Saturday, November 27, 2010

What is Horror?


Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Nat Cassidy.

Holy crap, there’s a veritable Thanksgiving cornucopia of delectable thoughtfood in the comments section of that previous post. Thanks, gang! If any new readers are just checking this blog out for the first time, go read ‘em now—you won’t be disappointed.

What I had originally planned on doing with this follow-up post was respond comment-by-comment, but there were so many excellent ones, frankly I think that’d take too long and the week is already over! Suffice it to say, the common denominator of what everyone had to say seems to strike straight at the heart of the matter: just what is horror, anyway?

Does it include so-called thrillers, like Alexis champions, such as the works of suspense playwright Frederick Knott (Wait Until Dark, Dial M for Murder)? What about, as playwright James Comtois brings up, the horrifyingly existential works of Beckett? Or the insane lovestory Bug by Tracy Letts? Jeff Wills brings up The Pillowman, and Martin McDonaugh’s other works could easily fit in there, as well. And DL touches on classics like Woman in Black and Dracula. Are all these works “horror?”*

I say, wholeheartedly, yes! I’d even raise it to “hell, yes” if I’m feeling salty. And to those plays, I’d add myriad others. I, like reader gleep-glop, dream of a world in which genre no longer matters, partially because my genre is so often maligned, but especially because, as far as I’m concerned, every story worth its salt has some element of horror in it. You name the most mundane, contained, plainspoken story and I guarantee you can find at least one thing within it wherein a character is literally terrified of something happening. And if the author’s goal is to in any way make his/her audience feel that fear? You got yourself some horror.

So, then, what do we mean when we talk about horror? Is it a genre, a mood, an effect, a tactic? In the end, it’s all of these things. It’s an essential element to being alive—perhaps the essential element. Being afraid is what keeps us paying attention. It’s what kept us around long enough to reproduce back when our biological experiment was in its initial stages, and it’s what, to this day, prepares us for our own inevitabilities and keeps us sane enough to keep going. And, as Andrew Bellware comments, all drama is about conflict.

Granted, when we talk of horror in genre-terms, it’s implied that there is a little bit of abstraction going on, that the conflict is being made manifest by some usually external agent, but if it’s written well and honestly, the only difference between a “regular” story and a “horror” story is whether or not an audience is willing to take that leap of disbelief and buy into the emotional reality of something other, something abstracted, something unheimlich existing. And, when the lights go down and we’re in the dark, whether it be in the theatre or in our own bedrooms in the middle of the night, that leap of belief should be easy to make.

And, so, I’ll close this post with a question: what’s the scariest thing you’ve ever seen on stage, and why? Was it a “boo!” moment, or something slower and more lasting? Let us know what it was and how it affected you.

Here’s mine—and keep in mind, I’ve seen oodles of horror plays and horror movies, and have read more horror literature than is probably recommended by the American Psychiatric Association, and thus I have a pretty high shock threshold . . . but what I’m about to describe fucked me up good and proper.

Here goes.

Exit the King.

I was lucky enough to score some tickets for the opening night of Geoffrey Rush’s performance in the recent Broadway production of this play. I’m a big fan of Rush (the actor, not the band) and Ionesco is one of my favorite playwrights, so needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity. For those that didn’t get a chance to see it, it was an absolutely spectacular production, and Rush’s performance might be the single greatest performance I’ve ever seen (and I saw the Ninja Turtles’ Coming Out of Their Shells live show in the early 1990).

So, what made it so horrifying? Especially to someone so inured to monsters and violence and shock tactics? Despite Exit the King being an absurdist comedy with a generous application of slapstick, Ionesco is literally wallowing in every human being’s fear of death, and while watching his royal cipher slowly come to terms with letting his body go, there were literally times when I wanted to scream at the performers onstage, “Stop! I get it! I don’t want to play anymore!” So real was that sense that one day, too, I’d have to make those mental accommodations. The crushing reality of mortality was made manifest in ways that were every bit as effective (if not more so) than any Freddy or Jason or post-Cat in the Hat Michael Meyers. And there I was in a room with hundreds of strangers, some of them mind-boggling rich celebrities, some of them poor as dirt like me, and all of us were essentially being told for two hours straight, “You’re going to end.” The crisis was so real that it almost had weight to it. It was terrifying. And it was enjoyable as hell.

And if that ain’t the beauty of horror, I don’t know what is.

*Let it be said, I’m grossly paraphrasing these comments—they all had wonderfully deep things to say, so read ‘em and comment back—keep the conversation going!


1 comment:

  1. Should we equate horror with the emotion of fear, or more specifically with the confrontation of unstoppable forces? The latter definitely reminds me of tragedy, and as an actor I like defining something by an action rather than just a reaction.

    Scariest live thing I saw was probably "The Pillowman," just to be anti-climatic. Though I was once in a Suzuki-style production of Lear that required me to slam the narrow heel of my boot into the floor right next to Gloucester's head. We can let the audience decide who was more horrified by this particular blocking.