An Anatomy of Horror

Article excerpt

James B. Twitchell. Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. 353 pp. $18.95 cloth.

In this splendid yet surprisingly limited study, James B. Twitchell suggests that myths of modern horror emerge from society's ongoing need to instruct its youth to procreate in a responsible manner, one that preserves rather than violates the peace and tranquility of the family. Drawing heavily on Freud's Totem and Taboo, Twitchell, a professor of literature at the University of Florida, adopts the premise that in the recesses of the human psyche incest looms as the great social, if not biological, danger. Horror myths preserve the social fabric, he says, by portraying both the descent toward incest and the overwhelming price in grief and destruction that ensues.

The core figures in the drama Twitchell proposes are Dracula (the vampire), Frankenstein and his monster (the hulk without a name), and Jekyll/Hyde and the Wolfman (transformation monsters). As Twitchell reads the influential novels by Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Robert Louis Stevenson in which these characters are developed, he concedes that the theme of incest is not very visible, and that sexual misconduct of some sort is prominent only in Dracula. Nonetheless, he maintains that the incest theme lurks beneath the surface in all three novels, and that it constitutes their primary if unconscious drive. As evidence he argues that the theme eventually becomes explicit in many popular films, which he regards as uninhibited versions of the stories in the earlier novels.

In his probe of "modern rhythms of horror," Twitchell examines numerous works of visual art of the last two hundred years in addition to films, novels, and other literature. As he says, Dreadful Pleasures is an "intertextual study" of the "origins and migration of archetypes and motifs." Throughout his book, his primary interest remains the emergence of myths of horror rather than any art work or art form for its own sake.

Twitchell cites the technical inventiveness of some horror films as a sign of the genre's progressi veness, and he notes the static, theatrical look of others. But he scarcely weighs the aesthetic workings of films, or cares to speculate at length about aspects of horror that film is particulary well-suited to express. Such considerations remain the province, or at least an interest, of an earlier book about horror - Caligari' s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror (1980) by S.S. Prawer, like Twitchell a professor of literature. Prawer delights to speculate about implications of the double, for example, that span horror myths and films. On this topic he cites The World in a Frame by Leo Braudy, who also enters film from literary studies. Like Prawer, Braudy asks what it is film naturally implies about human nature, as when he remarks early in his discussion of the double that the "simultaneous reality and transience of the film image can imply that character itself, so palpably before you, is merely a construction." Writings about film as early as Hugo Munsterberg's The Film: A Psychological Study (1916) have explored ways in which film lends itself to the embodiment of particular aspects of character and experience. Twitchell tends to avoid such considerations, however, as rather highbrow and abstract for his purposes, and he finds Prawer' s book unsystematic.

Yet Prawer' s speculations about issues like the double contribute to an open, suggestive air in which human nature does emerge as more various man in Twitchell's account. Somewhat like an article of 1973 by Walter Evans, "Monster Movies: A Sexual Theory," which stresses the adolescent's experience of sexuality, though not incest, Twitchell's emphasis seems overly simple and materialistic. What about psychological needs and moral, spiritual, or metaphysical concerns that are not primarily sexual? Twitchell seems aware of them in the films he considers; yet whether the issue is human fear, evil duality, the uncanny, or alienation, the fundamental matter he returns to is sexual. …