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Horror of Philosophy

By Eugene Thacker.


An excerpt from Tentacles Longer Than Night [Horror of Philosophy, vol. 3] (Zero Books, 2015)

It’s all in your head. It really happened. These mutually exclusive statements mark out the terrain of the horror genre. And yet, everything interesting happens in the middle, in the wavering between these two poles – a familiar reality that is untenable, and an acknowledged reality that is impossible. The literary critic Tzvetan Todorov calls this ambiguous zone “the fantastic,” in his seminal work of same name. Discussing Jacques Cazotte’s 18th-century occult tale Le Diable amoureux, Todorov provides a definition of the fantastic:

In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us.

While Todorov is primarily concerned with analyzing the fantastic as a literary genre, we should also note the philosophical questions that the fantastic raises: the presumption of a consensual reality in which a set of natural laws govern the working of the world, the question of the reliability of the senses, the unstable relationships between the faculties of the imagination and reason, and the discrepancy between our everyday understanding of the world and the often obscure and counterintuitive descriptions provided by philosophy and the sciences. The fork in the road is not simply between something existing or not existing, it is a wavering between two types of radical uncertainty: either demons do not exist, but then my own senses are unreliable, or demons do exist, but then the world is not as I thought it was. With the fantastic – as with the horror genre itself – one is caught between two abysses, neither of which are comforting or particularly reassuring. Either I do not know the world, or I do not know myself.

Given the degree of self-reflexivity in genre horror today, we are, most likely, well aware of the various ruses through which the fantastic is introduced. Contemporary films such as Cabin in the Woods (2012) self-consciously play upon genre conventions as well as on our expectations as viewers. If a character sees something supernatural we immediately question them: was it a dream, are they on drugs, are they insane, or is it simply a bit of visual trickery? We are also aware of how quickly an apparently supernatural event in a horror story – such as the actual existence of vampires or zombies – gets recuperated into the understanding of how the world works, thereby becoming quite unexceptional and normal – even banal. Biology, genetics, epidemiology, and a host of other explanatory models are employed in providing rational explanations for vampiric bloodlust or the resurrection of zombie flesh. Either way, the hesitation before the fork in the road is quickly resolved. Only in that brief moment of absolute uncertainty – when both options seems equally plausible and implausible, when neither thought can be accepted or rejected, when everything can be explained and nothing can be explained – only in that moment do we really have this horror of philosophy, this questioning of the principle of sufficient reason. It is for this reason that Todorov qualifies his definition by stating that the “fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty.”

This uncertainty lasts but a moment; the dilemma it presents to us is between two mutually exclusive, though equally plausible options. Rare are the works of horror that can sustain the fantastic for their entirety. An exception is the well-known Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which aired in 1963. Based on a short story by Richard Matheson of the same title, it is a study in the fantastic, and manages to sustain that uncertainty up until its end. The episode centers on the character of Robert Wilson (played by the inimitable William Shatner), a very normal, middle-aged businessman and husband, who is returning home from the hospital after a mental breakdown. “Bob” (as he is referred to in the episode), along with his wife Julia, are boarding an airplane as the episode begins. In the austerity that has become a hallmark of the original Twilight Zone episodes, the entirety of the episode takes place within this airplane. Pensive and nervous, Bob is continually reassuring himself that he is cured, and that everything will be alright. Thus, before anything strange has even happened, we have been primed to “explain” anything unusual in light of Bob’s mental illness. En route, the airplane enters a storm. Unable to sleep, Bob glances out the window. Unsure of what he sees, he looks closer, and we as viewers see what he sees: a strange, grotesque creature outside, hunched over the wing. Director Richard Donner uses juxtapositions of shot and reverse-shot to let us “see” through Bob’s eyes, while also judging him with suspicion, knowing what we do of his mental illness. Through a series of tension-filled events, Bob becomes convinced (as perhaps we do as viewers) that there is a strange creature on the wing of the plane. To our frustration, however, Bob fails to convince his wife or the flight engineer – each time he attempts to draw their attention to it, the creature vanishes. We, along with Bob, are deprived of the sole verification of the actual existence of the creature – that others witness it as well, and that it is not merely the product of an overactive imagination.

And yet, while we may attribute the creature to Bob’s mental illness (as Julia and the flight engineer do), we as viewers also see the creature. We are the “others” that bear witness to the fantastic event, though we are not, of course within the story world. This play between the “uncanny” (Bob is hallucinating) and the “marvelous” (the actual existence of the creature) continues throughout the episode. Things become even more tense when Bob sees that the creature is pulling apart the wing of the airplane. In a climactic scene Bob takes matters into his own hands, attempting to kill the creature, opening the emergency escape hatch and forcing the plane down. Exhausted, delirious, and bound to a stretcher, Bob is taken out of the plane to an ambulance (interestingly, the director uses a point-of-view shot here, as we look up and see a policeman looking down at us). As the camera zooms out from the airplane, a final shot reveals something strange, which forces us to accept Bob’s claims as true. This apparently objective evidence of a “something” out there returns us again to the fantastic, caught between the uncanny and the marvelous.

Contemporary works of horror have taken up techniques for sustaining the fantastic that we see in authors like Matheson. An example is the film A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), made by South Korean director Ji-woon Kim. The film is loosely based on a well-known Korean folktale, “Janghwa, Hongryeon,” which tells the story of two sisters, Janghwa (“Rose Flower”) and Hongryeon (“Red Lotus”), the death of their mother, an evil stepmother’s plotting, the strange murders of the sisters, and their return as ghosts that haunt their family and the town in which they live. Kim’s film introduces us to the teenage sisters – Su-Mi and Su-Yeon – who are spending a vacation in a remote lakeside house with their father and stepmother. Eventually the family dynamics are revealed – the morose, passive father, the manipulative stepmother, and the sisters, one of them rebellious (Su-Mi) and the other timid (Su-Yeon). But, like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the film opens in a sanitarium, as Su-Mi, slumped over a chair in white gown and long black hair, is being gently questioned by a doctor. Here again we are primed to suspect everything we see in terms of mental illness. Throughout the film – most of which takes place in the house – we witness the family drama between the sisters and their stepmother. Su-Mi has a series of disturbing dreams concerning her birth mother which blur the line between dream and reality.

A good part of A Tale of Two Sisters takes place within this realistic mode – though the lush, shadowy, mesmerizing cinematography gives even the “realistic” scene a hallucinatory feeling. These scenes are punctuated by the fantastic. At one point, family friends are visiting for dinner. When one of them inexplicably begins choking, she falls to the floor, and – still choking – sees something eerie and impossible beneath the kitchen counter. And yet, just when we expect the marvelous and the actual existence of the supernatural, the film turns again. The father, confronting the increasingly rebellious Su-Mi, attempts to explain to her that she is not well – suddenly the camera point of view shifts, and we as viewers suspect that Su-Mi has not been fighting with her stepmother, but with herself, acting out the role of her projected image of her stepmother. We are back to the uncanny. In a stark, mesmerizing, final scene, the real stepmother returns one night to the lakeside house. In the room where Su-Mi’s mother had died, she witnesses something inexplicable. We are back to the fantastic, suspended between conflicting points of view and a series of impossible happenings.

The fantastic, then, is central to supernatural horror, though, as Todorov reminds us, the sorts of questions it poses can even undermine the genre itself. The fantastic may exist only briefly, or it may span the duration of the story itself. While the questions that the fantastic poses may be answered, moving us towards either the “uncanny” or the “marvelous,” the questions themselves are more important than the answers – they are moments in which everything is up for grabs, nothing is certain, the ground giving way beneath our feet. Within the genre conventions of horror, the fantastic interjects questions that are, in another guise, philosophical questions.

With this in mind, we can suggest a different way of approaching the horror genre. Certainly the products of genre horror – given its low-brow history – are more often regarded as entertainment, and this is, to be sure, an important part of the genre. But there is no reason why we cannot, at the same time, appreciate the works of genre horror for these sorts of – dare we say – philosophical questions they raise, as well as the ways in which they question our presumption to know or understand or explain anything at all. Hence the title of this series – Horror of Philosophy – which has several meanings. Certainly any reader of difficult philosophy books will have experienced their own kind of horror of philosophy, reinforced today by public intellectuals, who most often use philosophy as a smokescreen for selling self-help books and promoting the cult of the guru.

But the title also means a certain way of approaching the horror genre, which inverts the idea of a “philosophy of horror,” in which philosophy explains anything and everything, telling us that a horror films means this or that, reveals this or that anxiety, is representative of this or that cultural moment that we are living in, and so on. Perhaps genres such as the horror genre are interesting not because we can devise ingenious explanatory models for them, but because they cause us to question some of our most basic assumptions about the knowledge-production process itself, or about the hubris of living in the human-centric world in which we currently live.

In the second volume of this series – Starry Speculative Corpse – I proposed “mis-reading” works of philosophy as if they were works of horror. There we saw how each philosophy contains a thought or set of thoughts that it cannot think without risking the integrity of the philosophical endeavor itself. In this volume – Tentacles Longer Than Night – I would propose we do the same. Except that, in this case, we will be mis-reading works of horror as if they were works of philosophy. What if we read Poe or Lovecraft as philosophers rather than as writers of short stories? What if we read Poe or Lovecraft as non-fiction? This means that the typical concerns of the writer or literary critic – plot, character, setting, genre, and so on – will be less relevant to us than the ideas contained in the story – and the central thought that runs through much of supernatural horror is the limit of thought, human characters confronted with the limit of the human. In short, we will be taking the horror genre as being essentially idea-driven, rather than plot-driven (and this certainly bears itself out in writers such as Lovecraft and his circle). In fact, I would even go so far as to say that what is unique about the horror genre – and particularly supernatural horror – is its indifference to all the accoutrements of human drama. All that remains is the fragmentary and sometimes lyrical testimony of the human being struggling to confront its lack of “sufficient reason” in the vast cosmos. And even this is not sufficient.

Philosopher Eugene Thacker thinks and writes about a world of natural disasters, emerging pandemics, and the looming threat of extinction. Existence, he writes, is becoming increasingly “unthinkable.” He has written on a range of topics, from philosophy to science fiction and horror. He is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School in New York.

Also in the series:
In the Dust of This Planet (Horror of Philosophy, vol. 1)
Starry Speculative Corpse (Horror of Philosophy, vol. 2)

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 24th, 2015.