Return to Equinoxes, Issue 1 : Printemps/Eté 2003
Article ©2004, David Palmieri
Noel Carroll's complete publications.
Interview with Gabriel Pelletier, the director of Karmina.
Quebec box-office statistics.
In retrospect, Noël Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart was plainly crying out to be written. Since its publication in 1990, the book has become horror fiction and film's Poetics, an ambition Carroll sets for himself in its introduction: "Though I do not expect to be as authoritative as Aristotle," he writes, "it is my intention to try to do for the horror genre what Aristotle did for tragedy."1 In the 1960s and 1970s, many teenage horror film fans, as Carroll notes, read Forrest J. Ackerman's magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland and the innumerable fanzines inspired by it.2 For them, Europe was a war zone peopled, not by Nazis, but with manmade monsters, vampires and werewolves. Carroll's philosophic study struck a chord with this group of aging Americans by providing a serious light by which to organize our thoughts concerning this guiltiest of adolescent pleasures.
Many of those teenagers also read Carlos Clarens' pioneering An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (1967). The Cuban-born Clarens traced the genre's progression from turn of the century Paris and post-World War I Germany to "Lon Chaney's America" and the Universal Studios horror cycle launched by Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein in 1931. Clarens' penultimate chapter, "Horror Around the World," discusses as an afterthought the films of Italy's Mario Bava and Mexico's Fernando Mendez but otherwise moves along a Hollywood-England-France-Germany axis, with a brief foray into Denmark to discuss Carl Dreyer's Vampyr.3 Twenty-three years later, Carroll's analytic sophistication is light years ahead of Clarens'. Holding an M.A. in Philosophy and a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies,4 Carroll's academic training advances him beyond his and Clarens' starting point as a genre enthusiast. Clarens was an intelligent critic who had worked "as a screenwriter, subtitler, and assistant director to Robert Bresson and Jacques Demy,"5 but references to Aristotle and Hume were not part of his culture. On the other hand, Carroll is more restrictively inside the envelope of English-language visual and literary art than the multilingual author of An Illustrated History of the Horror Film.
In the twentieth century, the monster film slowly made its way around the globe and finally reached Quebec in 1996 when the provincial film industry's first effort in the genre, Gabriel Pelletier's Karmina, was released. A horror comedy, Karmina was a moderate box-office success but became very popular as a video rental; as such, in response to fan requests, a sequel was made and released in 2001.6 The follow-up, entitled K2, had a more lucrative initial box-office run than its original, indicating that a genre, which as Pelletier notes "ne fait pas vraiment partie de notre culture,"7 was quickly able to form an audience for itself in French Canada.
Comedies tend to come at the end of horror cycles. After seventeen years, for example, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) ended the Universal series. William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) launched a horror cycle with a strong feminine component. Released twenty three years later, Karmina belongs to a late phase of that cycle and component. The horror comedy has become a popular American genre yet has been ignored by the Québécois cinema, which in general has modeled itself on the European art film. Karmina, however, is pure genre moviemaking and despite translation difficulties fits well into the framework of Carroll's philosophy of horror.
A professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Carroll plays an adversarial role in academic film studies. His evolution in many ways parallels that of feminism's Camille Paglia, author of Sexual Personae (1990). Both New Yorkers and born in 1947, Paglia of Syracuse and Carroll of Far Rockaway dragged their Catholic childhoods into the Sixties and in their twenties became leftish atheists. They have since moved right, adopted critical voices, but have never exactly quit the Left, preferring to snipe at what they see as its illusions from inside the fold. They began to influence their fields around 1990 when their colleagues' infatuation with French critical theory was reaching epidemic proportions. Much of their critical energies have been spent combating European manifestations of "postmodernism": in her journalism and essays, Paglia never writes the words "Jacques Derrida" or "Michel Foucault" without sneering, and Carroll in his book of 1988, Mystifying Movies, noted all the contradictions and exaggerations in the work of Parisian film theorists Jean Beaudry and Christian Metz and proved to his satisfaction that their intellectual emperor, Jacques Lacan, had no clothes.
In The Philosophy of Horror, Carroll classifies characteristic plots, describes "horrific imagery," and proposes an all-encompassing theory of the genre. First, he distinguishes natural horror from "art-horror." For Carroll, ecological disaster, the Nazis, and nuclear arms are naturally horrible. Yet in Camus' L'Étranger the indifferent reaction of its central character Merseault to his mother's death also fits this category.8 Events that occur in the real world that are unpleasant but provoke no wonder as to its laws are "natural horror."
"Art-horror" is the reaction a distinct genre evokes and that reaction in turn defines the genre. Westerns are called westerns because they take place from about 1850 to 1890 in the American West. Musicals are musicals because their characters sing and dance. Horror films, however, are named as such not because of what you see on the screen but because of the reaction they inspire in you - horror - or, for Carroll, art-horror. "Art-horror," he writes, "by stipulation is meant to refer to the product of a genre that crystallized, speaking very roughly, around the time of the publication of Frankenstein [in 1818]-give or take fifty years."9
Carroll distinguishes "art-horror" from the French genre "le fantastique," which Tzvetan Todorov analyzed in Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970). For Todorov, the fantastic hesitates between supernatural and natural explanations, and Henry James' The Turn of the Screw exemplifies the genre. Does the Governess in that story see the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel or are they in her head? James hints at both explanations but never comes down definitively on one side. Hence, for Todorov, The Turn of the Screw is a fantastic story.10 Carroll uses Todorov's definition of the "fantastic" as a foil, for the mysterious beings and occurrences of his "art-horror" can only have supernatural explanations.
In an article in La Presse published during the release of K2, Gabriel Pelletier used the French term to explain the relative failure of Karmina, saying: "Il est vrai que la comédie fantastique ne fait pas vraiment partie de notre culture."11 Pelletier labels Karmina "une comédie fantastique." But because its monsters are accepted without hesitation as supernatural beings, Carroll would classify the film "une comédie d'horreur," and La Presse's journalist, Marc-André Lussier, in fact uses this term.12 The back and forth in Lussier's article between Pelletier's "la comédie fantastique" and the journalist's "la comédie d'horreur" is classic Québécois cultural ping-pong: a director models his film on a popular American genre but uses a French term to describe it; a reporter interviewing him simply translates the English-language genre name.
Theorists like Carroll define popular terms so that we can think more precisely. In moving between French and English, however, a critic can easily trip over cognate words that have different connotations in the two languages. Carroll is inside English. In contemporary French, "le fantastique" covers more ground than Todorov's specialized definition, stretching from stories labeled "fantasy" in English, such as Tolkein's novels, to the commercial and artistic manifestations of the present gothic craze, deeply rooted in Quebec, to which Karmina makes reference and in a sense belongs. Carroll's use of Todorov's terminology is valid yet misses the semantic difficulties inherent in translation. In France, Denis Mellier in L'écriture de l'excès: Fiction fantastique et poétique de la terreur (1999) stresses that
La perspective française rediscute la pertinence de la thèse de Todorov en tant qu'elle devrait rendre compte de l'ensemble du fantastique. Il est impossible d'ignorer la différence de perspective entre les approches française et anglo-saxonne, tant elle influe sur la constitution des corpus et sur la délimitation théorique de la notion.13
The Philosophy of Horror provides a framework to understand Karmina, but analyzing Québécois art in American terms is difficult because, despite Quebec's thirty-year old debate on its Américanité, American philosophy - aesthetic and otherwise - is still more of an outsider's perspective in the province than the European, French perspective.
Carroll's theory of art-horror centers on the monster:
...on my account, horror is signaled by the presence of monsters who cannot be accommodated naturalistically by science. That is, sooner or later, in what I am calling horror stories, the readers/viewers and/or the characters admit that some supernatural (or sci-fi) entity which defies the compass of science as we know it, exists, and is causing all our troubles.14
The monster is an interstitial entity, a "category violation." Why do people seek out art-horror? Carroll feels the explanation lies in our fascination with category violations. Monsters produce two primary emotions: disgust and fear. But this disgust and fear is evoked by a monster embedded in a narrative, and the "complex discovery plot" is the archetypal narrative of the genre for Carroll:
Art-horror is the price we are willing to pay for the revelation of that which is impossible and unknown, of that which violates our conceptual schema. The impossible being does disgust, but that disgust is part of an overall narrative address which is not only pleasurable, but whose potential pleasure depends on the confirmation of the existence of the monster as a being that violates, defies or problematizes standing cultural classifications.15
Carroll's philosophy is cognitive. The category-violating monster fascinates, and pleasure is generated when curiosity about the monster is satisfied by the narrative. Competing theorists often employ expressions like "horror fiction teaches us…," but Carroll will have none of it. He argues that these "commendatory" explanations are either incorrect or partial, and his philosophy seeks to replace them.
The psychoanalytic approach, for example, considers the horror film to be a site for the resolution of unconscious psychosexual impulses, usually incest. Carroll believes that this approach, in fact, works for vampire films, and to support his claim he cites Ernest Jones. In On the Nightmare (1931), the Freudian-analyst points out that initially in European vampire legends the "undead" monster first returned to life to bite the neck of a member of its own family, a trope dropped from the modern literary-film genre.16 On the other hand, for Carroll, Jones and psychoanalytic theorists generally overemphasize "the degree to which incestuous desires shape the conflicts in the nightmare (and, by extension, in the formation of the monstrous beings of horror fiction)."17
Carroll also dismisses religious explanations, in particular H.P. Lovecraft's claim from Supernatural Horror in Literature that horror stories evoke "cosmic fear."18 Carroll believes that the best horror stories and films do just that. However, the genre is in large part formulaic, and the vast majority of its examples do not evoke cosmic awe or quasi-religious feelings. Carroll argues further that religion "is easily available in ungodly cultures like the United States" and that if people really want religious experience, "they can get it directly - without searching for surrogates like horror fiction."19 A claim that falsely attributes to teenagers - horror's largest market - more liberty than they actually possess to shape their personal religious experiences. Carroll's dismissal of the religious explanation for horror's popularity perhaps speaks more about his generation of Catholics' rejection of orthodox religion than of the true role of horror stories in the spiritual life of its audience.
Robert Solomon criticized The Philosophy of Horror's neglect of the "connection between horror and humor in art-horror."20 Carroll remedied this oversight in a 1999 article.21 Unlike the fantastic, the horror-comedy, for him, is a subgenre of the horror film. While it appears to be a contradiction that the horror story, a genre which by its nature oppresses, could be combined with comedy, a genre which naturally elates, many artists - among them, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Bloch, and Edgar Allen Poe - have remarked on the proximity of horror and humor, which as Bloch notes, both deal in exaggeration and the unexpected.22
Philosophers from Hobbes to Bergson have devised theories of comedy. Scotsman Frances Hutcheson in his "Thoughts on Laughter," presents his "incongruity theory," hypothesizing that
generally the cause of laughter is the bringing together of images which have contrary additional ideas, as well as some resemblance in the principal idea: the contrast between ideas of grandeur and dignity, sanctity, perfection, and ideas of meanness, baseness, profanity, seems to be the very spirit of burlesque.23
Carroll combines Hutcheson's theory with Schopenauer's idea that incongruous juxtaposition in humor incorrectly subsumes a "particular" under a "concept."24 In Karmina, for example, the eponymous title character drinks a potion that changes her from a vampire into a human being. Humor is generated as she learns to be human. Karmina has never walked in daylight, so she wears sunglasses and stumbles around, or she has never had to eat food, so she drinks too much wine at an Italian Restaurant and becomes drunk. Particular human behaviors regulated by conceptual norms are subsumed into Schopenauer's "incorrect categories." Karmina's audience laughs when a character who resembles a normal young woman behaves like a child.
According to Carroll, in order to change horror into comedy, fear must be subtracted from the monster: "to transform horror into laughter," he writes, "the fearsomness of the monster - its threat to human life - must be sublated or hidden from our attention. Then we will laugh where we would otherwise scream."25 This is true in Karmina, especially for Karmina herself, who over the course of the film evolves from a murderous vampire with superhuman strength into a jealous lovesick ingenue.
Following the model laid out in the novel Dracula (1896), Karmina begins in Eastern Europe then moves to a modern Western city, Montreal instead of Bram Stoker's London. A tour de force of outlandish attire and sharp saturated colors, the film's opening "Transylvania" sequence led the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television to give Karmina "Génies" in Art Direction and Costumes as well as a special award in Make Up.
A scene from the Transylvania sequence illustrates Hutcheson's "incongruity theory." As the film begins, the characters speak an invented language, translated into French subtitles, that appears vaguely Eastern European. Vlad, Karmina's fiancé, welcomes guests in a reception line. A servant brings him a cell phone and - a busy vampire-businessman - he converses in English about a possible deal. He places the phone on a cushion held by the servant who accidentally drops it to the floor. Enraged, Vlad growls and throws the servant through the air. Landing on a table, the servant is surrounded by a party of a dozen or so vampires who begin to eat him. Cut to Vlad whispering in Karmina's father's ear, the subtitle reading: "Baron, procédons, il se fait tard." The Baron screams: "Je hais les sous-titres!", and the subtitled letters enlarge and scatter across the screen as the vampires lift their heads from their meal and applaud.
The scene has a principal idea, disgust, inspired in particular by the yummy splurping on the soundtrack as the vampires drain the servant's blood. The fearsome Baron scowls in his pasty monster make-up and breastplate. A contrary idea to disgust and fear, a joke in the tradition of film history's many comedy duos, breaks the cinematic illusion and transforms horror into "the spirit of burlesque."
Since the late 1960s, the Quebecois have debated the reasons behind their lack of Américanité. This new discourse seeks to end the society's continental isolation. Its relative failure is demonstrated by an outburst of pop antiamericanism in Karmina's Transylvania sequence.
After dispensing with their clumsy servant, the Baron and Baroness size up the financial prospects of their future son-in-law. The Baroness asks Vlad: "Comment va votre usine?" He shakes his head as if to say "fine" and explains: "Importe, Exporte, International, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Azerbaïdjan." Impressed, the Baroness says: "Azerbaïdjan! Incroyable! Et quoi faire avec les Américains?" Vlad spits and says "Nitze (phonetic) Amérique." The Baron approves: "Voilà qui est très bien. Ce Yankee poix…," and breaks into an angry litany of insults that culminates: "Ils devraient être étranglés avec leurs propres intestins."
Canadian and francophone antiamericanism have long histories, but that an expression of it would appear in Karmina in 1996 demonstrates the inability of Quebec's long conversation on Américanité to bring the society any closer to the continent. Why do the Québécois continue to feel resentment toward "Amérique," while the word "Azerbaïdjan" provokes smiles?
A kind of sentimental tenderness overwhelms the two Karminas. While the vampire usually inhabits an interstitial region between life and death, Karmina places her in a space between the human and not-human. The film asks the question "What is it to be human?", and answers "love," in particular, jealousy as a sign of love.
Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome describes a comparable sentimental atmosphere in Europe in the 1930s. When Percy was in Nazi Germany, he observed that people were extremely "tenderhearted," and that no one seemed to be able to find the will to fight the bad guys. This tenderness, I believe, comes from the excessive role given to art in Europe and by extension in European-influenced Quebecois culture. Artists in general, and poets in particular, speak the language of the heart, and we need that, but the language of the heart is not appropriate for all situations. Walker Percy wrote that Germany's tenderness led "to the gas chamber,"26 and in the less virulent Québécois context it ends in antiamericanism. In both the German and French Canadian examples, this Percyean "tenderness" degenerates into spiritual paralysis. That paralysis underlies Québécois antiamericanism.
Unlike Germany, Quebec is a small culture, its popular wisdom repeating that we live on the margins of history, and that in the sky shine two brilliant stars, the United States and Europe. Karmina's art-horror references are divided between America and Europe. The dominant American reference is H.P. Lovecraft. In the film's first half, Karmina's boyfriend becomes excited because a record producer, Sam Lovecraft, has left a message on his answering machine. In a later scene, Karmina wanders off the streets of Montreal and into the Lovecraft Bar. The European reference comes in a scene in which Vlad and another vampire, Ghislain, are eating Ghislain's neighbor, and Murnau's Nosferatu plays on a television.
Even in a horror-comedy, a Québécois filmmaker places himself, or better, finds himself between Europe and America, each one tugging at him on so many levels. The competition between American and European philosophy, and the visions and attitudes to life that each one offers, is everywhere in Quebec, and it doesn't look to be ending soon.
1 Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990) 8.
2 Carroll stresses the importance of Ackerman's magazine to the teenage horror culture of the 1960s: "The Classic horror film myths often sent horror hungry adepts to Famous Monsters of Filmland (founded in 1958) (7).
3 Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Film (New York: Da Capo, 1997). First edition published under the title An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1967). Chapter 5, "The Dead Next Door," analyzes Dreyer's Vampyr in four pages.
4 In a 1999 review of Carroll's Theorizing the Moving Image, Berys Gaut incorrectly states that Carroll holds "doctorates in both film and philosophy": Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57.1 (Winter 1999): 86.
5 Philip Lopate, "Carlos: Evening in the City of Friends," Against Joie de Vivre (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989) 237.
6 According to Alex Films, a company that collects statistics for the Canadian film industry, as of March 2, 2003, Karmina 2 had box-office receipts of $1,081,667Can and ranked 31st on its list of the 100 all-time top grossing Québécois films. The first Karmina had receipts of $395,864Can and ranked 59th. See: http://www.alexfilms.com/supertop_quebec.html.
7 Marc-André Lussier, "Karmina 2: Complices de sang," La Presse 13 juillet 2001: C1.
8 Carroll, Philosophy12.
9 Carroll, Philosophy 12.
10 Tzvetan Todorov, "Les fantômes de Henry James," La notion de littérature (Paris: Gallimard, 1987) 100.
11 Lussier, La Presse 13 juillet 2001: C1.
12 Lussier, La Presse: "La première comédie d'horreur que le Québec ait produite (La Petite aurore l'enfant martye mise à part!) n' a en effet pas du tout obtenu le succès escompté lors de sa sortie en salles."
13 Denis Mellier, L'écriture de l'excès: Fiction fantastique et poétique de la terreur (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1999) 78.
14 Carroll, Philosophy145.
15 Carroll, Philosophy186.
16 Carroll, Philosophy169-171.
17 Carroll, Philosophy171.
18 Carroll, Philosophy161-162.
19 Carroll, Philosophy167.
20 Robert Solomon, "Rev. of The Philosophy of Horror, Or Paradoxes of the Heart," Philosophy and Literature 16 (1992): 173.
21 Noël Carroll, "Horror and Humor," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57.2 (Spring 1999): 145-160.
22 Carroll, "Horror and Humor," 146.
23 Carroll, "Horror and Humor," 153, cited.
24 Carroll, "Horror and Humor," 153.
25 Carroll, "Horror and Humor," 158.
26 Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1987) 128.
Carroll, Noël. "Horror and Humor." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57.2 (Spring 1999): 145-160
---. Mystifying Movies. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.
---. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Clarens, Carlos. An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Film. New York: Da Capo, 1997. First edition published under the title An Illustrated History of the Horror Film. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1967.
Gaut, Berys. "Rev. of A Philosophy of Mass Art by Noël Carroll." The British Journal of Aesthetics 39.1 (January 1999): 300-303.
Lopate, Philip. Against Joie de Vivre. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Lussier, Marc-André. "Karmina 2: Complices de Sang," La Presse 13 juillet 2001: C1.
Mellier, Denis. L'écriture de l'excès: Fiction fantastique et poétique de la terreur. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1999.
Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.
Percy, Walker. The Thanatos Syndrome. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1987.
Solomon, Robert. "Rev. of The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart." Philosophy and Literature 16 (1992): 110-118.
Todorov, Tzvetan. La notion de littéraure. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.