The Aesthetics of Fear


Joyce Carol Oates

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. —H.P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

There are far worse things awaiting than death. —Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)

Why should we wish to experience fear? What is the mysterious appeal, in the structured coherences of art, of such dissolving emotions as anxiety, dislocation, terror? Is fear a singular, universal experience, or is it ever-shifting, indefinable? We can presume that the aesthetic fear is not an authentic fear but an artful simulation of what is crude, inchoate, nerve-driven and ungovernable in life; its evolutionary advantage must be the preparation for the authentic experience, unpredictable and always imminent. In times of war and social upheaval, suicide is reported to be virtually unknown, for life, the merest shred of life, becomes infinitely precious. (The troubled Bruno Bettelheim, who eventually committed suicide at the age of 86, remarked that his year in Buchenwald and Dachau was the only time in his life when he was free of thoughts of suicide.) In authentically fearful times, the aesthetic fear is redundant. As Shakespeare’s Edgar remarks in King Lear, “The worst is not/ So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’”

In the earliest of our consummate art-works of fear, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, composed nearly three thousand years ago and in many ways strikingly contemporary, a primitive and continuous brutality is made “aesthetic”—that is, palliative and negotiable—by the poet’s highly stylized language. In Homer’s terms: how is one to confront fear? How is one to emerge a “hero”? The Greeks who constituted Homer’s audience would surely have recoiled in horror from scenes of actual brutality like those celebrated in the poems, as we would, but the strategy of the poems is to present horror through the prism of a reflective consciousness; moreover, the Iliad and the Odyssey present pre-history, a mythic time now past; we understand that by the time of the poem’s composition the warrior-heroes of the Trojan War are long dead, and even Odysseus the man of twists and turns has died his incongruously peaceful, gentle death. All that has happened has happened: “…hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,/ great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,/ feasts for the dogs and birds.” (Iliad, Book 1, 3-5. Translated by Robert Fagles) The Odyssey is similarly retrospective though much looser in structure than the Iliad, picaresque and seemingly improvised in its succession of vivid, cinematic adventures; its horrors are more primitive than those of the Iliad, many of them the actions of monsters: the man-devouring Cyclops, the cannibal giants of Laestrygonia, the fantastical Scylla (“the yelping horror,/…twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down/ and Six swaying necks, a hideous head on each,/ each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickset/ packed tight—armed to the hilt with black death!”) and equally “awesome” Charybdis. Yet the most haunting horror of the Odyssey is probably, for most readers, the House of Death where “burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home”; ghosts emitting “high thin cries/ as bats cry in the depths of a dark haunted cavern.” The two Odysseyan visits to the underworld of bodiless, brain-damaged wraiths are disturbing in ways difficult to explain; evoking, perhaps, those dream-locked fugues of paralysis when we are neither fully unconscious nor conscious, knowing ourselves in a dream-state yet unable to wake, our “souls” trapped in useless bodies. (Some stroke victims are believed to experience this living hell.) It’s an unexpected moment in the Odyssey when the heroic Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War, now a ghost, says bitterly to the still-living Odysseus, “I’d rather slave on earth for another man—/ than rule down here over all the breathless dead”—so repulsive is death that the Greeks’ highest value, the glory of the warrior-hero, is repudiated by the most celebrated warrior-hero of them all.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an approximate thousand years later, a similarly pre-historic, mythic world is evoked, characterized by nearly continuous scenes of brutality, violence and horror. A kind of cosmological ether or amniotic fluid seems to contain all living things so that, destroyed in our current form, we are merely transformed (by the caprice of gods) into another form; yet terror is real enough, physical humiliation, dismemberment, agony. Ovid’s world is both hallucinatory and matter-of-fact. No matter how frequently we read the story of “guiltless” Actaeon we’re struck by the metahorror of the young hunter’s fate when turned by Diana into a stag: “There is one thing only/ Left him, his former mind.” (Book 3, 204-5. Translated by Rolfe Humphries.) The peculiar Ovidean sadism of this story resides in the irony of Actaeon’s pursuit and dismemberment by his own faithful hounds: “Blackfoot, Trailchaser, Hungry, Hurricane,/ Gazelle and Mountain-Ranger, Spot and Sylvan,/Swift Wingfoot, Glen, wolf-sired, and the bitch Harpy/ With her two pups…/ Tigress, another bitch, Hunter, and Lanky,/ Chop-jaws, and Soot, and Wolf, with the white marking/ On his black muzzle, Mountaineer and Power/The Killer, Whirlwind, Whitey, Blackskin, Grabber,/ And others it would take too long to mention…/ [They] lacerate and tear their prey, not master,/ No master whom they know, only a deer.”

Evoked with similarly vivid images is the rape and mutilation of the virgin Philomela by the “savage” Tereus, who, to prevent his victim informing on him, cuts out her tongue: “The mangled root/ Quivered, the severed tongue along the ground/ Lay quivering, making a little murmur,/ Jerking and twitching, the way a serpent does/ Run over by a wheel, and with its dying movement/ Came to its mistresses’s feet. And even then—/ It seems too much to believe—even then, Tereus/ Took her, and took her again, the injured body/ Still giving satisfaction to his lust.” To revenge this atrocity, Philomela’s sister, Tereus’s wife and the mother of his son, commits an atrocity of her own: she cuts up the boy “still living, still keeping something of the spirit” and feeds him to his unknowing father; who, eating, is “almost greedy/ On the flesh of his own flesh.” At last Philomela, Procne and Tereus are metamorphosed into birds bearing appropriate characteristics—blood-colored feathers, a sword-like beak. Human beings, victims and victimizers alike, frequently become birds in Ovid; and beasts; trees, flowers, fountains and streams; rocks and stone; or, like Echo, the most subtle of metamorphoses, “voice only.” What seems to elude them is common humanity: no one is changed into another person. At the conclusion of this remarkable work of horror mitigated by art, Ovid speaks in his own voice: “Now I have done my work. It will endure,/I trust, beyond Jove’s anger, fire and sword,/ Beyond Time’s hunger… Part of me,/ The better part, immortal, will be borne/ Above the stars…/ I shall be read, and through all centuries,/ …I shall be living, always.” The motive for art is bound up with a childlike wish to be immortal; what is the “aesthetic of fear” but the vehicle by which fear (of mortality, oblivion) is obviated? At least temporarily.

In these great works of the ancient world, existential horror would seem to be the result, not of human volition and responsibility, but of mere chance: the cruel caprice of gods. We are struck by how often anxiety is attached to acts of eating and being eaten: devoured by monsters or by one’s own kind. The Odyssey might be seen, from a certain perspective, as a succession of meals devoured by ravenous jaws. Our earliest fears are associated with being hungry and being fed and with our mothers’ nourishing presence or lack of it; since as helpless infants we can’t feed ourselves, we must be fed, as mere mouths. This involves an agent, seemingly godlike, beyond our comprehension and control yet bound to us by the deepest physical intimacy. So the gods of antiquity are but “immortal” versions of mortal men and women, bizarre extended families ruled by figures of ambivalence like Zeus or Jove. To the more modern sensibility, post-Ovid, imbued with a Manichean/Christian metaphysics, it isn’t chance but “evil” and its personification in Satan that tempt mankind into sin—thereby taking his immortality from him. The phenomenon of Dracula and the vampire legends generally can only be understood as a melding of ancient, that is pagan, and more modern, Christian anxieties: not simply that we are the hapless victims of absurd, violent, dehumanizing and dismembering fates, to be devoured and dissolved back into brainless nature, but that, succumbing to the vampire’s temptation, we are complicit in our own fate. Something in us wants to be seduced, violated, transformed; our innocence, like our virginity, torn from us. The ancient world posits atrocities out there; the Christianized world posits atrocities in here, in the soul. Dracula, the quasi-human villain of Bram Stoker’s mythopoetic novel of 1897, is clearly akin to Satan, and to Bluebeard, the malevolent European nobleman celebrated through centuries in fairy tales and folk ballads, who courted and won any number of virginal young brides, bringing them to his castle, forbidding them to enter a certain chamber—which of course the young brides do, and must, each in turn, accursed by her own curiosity, like Eve eating the apple and like Pandora opening the box that contains the world’s ills . The victim is to Blame—isn’t this always the case, especially when the victim is female?

Count Bluebeard is no ordinary brute and murderer, of whom, in fairy tales and ballads, there is no short supply, but a seducer, like Satan. The story of “La Barbe bleue” was recorded by Charles Perrault in his monumental Histoires ou contes du temps passé, 1697. The first English translation was by Robert Samber, 1729, and became the basis for numerous woodcut illustrations of a popular sensationalist nature. In the Perrault version, the Blue Beard, as he is called, is finally killed by the brothers of one of his young wives; he leaves no heirs, and she inherits all his wealth—a happy ending, apparently. Yet, in popular legend, Bluebeard continued to thrive even as his bride-victims multiplied, doomed to anonymity. Do Bluebeard’s wives—do Dracula’s victims—want to be violated, to be victims?—to align themselves not with Christ but with Christ’s nemesis, Satan? No—but yes. Apparently, yes. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which would come to be the most popular of all English fin-de-siècle stories for film, Jonathan Harker speaks for many a victim of romantic supernatural forces in saying, in a passionate outburst near the conclusion of the novel, “Do you know what the place is? Have you seen that awful den of hellish infamy—with the very moonlight alive with grisly shapes, and every speck of dirt that whirls in the wind a devouring monster in embryo? Have you felt the Vampire’s lips upon your throat?” Harker’ s actual experience in the count’s castle has been significantly different, and here we have the heart of the vampire’s secret, unspeakable appeal. Harker has been approached in his sleep by one of Dracula’s sisters, a “fair girl” with “honey-sweet” breath in which there is a faint scent of a “bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.” She bends over his motionless form, gloating:

There was a deliberate voluptuousness that was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the sharp white teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed about to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer—nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super-sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a langorous ecstasy and waited—waited with beating heart.

The powerful appeal of the gothic world is that its inhabitants, who resemble civilized and often attractive men and women, are in reality creatures of primitive instinct. Gratification is all, and it is usually immediate—to wish is to act. Yet more magically, our own ethical behavior is suspended, for any means are justified in destroying the vampire. We ourselves can become savages in a good Christian cause. The most revealing episode in Dracula is the most luridly erotic and misogynist: the killing of Lucy Western’s vampire-self by the men bent upon “saving” her. Here, a communion of blood brotherhood is enacted that parodies the Christian ritual of purification and atonement. The virginal Lucy, it seems, has died; a vampire-Lucy has taken her place, Dracula’s bride; she is a “nightmare” with pointed teeth, a bloodstained, voluptuous mouth, the entire “carnal and unspirited appearance” a devilish mockery of the former Lucy’s purity; naturally she must be killed, but according to ritual. Led by the insufferably righteous vampire expert Van Helsing, the men place the point of a stake over the slumbering Lucy’s heart, recite a prayer for the dead, and strike in God’s name; with these spectacular results:

The Thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut, and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam. But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set, and high duty seemed to shine through it; the sight of it gave us courage so that our voices seemed to ring through the little vault.

And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less, and the teeth seemed to champ, and the face to quiver. Finally it lay still. The terrible task was over….

There, in the coffin lay no longer the foul Thing that we had so dreaded and grown to hate that the work of her destruction was yielded as a privilege to the one best entitled to it, but Lucy as we had seen her in her life, with her face of unequalled sweetness and purity.

Where except in a gothic dimension in which “high Christian duty” mingles with violent sexual sadism, might such an episode occur? The stake pounded into the female vampire’s heart is “mercy bearing”—the entire procedure performed in the name of God the Father—as if rape and death, the particular province of the male aggressor, might be a kind of absolution. Since the “sacrifice” is in the service of religion, it might even be portrayed as altruistic. And if vampirism is erotic experience, we see how a woman must be punished, at least in Stoker’s Victorian terms, for the awakening of her forbidden sexuality.

In the gothic imagination, the unconscious has erupted and has seeped out into “the world.” As if our most disturbing, unacknowledged dreams had broken their restraints, claiming autonomy. The profane and the sacred become indistinguishable: Dracula, immortal so long as he is infused with the blood of living creatures, becomes for certain of his victims a perversely life-bearing force, ironically not unlike the Christian savior. For those whom he blesses, he can transform into vampires like himself.

This is the unique vampire attraction, one might say; very different from the fates of those simply devoured, and digested, by such monsters as the Cyclops. The most striking aspect of Tod Browning’s film Dracula (1931), famously starring Bela Lugosi, is its grave, ritualistic, sacerdotal quality. Here, Count Dracula is no quasi-human bat-faced creature with a fetid breath, as in the crude Stoker novel, nor an alarmingly Semitic buck-fanged hook-nosed rodent as in the silent German film by F. W. Murnau, Nosferatu (1922). (Though in all respects, as a work of visually poetic art, the Murnau film is far superior to the film by Browning.) Instead, Dracula is an elegant European gentleman, a reincarnation of the fatally charming Blue Beard; his formal evening wear, high starched collar and long black cape suggest the vestments of a Catholic priest, as do his carefully choreographed movements and the studied precision with which he speaks English, as if it were a very foreign language. (Lugosi memorized his lines phonetically.) Where in the Murnau film Dracula is sub-human and lacking all attraction, indeed a carrier of bubonic plague like any infected rat, in the Browning film Dracula is heightened as a charismatic screen presence. There is a brilliant audacity in aligning vampire and priest, for in Catholic ritual the priest celebrating the mass drinks the “blood” of Christ (diluted red wine) out of a chalice, as the congregation prays, in the solemn moments leading to the dramatic sacrament of Holy Communion when communicants come forward to receive from the priest, on their tongues, a consecrated wafer representing the body of Christ. Until fairly recent times, the priest intoned at this moment, in Latin, Hic est corpus Christ.

This is the body of Christ Protestants, Jews, believers of other faiths may find it difficult to comprehend, or frankly preposterous: the Roman Catholic communion does not offer to communicants a mere symbol of Christ’s body and blood but, through the mystery of “transubstantiation,” that very body and blood. Christ’ s Last Supper as recorded in the Gospels is a symbolic ritual in a way that the Catholic communion is not.

What are we to make of these charismatic fantasy figures, vampire and savior? Vampire-as-savior? Count Dracula and Jesus Christ? To merely categorize them as fantasies, springing from childlike, if not infantile wishes for immortality, is too schematic, reductive. Personifying “evil”—like personifying “good”—is a human attempt to exert control over the incalculable and impersonal forces of nature of which (though we imagine ourselves superior because we have the gift of language) we are a part, but only an infinitesimal part. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in the waning years of the nineteenth century, in a time of intellectual and religious crisis; like Lewis Carroll in the very different but equally mythopoetic Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass of some years before (1865, 1871), Stoker was dramatizing the clash of Darwinian evolutionary theory with traditional Christian-humanist sentiment. (Of course, Christianity triumphs at the melodramatic conclusion of Dracula—this is the obligatory Victorian happy ending.) In the austere Darwinian model of our beleaguered Earth, the individual counts for virtually nothing; only the species matters, the replication of DNA; yet, as we humanists are informed by our scientist-colleagues, to our dismay, if not to our surprise, even the species doesn’t really count—more than 99% of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct. What does this seem to predict for our aggressive, fear-ridden and paranoid species? In the benign Christian model, however, the individual is all: Christ died for each of us, as individuals, and we are redeemed by His sacrifice. If this is a fantasy, shared, in other terms, with other religions, it’s at least an imaginative one, a powerful antidote to the “aesthetic of fear.”

To return to the question: Why should we wish to experience fear, if only aesthetically? Why do we wish as a species to approach the unspeakable, the unknowable, the vision that, like Medusa with her horrific head of serpents, will prove unbearable? In H.P. Lovecraft’s gothic classic “The Rats in the Walls,” this forbidden vision is given a lurid Boschean grandeur as the story’s doomed protagonist experiences a revelation in “those grinning caverns of earth’ s center where Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous flute-players.” In other words: madness. The total disintegration of mind and language: our humanity. “The Rats in the Walls” ends with a brilliantly realized devolution of the protagonist as he regresses through the stages of consciousness represented by stages of the English language, back through middle English, old English, to mere bestial grunts—and cannibalism. Classic gothic literature asks: How human are we? How deep is our humanness? Is the vampire a monster, or is the vampire a natural extension of our human-animal selves? Anxiety arises when we ponder to what degree we share in the civilization to which we belong. The most extreme “fall” is to revert to vampirism/cannibalism, violating the taboo against eating human flesh but also the taboo of acknowledging that the eating of human flesh is a possibility; looking upon one another as, not spiritual beings, but mere meat. To succumb to such a revelation is, in Lovecraft’s cosmos, to succumb to madness; for sanity collapses at this crucial point. As Lovecraft says in his parable-like “The Call of Cthulhu,”

The most merciful thing in the world…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

What we fear most, I suggest, is not death; not even physical anguish, mental decay, disintegration. We fear most the loss of meaning. To lose meaning is to lose one’s humanity, and this is more terrifying than death; for death itself, in a coherent cultural context, always has meaning. It is the anxiety of the individual that the very species may become extinct in our complicity with the predator—the cannibal/vampire—within. These fears, these anxieties, these recurring and compulsive nightmares, so powerfully dramatized by artists of the tragic and the grotesque through centuries, are not aberrations. The aesthetic of fear is the aesthetic of our common humanity.