”; this, it seems obvious, is an Apollonian structure referencing the fact that Apollo, “The Shining One”, was also the God of prophecy.  

 The meaning of all this becomes clear when one looks at someone like the analytic feminist aesthetician Cynthia Freeland. Freeland - herself heavily influenced by Carroll   - would seem to agree with King about Nietzschian tragedy’s connection to horror, asserting in her excellent 1999 book The Naked and The Undead,  that, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film of King’s novel uses, “…complex…visions of [a type of] uncanny evil…[which can] be traced as an aesthetic category of the sublime.”

Now, taken together with the fact that, as Robert Kolker puts it, “Kubrick create[d] obsessively symmetrical [photographic] compositions…entrapping characters in an uncanny balance of redoubled elements.”  of being highly unsettling in a way that is at first difficult to be to put one’s finger on  is certainly important. At the same time, though, it is quite easy to see the connection between “Radical Symmetry” and “Apollonian Order.” In totality, then, we can note the Apollonian principal – at work both diegetically and non-diegetically – being used to create what Carroll calls a sense of art-horror in the viewer. But what of the Dionysian?

Freeland has insightful comments there, too. She proceeds to note that the aforementioned sense of the uncanny is largely achieved by, “Music and sound (or noise) combin[ing] with…dialogue…to conjure up a pervasive aura of evil and dread. Ominous sounds accumulate: strange music, heartbeats, and the noise of the little boys tricycle [for example]…”  So the sonic elements of the film – which Nietzsche would have equated with the Dionysian – do their part in creating art-horror in the viewer as well. But this goes deeper that it would initially appear, too.

Philip Brophy, in considering the use of atonal music the film , comments on the fact, for example, that none of the ghosts in the movie have any of the ‘ethereal’ qualities one typically sees in cinematic ghost. This gets even weirder when one realizes that that ghost can apparently do things that only corporal beings should be able to do: they get drunk, they bleed, they apparently have the capability for sexual desire, they open heavy steel doors, their flesh rots away – and, most telling – they appear indistinguishable from actual dead bodies in the hotel.  Remember the scene toward the end of the film when Wendy Torrance is running through the halls, attempting to flee the hotel as an example.

o The first ghosts she sees are effectively desiccated corpses that look like they have been sitting there so long, they are mummified and covered in cobwebs. This goes to a basic contradiction in the film used by King and Kubrick as a way of creating horror in a manner of creating terror similar to the kind H.P. Lovecraft suggested when he said that, “…fear-literature must not be confounded with…literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome….A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of…unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint…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.”

o Next, she sees the former caretaker, who greets her with  the smug comment, “Great party, isn’t it?” as he sips a martini and blood gushes out of the (rather eerily conspicuous) gunshot wound in the back of his head.

o In the next room, one of the most genuinely unsettling images in the whole film – that of a couple of  ghosts apparently about to engage in some kind of homoerotic sex act involving a paraphilia for incredibly creepy bear costumes – greets her enigmatically. This  - combined with the trippy, soundless, slow motion image of the elevator doors gushing blood - would seem indicate the kind sexual hermaphrodite ism generally attributed to Dionysus. After all, not only is one of the ghost in the image effectively about to submit sexually to one of the principal symbol of the Dionysian – the man-animal in the bear-suit – but in doing so, he will implicitly bow before another in the form of his lover’s erect phallus. On the other hand, though, the Freudian subtext implied by the bleeding elevator doors is hard to miss: somehow, apparently, it would seem the whole building is also capable of menstruating.
o Next, Wendy comes across the (real) body of Scatman Crothers, who was literally just killed by Jack Torrance. Here again we see the contradiction between living and dead that represents the Dionysian’s being beyond rational thought.

Brophy notes that the atonal percussive music underlying the whole scene is more akin to an imitation of the metabolic processes internal the characters’ than anything like a traditional, Wagnerian leit-motif. This observation implies the contradistinction inherent in the idea that the ghosts are corporeal beings. Likewise, the fact that music is apparently chaotic and initially presents itself as more akin to noise than music points to the fact that, in the this film, the Dionysian element of the auditory is even more chaotic than it appears to be in the meticulously organized harmonies of someone like Wagner. Thus, in can be said that Dionysian effectively overwhelms the Apollonian in creating the affect of art horror. But here, Freeland is again on point.

In her reading of Nietzsche, “The highly regulated structures of tragedy enabled audience’s to view its horrific visions…The Apollonian elements of order and rhythm provided a way to sustain individuality in the face of…destruction...”  By comparison, in horror, “…it is always the monster…who…accepts the fact that he himself must suffer the most violence- like Dionysus.”

Moreover, in seeing all those things, Wendy Torrance is effectively encountering destruction in witnessing the death(s) and orgiastic sex of others. At the same time, though, if what Brophy asserts about the music is true, her metabolic rate shoots up as she is presented with them. That is to say: the encounter with death entices her to be more alive, as it were.

But then again, the music is purely rhythmic, rendering the excitement implied by it contained in Apollonian concept of rhythm. On the other hand, the Dionysian references in the content of the all images she sees combined with the general blurring lines already noted means that the Dionysian is not only represented in the visual as the Apollonian is the musical, but also that the Dionysian effectively wins, because ‘category jamming’, is, after all, an inherently Dionysian process.