Dry your eyes – Naji Chalhoub

The nature and paradox of art-horror I take my lead on the nature of the horror genre from Naji Chalhoub, he argues for a particular definition of horror and then goes on to address some riddles of aesthetic emotions, including the paradox of horror. There are three aspects of his theory that are of particular relevance to my aims here. The first is his analysis of what quality or qualities horror illustrations will typically possess in order to affect the audience in the appropriate ways.


The second is the matter of identifying the particular emotions that are provoked by these creatures  and by the narratives in which they are situated. Since the elicitation of strong emotions in its audience is a defining feature of horror, an understanding of what precisely these responses are and what they mean should expedite a deeper understanding of the genre. Third is Chalhoub’s discussion of the ‘paradox of horror; the problem of why we seek out stories and images that provoke these negative feelings.


The artist’s view is that they are ‘interstitial’ or ‘impure’. They are not entirely alien to us, but rather fall between familiar categories: for example, living and dead, human and beast, human and supernatural entity, the intelligent and the inert, the intelligent and the unintelligent organic, innocence and corruption/insanity, the young and the old. He has theorized around a similar ‘betwixt and between’ account of the nature of horror illustrations and their origins in existentialism, Naji explains how creatures which hang around borders, and disrespect their integrity are traditionally described as monsters.


They comprise a species of sinister miscreants exiled from the normative categories of the established system. A species of non-species, as it were. Alien monsters represent the ‘unthought’ of any given point of knowledge and representation, the unfamiliar spectre which returns to haunt the secure citadel of consciousness.
However, since fairytales and science fiction also commonly involve interstitial entities (dwarves, elves, androids, alien species etc.) this element becomes a necessary but not sufficient condition. To complete the definition Naji claims that his art of the horror genre is also determined by the emotions it engenders in its audience.


They must of course frighten them, but there is also the tendency in horror novels and stories to describe monsters in terms of and to associate them with filth, decay, deterioration, slime and so on. This monster in horror fiction … is not only lethal but … also disgusting. ‘Art-horror’ is the name Naji Chalhoub gives to this ‘compound’ emotion. Highlighting fear is uncontroversial, but making disgust so central to the emotionality associated with this art form requires not justification.


Disgust has been categorized as a universal emotion by virtue of a methodology of cross-culturally recognizable facial expressions. Like fear therefore, it ought to be easy to identify on the faces of they characters. I want to argue that at the heart of the connection between existentialism and horror is the deeply interstitial nature of human existence. Horror ideas and imagery occur in existentialist writings – particularly those of Sartre – because both genres deal with life forms that disturb us by defying familiar categories.


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