It would be incorrect to say that I choose to watch and read horror. What would be more correct would be “Horror compels me to read and watch it.” Those of us mesmerized by the genre tend to be a reflective lot. We ask ourselves the question others frequently ask us—why watch it? And yet, horror films tend to do very well at the box office. Some even become cultural icons. Of the many books analyzing horror, it would be difficult to suggest one more influential than Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart. It has been in just about every bibliography I have read in the subject. It’s easy to see why. There are lots of gems in this book, and it does indeed address the paradox at the heart of it all.
Philosophy, due to the very fact that there are competing schools, doesn’t attempt to provide the answer. It offers an answer, one that hopefully makes sense of the overall question. What question? The one with which I began: why do people get into horror? Carroll comes down to a deceptively simple answer, but I would make bold to suggest it does so at the cost of having undercut the religious element. As in nearly every book on horror, Carroll does address the connection with religion. He finds it lacking, but the reason seems to be his definition of religion. He follows, perhaps a little too closely, Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy. No doubt, it’s a classic. Still, it doesn’t encompass the broad scope of religion and its genetic connection to horror.
At many points of The Philosophy of Horror I felt compelled to stand up and cheer. I didn’t, of course, since much of the reading was done on the bus. My ebullience was based on the fact that here was an intellectual who gets it, one who understands that horror is pervasive because it is meaningful. Sure, it’s not to everyone’s taste. It’s not, however, simply debased imagination, or arrested development gone to seed. There is something deeply compelling about horror because it helps us to survive in a world that is, all paranoia aside, out to get us. Yes, it engages our curiosity, as Carroll asserts. It satisfies more than it disgusts. It also defies explanation. Perhaps that’s the deep connection with religion. It can never be fully explained. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And this book is a valiant effort indeed.