Horror is For Everyone. Don’t Plant Your Flag in it.
Here at Signal Horizon we were recently forwarded an article by one of our conservative friends with the email heading “All Horror is really conservative.” The article in question is “Horror and Eternity” by Scott Beauchamp and was printed in the Summer 2018 edition of Modern Age: A Conservative Review. First, we skimmed through to answer the question, does this guy really purport that the horror genre by its very nature is conservative? Surely that can’t be the case. Well it is. But wait, there’s more! The article is presented as a retrospective on Russell Kirk’s body of horror literature. Who is Russell Kirk? We will get to that later. Ranging from Kirk, to Lovecraft, to The Exorcist and The Thing, Beauchamp provides a grand overview of the horror genre and how it devolves into two camps: The Thing and The Presence. The nihilist vs the optimist. It makes no real difference to Beauchamp either way as both are still conservative. Scott, you have wandered into the Signal Horizon and here we know more than a thing or two about horror (at least we think we do). And politics. And philosophy too. We know a little about a lot of things in the horror genre so grab your pencil Scott. Class is in session.
First off, who is this Russell Kirk fellow? Kirk is predominantly well known for his conservative tomes such as The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Roots Of American Order, and a bunch of other books you have probably never heard of unless you went to an extremely conservative university or you have a grandparent who heard you like to read books about politics and sent you some of Kirk’s work to make sure that you were not getting all “liberalified.” Kirk can be seen as an early embodiment of the conservative cultural warrior and hey, guess what? He wrote some ghost stories too. Kirk’s horror literature is by no means overly important or overtly foundational to the general canon of horror: it is not influential and it is not particularly interesting. He won some awards back in the day, but critical responses to Mr. Kirk’s work are not exactly lighting the world on fire today. What makes Kirk interesting to conservative audiences is that he was a very politically conservative writer and academic who even got a medal from Reagan AND wrote some ghost stories. You don’t find too many of those around. Also, his collected horror works are conveniently republished for your eager consumption by The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). The same guys that publish Modern Age: A Conservative Review! How nice of them. That is what our macroeconomics class used to call vertical integration. Good for you fellas. If you want to read some of his stuff on your own for free head on over to U Penn where their library has a ton of stuff he has written….and its free.
We have a single, barely mentionable horror writer who was also a conservative. How does Scott Beauchamp conflate that into the premise that “horror is a fundamentally conservative literary genre?” Beauchamp starts with a rather unenlightening account of a bookcase making a bit of noise at the home of Sigmund Freud while his friend Karl Jung was visiting. Beauchamp recalls the story as Jung recalled it much later and uses it to set up the dialectic that he will refer to again and again, materialism vs. something else, maybe spiritualism. You can go over to Psychology Today to read a better, and more nuanced version of the bookshelf story. I never thought I would refer to Psychology Today as better and more nuanced, but then again I never expected a conservative to champion the idea that just maybe Jung made Freud’s bookshelf topple via telekinesis. Strange times we live in.
Following this is a good deal of both non-factual analysis of horror film and literature along with a heaping helping of praise for the spooky conservative stories of Russell Kirk. First is Beauchamp’s contention that the 1982 John Carpenter film The Thing is “a classic of nihilistic horror, and using Žižek’s scalpel it’s easy to discern that what it’s actually about is a general disgust at organic life itself.” Yes, he references Žižek, as the go to philosopher it seems for “radical” intellectual conservatives, (It really is an odd pairing but anyone who dislikes neo-liberalism is a possible ally in Beauchamp’s eye I guess). Žižek reverence aside, the error that Beauchamp makes in his analysis of The Thing and later in his references to Lovecraft is that those works are “nihilist” and “materialist” and the conflation of those two terms with something that is anti-conservative. In The Thing there is not a “general disgust for organic life itself,” but rather a specific disgust for organic life that is not like ours and very hostile to us. What happens if the unfrozen alien life contained in The Thing gets out of the antarctic? Bad news for all those nice things you like. We have a nice thing going here on planet Earth and we would like very much if it was not messed up by the alien entity in The Thing thank you very much. This is not the definition of nihilism. Parting words on Scott’s analysis of The Thing…..He refers to it as B movie???? Are you kidding me?
Moving onto Beauchamp’s analysis of Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s work was quite pessimistic but we don’t think that his unique brand of cosmic horror can be defined as strictly nihilistic. In Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly a work like “The Dunwich Horror,” there is clearly a preference for the human order. Pessimistic, yes, but strictly nihilistic no. We all eventually are consumed by Lovecraft’s elder gods- sure, but not today and let’s not hurry the eventual demise along either. There could have be an excellent discussion of Lovecraft’s conservatism here, particularly his irrational fear of the other and anything that was outside his white upper middle class bubble of Providence. Beauchamp is not interested in that discussion though. To him Lovecraft’s work is simply “nihilist” and “materialist” to boot. While Lovecraft’s personal views on materialism were pretty clear, he didn’t believe at all in the supernatural and described himself as a materialist, his fiction is anything but. Lovecraft’s outsider monsters are referred to as “elder gods” for a reason. Likewise, what exactly is the nature of the mutual exclusivity of “materialist” and “conservative”? Can conservatism not stand without an appeal to something supernatural? The subtext here is that conservatism by its very nature stands opposed to materialism and is ultimately rooted in both ideas and facts that are not subject to debate via the rules of normal discourse. What kind of spiritualism do you think is at the heart of conservatism? Does it take the form of crystals and dream-catchers? More likely the spiritualism hinted at is the kind much more palatable to the audience of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, which is to say of the Judeo-Christian ilk.
All this talk about “nihilism” and “materialism” is, however, just an elaborate smoke screen. Beauchamp has taken a keen lesson from other conservative writers and weaponized these words to muddy a topic rather than clarify it. Nihilism is centrally opposed to good conservative values because nihilism posits that our lives don’t really matter. Materialism is also in diametric opposition to conservatism because at his or her core the conservative fears that without an ultimate appeal to a higher power the conservative belief structure will collapse inward. This may not strictly be the case, as there are plenty of conservative materialists, atheists, and dare I say probably a nihilist or two in high office right now. The nihilism and materialism that we discuss here are not the concepts then, they are simply another iteration of the conservative buzzwords so often thrown against things that are not palatable to the cause or the conservative body politic. How many times have we seen the word “socialist” used the same way? Completely divorced of its true meaning and simply used as a slur? Welfare is socialist, while Social Security is our duty. Postmodernism is nonsense, yet “alternative facts” are legitimate. Even feeding kids school lunches is derided as “not having shown objective benefits, yet climate change is “junk science.”
Beauchamp uses the terms “nihilist” and “materialist” inappropriately in order to further his objective, which is as far as I can tell to set cosmic or Weird horror whose philosophy he does not care for up as a foil for the work of the great Russell Kirk. For truly nihilistic horror, Beauchamp really ought to check out someone like Thomas Ligotti, whose horror doesn’t come invading from elsewhere but rather is from the human consciousness itself. This, however, is nothing more than a digression from the core of Beauchamp’s argument about the conservative nature of horror:
“For horror, as a genre, tends to conform to conservative principles as Kirk himself articulated them. Horror insinuates a chain of being that connects the living and the dead, reminding us of our duty and obligations to the past (anyone who thinks the film Poltergeist isn’t a fundamentally conservative cultural statement is indulging in self-delusion). In horror, the pragmatic uniformity of modern life is seen as lacking elements essential to existence. And perhaps most important, horror is at its heart an imaginative exploration of morality. The more “real” the negative force in a horror story, the more powerful the work.”
Beauchamp then moves on to discuss a variety of horror film classics that reinforce his central thesis, starting with The Exorcist. Here he insists the book and movie are really not body horror at all. That the central horror of the premise is the possession of Regan and the eternal
struggle for her soul. We disagree on a number of fronts. First, the horror of this movie is so visceral because of what is being done to Regan. She (Legion) is gross. She is covered in weeping sores and the demon contorts her body into awful positions. All indicative of body horror. Moreover at one point a message is LITERALLY written on her body. You cannot tell me that a movie that uses a human body as a dry erase board isn’t really about what happens to the corporeal form she is taking. Beauchamp’s take also ignores the ambiguity that the movie tiptoes around. William Friedkin purposely allows the audience to formulate their own opinions about what is actually wrong with young Regan. This ambiguity is really best fleshed out in the horror novel A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. You see, The Exorcist is not some parable about the love of Christ, or the power of Christianity but rather about the limitations of both science and spirituality. Beauchamp believes in the emancipatory power of the divine and that The Exorcist is an example of that. Dude…it’s not exactly a happy ending….Also there were a crap-ton of sequels that also make the argument that the divine and its human counterparts are really no match for the demons to which he seeks to be emancipated from.
It’s in this part of the conversation he casually mentions the sublime as an answer to the horrific. It’s often the sublime that beats back the darkness. A way more interesting conversation about the sublime can be found in the story notes of John Langan’s recent collection of short stories The Wide Carnivorous Sky and other Monstrous Geographies. In notes for his story “Technicolor” he posits that the sublime as is often displayed in Gothic literature is much more akin to the Weird in modern literature. It is often both horrific and beautiful. Its both foreign and familial. It’s not the presence of God, or his absence but something else entirely. If it is god in the sublime it is not the Judeo-Christian form full of love and forgiveness. It’s the presence of something so much more powerful than ourselves that we cannot truly know or understand its form. In that way the sublime is not conservative in the strictest sense but rather devoid of all political persuasion.
According to Beauchamp, any work that bridges the world between the living and dead or reminds us of our obligations to the past is inherently conservative. We could not disagree more. Concepts like duty, obligation, and honor are not mere words to be appropriated by the culture warriors of the ISI. Conservatism nor its ideology have a monopoly on values like duty or social obligation. Plenty of liberals believe in those concepts too and create their own dogmas around them. Maybe we are missing something essential about conservatism, but it seems like the duties and obligations that conservatives champion are suspiciously the kind that they find most palatable. Duty to country, and to THEIR culture. The American Way of Life. Interesting that Scott brought up duty to past in the form of Poltergeist. How is that duty and obligation to previously signed treaties going out there in the real world in terms of the Keystone Pipeline or The Indian Health Services….We will save everyone the time and reading…..not great for the people it impacts.
Then it gets worse. After dividing the modes of horror he doesn’t like, Beauchamp takes that added step of making a sophomoric turn at the end. Even those icky horror writers like Lovecraft, and disgusting movies like Hostel are really conservative too! How? They yearn for something beyond reality and that is conservative too. Beauchamp is working extra hard here to make everything conservative. We have another scholar who is making a way better (and I might mention more inclusive) argument. Renowned horror scholar Noel Carroll tackled this exact issue of conservatism vs progressivism in his study of the genre, The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart. Carroll noticed that there was a tendency of one political side to try to appropriate horror as championing or reinforcing a particular brand. The interesting dividing line to Carroll was not in tone or preference, as Beauchamp finds, but in plot itself. Most horror movies follow the Normal – Abnormal – Normal plot structure, where the aberrant thing is put back in its place and everything returns to a normal state. This is often seen as perhaps leaning to the conservative mindset, but a significant portion of horror works, both textual and cinematic, never return to normalcy. Carroll also notes that the explicit political and philosophical subtexts of horror works range widely in the political spectrum with those subtexts even being completely absent from many horror works. Carroll’s final conclusion, which is actually coherent and nuanced, is that horror can be a vehicle for these ideas but does not embody them in itself.
So what is our ultimate response to the folks at ISI and Mr. Beauchamp? Horror is for everyone. No political party gets to plant its flag in the undulating tentacles of the genre. Both sides can agree it tends to be transgressive which means everyone gets to have a place. There is plenty of room in the genre for queer writers. Plenty of room for authors of color. Plenty of room female writers and yes Scott plenty of room for you and Mr. Kirk as well. You just don’t get to have all of it. Which may feel like we are taking something away but really we are just creating space for everyone…..A safe space if you will.
Want to know more about the horror genre? Don’t be duped by the guys over at ISI, go read some real horror for yourself and tell us if you think that it is conservative, progressive, apolitical, or all three. Read some great non-fiction books like The Philosophy of Horror by Noel Carroll, Danse Macabre by Stephen King, or The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti. Pick up some journals about horror, like Vastarien or Thinking Horror. Listen to some great podcasts that break down the genre, like The Faculty of Horror (they have talked about this exact topic on a number of occasions) or our own podcast The Horror Pod Class. Most importantly, actually go out there and read some modern horror yourself.