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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, November 22, 2014


(While in other essays I've used the terms "wonder" and "terror" to label experiences of sublimity in keeping with the marvelous phenomenality, for this essay only I'm going to use these two terms to replace, respectively, "sympathetic affects" and "antipathetic affects.")

“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.

Over the years I've specified several times-- most recently here-- that just because one phenomenon *may* have come first, it should never be assigned primacy, simply because of primogeniture. Burke, Otto, and Lewis all seem to give some primacy to the affects of "terror" over those of "wonder." Perhaps, like Lovecraft in the quote above, see the "brute man" of humankind's origins as being more moved by the emotions relative to physical survival than to the latter, since the latter affects depend on one's having some degree of perceived safety.

Having written so much about the affects recently, I wondered to what extent they appeared in the films of the uncanny that I've reviewed on NATURALISTIC UNCANNY MARVELOUS. I felt certain that I could find a good distribution of both "wonder" and "terror" in films of the marvelous. But many of my ten tropes were formulated in reaction to narratives dominantly concerned with "terror." Many of the tropes as I christened them even reference ideas of repulsion more than attraction, as with "freakish flesh" and "weird families and societies."

So I scanned over the lists of the reviewed films that had been filed under each trope, trying to determine whether indeed most of them were more dominated by "terror" than by "wonder." And sure enough, as if moviemakers had been in tune with Rudolf Otto himself, most of the uncanny films were based in terror-- UNLESS those tropes occurred in a film focused upon a wondrous hero, whose main purpose was to banish terrors with his life-affirming attitude.

For instance, though most of my films in the "phantasmal figuration" category centered upon kenotic figures of terror, like THE SMILING GHOST, some heroes, like THE PHANTOM, used "phony supernaturalism" to serve the cause of justice. Usually, though, in heroic narratives it's the antagonist, not the hero, who incarnates aspects of terror-- the "bizarre crimes" of Goldfinger, the "freakish flesh" of Dick Tracy's villains, the "exotic lands" faced by Tarzan, Bomba, and other jungle heroes. So obviously the only one of my ten categories to be dominated by the affect of wonder is "outre outfits, skills, and devices," even though all of the elements that fall under this rubric can and have been used by antagonistic figures as well.

Villains, as much as monsters, are also dominantly kenotic figures of terror, even though villains incarnate "idealizing will" rather than "existential will."  However, even today it's rare for villains, unlike monsters, to become the focal presences through which the audience receives its dominant affect.

Demiheroes in uncanny films present a complication. Often they don't inspire a lot of wonder, even when they are unquestionably the stars of the show, as is the Bob Hope character in 1939's THE CAT AND THE CANARY.  But when they are stars rather than simple viewpoint-characters, their triumph, however comic or ironic, still suggests life-affirming forces.  The most fruitful category with respect to life-affirming demiheroes was that of "delirious dreams and fallacious fragments."  Often, even though character would have to awaken from their dreams or their fictional imaginings at story's end, their encounter with the world of dream could be generally wondrous-- as in THE DAYDREAMER--  as easily as they could be filled with terror and confusion, as in both DREAMCHILD and HEAD.

Whether these observations lead me down any deeper pathways remains to be seen.

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