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Horror vs. Humor

Manohla Dargis has this to say about “Turistas”:

Advancements in special effects have made it easier than ever to make fictional disembowelments and the like look super-realistic. And on a fundamental level, the charnel-house aesthetics of films like “Hostel,” “Cabin Fever” and the remake of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” are not any different from the graphic passages in films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Flags of Our Fathers.” The goals of these war movies are certainly far loftier than those of a run-of-the-mill horror divertissement, but in the end they all traffic — in part or in whole — in convincing images of extreme human suffering. Some films do it for art; others for amusement. For better and at times for worse, though, the cinema of death now appears inescapable.

After seeing “Borat” I was thinking about the comparative social functions of horror and humor. Is “Borat” “extreme” in the same way as “Turistas” and “Saw”? One could argue that humor advances, that it keeps pace with social issues (if one assumes that humor serves as a social valve & salve, as “The Aristocrats” argues, following what Aristotle might have argued in his lost work on comedy). Humor must dig deeper into discomforting topics; done well, it is almost always “extreme.”

I’m not so sure it’s the same for horror. Blame me for crass naivete, because I don’t watch the genre nor have read any of what Dargis calls the “apologists for vivisectionist entertainment.” So these are preliminary thoughts, and I would be willing to be educated. But I wonder if what drives the evolution of “extreme horror” is simply technological prowess, not a social need to have stories told in a different, more violent manner.

Let me back up. I think about narrative forms through the notion of the enthymematic. The enthymeme is a structure in persuasive language which takes the form of a syllogism, but is inverted. That is, the syllogism provides the major and minor premises, from which are derived a conclusion. On the other hand, the enthymeme provides the conclusion and the minor premise. The major premise (which is often articulated as a broad cultural value) is deliberately omitted. The author doesn’t present it; the audience does. Drawn to the logical hole, they insert the major premise themselves. This is the dynamic of persuasion.

In a similar way, narratives operate by a series of structured incompletions. (The enthymeme is the most basic form of this structured incompletion.) One set of incompletions are necessary for plot. Another set is necessary for any linear arrangement of language. In these, the completion is postponed and often made available by the text or narrative. There’s also the completion that’s offered by the audience, which (if you could get inside their heads) is the thing that makes the narrative complete and meaningful. (Take a look at the Haida myths in Robert Bringhurst’s The Story as Sharp as a Knife, which seem jumbled and almost incoherent.)

In the case of humor, the completion that an audience can provide changes, so the structure of the incompletion itself must evolve. In the case of horror? I don’t see how this could be the case. Why does the structured incompletion of the horror narrative need to become more extreme, when horror, pity, and disgust are such fundamental reactions?