<<

. 46
( 82 .)



>>

The movement from horror to humor or vice versa that strikes us as so coun-
terintuitive, then, can be explained in terms of what horror and at least one kind
of humor “ namely, incongruity humor “ share. For the categorical interstitiality
and transgression that serves as one of the most crucial necessary conditions for
the mental state of horror plays a role as part of a sufficient condition for having
the mental state of comic amusement, especially of the incongruity variety. Of
course, if we allow that there is a subgenre labeled incongruity humor, then
incongruity will be a necessary condition of that type of humor as well as part of
a sufficient condition. On the map of mental states, horror and incongruity
amusement are adjacent and partially overlapping regions. Given this affinity,
movement from one to the other should not be unexpected.31 The impurities of
horror can serve as the incongruities of humor, just as, in certain circumstances,
mere reference to the feces, mucus, or spittle we were taught to revile was enough
to make us the class wit in second grade.
Often a very bad horror film, like The Attack of the 50 Ft.Woman (the first ver-
sion), will provoke particularly thunderous laughter. On my theory, that can be
explained by suggesting that the fearsomeness of the monster has not been suffi-
ciently projected, often because of inept or outlandish make-up and special
effects. Parodies such as Attack of the Killer Tomatoes succeed, on the other hand,
because it is nearly impossible to imagine a tomato being dangerous.
In addition, people have told me that when I read selections from horror nov-
els, such as the earlier passage from Needful Things, out loud, the effect is often
amusing.And I have also been told that some horror fans enjoy reading lurid parts
from horror novels to their friends for fun. In these cases, it seems to me that once
one excerpts these quotations from their narrative contexts, the danger that has
been building up in the story disappears, and primarily only the anomaly remains
in a way which, my theory predicts, is apt to cause laughter.
HORROR HUMOR 253
AND


Of course, standardly, horror does not blend into humor, or vice versa.The reason
for this is that though horror and incongruity humor share one condition, they
diverge in other respects. Horror requires fearsomeness in addition to category jam-
ming. So, where the fearsomeness of the monster is convincingly in place, horror will
not drift over into incongruity humor. But where the fearsomeness of the monster is
compromised or deflected by either neutralizing it or at least drawing attention away
from it, the monster can become an appropriate object for incongruity humor. Like-
wise, when typically humorous figures like puppets, ventriloquist™s dummies, and
clowns are lethal, they can become vehicles of horror.
The boundary line between horror and incongruity humor is drawn in terms
of fear.Two visually indiscernible creatures “ such as the monsters in The House of
Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein “ can be alternately horrify-
ing or laughable depending upon whether the narrative context invests them with
fearsomeness or not. Invested with fearsomeness, the categorically interstitial fig-
ure is horrific; bereft of fearsomeness, it is on its way toward comedy. Horror
equals categorical transgression or jamming plus fear; incongruity humor equals,
in part, categorical transgression or jamming minus fear. Figures indiscernible in
terms of their detectable, categorically anomalous, outward features can inhabit
either domain, depending upon whether we view them or are led to attend to
them in terms of fear.
Moreover, this conclusion is consistent with experimental data. In a series of
papers, psychologist Mary Rothbart has argued that exposure to incongruity can
elicit a series of different behavioral responses, including fear, problem-solving, and
laughter.The same stimuli can evoke a fear response or a laughter response, depend-
ing upon whether or not it is threatening.32 For example, a child is more likely to
respond with laughter to the antics of an adult when the adult is familiar or safe, such
as a caregiver.33 When a situation is not safe or nonthreatening, for example, where
the adult is a stranger, the response to incongruity is more likely to be distress.
Of course, Rothbart is not examining the contrast between horror fiction and
comedy. However, her findings “ that responses to identical incongruous stimuli
can take the form of fear or laughter depending on contextual factors “ is conso-
nant with my hypotheses about the relation of the horror response to comic
amusement. The fictional environment of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is
“safe.” Given Costello™s hijinks, he is marked as a naive clown figure, the sort of
being who can take falls and be hit in the head with impunity. He is indestruc-
tible. He is exempt from real bodily threat and, therefore, the fictional environ-
ment is marked as safe.34 On the other hand, the human figures in the House of
Frankenstein are ordinary mortals, fragile creatures of the flesh, and their vulnera-
bility induces fear in us for them. Thus, we respond with horror when harmful
and impure monsters stalk them.
Nevertheless, we do not regard potentially horrific figures in comedy as horrific
because comedy is a realm in which fear, in principle, is banished in the sense that
typically in comedy serious human consideration of injury, affront, pain, and even
death are bracketed in important ways. Comedy, as a genre, is stridently amoral in
254 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


this regard. Within the comic frame, though injury, pain, and death are often ele-
ments in a joke, we are not supposed to dwell on them, especially in terms of their
moral or human weight or consequences. Most frequently, we do not attend to or
even apprehend the mayhem in jokes or slapstick comedies as having serious physi-
cal or moral consequences.35 And, as a result, fear and fearsomeness are not part of
the comic universe from the point of view of the audience.
Freud claimed that humor involves a saving or economy of emotion. Perhaps
I can commandeer his slogan for my own purposes and say that the emotion in
question is fear, which disappears when the comic frame causes the burden of
moral concern for the life and limb of comic characters to evaporate.
In the horror genre, on the other hand, our attention is focused, usually relent-
lessly, on the physical plight of characters harried by monsters. Ordinary moral
concern for human injury is never far from our minds as we follow a horror fic-
tion. Thus, fear is the m©tier of the horror fiction. In order to transform horror
into laughter, the fearsomeness of the monster “ its threat to human life “ must be
sublated or hidden from our attention.Then we will laugh where we would oth-
erwise scream.36




THE PARADOX SUSP E N S E
OF


T H E P RO B L E M

It is an incontrovertible fact that people can consume the same suspense fiction
again and again with no loss of affect. Someone may reread Graham Greene™s This
Gun for Hire or re-view the movie The Guns of Navarone and, nevertheless, on the
second, third, and repeated encounters be caught in the same unrelenting grip of
suspense that snared them on their first encounter. I myself have seen King Kong at
least fifty times, and yet there are still certain moments when I feel the irresistible
tug of suspense.
However, although the suspense felt by recidivists like me is an undeniable fact, it
appears to be a paradoxical one. For there seems to be agreement that a key compo-
nent of the emotion suspense is a cognitive state of uncertainty.1 We feel suspense as
the heroine heads for the buzzsaw, in part, because we are uncertain as to whether or
not she will be cleaved. Uncertainty seems to be a necessary condition for suspense.
However, when we come to cases of recidivism, the relevant readers and view-
ers know Anne Crowder will stop the onset of world war, that the guns of


From: Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses and Empirical Explorations, ed. by Peter
Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff, and Mike Friedrichsen (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996),
71“91.
THE PARADOX SUSPENSE 255
OF


Navarone will plunge into the sea, and that King Kong will be blown away. After
all, we have already read the novel or seen the film; we know how the fiction ends,
because we have read it before.
How then can it be possible for us to feel suspense the second, the third, or the
fiftieth time around? Or is it possible only because recidivists with respect to sus-
pense fictions are somehow irrational, perhaps psychically blinded by some
process of disavowal or denial, of the sort psychoanalysts claim to investigate?
And yet this variety of recidivism with respect to suspense fictions hardly
seems to portend any psychological abnormality or pathology. It is well known
that successful suspense films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and The Fugi-
tive require repeat audiences in order to be the blockbusters that they are, and it is
also a fact that there are classic suspense stories, like “The Most Dangerous Game”
by Richard Connell, that are often reread without diminution in their capacity to
deliver a thrill. Furthermore, there are lots of classic suspense films (like North by
Northwest), as well as TV and radio shows, that entice re-viewing and relistening.
So there is, in short, too much recidivism for it to be regarded as so patholog-
ically abnormal that it requires psychoanalysis, unless nearly everyone is to be
diagnosed. Yet, nevertheless, the phenomenon is still strange enough “ indeed,
some researchers even call it anomalous suspense2 “ that an account is in order of
the way in which it can be rational for a reader or a viewer to feel suspense about
events concerning whose outcomes the audience is certain.
To state the paradox involved here at greater length, we may begin with the
assumption that, conceptually, suspense entails uncertainty. Uncertainty is a neces-
sary condition for suspense. When uncertainty is removed from a situation, sus-
pense evaporates. Putatively, if we come to know that the heroine will not be
sawed in half, or that she will be, then we should no longer feel suspense. More-
over, if a situation lacks uncertainty altogether, no sense of suspense can intelligi-
bly arise. It would be irrational for people to feel suspense in such contexts. And
yet, apparently rational people are seized by suspense on re-encountering well-
remembered films like Alfred Hitchcock™s The Thirty-Nine Steps or novels like Tom
Clancy™s Patriot Games. Indeed, such consumers often seek out these fictions in
order to experience once more that same thrill of suspense that they savored on
their first encounter with the fiction. But surely, then, they must be irrational.
Of course, one might try to explain away the recidivism here by saying that
with something like The Thirty-Nine Steps, filmgoers do not return for the sus-
pense, but for something else “ Hitchcock™s cinematic artistry, the undeniable
humor, the acting, the ambience, and so on.And undoubtedly, these features of the
film, among others, certainly warrant reviewing. However, although we need to
acknowledge that such features might reasonably motivate recidivism, it is not
plausible to suppose that we can rid ourselves of the paradox of suspense by
hypothesizing that every case of recidivism can be fully explained away by refer-
ence to good-making features of the fiction that have nothing to do with sus-
pense. For recidivism may recur not only with respect to works of substantial
literary merit by people like Greene, Elmore Leonard, and Eric Ambler or works
256 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


of substantial cinematic achievement by people like Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and
Carol Reed; we may also be swept into the thrall of suspense on the occasion of
re-viewing a fairly pedestrian exercise like Straw Dogs.
In some cases, our propensity to be recaptivated by an already encountered
suspense fiction may be explained by the fact that we have forgotten how it ends.
This happens often. However, I do not think this can account for every case; I
know it does not apply to my forty-ninth re-viewing of King Kong. Instead, I
think that we must face the paradox head-on.There are examples “ I think quite
a lot of examples “ where the consumers of fiction find themselves in the enjoy-
able hold of suspense while responding to stories, read, heard, or seen previously,
whose outcomes they remember with perfect clarity; in fact, quite frequently,
these audiences have sought out these already familiar fictions with the express
expectation that they will re-experience the pleasurable surge of consternation
and thrill that they associate with suspense once again.
But how can they rationally expect to re-experience suspense if they know “
and know that they know “ the outcome of the fictional events that give rise to
suspense? For, ex hypothesi, suspense requires uncertainty and I certainly know
how The Thirty-Nine Steps,This Gun for Hire, and King Kong end.To put it formu-
laically, the paradox of suspense “ which might be more accurately regarded as an
instance of the paradox of recidivism3 “ may be stated in the following way:
1. If a fiction is experienced with suspense by an audience, then the outcome
of the events that give rise to the suspense must be uncertain to audiences.
2. It is a fact that audiences experience fictions with suspense in cases where
they have already seen, heard, or read the fictions in question.
3. But if audiences have already seen, heard, or read a fiction, then they know
(and are certain) of the relevant outcomes.
Although each of the propositions in this triad seems acceptable considered in iso-
lation, when conjoined they issue in a contradiction. In order to solve the paradox
of suspense, that contradiction must be confronted. However, before we are in a
position to dismantle this contradiction, we need a more fine-grained account of
what is involved in suspense.

A T H E O RY O F T H E N AT U R E O F S U S P E N S E

Before proceeding further, it will be useful to be clear about our topic.4 First, we
are talking about suspense as an emotional response to narrative fictions. Inasmuch
as we are focusing on fictions, we are not talking about suspense with respect to
“real-life” experiences, although some comments about the relation between the
two will be made. Furthermore, inasmuch as we are speaking about narratives, we
are not talking about so-called musical suspense.
Suspense, as I am using the term, is an emotional response to narrative fictions.
Moreover, these responses can occur in reaction to two levels of fictional articula-
tion. They can evolve in reaction to whole narratives, or in response to discrete
THE PARADOX SUSPENSE 257
OF


scenes or sequences within a larger narrative whose overall structure may or may
not be suspenseful. For example, the attack on Jack Ryan™s home is a suspenseful
episode or sequence in Tom Clancy™s novel Patriot Games, which novel, on the
whole, is suspenseful, whereas the ride of the Klan to the rescue in D.W. Griffith™s
film The Birth of a Nation is a suspenseful sequence within a work that is probably
not best categorized as a suspense film.
Sometimes fictions are categorized as suspense because they contain suspense-
ful scenes, especially where those scenes come near the end and appear to “wrap
up” the fiction. In other cases, the entire structure of a fiction appears suspenseful
“ not only are there suspenseful scenes, but these suspenseful episodes segue into
larger, overarching suspense structures. For example, in This Gun for Hire, scenes in
which Anne Crowder averts discovery and death are not only locally suspenseful;
they also play a role in sustaining our abiding suspense across the whole fiction
about whether she can stop the outbreak of war by virtue of what she knows, a
prospect about which we are highly uncertain, because she confronts so many
dangers, but which uncertainty is kept alive every time she eludes apprehension
or, at least, destruction.
Finally, before proceeding, it needs to be emphasized that the emotion of sus-
pense takes as its object the moments leading up to the outcome about which we
are uncertain.As the frenzied horses thunder toward the precipice, pulling a wag-
onload of children toward death, we feel suspense: Will they be saved or not? As
long as that question is vital, and the outcome is uncertain, we are in a state of sus-
pense. Once the outcome is fixed, however, the state is no longer suspense. If the
wagon hurtles over the edge, we feel sorrow and anguish; if the children are saved,
we feel relief and joy.
However, suspense is not a response to the outcome; it pertains to the
moments leading up to the outcome, when the outcome is uncertain. Once the
outcome is finalized and we are apprised of it, the emotion of suspense gives way
to other emotions. Moreover, the emotion we feel in those moments leading up
to the outcome is suspense whether the outcome, once known, is the one we
favored or not.
Suspense is an emotion that besets us when we are confronted with narrative
fictions that focus our attention on courses of events about whose outcomes, in
the standard case, we are acutely aware that we are uncertain. However, suspense
fictions are not the only narrative fictions that traffic in uncertainty. So, in order to
refine our conception of suspense, an instructive first step is to differentiate sus-
pense from other forms of narrative uncertainty, of which, undoubtedly, mystery is
the most obvious.
The mystery story, which engenders a sense of mystery in us, is a near relative to
suspense fiction. Indeed, it seems to me that the two species are so close that some
theorists often confuse them.5 However, although they belong to the same genus “
call it fictions of uncertainty “ they are clearly distinct. For in mysteries in the clas-
sical detection mode, we are characteristically uncertain about what has happened in
the past, whereas with suspense fictions we are uncertain about what will happen.6
258 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND

<<

. 46
( 82 .)



>>