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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Types of Horror

There's a post over at the Daddy Grognard blog asking whether we can actually understand the kind of horror that Lovecraft and his contemporaries would feel in a traditional Lovecraftian universe. It's inspired me to recount some things I learned in an anthropology class, years ago; although I'm going to try to do it without being boring.

The class analyzed religion from a structural (social anthropology) viewpoint, based on the ideas of Émile Durkheim as elaborated by Mary Douglas. Part of this involved a two-axis system: a horizontal group control axis and a vertical categorical complexity axis. The important stuff is in the upper-right quadrant; the negative side of the horizontal axis indicates increasing megalomania and delusion, while the negative end of the vertical axis indicates increasing private fantasies about reality, including artificial fantasy worlds.

That upper right quadrant can be divided into four sub-quadrants, which represent four types of societies:
  • Small Group (high Group, low Complexity): your typical tiny village, medieval or otherwise, with high demands to fit in and an intense fear of outsiders.
  • Strong Group (high Group, high Complexity): most other pre-industrial societies, especially feudal ones, and early modern highly-stratified Western-style societies. Also, many families act as small Strong Groups within society as a whole.
  • Bureaucracy* (low Group, high Complexity): elaborate but alienating and isolating social structures; you don't conform to the expectations of others, but to the Rules.
  • Weak Group* (low Group, low Complexity): loose, constantly-changing, high freedom societies, particularly late 20th-21st century Western-style societies with high individualism.
* I've forgotten the actual names used in the class for the third and fourth types, so I'm using names that reflect their nature.

Each has a different type of fear, based on what breaks that society's ideal of orderliness. For small groups, it's the outsider secretly infiltrating the community (witches, vampires, Commies, body snatchers.) For strong groups, it's a violation of social ranks or castes. For bureaucratic societies, it's ambiguity about the rules, or dread about failing to meet the rules. For weak groups, it's ambiguity about categories ("What the heck is *that*?") or body horror.

Horror fiction and film often uses multiple kinds of horror. The professor for my anthro class actually discussed Alien as a good example of effectively mixing Weak Group fears (an ambiguous, hard-to-identify creature with a touch of body horror) with the claustrophobic paranoia of a Small Group environment (the crew of the space ship... any one of which might not be what he or she seems.)

Most horror stories try to isolate the victims to create Small Group atmospheres, the oldest and most primal form of society. Lovecraft certainly understood that kind of horror, being a recluse by nature; he also understood Strong Group horror about high-class people not actually being from high-class backgrounds. Thus, you get a lot of replacement of people with doubles, witches and cultists hiding in plain sight in small rural towns, things hiding in the walls or basement of your home, and yes, miscegenation.

But the early 20th century was also the rise of rationalism and worship of individualism and personal freedom, ideals of the Weak Group. Lovecraft also played on fears about ambiguity of form and distortion of one's own body, fears which have always been around in a minor way. Lovecraft placed them on a large scale: alien, incomprehensible cities rising from the ocean, discoveries that call into question widespread scientific opinion.

These fears are still relevant today, and Small Group fears are also relevant. Strong Group fears about violation of the social order? Not so much. Hence, Daddy Grognard's problems with communicating those kinds of fears to modern players. Even if you avoid the racism issues, modern people rarely worry about low-born criminals invading proper society, or an "old money" family with a secret low-born ancestor -- especially since Strong Group fears (and Weak Group fears as well) are weak fears that can easily shift to awe. That racist, class-conscious society of the late 19th and early 20th century didn't just write stories about good families having Jewish or half-breed skeletons in their closet, but also wrote rags-to-riches stories and idolized people who marry into money. Similarly, body modification may potentially frighten modern day people, but it may also be strangely appealing, leading to tattoos and piercings as fashion statements and fantasies of cybernetic replacements or transhumanism.

So what can you do about the Lovecraft problem? I think that's going to require another post about as long as this one. I'll see if I can organize my thoughts on this for tomorrow.


  1. New ideas for me, and very interesting. Thanks.

  2. I mostly know Douglas for her entirely wrong theory about what creates disgust. Her theory about threats seems more on the money, though (as a psychologist looking at sociology)I always wonder about how these can be boiled down to subjective perceptions about the kind of society you live in, rather than the actual economics.

    Another good example is in the 50's US post-apoc novel Earth Abides. Midway through, there is an anxiety (quickly resolved) centering about the color of the flesh under a a person's fingernails, and completely meaningless to someone not attuned to the subtle coding system of Jim Crow. The fact this makes no sense today is as encouraging as the modern-day ridiculousness of the final reveal of "Medusa's Coil."

  3. While I think this is interesting, I'm not entirely convinced. The scheme ignores any biological aspect to the process--and fear and disgust (two things which surely underly horror) are biological responses.

    Not that Douglas' theory as you present it would be incompatible with biological elements, and I'm certainly not saying that social conditioning doesn't modify biological fears, but it still strikes me as a weakness.

  4. @Trey: the biological forms of fear and disgust are more primitive, however, and are responses to actual perceived threats (heights, unexpected sudden movement...) Horror literature has to build on the mental constructs around these gut reactions -- and what Durkheim proposed was that fear (and awe) are based on violations of the boundaries between categories.

    @Roger: actually, I'm not sure how much of that is her theory and how much was elaboration by others, including my professor. I just mentioned her to get the attributions right(Durkheim -> Stewart -> my professor.) Part of the syllabus included selections from Purity and Danger and Implicit Meanings, but I barely remember those, except some stuff about kosher laws.