Faith and Idolatry in the Horror Film

By Telotte, J P | Literature/Film Quarterly, July 1, 1980 | Go to article overview

Faith and Idolatry in the Horror Film


Telotte, J P, Literature/Film Quarterly


It is at the same time true that the world is what we see and that, nonetheless, we must learn to see it- first in the sense that we must match this vision with knowledge, take possession of it, say what we and what seeing are, act therefore as if we knew nothing about it, as if here we still had everything to learn.

It is said that to cover one's eyes so as to not see a danger is to not believe in the things, to believe only in the private world; but this is rather to believe that what is for us is absolutely, that a world we have succeeded in seeing as without danger is without danger.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

As these statements by Merleau-Ponty indicate, perception in great part determines how we conceive of the world we inhabit and our place in it. By seeing, we invoke what he terms a "perceptual faith,"1 or belief that what we view is not illusion but truth itself, that the world freely opens itself up, enabling us to understand both it and ourselves. The visual arts, and especially film, would seem to involve a similar accession, for film's stock in trade is images which "could be"- surrogates or extensions of the phenomena we commonly perceive about us. Film criticism, however, has largely neglected its audience's perceptual involvement, as V. F. Perkins notes in his study Film as Film where he suggests that we "redirect attention to the movie as it is seen, by shifting the emphasis back from creation to perception."^ Phenomenology and the critical approach it has offered students of literature might well be the key to this shift of emphasis in film criticism. Following Perkins' lead, therefore, I wish to apply such an approach to a common movie experience, specifically our encounter with the horror film, to account for this film/ viewer interaction. Two sides of this visual process must be considered: first, the normal audience experience of the genre, and second, the focus on perception within the structure of one film, Hitchcock's Psycho. What I intend to demonstrate through this approach is that the most effective horror films operate from a distinctly visual bias emanating from that "perceptual faith" Merleau-Ponty noted, and that this visual participation best explains why we find this particular genre so satisfying- in short, why we enjoy being scared by such films.

As the phenomenologists tell us, nothing valid can be learned about a particular object or event so long as we fail to take into account our consciousness of it, and specifically that act of perception which brought it to our consciousness; as MerleauPonty asserted, knowledge cannot admit of any "cleavage" between subject and object, but must "make the contact between the observer and the observed enter into the definition of the 'real.' "* Hence, a proper phenomenological approach directs our attention to the self as it participates in that world it inhabits and perceives. To this end, the basic methodology of phenomenological analysis calls for examinations in two directions: "on the one hand, they are noematic descriptions that take as a guiding clue the essential difference between species, regions, etc.; on the other hand, they are noetic descriptions of conscious acts that intend a being of this or that type."4 In layman's terminology, we are asked to examine both the world as it reflects back upon ourselves and our own understandings of that world- including the contributions of our consciousness to its make-up. The result, we hope, is a deeper understanding of our involvement with the phenomena around us, and perhaps even a qualitatively better level of participation in that human environment.

In America at least, this critical model has probably had its most successful application in literary criticism. As Dudley Andrew suggests, its failure to "catch on" in film studies may be due in great part to the extensive hold which structuralism has taken in this field, especially with the prior absence of any equally rigorous alternative approach. …

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