Existentialism and Art-Horror

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Abstract: This article explores the relationship between existentialism and the horror genre. Noel Carroll and others have proposed that horror monsters defy established categories. Carroll also argues that the emotion they provoke - 'art-horror' - is a 'composite' of fear and disgust. I argue that the sometimes horrifying images and metaphors of Sartre's early philosophy, which correlate with nausea and anxiety, have a non-coincidental commonality with art-horror explained by existentialism's preoccupation with the interstitial nature of the self. Further, it is argued that, as with some of the more sophisticated examples of the horror genre, the way for existential protagonists like Roquentin and Gregor Samsa to meet the challenge of the horrifying involves an accommodation of these features of the existential condition within their developing identity, which results in them appearing monstrous to others. Lastly, it is claimed that die association between existentialism and art-horror can explain the (paradoxical) appeal of horror.

Keywords: Horror, disgust, interstitial, nausea, anxiety paradox of horror, monster


'It doesn't take much for the world to fall apart does it?'

(Ben in Night of the Living Dead)

'I am no one'

(Regan MacNeil's possessing demon in The Exorcist)

'What filth! What filth!' (Sartre, Nausea)


In their bid to disrupt everyday assumptions, writings classed as 'existential' tend to trade in the unusual and the unexpected. Most of the fictional works (and sometimes the non-fiction as well) evoke an uncanny atmosphere; many portray extreme situations (Fear and Trembling, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness, Sisyphus, The Plague, The Flies, The Reprieve, Dirty Hands), and some include elements of surrealism (Metamorphosis, The Trial, Nausea, No Exit). This oddness has generated comparisons with subversive, extreme and nihilistic art forms such as absurdist theatre, (1) film noir, (2) and beatnik literature, (3) but so far very little has been written on its relationship with the horror genre. (4)

My aim here is to show that existentialism and horror share some important features, and that an investigation of this connection can enrich our understanding of both. More precisely, in the first instance I want to highlight the close association between some concepts and imagery of die early Sartre and the horror genre. Then I want to argue that this association is understandable if we realize that the notion of the interstitial--that which falls between established categories--is a central concern in both cases. A development of this point identifies what might be called a 'narrative of awakening' in existentialism that is mirrored in horror fictions. This sees protagonists overcoming their initial rejection of threatening and repelling circumstances and replacing them with a form of acceptance that, crucially, requires a shift in their sense of identity in the direction of the monstrous. Finally, I want to claim that this shared concern helps explain the appeal of horror, and in so doing contributes a solution to the 'paradox of horror'--the question of why we are drawn to films, stories and images designed to provoke emotions we would normally seek to avoid.

The Nature and Paradox of Art-Horror

I take my lead on the nature of the horror genre from Noel Carroll's seminal work The Philosophy of Horror. (5) In this 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 monsters 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 monsters and by the narratives in which they are situated. …