Discovering Dramatic Horror
Thomas K. Fagerholm
There has been very little scholarly work written on horror drama. It remains a genre that is not clearly defined and is frequently not considered scholarly. Often horror is dismissed as a low art form and thus its contribution to the arts goes largely unnoticed. In recent years there have been several scholarly works written on the similar genre of horror film but horror drama has remained unexplored. By examining fears and characteristics associated with horror film, a similar performance medium to theatre, the foundation for horror drama is revealed. Performance's ability to actively engage its audience’s five senses heightens the evocation of fear that is predominant in horror. In addition, fear of death, isolation, hopelessness and pain are key elements of horror drama.
A further examination of pain in the arts sheds light on the desire for horror drama. Pain in art has existed since the birth of Greek tragedy, as noted by Aristotle in his Poetics. Painful art continues to be popular today in various genres and mediums of art, from visual art to horror films. Humans desire pain in art, such as horror drama, because it provides opportunities to learn about their emotional capacity and relationships with the world and those in it. Painful art also grants the spectator a sense of power and control over their emotions. Horror drama provides a safe environment to experience emotions such as, fear, pity, horror and terror, which could otherwise involve dangerous experiences in our real lives.
Discovering Dramatic Horror
Performance genres can be difficult to define. Horror is especially difficult, as Steffen Hantke states, ‘horror is one of the rare genres that are defined not primarily by period or formal idiosyncrasies, but by the effect they produce in the audience,’ (viii). Similarly, tragedy is also a genre that is defined by the effect it produces, but it differs in its rigidity of form as set forth in Aristotle's Poetics. D.L. White argues that ‘A film succeeds if it provokes emotion, and the more meaningful the emotion the better the film; one emotion a film can produce is that of horror’ (p. 125).
While literature relies on conveying emotion though text, film and theatre are able to achieve their desired emotional responses through imagery and sound. Theatre has a unique opportunity to utilize all five of its audience’s senses. One example is Rick Worland in The Horror Film: An Introduction tells us that the iconic image of vampires in horror films as we know them today stem from performances by Bela Lugosi's in the 1930s (p. 157). Through olfaction theatre can directly access its audience’s memories associated with smell. In terms of horror, the smell of rotting or burning flesh can be extremely powerful. Although not common in stage performance, odour can play a large role in site-specific theatre or in haunted attractions. In certain instances, proximity to such acts of violence found in horror or actually touching the audience can evoke emotional responses. Although not unique to horror films, the evocation of a specific type of emotion is central to the genre's definition.
Pain plays a large role in horror performance. When witnessing pain in art, i.e. literature, visual art and drama, we learn about our own emotional capacity for pain and our emotional reach. When viewing horror performance one can determine one’s emotional range and limits in regards to pain. Budelmann states in Sophocles' Representation of Physical Pain that ‘Pain often tests norms of self-sufficiency and endurance’, (p. 446). One does not ordinarily experience the extreme emotions related to pain in everyday life, and thus horror performance can provide a medium to learn about such capacities within ourselves.
In order for audiences to identify with pain and emotions portrayed in horror performance, they must first have a relationship with the characters upon whom the pain is inflicted. Horace M. Kallen in The Essence of Tragedy writes that ‘the core of humanity, its disintegration must proceed through a human center, and tragedy of the unhuman is possible only as a secondary and symbolic fact, humanized by the infection of the human preference... it is personality that leads to pain’ (pp. 189-190), implying that we must identify with the character on some level in order to perceive his or her pain and emotion. If one doesn't identify with the character it can prevent the perception of pain. Belfiore states, ‘If we learn that the real-life person [actor] is only pretending to be weeping, we may cease to see him/her as a person weeping and instead see him/her as someone doing something very different: pretending to be weeping’, (p. 355). When an audience identifies with at least one character there can be a true sharing of emotion.
Worland stresses that the emotion of fright experienced by both the character and the audience is the genre's primary distinguishing feature (p. 6). Fear, however, can be a quite general term, and for the purposes of this paper we must be more specific. Worland continues, ‘The most basic fear in the horror story is the fear of death’, (p. 7). More evidence of this can be found in Donald Willis's Horror and Science Fiction Films: A Checklist. Willis tells us that the threat of death is central to horror (p. v). The fear of death is common throughout most horror performance and, more specifically, the fear of an untimely, gruesome, terrible and painful death. White explains to us that death itself is not horrific, but the kind of death from which there is no protection, no warning, and no escape is frightening (p. 132). ‘Death is always with us – inescapable, inexplicable’, (Douglas, p. 13). The inevitability that we will all perish is fact, but the means by which it comes can be truly horrifying to ponder.
Other emotions commonly evoked in horror performance include fear of isolation and hopelessness. These emotions often tie into the viewer’s own fears of everyday life and threats from society (White, pp.137 and 142). In film, shots of wide open spaces or empty city streets can help to convey the imagery of isolation. In theatre, a few ways this can be achieved is by an empty stage or periods of silence. Being cut off from the outside world or from safety can be traumatic. The effects of isolation in itself can lead to horrific results to one’s psyche. Horror films appeal to our fears of hopelessness by triggering our fears of being unable to deal with our environment (White, p. 132). An actor's monologue and disposition can give the audience insight into their feelings of hopelessness. Furthermore, the loss of ability to escape and loss of safety lends to a feeling of hopelessness. In theatre, one way this can be achieved is by interacting with the audience in such a way that they feel a desire to escape.
Viewers of horror performance may experience a feeling of power. This sense of power can come from the viewers’ ability to overcome their own fears and terrors associated with pain (Smuts, p. 72). The knowledge that one can experience such a wide range of emotions without consequence can be empowering. A feeling of power and control or perhaps pleasure may also come with the release of such emotions. Aristotle in his Poetics refers to the releasing of emotion, or catharsis, as part of tragedy:
‘An imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds of being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.’ (p. 61)
Aristotle implies that audiences of tragic drama experience a range of emotions, especially fear and pity, and as a result purges them of the desire to act out such natural but dangerous tendencies in the real world (Worland, p. 13). For at least as long as Greek tragedy has existed, drama has fulfilled a need as an outlet of emotion relating to pain. Worland states that in Greek society ‘The individual experience of catharsis through art functioned as a social safety valve’, (p. 13). Horror performance continues today to provide an opportunity for that outlet and one can be emotionally refreshed by the purging of those emotions.
A common theme in horror performance is a dreamlike state often related to fear. ‘One goes to a horror film in order to have a nightmare – not simply a frightening dream, but a dream whose undercurrent of anxiety both presents and masks the desire to fulfill and be punished for certain conventionally unacceptable impulses’, (Kawin, p. 4). Film is able to use techniques that play on our collective ability to dream and the subconscious in order to create situations where the rules of waking reality do not apply. Scenes with dim lights and fuzzy picture often signify a dream scene. In theatre this can be achieved though lighting effects, fog or haze, and by sound effects. Such an environment can be safely accessed through film and theatre and yet still evoke the emotional responses associated with nightmares. In nightmares, members of a perceivably normal society may become monsters or perform monstrous deeds. The nightmare may also be the self turning into the monster, linking to the common theme in horror of the threat from within self or society (White, pp. 137-138).
The loss of individuality or self is a recurring theme in horror performance. When we as individuals have something more to lose than just our biological lives there comes with that fear an inherent sense of reflection and remorse.
‘Like the fear of death, which centers attention on things which could destroy life, this fear of alienation draws our attention to those things in us and around us by which we define ourselves as living, functioning human beings’ (White, pp. 136-137).
The fear is of losing one's identity and individuality while reverting back to some primordial being without control or fully controlled by the id. White argues that another variation of this fear is losing control of the self only to be controlled by another (p. 135).
‘Art safely provides us the opportunity to have rich emotional experiences that are either impossible or far too risky to have in our daily lives. We can feel fear without risking our lives, pity without seeing our loved ones suffer, thrills without risking going to jail, and a variety of other experiences that usually come with unwelcome pitfalls. Outside of art, it is almost impossible to have many of these kinds of experiences without completely wrecking our lives – murdering our loved ones, destroying our relationships, being sent to jail, or suffering fatal injuries.’ (p. 74)
This is also true with violence associated with pain. Douglas writes ‘even to the most civilized of minds, violence has an inescapable (if somewhat guilty) appeal. This compulsion to violence is part of our emotional composition, and the time in which we live, violent though it may be, gives the individual little opportunity for expression’ (p. 13). Drama has an amazing ability to allow viewers or participants to experience a wide variety of emotions relating to pain without the consequences of reality.
Another way horror performance provides a safe experience of pain is through the power of control or choice of its spectator. No matter what the situation is, the spectator has the opportunity to leave or quit his or her experience and thus cease the pain. Conversely, Aaron Smuts states that ‘if we lose control the nature of the experience may become far more painful’ (p. 65). The theatre allows for the exploration of our emotions in a controlled environment.
Extremity of everyday fears and dreams lay the framework for horror performance. Like film, plays inhabit a reality separate from outside of the theatre and, as such, the elements of horror: fear of death, pain, hopelessness, loss of identity, abstract reality and nightmares are easily incorporated into drama. Much like film, theatre is a performance medium in which the audience must make an emotional investment in order to gain a desired response. Without the investment of emotion there is no connection between the audience and the characters and thus nothing to lose or gain. Like film, horror drama can evoke pain and fear through graphic images and sounds on stage. In addition, horror drama can engage audiences by appealing to their other senses in order to evoke fear. The feelings of fear, pain and horror are natural to human beings and are often desirable as a point of catharsis. As human beings, we seek out painful art in order to learn about our own emotional capacity and our relationship with the world and those in it. Horror drama gives us a sense of power or control over our emotions and provides a safe environment for us experience our more extreme emotions of fear, pity, horror and terror that would otherwise be destructive or hazardous to our lives.
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Douglas, Drake (1966) Horror! (New York: Macmillan).
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Kallen, Horace M. ‘The Essence of Tragedy’, International Journal of Ethics 22.2 (1912): pp. 179-202, JSTOR, accessed 10 Oct. 2009.
Kawin, Bruce (2004) ‘The Mummy's Pool’, Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett ( Lanham: Scarecrow), pp. 3-19.
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