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Moral Horror

Moral Horror

The anxiety over the infiltration of borders is consistent throughout history in the rise, decline, and in some cases fall of Western powers. Victorian England may be considered one example among many. Cognizant of their declining status as an empire, many Victorians became fearful of foreigners, and distinct discourses of the Other emerged in poetry and fiction as diverse as Tennyson’s “The Lotus-Eaters” and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As the decline of the empire accelerated, England found itself in a position where large amounts of people from all over the world were streaming across the borders of empire. Dracula spoke specifically to this anxiety of the Other. For Greg Buzwell:

Dracula’s forays into London, for example, and his ability to move unnoticed through the crowded streets while carrying the potential to afflict all in his path with the stain of vampirism, play upon late-Victorian fears of untrammeled immigration. The latter was feared as leading to increased levels of crime and the rise of ghetto communities. Dracula creates several lairs in the metropolis, including one in Chicksand Street, Whitechapel—an area notorious for the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888—and one in Bermondsey, the location of Jacob’s Island—the low-life rookery immortalised by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist…Such fears, which Dracula mirrors very closely, ultimately lay behind the introduction of The Aliens Act of 1905, which was put in place largely to stem immigration from Eastern Europe [and Ireland].[1]

This wave of immigration led to a growing unease, not only with regard to England’s status as a world power, but also in terms of concerns about the inevitable (mis)assimilation of these immigrants into English society. Xenophobia and fears of invasion and contamination were not only expressed at this time in public discourse, but also in textual examples of the period. Stoker’s Dracula, a foreign invader, came to England, bought up land and took women—“Your girls that you all love are mine already”.[2] This invader emerged from the lands where the Huns had initially settled in Europe before their Roman and Byzantine excursions, and in part evokes the image of the malicious barbarian from beyond the frontier. Dracula also serves, though, as a harbinger of modernity, at the same time as embodying a timeless fear. Jonathan Harker writes in his journal: “It is the nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill”.[3]

Victorian England articulated a very clear set of norms governing sexual, economic and social behavior. Breaking them could result in severe consequences (see, for instance, the Oscar Wilde trials in the 1890s). Dracula is the physical, overdetermined manifestation of the collective fears of Victorian England. At willful odds with the rigid social code, Dracula literally punctures the surface of Victorian sensibility. For Anthony Wohl: “Popular literature assigned similar characteristics to the Irish, blacks and members of the lower classes. [They] were seen as: having no religion but only superstition, [being] excessively sexual, and [originating from] unknown dark lands or territories”.[4]

None of these chaotic characteristics would have looked out of place assigned to a barbarian in the Roman era. Though Priscus, author of the only known first-hand Roman account of Attila the Hun, paints a portrait of a man far more complex than his portrayal in the mainstream Roman discourse; though Attila did display many of the stereotypical “barbarian” traits, such as receiving concubines and eating on his horse during certain ceremonies, he also had a “dignified gait”—a direct contradiction of what Jordanes wrote over a century later—“showed himself temperate”, and “his dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean”.[5] Attila could be downright flamboyant as well, as Jordanes writes that: “[Attila’s] gait was haughty, and he cast his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his pride was reflected in the movements of his body”.[6] Peter Heather states: “Whether this is a direct translation of what Priscus said (he wrote in Greek, Jordanes in Latin) or a paraphrase is unclear”; the original fragment from Priscus has not survived, only adding to the mystery surrounding the Hunnic leader.[7]

Attila, his Huns, and more widely all of the Germanic and migratory Eastern tribes, were considered to be certainly below the Romans, if not indeed subhuman. As Peter Heather points out: “Barbarians were expected to behave in certain ways and embody a particular range of negative characteristics, and Roman commentators went out of their way to prove that this was so”.[8] We have, then, a litany of didactic texts from Polybius to Emperor Constantine that show little in the way of cultural sensitivity or even discernment between tribes (the Huns would be a rare exception, though, as Attila brought the tribe to the fore of Roman policy—both in the East and West—in the mid-fifth century with a series of devastating campaigns), with examples of “typical barbaric behavior” interspersed; and only one account, in the fragment of Priscus that still survives, of the complexities of the actual person of Attila the Hun, as just one figure, albeit a supremely important one, in Hunnic society. Heather continues, “Viewed through a Roman lens, barbarians were utterly incapable of rational thought or planning; sensualists, they lacked motive, apart from an overwhelming desire for the next fix”.[9]

Viewed through the prism of the moralizing 1980s, Roman portrayals of barbarians could just as easily have come from Nancy Reagan denouncing the “youth of today”. A society’s tastes and value system can be seen directly through what constitutes its popular culture, and specifically within that, the subset of art. In modern society, cinematic modes (including the bite-sized videos of YouTube) reign supreme, and hence the morality and components of film frequently find themselves operating within, or at the very least being cognizant of, the frame of popular opinion. Ashley Allen sees a clear genealogy between the slasher films popularized in the 1980s and urban legends:

Urban legends, as predictable as they may be, are always enjoyable. We love them for the same reason preschoolers love the same story repeatedly; they are predictable, familiar, and teach a lesson. The fact that they teach lessons does not bore the audience, as a lecture would, but rather entertains the listener as the lesson is disguised within. This technique is quite clever in a very basic sense; the audience absorbs the lesson through something more akin to osmosis, rather than rote memorization. Unlike parables and fables, urban legends use fear as a medium for learning, making the legends ready-made plots for horror films.[10]

Parables and fables were seemingly one-dimensional plot-driven tales, but they also had a subtext of their society’s values. The urban legend functions in the modern sense in much the same way, using fear just as the other forms of moralizing that came before.

Fear and anxiety have always functioned as the lynch-pin for ideological construction and moralizing, with fear of the unknown prompting the dominant discourse to harden its values against a potentially undermining force. For Geoffrey R. Skoll:

Fear has long served elites. They rely on fear to keep and expand their privileges and control the masses. In the current crisis of the capitalist world system, elites in the United States, along with other central countries, promote fear of crime and terrorism. They shaped these fears so that people looked to authorities for security, which permitted extension of apparatuses of coercion like police and military forces.[11]

A society’s ideology is subject to generational revision; this is can take the form of a reaction against the previous generation, or in the case of the Roman Empire or modern nation-states, as an evolving stance on what constitutes belonging; there must be a set of values or characteristics an individual needs to possess to belong to the dominant discourse. In classist cases, that is to say, in the enforcement of a tiered system based on exploitation, this becomes a question of sub-sets within a society, but when faced with barbarian incursions, as an example, the patricians needed to also foster what would become known as a sense of nationalism across the various peoples of the Latinate world—what Caspar Hirschi calls “the reception of Roman law as a vehicle of patriotism”.[12]

Elitist and classist attitudes regard the intersection of the “vulgar” with the “refined” as cause for unease, and in a modern context this is commonly portrayed as “shit on the Grecian urn”. I will quickly note here, however, that in the Renaissance public spaces were specifically designed to be beautiful and open, and the wealthy and poor co-mingled here with great frequency. Yes, the wealthy could retreat behind their walls, but this virtually never happens in modernity. High and low culture were very rigidly differentiated, a kind of differentiation that doesn’t really exist currently, but physical proximity between “elites” and “plebes” has never been greater. It is a strange paradox indeed.

Concepts like truth and purity are central to the human condition, and in the modern academy, the constant push to “problematize” is often at direct odds with the strange moral purity exhibited by the Left. The Mouth of Truth (“La Bocca della Verita”) was a carved marble face fabled in Roman lore to bite off the hand of anyone who told a lie—scholars today believe it to have been a common, vulgar sewer-covering, and as such it literally “talks shit”. The Mouth of Truth is just one example of “[J.B.] Watson’s theory…that pain is one of the few stimuli that are innately capable of eliciting fear”.[13] Having a hand severed is certainly a painful proposition, and an effective means of fostering a sense of fear in people, rendering them easier to control in Skoll’s terms.

The tandem excitement and revulsion characterizing 1980s cultural bacchanalia is endemic of depictions of empires in their death throes dating, obviously, to Rome. 1980s horror cinema featured distinct moralizing characteristics, classic Freudian id versus superego, writ large on the movie screen. This conflict of desire versus expectation has a ubiquity across the incarnation of the slasher film, where those who violate the social mores are punished, in this instance, with extreme violence and pain. Returning to Ashley Allen:

Underlying themes consistently shine through the blood and gore. Writers convey basic beliefs regarding morality in society, whether in a specific scene or as the motivation for an entire plot. Technology and special effects allow the murders to become more realistic, and at times, just plain disgusting, but the core ideas remain.[14]

As horror taps into base emotional responses, it would stand to reason that the ubiquity of the unconscious or id (this is not just the fear aspect, but the licentiousness and transgressions that are punished) would come directly into conflict with societal expectations, or the superego. The heroine is stereotypically saved in the slasher genre due to her chastity and abstemiousness; she is the prime example of an ego internalizing the superego and adhering to its tenets. Thus, she lives.

For Sigmund Freud, “the sense of guilt [is] the most important problem in the development of civilization and show[s] that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt”.[15] Society’s imposition of the superego is where punishment is meted out; this is where the primal factors of fear play on an audience or reader, and one of two roads is typically traveled. The first is that all transgressors are punished and the superego triumphs in a reflection of Freud’s belief in the unconscious need for punishment. The second is that the very text is reflective of some kind of societal discomfort or concern, and its rectification or at least suggestion of a silver lining produces a response akin to an easing of anxiety in the audience or reader. This is why cliff-hanger endings, such as The Thing with its potentially apocalyptic scenario, or the suggestion of a sequel (for example, Friday the 13th, Romero’s Dead trilogy, The Thing and the subsequent two “Apocalyptic Trilogy” films by John Carpenter), produce a response of anxiety and disconcert. They are not comfortable endings, since they do not conform to the expectations of the superego’s triumph.

Edward Erwin suggests that “Freud…introduced a relationship between anxiety and danger…a danger could arise from outside the organism”.[16] For Freud, the danger could be anything from an actual danger or a perceived danger; notoriously he pointed to libido factors as precursors of anxiety. In this case, however, his Structural Model provides a key conception of the role of horror in regulating morality and expressing anxieties, often regarding the other. “Anxiety is a subjective emotional state that is often characterized by pervasive feelings such as dread and apprehension…the emotion that was experienced during the traumatic state created by the tension between ego and id was called anxiety”.[17] A monster that is literally a mask, like Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween, can become a repository for fears and anxieties as he seemingly offers nothing of himself outside of impulse. He is not constrained by law or social mores, and he exists in the space of the other. He is thus the expression of the id, of the unconscious. Freudian theory serves as the perfect accompaniment to the idea of the psychological interplay of societal expectations and values versus sub- or unconscious manifestation, and fear is the vehicle used to punish or ascribe, or at the very least, hold a mirror to dominant ideologies and produce a reaction of some kind, directly related or proportional to transgressions witnessed. Donald L. Carveth believes:

The single word “guilt” can refer both to the ontological state of being or being judged to be guilty and the psychological or experiential state of feeling guilty. Someone who does not feel guilty may be judged by his own or another's superego to be guilty.[18]

The id’s drive is at the center of horror, and the prohibitive measures taken to rectify societal transgressions stem from these primal impulses. Indeed, these tensions between societal expectations and basic impulses are prevalent throughout my manuscript and are one of the central reasons for exploring the idea of so-called barbarity versus civility. The impulse to engage in lewd behaviors, while advertised and marketed as acceptable, indeed, desirable, has of course pernicious consequences. Advertising tantalizes its addressees with a realm of possibilities, but woe to the individual who actually engages in such excessive activities.

George A. Romero and author Stephen King are central to the modern horror canon, their finger-prints indelible. They engage with the horrific in a frequently literal, visceral sense, but beyond that, the horrific also takes the form of the psychological or the intangible. Both men often embed social critiques or at least awareness in their work. Tony Williams suggests:

King’s fiction is a fundamental part of an American cultural tradition that also influences Romero’s films. As a chronicler of historical influences on American literature and cinema, King has frequently expressed acknowledgement of his country’s neglected naturalistic tradition, aspects of which appear in his writing…King’s horrific dimensions actually parallel the dark realms depicted within EC Comics which allegorically depict the deadly nature of a material everyday existence responsible for acts of paranoia and violence. Many of King’s works complement consumerist critiques in Romero’s films.[19]

He sees Salem’s Lot as an ironic take on Our Town and “The Mist”, a novella, as a work that has strong ties to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Williams disagrees with the previous commonly-held perceptions of these two men’s output as that of “hacks”, and it is crucial to relate his interpretation to notions of individuality in the reader and the impossibility of separating one’s experiences and knowledge from their interpretations of a text.[20] Where one viewer might regard the dollar bills blowing down an abandoned and decimated South Florida street in Day of the Dead (1985) as merely a visual detail within a generic set-up to the zombie horde homing in on the living humans’ position, another might see this as stark capitalist critique. The zombies, that is, are the shambling “other”, the faceless barbarian horde descending on the last bastions of civilization.

Using Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as an example, again borrowing from Tony Williams, “the film is inextricably related to its historical context” (Vietnam, Democratic National Convention), consequently situating not only the “reader” or viewer squarely in history, but evoking their associations with historical material, no matter how unsettling.[21] For example, Williams describes the stills at the end of the film as being strongly reminiscent of World War II concentration camp photographs. The viewer may opt to view the film as “merely cheap exploitation or a formalist ‘splatter’ rollercoaster”, but “the audience member has the choice of understanding its relevance to a particular social and historical situation…the choice is up to the individual”.[22]

Horror comes in many forms: the horrors of war, phantasmal horror, and the horror of modernity’s Sisyphean condition, which for poet Philip Larkin pales in comparison to the absurd meaninglessness of life in the face of death. For Czeslaw Milosz “Aubade”, which finds the poet torn between two worlds, of expectation and reality, of horror and superficiality, of form and free verse, of raging emotion and numbness, is “a desperate poem about the lack of any reason—about the complete absurdity of human life—and of our moving, all of us, toward an absurd acceptance of death”.[23] In the poem, Larkin is wrestling with the cosmic issues of existence that threaten to paralyze him. In the first line, when he says, “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night” we are led to believe that for Larkin work in all its mind-numbing banality, is merely a prelude the cosmic dread that works him into a terror at night.

He has no use for religion—sees it as a means to hide the great fear of humanity, that of oblivion, of death meaning a true erasure of existence with no sensation. For Larkin, life after death appeals to us, but it is an illusion. Larkin sees routine and work to be outlets that direct peoples’ attention from this true fear, so it “stays just on the edge of vision / a small unfocused blur.” Alcohol is also portrayed as a means of escape, but here it is that which enables the poet to sleep and to attain a resting oblivion, though when he wakes up, both literally and metaphorically, he sees that “unresting death” that is lurking around in the pre-dawn darkness. Though for Stephen Akey Larkin “unashamedly distilled his worst qualities for literary effect”, he still, “persona or no persona, [made clear] in ‘If, My Darling’ that he was no model of mental health”.[24]

If fear and anxiety have always functioned as the lynch-pin for moralizing, damnation being a major motivator for adhering to the tenets of the Bible in the Judeo-Christian tradition, its bedfellow has been fear of the unknown; this profound disquiet has long remained embedded in the Western unconscious. In John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), the fog serves as a shroud that envelops the town of Antonio Bay during the “witching hour”—12 to 1 am—and forces the town to atone for the sins committed by their ancestors. Night is the realm of the dream world; anything we neglect in waking life comes back to us while we are asleep. This contrasts sharply with Larkin’s sleep-as-oblivion, and yet in “Aubade” the night remains the exclusive domain of untold horrors—his “unresting death” is a dream world in its own right.

Judeo-Christianity has supplanted and in some cases subsumed the polytheist mythology of early- to mid-classical antiquity, and through this displacement of exaltation, the singular, the cult of the self, has devolved antiquity’s values in narcissistic modernity. Horror, dreams, and the modern superego are inextricably intertwined in both the light of day and the dark recesses of night. In Hillman’s words:

Today, cut off from this (sacrificial practices either for the gods or heroes) psychic background, the heroic becomes the psychopathic: an exaltation of activity for its own sake. The locus of its cult is not the burial mound on which the city and its deeds are founded, but in the human body itself, in the humanistic ego.[25]

The cult of the self may be argued to have hit critical mass with Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, a treatment of 1980s excess and privilege that represents perhaps Birthing Attila’s most prominent reference point; the novel’s central character Patrick Bateman espouses the virtues of self-exaltation and consumerism in a series of dramatic monologues that I would argue are essentially prose poems. The inwardly-focused Bateman states: “It’s impossible in this world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It’s an important message, crucial really”.[26] Bateman is the humanistic ego personified; his monstrousness is centered on the banal minutiae of his routine which, by extension, defines his existence. “Activity for its own sake”, the performing of social rights-as-commitments, ultimately yields to Bateman’s psychopathic impulses (real or imagined).

For Leigh Claire La Barge:

American Psycho pushes the lifeless world of the brat-pack commodity-aesthetic to its limit with rambling descriptions of branded commodities newly rendered in deadening prose and broken by the representation of lethal violence. The novel is structured through short, interchangeable chapters that detail the habits and banalities of upper-middle class, urban consumerism, the contents of which are reflected in the titles, such as “Shopping,” “Lunch,” and “At Another New Restaurant.” American Psycho is chronologically the last of the brat-pack releases; it contains a chapter entitled “End of the 1980s” and, indeed, the novel seeks to exhaust the period and one of its most contested literary aesthetics.[27]

“Brat Pack” fiction can be defined, in part, by the sheer number of pop-culture references and specific brand-naming, attempting to saturate the text and combine “the labyrinthine, encyclopedic postmodern fictions of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon or, more recently, David Foster Wallace” with what, to quote La Barge, “underwhelms rather than overwhelms, reading more like advertising copy”.[28] La Barge continues:

First reporting in 1982 on a new category of businessmen, the corporate raiders, the New York Times noted that “they have even developed their own language laced with images of aggression and sexual conquest.” Soon after, periodicals quit analyzing this language and began employing it. Time’s description of venture capitalist Arthur Rock, the man who arranged the initial financing for Apple, as one of “the men who make the killings,” is one of many examples… Ellis’s text uses financial, journalistic language to synthesize… different texts, all unified by the representation of the masculine financier and his violence.[29]

Through both its tonal quality (the superficially objective “reporting aspect”) and saturation of references, pay attention to these kinds of conflations which are still utilized today. Specific texts use this jargon and portray “patrician excess” framed through a lens of exploitative practice—gain as a measure of a man. This is endemic to the so-called “liberal” worldview and is pervasive in just about any outlet they control, be it academia, the media, or mid-level government paper-shuffling. Despite the fact that the Left in many cases represents the Establishment, you’ll never see the spotlight turned on, say, Hollywood, but no one’s ever confused Leftism with self-awareness.



[1] Greg Buzwell, ‘Dracula: vampires, perversity and Victorian anxieties’, Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians (2014): British Library http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/dracula.

[2] Bram Stoker, Dracula, ch. 23.

[3] Stoker, Dracula, ch. 3.

[4] Anthony S. Wohl, Race and Class Overview: Parallels in Racism and Class Prejudice, <http://www.victorianweb.org/history/race/rcov.html>.

[5] J. B. Bury (trans.), “Priscus at the Court of Attila” (Georgetown University), from Priscus’s Fragment Eight, Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum.

[6] Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (New York: Oxford UP, 2006), p. 320.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, p. 49.

[9] Ibid, p. 80.

[10] Ashley Allen, ‘Are Modern Day Horror Movies Morality Tales?’, Helium, 28 Jan. 2008, <http://www.helium.com/items/825118-are-modern-day-horror-movies-morality-tales>.

[11] Geoffrey R. Skoll, Social Theory of Fear: Terror, Torture, and Death in a Post-Capitalist World (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[12] Caspar Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[13] Jeffrey Alan Gray. The Psychology of Fear and Stress (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987), p. 19.

[14] Allen, “Morality Tales?”.

[15] Sigmund Freud, Society and Its Discontents (1930), p. 134.

[16] Edward Erwin, The Freud Encyclopedia: Theory, Therapy, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 29.

[17] Jon E. Roeckelein, Dictionary of Theories, Laws, and Concepts in Psychology (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998), p. 35.

[18] Donald L. Carveth, “The Unconscious Need for Punishment: Expression or Evasion of the Sense of Guilt”, Psychoanalytic Studies 3, 1 (March 2001), pp. 9-21.

[19] Tony Williams, The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead (London: Wallflower, 2003), p. 19.

[20] See also: Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT), 1991.

[21] Williams, Knight, p. 31.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Czeslow Milosz and Cynthia L. Haven, Czeslow Milosz: Conversations (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 2006), p. 64.

[24] Stephen Akey, “The Poetry of Mental Unhealth: Philip Larkin”, The Millions (May 3, 2012).

[25] James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 111.

[26] Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho: A Novel (New York: Vintage, 1991), p. 264.

[27] Leigh Claire La Barge, “The Men Who Make the Killings: American Psycho, Financial Masculinity, and 1980s Financial Print Culture”, Studies in American Fiction 37.2 (2010), pp. 273-96, at p. 273-74.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

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