Session Four: Horror v. Terror, the Age Old Debate


The four texts we looked at this week offered different ways of looking at the major concepts that underpin Gothic literature and discussions about the artistic importance, or lack thereof, of terror and horror.

Anne Radcliffe’s piece, ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’, argues that there is more spiritual edification in terror as it expands our soul whereas horror freezes us and annihilates our senses. Her work builds upon Burke’s regarding the sublime and also gives reasons for her use of the explained supernatural and her detailed descriptions of beautiful landscapes throughout her novels. For her, terror is defined by what is obscure or what we don’t see as opposed to the object of horror which is laid bare. She is clear in distinguishing between obscurity which forces our imagination to work and confusion which suggests a mixing of images which can counteract the power of any one of those images. For her terror appears to be the more superior system of inciting fear and offers a sense of artistic merit to the Gothic.

The point was raised that nowadays we don’t have ‘terror’ movies only horror movies. Regardless of if a movie such as The Orphanage seems to have more markers of a terror than, say, The American Chainsaw Massacre, it is still counted as a horror movie. Could this be a remnant of early attitudes regarding terror that suggested horror was visual, the uncovered, and terror was defined by ‘obscurity’ or ‘indistinctness’? Thus movies are in some way always an anathema to terror as they are the ultimate symbol of a visual world: purely ‘ocular proof’.

So, if horror movies are constructed through unobscured visual cues (hypothetically) then where do we find terror? Baudrillard makes the point that we seem to have removed the idea of ‘Evil’ from our society. Preferring to suggest that people are always inherently good: we can no longer understand Evil and have a consensus that it doesn’t exist. It can be argued that this is reflected in Western, monotheistic religion where demons and devils have become archaic and God, in the form of ultimate Good, is the driving force behind all our actions. Baudrillard suggests that this change is located in the Enlightenment when fear of Evil as the ultimate Other was considered to be irrational; an anathema to decent thoughts and a moral imagination. It is distasteful to talk about Evil so we simply pretend it doesn’t exist.

Baudrillard’s comments about terrorism as ‘the transpolitical mirror of evil’ and the return of the Evil we have tried to dissipate, struck the group as oddly prophetic in the light of 9/11 and 7/7. That is not to say our attempts to remove the idea of Evil, and construct the West as a place of democracy, progress, rationality, and political ethics, have lead to these attacks; rather, that we have become increasingly caught in the narrative that terrorism is pure Evil preventing any discourse regarding why it occurs and what can be done to prevent it. The idea of ‘Terrorism’ fits with Radcliffe’s ideas as it threatens from without yet it is always in the shadows: who or what is the terrorist becomes a key driving force of these situations much like the importance of discovering the mystery of the supernatural elements in early Gothic novels. Throughout this part of our discussion it became clear that ‘terror’ and stories told about terror can be used for political means. However, for these narratives to function as a way of striking fear into the public they must be built upon foundations of shared understanding about horror and terror. Fear becomes something to be learnt.

Both Twitchell and the anonymous author of the ‘Terrorist System of Novel Writing’ suggest that there are conventions and tropes to tales of horror that we come to understand through supernatural fictions. The ‘Terrorist System of Novel Writing’ lays out the perfect format for a Gothic tale complete with haunted castles and worryingly inquisitive heroines, whilst Twitchell suggests that in horror movies parodies become homage drawing attention to the structures of horror.  Scream is an excellent example of horror as parody: it’s scary and yet draws attention to what makes it scary. Like Botting, Twitchell discusses the power of repetition as explained by Freud; he locates the uncanny in the repetitive nature of horror films – the very structure becomes horrific as the audience knows what will happen but cannot help themselves from engaging with the movie and being scared.

The ‘Terrorist System of Novel Writing’ and Twitchell also make arguments about the intended consumer of the the Gothic novel and horror film. The Gothic novel appears to be read by bored young ladies who find the day to day somewhat mundane. Whilst horror films are still aimed at the young but rather of both sexes. Twitchell uses quasi-scientific research, ie, he goes to lots of cinemas, to suggest that the horror film is a rite of passage for adolescents where they learn to go from onanism to ‘reproductive sexuality’. He uses Freud to argue that the psychological function of horror is to create the incest taboo. Here his argument becomes a little clouded as he both suggests that the story of the patricide of the totemic father by the virile young men is a metaphor but also that further study by anthropologists appears to prove Freud’s theorem that the incest taboo is not inbuilt. This straddling of the fictional world and the scientific world is problematic as it suggests a causal relationship between horror films and the behaviour of the audience. (An argument that echoes those made in ‘The Terrorist System of Novel Writing’ regarding how horrific accounts of the French Revolution have poisoned the minds of novellists). His repeated use of the term ‘reproductive sex’ and his reliance on a model of sexual relations between men and woman is heteronormative, and  invokes the idea of female sexual passivity in the face of sexually active male. Twitichell’s argument is also totalitarian offering only one explanation for the power of horror which shuts down the possibility of other readings and interpretations.

What these readings ultimately suggest is that discussions regarding horror and terror are still relevant and ongoing. How we define these terms and their usage within fiction reflects our society and the understanding of the community in which we live.



Reading the Gothic Fifth Session: Set Text


Morning all. Well, we now have a lovely long break before our next session and I hope all your exams and essays are going well and continue to do so.

The next session will be on Wednesday 22nd January, 2.00pm – 4.00pm. We will be meeting in the De Havilland Library. It’s currently not possible to book a room in January so I will have to get back to you on that one …

Our next text is:

The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates (London: Fourth Estate, 2013).

Most people have picked up a copy from their local library. Don’t forget that you can usually order in books from your county’s catalogue. So if your local library doesn’t have it then the librarian or library support assistant should be able to help you request it in for a nominal fee. (My mum used to work for the library service so I have a lot of love for it: use it or lose it, people!).

My political rant aside, this is a juicy tome of a book and should keep you nicely entertained over Christmas. It also draws on much of what we have previously discussed – especially the theoretical texts.

I have found a couple of reviews that are worth reading to get an idea of what kind of novel this is:

Washington Post

New York Times

The Telegraph

Los Angeles Times