Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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The Pornography of Horror

Published on Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Pornography of Horror

Beyond Halloween: What’s Wrong with this Picture?


Well – Halloween. When ghosts and goblins stalk the land ... or at least our neighborhoods. Usually I opt to be absent from the house on that annual happening, but this year, my husband David wanted to experience the cuteness of the neighborhood kids coming up onto our front porch and holding out their sacks for trick-or-treat. And as long as they didn’t take all of the peanut butter cups, David was indeed delighted with the 30 or so pirates and ghosts who rang the bell.

Shortly before Halloween, I kept running into magazine and newspaper articles about shock, horror, and the macabre displayed in films and in other venues that I truly found disturbing. Not the cute little kiddies who shyly approached our house on the night of the 31st, but the truly violent displays of blood and gore that seem to pass for entertainment these days. Pornographic, really, if you define pornography as the hyping of sensation devoid of human meaning. (See Geoffrey Gore’s The Pornography of Death.)

For example, in the Oct. 9 issue of The Christian Century, Publisher Peter Marty describes his recent experience of touring a haunted house that had been erected in order to “scare the hell out of anyone who walks in the door and puts down $20,” according to the proprietor of this “manor.” Employing as many as 60 actors on October nights, those who pay the fee were entertained by visions of lifelike bodies being sliced open, the sight of a real-looking dog getting killed each night to the sound of gruesome cries, “babies hanging by their neck, infant body parts strewn across the blood-splattered floor.”

And then we have “Joker,” a film where the character Arthur finds his way from the empowerment of dance to murder. (See lead photo.) In the Oct. 12 Art section of The New York Times, Critic Gia Kourlas concludes: “In the end, Arthur, though handcuffed, has a song in his head and a spring in his step. As he disappears down a pristine white hallway, he uses what mobility he has – his shoulders, which creep up and down to Frank Sinatra’s 'That’s Life.' His feet leave bloody tracks behind, like the footprints in an Arthur Murray diagram.” Apparently young fans of the movie – most in their 20s and 30s – recently dressed up as the Joker, appearing at an October Comic Con convention at the Javits Center in Manhattan. (The New York Times, October 8, 2019. See second photo below.)

Well – truth in advertising! I have not seen Joker ... nor do I intend to. If you’ve read any of my books, you probably know that I try to be discerning about what I take in by way of visual art and reading. Someone once asked me, after my presentation at a conference, whether I thought all art somehow reflects the Sacred. I answered, “No.” I think some art – visual or otherwise – can depict and even celebrate evil. And ... we do become, at least in part, what we read and see. That is how our life narrative becomes shaped and how our story develops over time. So no, I haven’t seen “The Joker.” But I wonder about it. I wonder about the macabre display at the “haunted house” that Peter Marty experienced. I wonder about the internet sites that focus on terror and violence ... the fascination with blood and gore. What is happening in our culture that promotes such pornographic excursions into terror and violence?

In my undergraduate and graduate school days, I spent some years in what I refer to as my existential phase – soaking up the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, Soren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread, Viktor Frankl’s From Death Camp to Existentialism, and Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, among others. So as I was thinking about this blog, I raced all over the house, visiting various bookshelves, hunting for my old books for some clues.

Finally I did pull off the shelf Heidegger’s Being and Time (see third photo below) and turned to the page where he writes in bold letters that humans are free to be anxious. Not to delve into Heidegger’s philosophy here, and ignoring for the moment that he was a Nazi sympathizer (!), he stresses that to be an authentic human being, one must be unwilling to be defined by the everyday mass culture of “the they.” Authentic humans confront the fact of their death in a “freedom towards death” – a freedom which has been released from the illusions or denials of the “They.” For Heidegger, the authentic person sees the truth of finitude, is “certain of itself, and anxious.”

Well, if the “authentic” human is unwilling to be defined by the mass cultural “They,” who are the They out there whose tastes are reflected in the horror images described above? Or perhaps better, what in the world has happened to our culture that promotes nihilism and violence, marketing video games, films and other forms of art bordering on the grotesque? What’s wrong with this picture?

Peter Marty of the haunted house horror tale suggests that maybe we live in a culture “saturated with freight.” We have become numb to the repeated images of shock, horror, and terror that bombard us in daily news offerings. “They stifle our capacity for compassion and cause us to accept things we may have found previously unacceptable.”

Well as I’ve said before, I don’t want to join the chorus of Chicken Littles insisting that the sky is falling and we are all going to hell in a handbasket. Yet beyond the numbness of terror barrage, 50 percent of millennials say they are lonely ... 20 percent of those aged 23 to 38 say they have no friends. (The Christian Century, September 11, 2019.) Lack of engagement with others could, and often is, dehumanizing. In addition, I wonder what the erosion of overarching meaning might contribute to our cultural malaise. Perhaps claiming to be “spiritual but not religious” might not shield one from Heidegger’s anxiety over our finitude. Sometimes the “spiritual” can also turn dark, indeed.

I’m not offering answers here, folks. I’m only pointing out a serious cultural phenomenon that I find very troubling. One suggestion might be to root yourself in a community of “Theys” that provide an overarching story countering meaninglessness and the consequent fascination with the dark abyss. Marty suggests that next year, Halloween should include a few more signs of hope, joy, and life. But those signs have to point somewhere beyond the current culture of nihilism.

Let us hope ... and pray.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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