Genres have no true frontiers. Like all discursive entities, their natures and definitions are always contested and in play. Some, like the Western, are greatly governed by time and place. Some, like the Musical, are defined by mandatory content. Most others rest in vagaries with specific qualities guiding their form. Such a genre is the Horror film. The Horror Film, by all accounts, is there to scare us or (at least) most of us. It cannot just rest in its successes in writing, direction, acting et al. However, scares cannot just be it. Many films–from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—have scary scenes. For a film to actually be a Horror film, it must have all—and in rare times only three—of four key elements. It must be sublime, transgressive, assaultive and grotesque. To help exemplify and explain these elements, I will refer to numerous Horror films, but I will particularly refer to the iconic classic The Exorcist and the recent classic Martyrs, which has already been remade.
Sublimity plays two major functions in a Horror film. It is the introduction of the as-yet unknown—and usually terrifying—realities, possibilities and human behaviors to the now-altered viewer. It is also the jarring removal of the viewer from their comfortable realm of the familiar and elevation of them into a disturbing, unsettling plane of “higher” awareness, sensations, and awe. The first type was well discussed by Immanuel Kant in his seminal Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Opposed to the bound and recognizable Beautiful, the Sublime is that which remains unbound, formless, and unrecognizable to us: that unknown our enflamed perceptions will give new definition. This is the subject matter of the Horror Film imposing itself on the sensibilities of the Horror viewer. The ever-morphing, ever-shrouded, disarmingly phallic creature in Alien; the invisible–but malevolent and menacing–Simon in Session 9; and the inscrutable, but invasive and baneful, Samara in the Ring; these are all sublime entities the Horror film viewer must receive and comprehend through strange modes of their consciousness.
However, this aspect of the Sublime is not particular to the Horror film; it is also found in films containing the fantastical and/or the foreign. The space battles in Star Wars, the rainy dystopia of Blade Runner, and the visionary visuals of The Matrix all provided their viewer the Kantian Sublime. So, the Sublime mostly particular—and vital–to Horror is the Burkean one. The British Romantic philosopher Edmund Burke–in his work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful–envisioned a Sublime more intense and specific than Kant’s later one:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.
Thus, a great aspect—and perhaps the greatest allure—of the Horror film is its ability to excite ideas of sublime pain and danger, producing sublime emotions and pleasures unavailable to most of our mundane lives. Like openers of the notorious box in the Hellraiser films, the Horror film viewers expose themselves to exquisite “pain” and distressing emotions in desire to escape the dull safety of normality.
The combination of these two Sublimities are found in most Horror films. For example, in a scene from Ringu, the malevolent pubescent spirit Sadaku clambers out of her watery well-grave and begins her grotesque crawl towards both film character Ryuji and the film viewers themselves. As an unknowable spirit whose powers belie nature, she brings Ringu its Kantian sublime. As a terrifying invasion of that sublime, menacingly encroaching on the viewers themselves, it effectively incites the Burkean one. In the seminal Horror film The Exorcist, the Kantian sublime is the presence of a demonic spirit denying knowledge and understanding of itself to characters and viewer. The Burkean sublime arises for the viewer when that spirit assaults the viewer’s sensibilities with horrific behavior transgressing their expectations and values. The French Horror film Martyrs—about a cult torturing women, hoping to glean sublime knowledge from their suffering—also accomplishes both. Its extensive, elaborate torture of the women (bordering on “Torture Porn”) “elevates” the viewers—if not all of them–to a discomforting, but desired state of the Burkean sublime, while possibly suggesting to both “Martyr” and viewer alike the Kantian sublime beyond.
These transgressions in both The Exorcist and Martyrs exemplify the second element of Horror films: transgressiveness. Philosopher Georges Bataille allied transgression—the willful and pleasurable defiance of taboos—with the sublime when he positioned such activity as “sacred,” the erotic spiritual lost in the world of work and regularity. So transgression in horror films intensifies the sublime experience for the viewer. Horror transgression can occur in the content: in its actions and events. Forbidden crimes like murder, rape, and torture are common activity in Horror films. These transgressions enhance horrific sublimity by erasing our comforting detachments from such taboos and immersing us in their transgressiveness. Transgressiveness can also occur in the breaking of official and unofficial social mores. For example, films like Jaws, Pet Sematary, and Salem’s Lot break the cultural “rule” that kids cannot be killed, as they are both innocents and our future. So, each shocking, transgressive death affirms the uncanny, sublime space that has replaced our ordered, familiar one
In The Exorcist, transgressions are pandemic. Already a Catholic film rife with Catholic taboos—immediately transgressed by a Virgin Mary statue defiled with a phallus—The Exorcist proceeds to transgress with sublime frenzy. Breaking the aforementioned primal rule of not harming children, The Exorcist invades a 12-year-old girl (Regan) with a demonic presence, inciting her to assault people with vomitous streams, chant horrendous profanities, and sexually assault her mother. Since the taboos against those extreme transgressions buttress our feelings of stability, the transgressions degrade that buttress, allowing instability to enhance the viewer’s state of sublimity. In Martyrs, the transgressions are even more violent. A seemingly innocent family is slaughtered in their home with explosive shogun blasts. A women bound in chains and nailed clamps gorily rips them from her body. And, in its final and most repellent transgression, a woman is skinned alive and bound in a Christ-like pose. These violent transgression, common to French Extreme Horror (e.g. High Tension) and Torture Porn (e.g. Hostel), not only degrade the viewer’s feelings of stability, they add the instability of complicity. Watching what they should not–and what they should not willingly witness–the viewer “rises” to a myriad of possible painful and pleasurable sublime states accompanying liberation from normalcy’s rules.
For most of us, particularly the conscientious and empathetic, those sublime states are usually “painful” ones, but pleasurable pain the viewer has willingly sought. The transgressions alone, however, can rarely accomplish this. They–as well as the Horror film’s other horrors–must be assaultive: felt, not just seen. Dramatist Antonin Artaud theorized this dynamic in constructing his renowned Theater of Cruelty. Through visuals, sounds, and accompanying concepts unsettling and/or disturbing the viewer, he sought to provoke the viewer into sublime awareness of the violence and horror hidden within their mundane lives. However, Horror films surpass the Theater of Cruelty. They consistently assault viewers with greater extremes of violence, danger, pain, and nightmarish sublimity the viewer senses, feels, and retains. Leatherface’s brutal use of the hammer and meat hook in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; The ghastly, horrifically unnatural “human duck” at the end of Freaks; and the shrill, condemning shriek from Donald Sutherland’s contorted face in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers; they all provided that sublime assault endemic to the Horror film.
In The Exorcist, the assault is relentless. The quotidian horrors of the excruciating medical tests Regan endures; the incessant flow of greenish vomit the viewer sees (and practically smells); the ghastly, inhuman bodily contortions Regan performs; and the previously mentioned bellowed profanities; they all greatly assault the viewer’s senses and sensibilities, heightening their sublime state as Artaud (and effectively Burke) described. In Martyrs, the assault is more acutely somatic, substantially to the same effect. To many viewers, the film’s horrific bodily suffering only (understandably) offends and disgusts. Their particular empathy and empathetic principles is only repelled by the violent spectacle. But for others, the “pain” of the images’ assaults accomplishes what Artaud desired in his Theater: it elevates them to their own sublimity as the Martyr is possibly elevated to hers.
But while Horror’s assaultive element—like the transgressive one—incites this spiritual elevation, it often (if not usually) does so through its horrid transformation and presentation of the physical: the grotesque. The introduction of the grotesque to Gothic fiction arguably marked the beginning of Horror. Previous Gothic works of terror—e.g. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto & Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho—suggested bodily violence and other physical grotesquerie, but never showed them. In her masterpiece, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley shifted Gothic terror into Gothic (and Romantic) horror by introducing physical grotesquerie and grotesque violence to the genre. That grotesquerie begins with the giant, hideous, yellow-skinned creature repugnant to Dr. Frankenstein and the reader. It continues with the corpse of Frankenstein’s murdered cousin/paramour, Elizabeth, the Creature uses to torment Frankenstein. Such grotesquerie enhances the transgressive and assaultive elements of the novel’s horror, augmenting the reader’s sense of sublimity. By feeding the viewer’s imagination, while lessening their dependency on it, the grotesque accentuates their present sublime experience while keeping them immersed in it.
The horror film takes this to higher levels, as it can visually present the grotesque, provoking both greater revulsion and a more intense sublimity. Free from the need of conceiving grotesquerie signified by words, the Horror Film viewer instantaneously takes it in through assaulted senses. The collapsing chest monster and spider-head monster in Carpenter’s The Thing, the hideously decaying Seth Brundle-Fly in Cronenberg’s The Fly, and the viperous, phallic alien hatefully erupting from Kane’s chest in Alien; they were all scenes of the grotesque enhancing the viewer’s assaultive sublimity and ensuring their film’s Horror status.
As shown earlier, almost all of The Exorcist’s assaultive scenes were greatly grotesque. Besides Regan’s vomit and unnatural body contortions, her body itself becomes a horrific tableau of scabrous scars, oozing wounds, glassy eyes, and infernal messages. This not only heightens the viewers sublime experience; it keeps them enmeshed in it. The grotesque isn’t as strong an element in Martyrs, but it is vital. As shown above, the film transgresses taboos and assaults its viewers through graphic violence and mutilated bodies. However, the grotesque particularly enhances the sublime towards the end of the film. The particular grotesque physical state of the protagonist assists both her and her viewer in contemplation of the sublimity suggested by the scene. Sensibly connected to her grotesque suffering, the viewer is pulled closer to the possible sublimity produced.
This captures the seeming paradox of the Horror film viewer seeking pleasure in unpleasantry, as well as the workings of the Horror Film’s primal elements. To those uninitiated in the Horror film’s pleasure, such activity is irrational. It is the equivalent of rushing into a demon-filled asylum, entering a town filled with homicidal zombies, and riding a train haunted by a supernatural hammer-wielding killer…which is what Horror film fans do. The transgressive, assaultive, and grotesque elements repellent to the novitiate are–to the Horror adept–familiar means to delightful sublimity.