In the ordinary course of affairs, people shun what disgusts them. Being repulsed by something that one finds to be loathsome and impure is an unpleasant experience. We do not, for example, attempt to add some pleasure to a boring afternoon by opening the lid of a steamy trash can in order to savor its unwholesome stew of broken bits of meat, moldering fruits and vegetables, and noxious, unrecognizable clumps, riven thoroughly by all manner of crawling things. And, ordinarily, checking out hospital waste bags is not our idea of a good time. But, on the other hand, many people – so many, in fact, that we must concede that they are normal, at least in the statistical sense – do seek out horror fictions for the purpose of deriving pleasure from sights and descriptions that customarily repulse them.
What looks more puzzling is how and why works get us to empathize, sympathize, and even admire bad people or react to morally problematic situations as we would or ought not to ordinarily. Consider how you might likely react to the following newspaper headlines:
Wife-killing paedophile kidnaps young step-daughter
Suburban homeowner is psychopathic maﬁa boss
Trendy Shoreditch moron sleeps with 13-year-old model
Beethoven lover rapes wife of respected author
Adulteress arranges husband’s murder and betrays lover
Bully Manager made staff’s lives hell
In real life if we read about the events as encapsulated in such headlines or witnessed them our moral shock and horror would likely preclude sympathy for or empathy with the perpetrators involved. Yet given that the mock headlines above refer to Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Tony in The Sopranos, Nathan Barley in Nathan Barley, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and David Brent (UK) or Michael Scott (US) from The Ofﬁce respectively, we know that this is not the case with respect to many art works.
Put more succinctly, the paradox I’m trying to grapple with is the following triad of apparently inconsistent propositions:
1. Crime and horror films depict activities which induce feelings of resentment, disapproval, fear, anxiety and even repulsion in us.
2. All of these feelings are negative.
3. However, in art we seem to hunt them down and revel in them.
So the question is whether we do genuinely do this, and if so, why?
First, though, it’s probably worth pre-empting and pushing back against a predictable criticism which several friends have already offered me. Isn’t this just another example of philosophers speculating from their armchairs about a question which should rightly be left to psychologists? It may look like that’s the case. After all, I’m asking why it is that we act and feel in a certain way. But I’m convinced there’s a meaningful sense in which that question can be asked without being reduced to mere scientific concerns. For instance, when a husband asks his wife why she loves him, she could respond, if she so wished, by noting that she is currently experiencing atomic collision X which induces chemical state Y in her brain which corresponds to the feeling of ‘love’. But that’s hardly what the husband meant. What he wants to know is what reasons, what concepts we employ to explain our behaviour on a daily basis, ground her feelings.
And I think a similar thing is going on here. Sure, the psychologist could do some studies and say some things about brain activity which give an explanation of why we enjoy watching horror and crime in artistic contexts. But that’s consistent with another question and the one I’m more interested in: namely, given our general practices of rationalising our enjoyment of art work in various ways – for instance, by invoking the fact that something is authentic, or sparks our curiosity, and so on – which of these every day concepts can shed light on and thereby demystify the seemingly contradictory phenomenon we are addressing? And for that sort of question, laboratory work would be futile. We can only impose order on our own thoughts, and figure out what’s going on in our minds as it appears to us, through careful introspection. And that strikes me as the philosopher’s job here.
It seems that the first person to ponder a question related to this one was Hume, in his essay Of Tragedy. Hume speculates that what we are attracted to in such cases is not the negative feelings per se, but the narrative within which they exist. The negative emotions are the ‘price we pay’, so to speak, for enjoying the structure of the story.
Carroll offers a related account of why we value horror. For Carroll, we are attracted by characters like ghosts and vampires and the Hulk because they intrigue us; they spark our curiosity. And this is because they fail to fit our standard conceptual schemes. They are fictional entities that we take to be impossible; hence our interest in them. The love of these genres is a love of the unknown.
Both of these theories fail on two fronts. First, even if they could explain the value of tragedy and horror, they would only offer a weak explanation of our obsession with mob movies. It may be true that one reason we love watching crime is that it involves a mysterious world and way of life to us, but it seems unlikely that the entire basis of the appeal could be hung on this. Relatedly, a lot of modern horror films revolve around psychopaths rather than monsters (think about Se7en). And many horror films, rather than surprising us, are remarkably formulaic and predictable insofar as they fit within certain sub-genres. So invoking the presence of abstract characters to explain our interest just doesn’t seem enough.
Secondly, this would be a fundamentally negative explanation of why we value this sort of art. It suggests that we don’t value horror or crime intrinsically for its essential features, but instead because of certain coincidental by-product characteristics each happens to often have. In reality, surely it is often the case that people are attracted because of something to do with the negative emotions themselves, be they fear or repulsion. Again, this is paradoxical. But ignoring this fact and instead focusing on fringe-features like ‘intrigue’ seems to be a cop-out. After all, people don’t complain when leaving a cinema that the horror film they just saw didn’t make them curious enough. They are annoyed that the film didn’t frighten them.
A better response to this phenomenon – of horror films as ‘rites of passage’ for teenagers; as ‘endurance tests’ in which film buffs develop an intrinsic joy for watching gore – is to explain the paradox by saying our enjoyment is at least partially a sort of meta-response. That is, we recognise the tension between our every day reactions to crime and scary entities, see that we don’t feel similarly when they are represented in art, note the apparent paradox we are now discussing and subsequently enjoy the intellectual quirkiness of what’s going on here. Of course, this theory would still depend on an explanation of why we’re attracted by the otherwise negative feelings in the first place. But this could at least explain why the experience is often enhanced. And I think this is plausible. I’ve often found myself becoming conscious of the fact that I’m enjoying watching something I would normally despise. And that recognition only makes it even sweeter, normally in appreciation of the strangeness of the situation.
Another thought which casts light on why this is possible is the fact that when experiencing art, it is arguable that we only experience quasi-emotions. That is, we know that we are only responding to fictitious events and objects, and because of this any potential disturbance is somewhat muted in comparison to the equivalent experience in reality. There is no practical urgency, say, to dodge the bullets of a gangster or run away from a bear. If there were, we couldn’t enjoy the emotions. They would ensure that we panicked. But art doesn’t constrain the imagination in the way that reality regulates action, thus allowing the intrigue of what we experience to be decisive and ensure enjoyment.
It may also be possible to somewhat distil the paradox by noting that it’s perfectly possible to enjoy such feelings in real life, too. For instance, the thrill of a roller-coaster or rock climbing is undisputed. And when we learn through the newspaper of a catastrophic accident in which someone experiences lock-jaw whilst giving oral pleasure, we may laugh, even though we know it was real and caused much suffering and would be very bad if it happened to ourselves. Kieran notes the famous Chaplin quote:
Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long–shot.
Again, the ‘distance’ factor seems relevant here. If we knew the person who experienced this accident, then we would find it less funny. The same applies, perhaps, if they lived locally. And there are plausible parallels here to the enjoyment of art. It’s likely that I wouldn’t find The Sopranos so fun if I had lived in New Jersey and lost my father due to the bad temper of an Italian mobster.
Artists also have the power to frame our reactions by selecting perspectives. There is little doubt that Lolita as a novel would struggle to make us sympathise with its protagonist if every other page, Nabokov had offered us a first-person insight into the pain Humbert Humbert caused for others. We only take a twisted pleasure from his story insofar as his is the only one on offer.
Furthermore, it seems likely that one reason art involving criminal evil is so enjoyable lies in the fact that it offers us psychological insights. The films and novels exploring immoral behaviour play a valuable epistemic role, and we find this aesthetic route to knowledge rewarding. For instance, by watching Tony Soprano in psychiatry and hearing about his childhood, we learn about the conditions under which someone is inclined towards his reckless and vicious lifestyle. Firstly, this knowledge may be valued in itself. Secondly, it is a key mechanism by which the creators of The Sopranos can provoke us to sympathise by suggesting Tony’s behaviour is in a sense beyond his control.
This suggests that one criterion for aesthetic value is what Kieran calls ‘truth to life’: we appreciate a piece of art insofar as it manages to capture and emphasise certain facts about reality. And in The Sopranos we can see this working on a second level. When we see that Tony’s lifestyle utterly fails to bring him the happiness he, like all of us, desires, we surely feel that our more conventional moral values have been vindicated. We are glad to see that his life offers us no good reasons to be evil. When this messages is executed so excellently using an array of aesthetic talents, it begins to become easy to see why we find value in such art.
There is a third level on which this theory works. Through mob movies, we learn about alternative ethical outlooks that intrigue us, and once more they can provoke us to ponder the higher-order questions about how their perspectives differ from our own. Crime families tend to have a very robust system of ethics. Loyalty and honour and the value of family are all emphasised. Respect is owed to fellow ‘made men’. What intrigues us, then, is why their ethical community is so narrow; why they fail to expand their circles and incorporate the claims of other people: their neighbours, their fellow country men, or just simply their fellow human beings.
Henry Hill in GoodFellas explains it in the following way:
For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.
The Godfather offers a related discussion:
And I recall an exchange between Dr. Melfi and Tony Soprano in which he justifies his theft by invoking the discrimination and poverty Italian Americans experienced in the past. In all these cases, art acts as a vivid vehicle for contemplation.
Now, there may be some people that deny all this, and insist that enjoyment of evil in art reflects decadence insofar as it is caused by people having bad characters. They assume that if you enjoy watching evil, it must be because you endorse evil. Good people, on the other hand, find aesthetic profundity in artwork in which their ethical attitudes are represented and align. So a test of a person’s natural kindness might be whether they sympathise with Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
But as Kieran notes, given all that has been said here, this just seems highly unlikely. What goes on when we experience art is far too complex as an imaginative process to be explained away like this. By sparking our curiosity, offering insights and provoking contemplation in a non-practical context, feelings that would ordinarily be negative in fact offer great rewards.
I wouldn’t want to deny, however, that it is possible in some rare cases for our enjoyment of evil in art to reflect a genuine flirtation with the values it embodies. Art helps us to question our convictions by depicting alternatives, and in doing so it might very well allow us to indulge some of our darker thoughts. For instance, it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that many liberal-minded rights-committed people have an inkling that there is something behind theories of retributive justice that make certain people suffer. How else to explain the sheer joy we experience when watching Aldo Raine hack off Nazi scalps? I haven’t seen it yet, but I imagine a similar sort of thing goes on in Django Unchained.
In general, though, it turns out that we have an abundance of resources to explain why one can enjoy evil and horror in art without that entailing any negative conclusions about the state of one’s character. The more interesting question we’re left with is how, given all of this, there even seemed to be a paradox in the first place.