What’s the pleasure in terror?

By Christina Morin.

With Halloween fast approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about why exactly people enjoy getting a fright. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of horror flicks – the thought of sitting in a darkened cinema just knowing that something gross and gruesome, at some unknowable but inevitable point, will eventually eat/slaughter/torture the hapless hero(ione) makes me cringe just thinking about it.

As an avid reader of the Gothic novel, though, I get the seemingly contradictory mixture of fear and excitement induced by any film or book worth its claim to ‘horror’ or ‘terror’. Every time I sit on the edge of my seat, peaking (metaphorically speaking in the case of reading a novel) through my fingers, waiting for the truly terrific to happen, I wonder, among other things, ‘why am I doing this to myself?’

Such a question was clearly in the minds of those observing the wildly enthusiastic popular response to the Gothic novel of the mid to late eighteenth century. Wondering why such a striking number of readers were so attracted to a form they considered sub-literary, critics began to ask what made terror so compelling. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, for instance, figured that there had to be something more than mere curiosity driving people on – they didn’t subject themselves to such intense fear just because they had paid for the book and felt duty-bound and a bit intrigued to see how it would all end. Rather, there was something more to the experience, some kind of productive effect of being scared that kept people reading. For Edmund Burke, this impulse to keep reading in the face of unavoidable fear – and the possible positive effects to be had from familiarity with fear – all came down to the fact that we enjoy being scared and, in that state of mixed fear and pleasure, can experience a truly mind-blowing encounter with the sublime.

As Burke defined it, the sublime is the most intense feeling or emotion the human mind is capable of feeling, and it’s at the heart of his influential text, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). A work that had an incredibly profound effect on eighteenth-century literature and society, the Enquiry posited an intimate connection between fear and pleasure; rather than being two contradictory impulses or emotions, Burke argued, they could actually productively co-exist as long as the individual experiencing the terror was not him- or herself in direct danger. By viewing something terrifying, Burke suggested, our minds are elevated, leading us to experience the enviable and much desired sublime moment that Wordsworth would later describe as having ‘a fructifying’ effect on his youthful mind.

My preferred example to elucidate the sublime is taken from one of my all time favourite films (despite my general dislike of contemporary horror films) – Jaws (1975). Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to describe the particular scene I like to show when teaching the sublime, nor, I suspect, can I do it justice here. However, if you want to really get Burke’s sublime, I’d suggest digging out that old copy of Jaws and flicking forward to the scene where Police Chief Brody and Hooper, the marine biologist sent to help him track down the great white shark terrorising Amity Island, get themselves drunk and decide to go shark hunting in the middle of the night. If you’ve never seen the film, you’ll be clued in to what’s coming with that iconic predatory music that accompanies every appearance of the great white – dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh. As the tempo increases – faster and faster – you just know something bad is going to happen. You’re waiting for it, waiting for it – it’s coming, but you can’t see it yet – and wham, it hits you in the face, you jump out of your seat, and you feel that unmistakeable twinge of fearful excitement. That’s it – Sublime!!

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2 Responses to “What’s the pleasure in terror?”

  1. JAA Says:

    My thoughts have also turned to the sublime this week–they do generally in autumn, but especially with the sadness I feel at our watered-down Halloween experience, wishing for some real juicy fright. Thanks for your post. Now I want to go see Jaws again.

  2. Halloween Thrills « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] Jaws (1975) – I’ve written before about Jaws and my use of it as a tool in explaining the Burkean sublime. This year, I showed the […]

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