Philosophy of the Horror Genre…Part 1!

It’s That Time Of Year Again…

Orange lights decorate houses surrounded by inflatable ghost and goblins.

Costumes show up on store shelves.

You stock up on candy like it’s the armageddon.

Yes, it’s time of year again.

It’s Halloween.

And just as sure as the leaves are going to turn orange and fall off the trees, you can bet that horror movies old and new will raise up out of their graves and dominate the minds of millions of moviegoers the world over.

This year, it’s especially true with the release of the rebooted slasher franchise, Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis.

All of this led us at the Mind at War.com to ask ourselves the question we just know you’re asking too…

Just what is the Horror Movie Genre, and how has it changed over the years?

Mystery Man Of The Ages

Before Hollywood’s most twisted minds came up with Mike Myers, Freddy Kruger, or Jason Voorhees, a guy was living centuries before who had the whole Horror Genre figured out.

This was a guy whose culture didn’t celebrate Halloween, had never seen a horror movie, and hadn’t even thought up the idea of candy.

Who was this mystery man, and how did he put the puzzle together before anybody else?

“Halloween, Meet Thucydides”

Our mystery man’s name was Thucydides. He lived in the days before the Roman Empire, in the time of the Ancient Greeks.

Thucydides was a combat veteran of the Peloponnesian War. He was a real leader of men.

He fought for the Athenians against Sparta…and ended up on the losing side.

The Peloponnesian War was the most earth-shattering event the Ancient Greeks had ever seen. It lasted for thirty years, involved all the Greek city states, and tore the beautiful Greek Culture apart at the seams.

By fighting against each other in the Peloponnesian War, the Greeks brought about their own demise, and opened the way for their conquest by Rome.

Thucydides had a front row seat to all of these things…literally. Because he had been in the thick of it, Thucydides felt that he had a duty to pass down the lessons he had seen to future generations.

So after he came home from combat to a world destroyed, he wrote his opus magnus…a monumental history book called The Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides 3 Movers

Of

Human Nature

In The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides chronicled the truth of the human condition. He had seen man at his best, at his worst, and every which way in between.

At the end of the day, Thucydides found out that Human Nature is based on three things:

  • Honor
  • Self-Interest
  • Fear

But just what are Self-Interest, Honor, and Fear?

What do these words mean?

How do these ideas connect together?

And how do they relate to the Horror movie?

Honor

Let’s take a look at each word in turn, then we’ll put them all together. First, let’s look at the word Honor.

Donald Kagan is a classicist. That means he studies the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds for a living. He’s also the world’s leading authority on the Peloponnesian War.

In his book, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, he defines Honor as:

“Deference, esteem, just due, regard, respect, or prestige” (Kagan 8).

Honor, more commonly referred to in our day as Value, only works when there are two things…one more valuable than the other.

In this way, Honor only functions in what culture critic Jack Donovan refers to as a hierarchy. He explains what this means in his book, The Way of Men:

“If everyone is honored equally, and everyone’s way of life is honored equally, honor has no hierarchy, and therefore, honor has little value… If honor is to mean anything at all, it must be hierarchical” (Donovan 53-54).

Conflict then, is a competition of values between two parties…a competition for Honor.  

Tom Rath, business thinker and associate of the late psychologist Don Clifton, best stated this truth in his book, Strength Finder 2.0:

“Competition is rooted in comparison…If you can compare, you can compete, and if you can compete, you can win” (Rath 69).

Many times, this competition is one unto the death.

Self-Interest

If a competition is unto the death, then the prize of Honor is life.

Because Honor is life, it is in the Self-Interest of each competitor to win. Self-Interest and Honor become synonymous…because nobody is Self-Interested in dying.

Honor and Self-Interest go further than just preserving one’s own life…it is also about preserving one’s own Way of Life.

What is a Way of Life?

A Way of Life consists culture, traditions, shared values. It’s about beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong, and how people should treat each other in light of that.

Those who die not only lose their Honor of Life…they lose the Honor of their Way of Life.

This was what happened to the Greeks when they fought each other to a standstill.

In the Peloponnesian War, nobody won…both sides beat each other. Because of that, the Greek Way of Life was destroyed, and was washed away on the crashing waves of the Roman Empire.

Fear

We’ve seen how it is in one’s Self-Interest to preserve the Honor of Life in a Competition unto Death.

Fear, however, makes one doubt that the goal of Honor is possible.

If any man ever walked the earth to know Fear, it was Nigel Kneale.

Nigel Kneale was the writer of the pioneering 1950s Horror and Sci-Fi TV series, Quartermass. His writing captured such emotional depths that it set the tone for the entire television medium, earning him the title of “the man who invented popular TV.”

In fact, it was his work that inspired the infamous horror writer Stephen King and the director John Carpenter…creator of the Halloween franchise being re-released this year.

In a quote from Paul Wells’ book, The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch, Kneale explains :

“Horror is what you might feel if you went, for example, into a jungle, to a place where you had lost all your bearings, where you were no longer sure of anything. A place where you began to suspect that there was something present which you couldn’t pin down; something which you wouldn’t be able to identify but which would be dangerous and could destroy you” (Wells 11-12).

“Dangerous and could destroy you”…the possibility that your goal of the Honor of Life in a Competition unto Death is unattainable.

In other words, Fear.

The Bottom Line

It’s in your Self-Interest to preserve the Honor of Life in a Competition unto Death.

Fear makes you doubt that the goal of Honor is possible.

If Fear is allowed to run rampant, it brainwashes you to believe that the goal of Honor is is impossible…leading to defeat, despair, and death.

First in the mind, then in the body.

How does this influence to the Horror Movie Genre?

Find out in our next article…”Philosophy of the Horror Genre…Part 2!”…coming next week in time for Halloween!

Sources Cited

Donovan, Jack. The Way of Men. Milwaukie: OR: Dissonant Hum, 2012.

Kagan, Donald. On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. New York: Anchor Books, 1996

Rath, Tom. Strength Finder 2.0. New York: Gallup Press, 2007.

Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London: Wallflower Publishing Limited, 2000.

Further Reading: Thucydides

Kaplan, Robert D. Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.

Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Trans Richard Crawley (1878). Ed. Robert D. Strassler. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Further Reading: The Horror Genre

Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots Why we tell stories. New York: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2006.

Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2005.

Tudor, Andrew. Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1989.

Williams, Dr. Stanley D. The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006.

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