The Philosophy of Horror

I’ve recently begun Noel Carroll‘s A Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart, and though I’ve only just scratched the surface of the content I am already quite engrossed. Carroll’s intent is to take the horror genre, as defined by film and literature and other media, and put an academic lens to it; to cut the genre open and see how it works on the inside. Sounds familiar, right?

Carroll defines the emotion we get when we watch a scary film as “art-horror,” distinct from “horror” in that we know it to be fiction (watching Halloween doesn’t give you the same feeling as reading about Nazi concentration camps–that’s real horror). Art-horror is an emotion that rests on the line between fear and disgust. It is similar to suspense in that, when watching horror, the audience is intended to feel the same emotions as the protagonist. Carroll provides the following summary of his definition of art-horror:

I am occurrently art-horrified by some monster X, say Dracula, if and only if

  1. I am in some state of abnormal physically felt agitation (shuddering, tingling, screaming, etc.) which
  2. has been caused by
    1. the thought: that Dracula is a possible being; and by the evaluative thoughts: that
    2. said Dracula has the property of being physically (and perhaps morally and socially) threatening in the ways portrayed in the fiction and that
    3. said Dracula has the property of being impure, where
  3. such thoughts are usually accompanied by the desire to avoid the touch of things like Dracula.

The thing about the book is that, so far, it’s been incredibly validating. Carroll, writing in 1990, has arrived at many of the same conclusions that I have over the years. I saw applications of the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion to horror; Carroll provides a similar definition of emotion that requires both physical agitation and cognitive context. For years I had trouble defining horror from, say, mystery and suspense, and thus fell back on a requirement that games contain “supernatural elements,” much to the dismay of many Dino Crisis fans. On this subject, Carroll writes,

Moreover, in order to forestall charges of circularity, let me note that, for our purposes, “monster” refers to any being not believed to exist now according to contemporary science. Thus, dinosaurs and nonhuman visitors from another galaxy are monsters under this stipulation though the former once existed and the latter might exist. Whether they are monsters who are also horrifying in the context of a particular fiction depends upon whether they meet the conditions of the analysis above.

I’ve even used this site to discuss horror as a “thematic” genre, that is, one that is defined by its themes rather than its game play or narrative context. When the “supernatural elements” definition proved too thin, I fell back on defining games for this quest by the “intent to scare.” Carroll writes,

[I]t should not be assumed that all genres can be analyzed in the same way. Westerns, for example, are identified primarily by virtue of their setting. Novels, films, plays, paintings, and other works, that are grouped under the label “horror” are identified according to a different set of criteria. … The cross-art, cross-media genre of horror takes its title from the emotion it characteristically or rather ideally promotes; this emotion constitutes the identifying mark of horror.

Carroll also raises a number of points that I’ve never considered that seem quite relevant to the study of horror games. For example, he separates horror monsters from other stories in which monsters appear (e.g. fairy tales) by requiring that the monsters be unnatural to the characters. In horror, the “monster is an extraordinary character in our ordinary world, whereas in fairy tales and the like the monster is an ordinary character in an extraordinary world.” Carroll’s correlation between horror and monsters (he refers to scary works absent monsters, like Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, as promoting “terror” rather than “horror”) is also interesting, as is his requirement that the monsters of art-horror appear revolting and unclean. There are some areas in this definition that I wonder about (how do ghost stories fit these requirements?), but since I’ve only just begun the book I’ll wait for Carroll to complete his argument before commenting.

Carroll also presents a characteristic of art-horror that might be a way out of the inane debate about “survival horror” vs “action horror.” He notes that, in works of art-horror, the feelings of the principal characters are intended to mirror the feelings of the audience. “[H]orror appears to be one of those genres in which the emotive responses of the audience, ideally, run parallel to the emotions of the characters.” If that’s the case (and it seems reasonable enough), we can easily differentiate between, say, Siren, in which the characters cower in fear of the antagonists, and, for example, Resident Evil 5, in which the protagonists pop a cap in anything that moves. It also explains why that moment in Dead Space 2 when Isaac must return to the Ishimura and we can hear the fear in his voice is one of the most effective moments in that game.

Though A Philosophy of Horror is formal, it is not heavy-handed or overwritten the way that many academic texts are. I have only just begun to delve into the text, but I’m really enjoying it so far.

18 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Horror

  1. This book sounds genuinely interesting, and I can’t wait to read any more of your thoughts on it, and I’ll especially look forward to seeing how you can apply this to games.

    I think I’ll have a look on my Kindle to see if there’s a digital version!

  2. In response to your 5th paragraph: I think ghost stories fit in with this analysis in that they have undefined potential to become revolting and unclean, or produce those kinds of scenarios.

  3. Interesting, I may pick up a copy.
    Also, where have I seen that painting on the cover before?
    Does anyone know its name?

  4. Thanks, Chris.
    Still not sure where I’ve seen it before though.
    I thought I saw it in a game/film, but perhaps just in an art book.
    Either way it is effective.

  5. It’s a sort of a famous painting ,but as far as games go it’s in Shadows of the Damned which is where I first saw it so maybe you saw it there.

    As for the thing about monsters not being in the regular world to be scary I agree that that’s usually true ,but I think there are exceptions to the case.

    I think it’s a bit nuts that the Kindle version of this book costs as much as a used paper back.

    Goya is a great artist, he’s done a lot of creepy paintings like that one.

    Unrelated, I just found a really cool article saying Shinji Mikami is working on a new survival horror game. He’s started up a his own studio last year and he says he wants to make horror games scary again. Article over here,

  7. While we’re posting somewhat unrelated links, I saw that the Amnesia guys posted a rather good blog entry about 10 ways to improve horror games. I can’t argue with any of them, and I’ve been desperately wanting to see a few of these concepts put into practice for years now. Check it out at:

    I know Carrol’s book probably doesn’t specifically touch on video games much, if at all, but I wonder if he points out how similar ideas work particularly well in other media. There’s a lot of stuff the games industry can learn from books and movies.

  8. Thanks JAkeawesomesnake, that is likely where I’ve seen it, if not among other places.

    And thanks for the heads up on Mikami’s new project, Bingo.

  9. I read the article on BT’s link and in particular it got me thinking about the combat in horror games and the dialogue trees for video games in general.

    I don’t really like the dialogue trees because it seems that no matter what you pick it’ll always end in some crazy unforseeable way. Alot of times I’ve also noticed that it’ll say something benign but then my character will just go crazy pissing off the other characters which wasn’t what I was trying to do.

    I was also thinking that the combat in horror games needs to be similair to heavy rains where there might not be that much ,but when it happens it feel incredibly intense. To me, particularly Madison’s fight with that doctor, it really gives the fight feeling of the fight or flight where you’ve tried getting away and the only chance at all is to try and fight and you do accordinly quite viciously.

    I played The Walking Dead demo and it seemed more like this you’re fighting either because there’s no other way to survive or because you’re trying to do enough damage to incapacitate the threat and get away before it comes back for you.

  10. I couldn’t open your blog link. But here are a few more stories on the web. Two zombie games in the works, Fatal Frame 2 is being released for the Wii in June for Japan and Europe, and Yahzee talking about why horror games can’t come out of big budget studios.

    That Goya painting is also featured in a Hellboy one shot where an artist is ripping off Goya’s style and eventually almost summons Moloch.

    to Jake: I feel that Arkham Asylum showed us how to handle combat, treat it like a rhythm game. Having the moves flow together to give a rewarding feeling to the player for executing a perfect combo. Now, horror games won’t have someone as ninja as Batman, so it would have to be scaled down a bit and have some steep punishments for failing, but I feel that if one were to keep the core combat mechanic around rhythm you could combine challenge and fun. But it would take a robust combat system to handle it as much of it is behind the scenes out of the player’s hands (tapping the same button has Batman prancing around like a gymnast).

    I also think using three buttons to fire a gun may have potential. Right shoulder button to draw your gun, left shoulder button to fire it, and A button to hold the gun steady with your other hand. That way you have a choice whether to move around with the right analogue stick or stand still and aim your gun proper. A bit of design compromise between Dead Space and Resident Evil 4.

  11. Excellent. I am going to grab a copy and read it. I read through a lot of the Stephen King book ‘On Writing Horror’ and I think this will make a nice follow up from that, looking at even more aspects of the genre in other media than he did. I read his work in a class on genre writing, back in college, which was damn fun and fascinating.

    I am curious if Chris, after all the theory, studying and analysis is less likely to be moved or emotionally manipulated by horror games nowadays. Not because you are thick skinned and” ye see one zombie you see them all” but more because when you really understand the frame work and process of making a Horror game, it is sometimes difficult to see it for what it is, and not break down every moment, every character and line, every plot point into ” ok I see, they’re talking about this because it established character X as this and Y as that, so I can expect character Y to die next story beat.” kind of stuff. Lord knows after all my classes and reading on storytelling, I hate most television because it is so predictable it’s painful.

  12. hey sorry to double post but have any of you checked out this book, “Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating The Visual Language of Fear ” at all? I might grab that as well, as even though it is aimed at looking at film, the fact video games are a (generally) visual experience as well I think it might be interesting to check into and see how much of the writer’s work applies to how horror games are made.

  13. Just bought it – looking forward to it.

    I did a degree in philosophy and love horror games – amazing news. I’m glad that its formal and not overtly academic – i love it when documentaries convey a passion of their subject matter.

    Good post Chris


    Thanks for the article & well chosen quotes. The note on importance of reflecting an audience’s state of mind gave inspiration.

    Thanks, Chris.
    Still not sure where I’ve seen it before though.
    I thought I saw it in a game/film, but perhaps just in an art book.
    Either way it is effective.

    I first saw it used somewhere to illustrate Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model”. Maybe you came across the same thing.

  15. From what you’ve shared with us it seems Carrol believes that art-horror:

    1. Should provoke agitation along the lines of shuddering or cowering.

    2. Should move the audience to mirror the emotional response of the characters.

    I like these two criteria since they dovetail with some existing narrative theories regarding gameplay such as Ian Bogost’s idea of ‘procedural rhetoric’. The criteria also seems compatible with the idea that games can operate as skinner boxes full of positive and negative reinforcers that have the potential to alter the user’s emotional state.

    So, how does this work with the style of horror game that has been branded as action horror? Most of these games star protagonists that are unafraid, just as extraordinary, if not more so, than the monsters and fed rewards that encourage aggressive behavior in the player.

    If the rules of the game create a fearlessness in the player, mirroring the fearlessness of the player’s avatar is it really even art-horror then?

    Would Dead Space and RE4 even be considered art-horror by these criteria or are the cannon fodder monsters so ordinary next to our avatars that the games and their universes should be considered what Carrol referred to as ‘fantasy’?

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