In the new book The Philosophy of Horror, from University Press of Kentucky, editor Thomas Fahy gathers a diverse selection of essays. The diversity springs from the fact that many of the authors step outside the traditional concept of horror and redefine what it means. Much of the time, The Philosophy of Horror acts as a refutation of Noël Carroll’s book of the same name.
While Carroll essentially defines horror as something within one’s mind — a fantastic thing — much of the scholarship within this book’s pages attempt to take that definition and expand upon it. In Phillip J. Nickel’s “Horror and the Idea of Everyday Life,” he consides that “the threats that horror presents are not always fictional but can bleed into the real world.” In Thomas Fahy’s “Hobbes, Human Nature, and the Culture of Human Violence,” goes one step further, including the monstrous acts of real-life violence in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: “As a ruthless killer, Smith is certainly a realistic monster, and the Clutter murders qualify as horrific events.”
In Cold Blood is not likely to be at the top of anyone’s list of “horror” literature, but Fahy’s arguments effectively place Capote’s work within the grander pantheon. It’s the essays such as his, stepping outside the traditional works one normally associates with the genre as it does, which work most effectively. Perhaps it’s due to the recent publication of Shock Value, Now A Terrifying Motion Picture!, and Dark Directions, but the standard syllabus of horror titles has gotten a bit stale.
That being said, Lorena Russell’s “Ideological Formations of the Nuclear Family in The Hills Have Eyes” is a fantastic take on the Wes Craven original and later remake. It looks at both the text — that the film reinforces traditional gender roles — as well as the subtext, wherein “the films radically revise assumptions about the legacy of the ‘nuclear family’ and its uneasy place in American history.”
While the book as a whole is excellent, it ends on a rather weak note. David MacGregror Johnston fails to do much more than restate the thesis of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.'” While “Kitsch and Camp and Things That Go Bump in the Night” has a clever premise in using Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scary Movie to differentiate between camp and kitsch’s various forms, they’re brought into the conversation too late to be of effective use.
If you’re looking for something that speaks on what you know, retreading the familiar paths of the horror genre, then The Philosophy of Horror is not for you. If you wish to have your horizons broadened, and new ideas brought up and explored, then you’d do well to pick this up. The essays are fascinating, and while a few do fall flat, there’s much to be gained from reading it.