[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]
I hope you all made it through Halloween with nothing more than the normal paranormal experiences. In Vancouver, we’ve been haunted by rain clouds for the last week and a half, but that’s a welcome change from an unusually dry early autumn, which brought parched vegetation and forest fires.
In the world of online philosophy, we’ve been discussing free will of late. Last week we considered Harry Frankfurt’s influential argument that free will is a matter of having what he calls second-order volitions—the ability to reflect on your desires and choose which desires to act on. This coming week we turn to the leading spokesman for French existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre. We’re reading excerpts from his landmark tome Being and Nothingness in which he connects freedom to nothingness and anguish. Fun stuff!
Earlier in the month, I posted a defense of studying the history of philosophy to my blog. That post got picked up by the philosophy news site Daily Nous, where an abridged version of the blog post appeared.
And I look forward to making a couple course announcements in the coming month! You should be hearing from me again soon…
Forest fire smoke wasn’t disincentive enough to keep me from trekking up Golden Ears, a monster day-hike north of Maple Ridge. I even made time to film the introduction to the Sartre lecture at the summit.
Among other things, Halloween presents good fodder for philosophical reflection. (Although let’s be honest, what doesn’t present fodder for philosophical reflection?) What is it about ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies that makes them scary? All of them can kill us—or worse—but the fear we associate with horror seems different from the fear we associate with non-supernatural threats. A bungee jump or a roller coaster can evoke terror but they don’t evoke horror.
The special fear we associate with horror seems tinged with a sense of the uncanny. It’s not just that the monsters of horror can do us physical harm. Beyond that, they bring out an unsettling sense that things are not right. In a world that’s supposed to behave in accordance with predictable scientific laws, horror introduces an element of the unpredictable, something beyond our ken. As Hamlet says to Horatio after seeing a ghost, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The philosopher Noël Carroll argues that horror presents us with an unsettling kind of cognitive dissonance. He draws on work by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, who argues that disgust is a response to the crossing of conceptual categories. For instance, we conceive of being alive and being dead as mutually exclusive categories—and we respond with horror and disgust to creatures like zombies or ghosts, who seem to violate this either/or distinction. Many monsters—werewolves, the minotaur, and others—violate a distinction between human and animal. These are basic conceptual categories by which we make sense of the world. If the boundaries between them get muddied, our basic grip on reality weakens.
In other words, the monsters of horror stories don’t just threaten our physical safety. They also threaten our conceptual safety. If such things exist, what sense can we hope to make of the world and our place in it?
Horror seems to operate according to a principle of incongruity. That feeling of uncanniness arises from a crossing of categories, where things that don’t belong together are suddenly thrust together.
But here’s a puzzle: a lot what I’ve said about horror could be said just as well about humour. A lot of jokes and funny business rely on incongruous juxtapositions. Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Søren Kierkegaard all argue that humour arises from some sort of mismatch between expectation and reality. Jokes tend to involve some sort of jumbling of categories: talking animals, randy priests, wise fools. The much-maligned pun plays on two incongruous meanings attaching to the same word. Like with horror, humour seems to rely on mixing categories we commonly hold apart.
And when you think about it, humour and horror aren’t as far apart as they might initially appear. Both provoke an immediate and visceral reaction—shrieks of horror or shrieks of laughter. And even the subject matter overlaps—think of scary clowns.
So what is the difference between a scary clown and a funny one? Even in comedy, the world of clowning tends to have an element of violence to it. Comedic clown violence is all about slapstick and pratfalls, exaggerated physical violence in which—and this is the key, I think—clowns can be hurt but never harmed. Do what you like to a clown and it will be back on its feet in an instant, ready to take the next blow. We can laugh away at the extreme violence of the Three Stooges or Looney Tunes cartoons because we know the characters will never die of their injuries, nor even suffer for more than a moment.
Comedic clowns inhabit a world in which real harm is impossible. The scary kind infuse the world with a feeling that harm is inescapable. Clowns are monsters of a kind too: part-human, part-inhuman, unsettling our sense of what sense we can make of the world. What’s scary about these kinds of threats is that we never know when we’re safe. An aggressive dog can be scary but we know precisely the conditions for our safety—as long as that leash holds, if we can get a door or a gate between us, and so on. In horror, we never know when we’re safe. Because horror violates the rules that ordinarily structure our world, we don’t know what barriers will protect us. The ghost from Ringu can climb out of your TV screen; Freddy Krueger can be hiding in your bathtub.
So here’s my thesis. Humour and horror both provoke surprise by confounding our ordinary way of making sense of things. But humour creates an atmosphere of absolute safety and horror creates an atmosphere of absolute danger. It would take a lot more work to sort through some of the complications and wrinkles but I think the general idea holds up.
It also helps explain the appeal of Halloween. All the spooks come out on Halloween but, really, Halloween is about fun. Halloween is a time for cartoonish horror. People dress up in outlandish costumes and decorate their homes with a kitsch parody of real horror. Halloween celebrates our power to transmute horror into humour. All the ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, all the things that go bump in the night that might cause us to fear—all these things are disarmed by humour, rendering them powerless to harm us. If humour and horror weren’t such close cousins, Halloween wouldn’t be such fun.