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Borders, Barbarians, Morality, and Horror: Vol. I

Borders, Barbarians, Morality, and Horror: Vol. I

The anxiety over the infiltration of borders is consistent throughout history in the rise, decline, and fall of once-mighty world powers. Late Georgian and Victorian England may be considered one example among many. Hyper-aware of their status as the preeminent world power, and thus a highly desirable immigration destination, Victorians in particular became fearful of, or at the very least concerned with, alien resettlement in England, particularly from Eastern Europe and Ireland, and a distinct discourse regarding the so-called Other in poetry and fiction as diverse as Tennyson’s “The Lotus-Eaters” and Bram Stoker’s Dracula ruminated on the changing composition of England. I would be remiss if I did not mention the substantial concerns regarding European Jewry as well. Though Dracula, for example, pre-dates the post-World War II acceleration in “guest workers” and the recent flood of “migrants” who have of late proven to be infinitely more deleterious to the fabric of society, it spoke specifically to this anxiety of the Other, which in many ways remains prevalent in the general populace, but stands in stark contrast to the elites’ One World narrative. 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 untrammelled 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 in terms of concerns about the degree of (mis- or non-)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 (himself an Irishmen) situated Dracula as a foreign invader, coming to England to buy up land and take 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 the character also embodies the “Wandering Jew” present not only in the dark East, but in Stoker’s own Irish literary tradition. Dracula also serves, though, as a harbinger of modernity while simultaneously 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]

The parallels with today’s situation are striking, and indeed have accelerated even further. Consider the proliferation of mosques throughout British cities, much as Dracula bought up property throughout London, the omnipresent and terrifying grooming gangs, willful subversion of Common Law, particularly in the Muslim community, and the almost complete lack of assimilability. As Douglas Murray points out, even the grossly pronounced Victorian fears of the rapacious Other, so lampooned as grotesque exaggeration, have come to be realized in a modern culture unwilling or unable to confront the ramifications of what this might mean. 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). The loosing of these strictures can be seen as a net positive, but this does not come without significant downsides. Dracula is the physical, over-determined 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 both Roman and modern discourse. 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”—which seems less ostentatious than what Jordanes wrote over a century later—“showed himself temperate,” and “his dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean.”[5] Jordanes wrote 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 Celtic, 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]

A society’s tastes and value system can be seen directly through what constitutes its popular culture, and though modern culture largely celebrates the aforementioned sensualist hedonism, at least superficially, the horror genre tends to engage much more with the tensions between proscription, prescription, and basic urges. Ashley Allen sees a clear genealogy between the horror films 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 had a clear subtext dealing with their society’s values. The urban legend functions in the modern sense in much the same way, using fear as the instructive medium for morality. In many respects, however, the paradigm has continued to shift where the “bourgeois” values of society are actually being directly contradicted or even attacked by Establishment media, primary content-producers such as Hollywood, and content-providers, such as YouTube, while simultaneously being practiced by that exact same group, exacerbating an extreme class-based bifurcation such as Charles Murray noted in Coming Apart, and the chasm is only widening. Yet in horror, the over-arching concerns of propriety, abstinence, and moral rectitude are largely undimmed, the enforced code of good-verus-evil remaining rigidly puritanical. A very recent example would be the film Jigsaw

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...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 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 “cow shit on the Grecian urn.” In another very recent inversion, however, the modern “patricians” seem invested in promulgating the “vulgar,” even though they themselves generally continue to practice bourgeois values. 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 the physical distance 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 opposing depictions of ecstatic hedonism and revulsion characterizing the modern cultural bacchanalia is endemic of empires in their death throes dating back millennia. Horror cinema features 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 traditional 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. There is a deep and profound lesson here.

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] Sound familiar? 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 text itself 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), may 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. Not all is orderly and clean.

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 so-called 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 virtually omnipresent among humans, and are one of the central reasons for exploring the idea of 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 its realm of possibilities, but woe to the individual who actually engages in such excessive activities. This is an often-irreconcilable source of tension and anxiety.

To be continued…  



[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] Heather, Fall, 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.

Borders, Barbarians, Morality, and Horror: Vol. II

Borders, Barbarians, Morality, and Horror: Vol. II

Whose Nation: Literature and Culture

Whose Nation: Literature and Culture