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HORRORS / Vol. 81, No. 4 (Winter 2014)

Arien Mack, Editor

How have conceptions of horror changed over time, particularly since 9/11 or Hiroshima? How does horror figure in political thought, theology, media culture, economics, and art? How have conceptions of horror been used to deter horror, for example by codifying human rights or to prevent nuclear war, and how do they figure in theological writing or in religious and moral life?

Human life always has had its share of horrors, both real and imaginary. Since the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, the apocalypse has become less of an imaginary idea and more of a reality.

Horror manifests itself in many forms: natural horrors, historical horrors, individual horrors and, for some artists and thinkers, a metaphysical Horror pervading all three. Responses to horrors have also taken many forms: artistic, philosophical, social scientific, religious. This article proposes that a tragic vision is the most adequate response to horror for Westerners. Moreover, Friedrich Nietzsche remains the most original and influential reader of Greek tragedy as well as the most powerful proponent of the modern need for a new tragic philosophy.

This essay investigates the pervasive presence of Christian demonology in contemporary American culture. After discussing the concept of demonic possession according to Catholic and Protestant theology, Maggi explores the crucial role played by the ritual of exorcism in modern popular culture, especially cinema. Following the collapse of traditional historical categories due to the 9/11 tragedy, popular culture has interpreted the early-modern ritual of exorcism as the locus of a nostalgic return to a hypothetical past. However, the ritual meant to bring order to the chaos created by evil is now a performance leading to troublesome and even pernicious consequences.

Liberalism, as a set of ideas and practices for promoting individual freedom and limiting state power, is often defined in contradistinction to fear. Yet the counterpart of liberalism is not merely fear, but more robustly horror. Horror is known for mobilizing and intensifying fear through narratives of terror and scenes of violence. Key liberal theories draw upon the conventions of horror to rhetorically secure consent to liberal governance. They position liberalism as a way to diminish the horrors of illiberal societies, and have legitimated expansive state power and imperialism within treatises on individual liberty. This essay examines horror in Hobbes’ Leviathan and traces its reverberations in the liberal theories of Locke and Mill to argue that liberalism’s complex legacy has coupled ideals of equality, individual freedom, and consent to monstrous violence, demonization, and fear.

By any metric, the zombie genre has exploded in popularity in recent years, reflecting a variety of anxieties in the body politic. Surfing the cultural zeitgeist, a number of actors have adopted the zombie trope to advance their own political message. There are clear advantages in using the living dead as a hook for promoting political and policy ideas. The superficial homogeneity of the zombie canon, however, poses some problems for its use going forward. Constant references to the zombie canon can reinforce an apocalyptic perception about the future of modern society. The solution lies in an embrace of more heterogeneous zombie narratives.

What would you do if the vampires came for you? This paper tells the story of a community in rural Malawi who found themselves in just such a situation. Fired by rumors that regularly sweep this east and central Africa, they found themselves under assault by “bloodsuckers.” These vampires, they were convinced, had been hired by the country’s president at the behest of foreign “Whites” to siphon the blood of poor African villagers to supply Satanic rituals for rich Whites overseas – Whites to whom he was indebted because of all the money they had sent to the country in the name of “foreign aid.” In response, the villagers organized and took action to defend themselves, with dire results: a young child was beaten to death as a witch; a man out late, seeking love, was beaten nearly to death. We also hear the story of one young man who was accused of working with the vampires as a result of his friendship with foreign Whites who paid for his training as an HIV counselor and tester. Through telling these stories, the paper raises questions of how people in Africa manage relations with dangerous invisible forces and how those of us who do not live with such fears might make sense of what happens when stories of vampires come to you.

The Exorcist posits that its eponymous character first battled a demon in Africa. The rest of the films in the series then, echoing a strong trope in American horror, site in Africa the locus of evil. By juxtaposing these narratives with Frantz Fanon’s writings about possession in The Wretched of the Earth, one might see how colonial violence and indigenous possession belief reflect a culture in tension over the violence done to bodies and the freeing power of exorcism.

This essay treats the theorization of horror in Whitley Strieber’s Communion (1987). It also pushes us to consider more honestly and forthrightly the question of “real monsters,” that is, the phenomenology of encounters with fantastic presences routinely experienced in the environment. Historical contextualization of Strieber’s abduction experiences in the Hudson Valley region and theories of other species from Charles Fort to William James are invoked to radicalize the question further.

One of the deepest horrors experienced by people in early modern Europe occurred as they read accounts or viewed images of the witches sabbath. These imagined assemblies, which were believed to have involved cannibalistic infanticide and other practices that challenged the moral and social order, evoked an existential horror that the Devil and his human accomplices threatened to destroy Christianity and Christian civilization. As belief in the witches’ sabbath declined and became the subject of ridicule or the inspiration of occult practices such as the Black Mass in the modern period, witchcraft became the subject of horror fiction, a genre that produces a more transient horror, such as might be inspired by other “scary” novels and movies. The existential horror of the demonic, however, has persisted in allegations of satanic ritual abuse, the afflictions of demoniacs, and the fear of eternal damnation in certain Christian communities.

Fear of the dark (nyctophobia), spiders (arachnophobia), and snakes (herpetophobia) are universal terrors among human beings, whereas zombies, vampires, and psychopaths are more culturally specific. But do the cultures of horror (from folktales to Hollywood monsters) have roots in the evolution of our cognitive operating-system? Is our brain hard-wired with instinctual fears of certain morphologies, or does culture alone write our biases on the blank slate of developing consciousness? Horror is a biocultural nexus and can serve as an interdisciplinary bridge between humanities and scientific methodologies —a kind of case study for triangulating philosophy, psychology and biology. Recent research into the neuroscience of fear and cognition will be applied to some of the perennial experiences of horror, and an epistemology of horror will shed light on certain debates in the philosophy and evolution of mind.


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