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Horror in Civilization

A human eyeball shoots out of its socket, and rolls into a gutter.  A child returns from the dead and tears the beating heart from his tormentor’s chest.  A young man has horrifying visions of his decomposing mother’s corpse.  A baby is ripped from its living mother’s womb.  A mother tears her son to pieces, and parades around with his head on a stick ...  These are scenes from the notorious, banned ‘video nasty’ films (a series of controversial, violent VHS releases banned in the UK under the Video Recordings Act of 1984) Eaten Alive, Zombie Flesh Eaters, I Spit on Your Grave, Anthropophagous: The Beast, and Cannibal Holocaust.

Well, no.  They could be – but they’re not.  All these scenes and images can be found in any bookshop, safely inside the respectable covers of canonical literary classics, in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, M. R. James, James Joyce, William Shakespeare, and Euripides.  Only the first two of these are avowedly writers of horror, and none of these books comes with any kind of public health warning or age-suitability guideline.  What is the relationship between culture and violence?

Euripides’s The Bacchae, first performed around 400 BC, is one of the foundational works of the Western literary canon.  In describing graphically the actions of Agave and her Maenads, dismembering King Pentheus while under the frenzied influence of the god Dionysus, and putting his head on a pole, it also sets the bar very high for artistic representations of violence and gore.  The spectacle of violence, then, is encoded in art from its very beginnings.  Palaeohistorians have argued plausibly that the capacity to make art is one of the crucial distinguishing features of humanity, and a very significant evolutionary advantage: homo sapiens made art, we survived; Neanderthal Man did neither. It is likely that Greek Tragedy and perhaps all art has its deep origins in ritual.  The anthropologist Clifford Geertz usefully defines ritual as ‘consecrated behavior’, and suggests that elaborate or public religious rituals might best be thought of as ‘cultural performances’, simultaneously providing both models of an external or social reality (they reflect reality) and models for that reality (they shape reality). We will return to the ritualistic element of horror throughout this book, but for now I want to give an example of the interweaving of culture, religion, and horror. 

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969) is a free adaptation of Euripides’s tragedy of the same name, directed by a major European film-maker and intellectual, and starring the legendary operatic diva Maria Callas in the title role. It is, in other words, unmistakeably a high-cultural artistic product, deeply influenced by Pasolini’s own studies in anthropology, mythography, and religious history, and by his Marxist politics.  But this is arthouse cinema red in tooth and claw.  Shot in the beautiful unearthly volcanic landscape around Göreme in Cappadocia, Turkey, the film opens with a sparagmos, a graphically-rendered ritual sacrifice: a young boy is killed and dismembered, his blood and body-parts cast over the land in order to assure its fertility.  In travelling to the ends of the earth  - to Colchis, in what is today Georgia - to retrieve the Golden Fleece, the film suggests, Jason is also symbolically travelling back in time, to witness the origins of civilization in a religion of magic, ritual, and human sacrifice.  Jason takes Medea back with him to Corinth, the city-state of modernity and intrigue (these scenes are filmed in Pisa), but Medea carries the primal world within her (she lives beyond the polis, outside the city walls), and this enables her to summon up the appalling forces of vengeance in order to kill her own children.

The film’s opening episode of human sacrifice is unquestionably a shocking scene in itself, but for certain viewers of horror cinema it is also a disorientating one, as it clearly prefigures, both aesthetically and thematically, some of the most controversial films ever made.  Medea’s sparagmos closely resembles (anticipates) a number of scenes of ritual human sacrifice and dismemberment from Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1981), and a number of other Italian cannibal movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Unlike Medea, all of these films were banned under the Video Recordings Act of 1984.  Cannibal Holocaust, in particular, has an infamous place in popular demonology as perhaps the archetypal ‘video nasty’.  It is a film so powerful, and for many so unacceptable, that its director was arrested and tried shortly after its release, on charges not only of obscenity but also of murder, as the authorities initially refused to believe that the film’s scenes of violence and torture could possibly have been staged.  (They were, and Deodato was acquitted when the actors involved were revealed to be alive and well.)

The episode of the baby ripped from the mother’s womb to which I alluded in the first paragraph is from Macbeth, of course – it’s Macduff’s account of his own birth.  And Macbeth, though certainly no slouch in the mayhem department, isn’t even Shakespeare’s most violent play.  That would be Titus Andronicus, whose opening scene makes the connections between civilization and horror very clear: the origins of civilization are in violence; ritual and other forms of sacred violence are used to channel otherwise uncontrollably violent, destabilizing urges into socially licensed forms.  At the beginning of Titus Andronicus, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, sees her son brutally killed by the conquering Romans:

What follows is well known: further mutilation, rape, cannibalism – the full Jacobean panoply.  Shocking, yes; surprising, no.  After all, the greater part of the Western literary tradition follows, or celebrates, a faith whose own sacrificial rites have at their heart symbolic representations of torture and cannibalism, the cross and the host.  A case could plausibly be made that the Western literary tradition is a tradition of horror.  This may be an overstatement, but it’s an argument with which any honest thinker has to engage.

The classic argument in defence of the brutality of tragedy (a form which I have come to think of as highbrow horror) is the Aristotelian concept of catharsis, according to which the act of witnessing artistic representations of cruelty and monstrosity, pity and fear, purges the audience of these emotions, leaving them psychologically healthier.  Horror is good for you!  I confess I have always had difficulty accepting this hypothesis (though I recognize that many people far more learned and brilliant than me have had no trouble accepting it).  It seems to me to be a classic example of an intellectual’s gambit, a theory offered without recourse to any evidence.

And yet catharsis seems to me to be far preferable to another, more common, response to horror: the urge to censor or ban extreme documents and images in the name of public morality.  If catharsis is Aristotelian, then this hypothesis is Pavlovian: horror conditions our responses; a tendency to watch violent acts leads inexorably to a tendency to commit violent acts.  For many people, this seems to make intuitive sense (on more than one occasion, I’ve noticed people backing away from me when I tell them I work on horror), and it’s the impetus behind the framing of the Video Recordings Act of 1984, after which Cannibal Holocaust and all those other video nasties were banned.

As a number of commentators and critics have noted, there’s no evidence for this Pavlovian hypothesis, either.  Worse than that, there’s a distinct class animus behind such thinking.  You and I, cultured, literate, educated middle class folks that we are, are perfectly safe: when we watch Cannibal Holocaust (which I do, even if you don’t) we know what we are seeing, we can contextualize the film, interpret it, recognize it for what it is.  The problem, the argument implicitly goes, is not us, it is them, those festering, semi-bestial proletarians whose extant propensity for violence (always simmering beneath the surface) can only be stoked by watching these films.  That’s why no-one seriously considers banning The Bacchae or Titus Andronicus – why any suggestion that we do so would be treated as an act of inexcusable philistinism.  They are horror for the educated classes.

Horror is, unquestionably, an extreme art form.  Like all avant-garde art, I would suggest, its real purpose is to force its audiences to confront the limits of their own tolerance – including, emphatically, their own tolerance for what is or is not art.  Commonly, when hitting these limits, we respond with fear, frustration, and even rage.  Even today, this is not an unusual reaction on first reading Finnegans Wake, for example: I see it occasionally in my students, who are (a) voluntarily students of literature; and (b) usually Irish, not to say actual Dubliners.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that audiences respond to horror with – well, with horror.  But we need to recognize that the reasons for doing this are complex, and are deeply bound up with the meaning and function of art, and of civilization.  Horror runs very deep, and is part of what we are.

From Darryl Jones, Sleeping With The Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Darryl Jones


Darryl Jones is Professor of English in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin, where he teaches nineteenth-century literature and popular fiction.

His books include Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film (2002), the Oxford World's Classics editions of M. R. James's Collected Ghost Stories (2011), and Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson (2014).

He has also written numerous articles on nineteenth-century fiction and supernatural literature.