February 2, 2010KR BlogKR

What Have You Done to His Eyes?

My friend put on Rosemary’s Baby so I wouldn’t fall asleep; I drank port and watched Mia Farrow (who I’d last seen in, of all movies, Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters) feel the cords snipped which bound her to her old life.

The film’s final pivot–where horror takes over from terror, “the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse” (scholar Devendra Varma)–is Farrow, surrounded, looking down at a baby the audience never sees.

What need does horror meet? The dark story arcs us from shock-me-please to lying up stunned and sleepless afterward–from anticipation to transgression to reaction. Before the horror story, I’m heart-racy, in line for a roller coaster; in the hearing I’m atavistic, surrendering moral scale. Jean Piaget, the early-20th-century developmental psychologist, saw authority as the source of the young child’s moral life. In the “primitive conception” (whether among children of domineering parents or citizens of a rack-and-gallows society) of responsibility, punishment takes on magical meaning for its “lack of differentiation between the physical and the psychical.”

To a dominated child, both sneaking a candy bar and setting the cat on fire are bad; sins are undifferentiated and punishment–mental or corporal–is a necessary final step, a release. Horror returns us to this primitive moral conception. If you open the creaky door, you get eaten by what (usually old, strong, fearful, and unknown) waits there.

The Ramones – You Should Never Have Opened That Door

Horror’s emotions are reactive. We read or watch for stereotypes played out and nightmare-distortions realized: distrust that kind old man; smell the corruption in the louche neighbors; cringe from the kiss of dread gay aristocratic Dracula, and from the hunger of poor shabby zombies; pray to a God you’d arrived foolishly doubting.

(From Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot–)

What am I doing? he asked himself. What in God’s name am I doing?

He knelt there on top of the coffin and tried to think about it“ but something on the underside of his mind was urging him to hurry, hurry, the sun was going down–

Dark, don’t catch me here.

He lifted the spade over his shoulder, brought it down on the lock once more, and there was a snapping sound. It was broken.

He looked up for a moment, in a last glimmering of sanity, his face streaked and circled with dirt and sweat, the eyes staring from it in bulging white circles.

Venus glowed against the breast of the sky.

–Reactive, but not by definition reactionary. Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe believed terror, by its indeterminacy and dread anticipation, awakened higher faculties and fed the sublime; while horror’s plain atrocities did the opposite. One pleasure of Rosemary’s Baby (and maybe the Our Town-ish nightmare of Salem’s Lot) is how long we dangle, breathing that thin air, before we’re dropped into brain-freezing final images.

Another pleasure is these stories’ rejection of the implicit conservatism of horror morality. I’m a sucker for the helplessness of “free” Rosemary given over to an ancient, rapacious, male-id-led order; or for the poison that spreads behind King’s little town’s stuffy, laconic show. Our protagonists’ survival depends on casting out not “modern” equivocation but rotten tradition.

But none of this really nails the pleasure of terror, “the uses of enchantment.” Is it a simple cleanse? If our inner life is to include terror and horror, do the figures of these stories provide something necessarily concrete–a living metaphor? Do we want concrete fears to populate our inner life? Jorge Luis Borges, in “Ragnarok”:

In our dreams (writes Coleridge) images represent the sensations we think they cause; we do not feel horror because we are threatened by a sphinx; we dream of a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel.