The Body as a Site of Horror

February 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

Horror can be defined as the feeling excited by something shocking or fear-inducing[1]. The physical or represented form of the body certainly can induce these feelings given the appropriate circumstances and contexts. The present paper will discuss the possibility of the body as a site of horror, not only physically but also within the mind, such as the corruption of morality and the effects this has regarding the body. This will involve the inclusion of the gothic tropes of entrapment and monstrosity, and how these may enhance the elements of horror within the body.

Other definitions of horror state that it is constructed from ‘alarmingly concrete imagery designed to induce fear, shock, revulsion and disgust’[2],[3]. Fred Botting notes that ‘horror is evoked by encounters with objects and actions that are not so much threatening as taboo’[4] and states that ‘horror appears when fears come a little too close to home’[5]. In other words, immoral objects and actions that are restricted in society, and the reality of why they are prohibited is what induces the fear associated with horror. Douglass H. Thompson claims that ‘elements of horror render the reader incapable of resolution and subject the reader’s mind to a state of inescapable confusion and chaos[6]’. Therefore, fear in the reader of gothic literature is also due to the impossibility of a resolution and the anarchy this causes in the mind. Entrapment may be defined as the ‘condition of being entrapped or caught by artifice’[7] or to bring someone ‘into a position of difficulty or danger’[8]. Entrapment, therefore, is a device for horror used in gothic literature, as the sense of containment and claustrophobia contribute towards a sense of helplessness[9], generating fear in the character or reader. One may experience physical entrapment, such as being trapped inside a space without the relief of escape, although the present paper will also focus on mental entrapment. If one is mentally entrapped, they are ‘being confined to a certain state of mind’[10], eventually leading to madness or becoming trapped within one’s own impenetrable mentality. Monstrosity describes something that is ‘abnormally developed or grossly malformed’[11], and in the eighteenth century, the label ‘monster’ signified ugliness, irrationality and unnaturalness[12]. The elements of entrapment and monstrosity may certainly induce feelings of fear, shock and disgust, and therefore horror.

Oscar Wilde’s novel Dorian Gray certainly elicits feelings of horror by producing fear, shock and disgust in the reader and in the characters. As the novel begins however, we understand that the titular character is someone beautiful, likened to mythical Greek men who are renowned for their appearance: ‘this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose leaves … my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus’[13]. Furthermore, the reader discovers that aside from his physical appearance, Dorian may also be considered beautiful within, as he is described as having ‘something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there as well as all youth’s passionate purity’[14], suggesting him to also be innocent and moral. The initial introduction of Dorian does not frighten or alarm, suggesting that the body cannot be a site of horror so long as it is beautiful. One of the first instances of horror occurs within Dorian’s own mind. Through Henry Watton, Dorian realizes the value of his beauty and begins to fear for the deterioration of his looks and youth: ‘Now wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so? […] When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you […] we never get back our youth’[15]. It is Dorian’s internal fear and anxiety of possessing nothing worthwhile that begins his pursuit of immoral pleasure and self-destructiveness, which ‘becomes increasingly (and misguidedly) desperate in his pursuit of beauty’[16], suggesting that it is the anxieties within his mind that are the cause for the vast majority of other horrors within the novel.

Dorian’s fear of aging may be considered a form of gothic entrapment as well as a device for horror, as initially, he is literally and physically trapped within his own decaying body: ‘the life that was to make his soul would mar his body. He would become dreadful, hideous and uncouth’[17] […] ‘Youth is the only thing worth having. When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself’[18]. At this point it becomes clear that the revelation of his own beauty has altered his mind, also suggesting mental entrapment. In addition, Dina Al-Kassim writes that Dorian’s body is ‘frozen in a narcissism that is the product of influence’[19], further suggesting that ‘his narcissistic entrapment’[20] now resides within his own immorality, which is a consequence of his beauty. Dorian states that Basil’s compliments ‘had not influenced his nature’, but he is aware that Harry’s words evidently have been influential[21]. Dorian himself seems to feel the revelation of aging physically, ‘as if a hand of ice had been laid upon his heart’[22], thus cementing the mental entrapment of the realisation that there is no escape from his aging body. When Basil Hallward views the decaying image of Dorian’s body, he is undoubtedly shocked at what his artwork has become: ‘an exclamation of horror broke from the painter’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him’[23], suggesting horror to be in the bodily form. Although, as Luckhurst notes, ‘Victorians, trained in moral physiognomy, believed that sin was written on the body, so despite the ugly rumours, no one can believe anything ill of the unageing beauty of Dorian’[24]. This confirms that Basil is not only shocked at the appearance of the portrait, but also in shock that Dorian must have committed such awful acts for the portrait to appear so deformed[25]. In this instance, it is Dorian’s physically preserved beauty that acts as the device of horror, due to the stark contrast between his physical beauty and his mental immorality represented in the portrait.

This also reveals the degree of mental entrapment Dorian experiences. He is aware that he has corrupted his soul, but this does not suggest he is entirely comfortable with his situation. After murdering Basil, it is not remorse or guilt he feels but relief: ‘The friend who had painted the fatal portrait to which all his misery had been due had gone out of his life. That was enough’[26]. That his ‘misery’ is acknowledged suggests that although he has had his ‘prayer’ answered in remaining young, he is fundamentally unhappy. Perhaps there is a battle within his mind between the corrupt, pleasure-seeking Dorian and the charming, innocent Dorian from the past, and he is literally trapped within his own mind arguing his own morality. Thus, the ‘true’ Dorian is trapped within himself and the moral consequences of his choices. The goodness in Dorian’s mind seems to prevail towards the end of the novel when he decides he is ‘going to be good’[27], but this results in Dorian’s shock that his good actions have not altered his portrait and further, his soul. Raitt notes that ‘instead of being invigorated by looking at the portrait, by the end of the novel Dorian feels only fear when he thinks of it. Instead of protecting him, it seems to threaten him […] it’s very existence makes him vulnerable to exposure[28]. This leads him to fear the image of his body and the representation of corruption and evil it has become, revealing not only his painted body to be a site of horror, but the conflict and resulting madness in his mind to be also.

In H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, the body is shown to be a site of horror explicitly so in the form of the beast-folk. On a superficial level, this horror is firstly presented in the explicit mutilation of live animal bodies in the form of vivisection, which in turn results in the creation of monsters. The original definition of a monster is a ‘creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms’, and later, more general definitions add that a monster is a creature that is ‘large, ugly and frightening’[29]. It is undeniable that the beast-folk fit into both early and later definitions, as they literally are human-animal hybrids which induce fear due to their deformed bodies. Multiple times in the novel, the creatures are referred to as ‘monsters’ by both Prendick and Moreau, cementing their place in the category of horror. Contemporary critics were clearly affected by Wells’ hybrid creations, stating ‘the horrors described by Mr Wells in his latest book very pertinently raises the question of how far it is legitimate to create feelings of disgust in a work of art[30]’. That they were disgusted in the human-animal hybrid concept as well as their physical descriptions proves that the body is indeed a site of horror.

The possibility of the vivisection of men would encourage feelings of horror in the contemporary readers of Wells’ novel, not only causing fears of pain due to ‘the arbitrariness and indifference to suffering’[31] but also ‘the stress on blood and the business of surgery would have added to the distaste’[32] of the novel and increasing contemporary fears of the horrors of science. These readers may fear that scientists have the same attitude as Moreau, particularly his disregard for pain: ‘I have never troubled the ethics of this matter’ […] ‘pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven or hell’[33]. Regardless of the vivisected individual being man or beast, the brief but gory representation seen in the novel would be enough to excite the readers’ imagination for the true horrors of vivisection and further, science, leading the readers to fear the possibilities of science upon the body, showing it to be a site of horror. However, they are only fearing the possibility of such outcomes, and thus this also suggests again the mind being the site of horror as this is where the anxieties reside. Chris Danta confirms this by stating that ‘the manufacture of quasi-human monsters […] might strike the reader as incredible, Wells wants to claim that this is nonetheless possible […] in other words, as telling the kinds of things that might – scientifically – happen’[34]. Furthermore, there is the consistent theme of evolution and degeneration in the novel. The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871 ‘had by the 1880’s and 1890’s been assimilated, initially by the scientific community and then by much of the general public’[35], and despite Origin of Species ending ‘with an extremely positive exhortation that man was evolving always upwards towards perfection’[36], fears emerged that ‘if it was possible to advance up the evolutionary scale it was equally possible to decline’[37]. This firstly shows the body to be a site of horror as humans were found to be closely linked to ‘primal’ animals through anatomical evidence, which is also pointed out by Moreau to Prendick, ‘the great difference between man and monkey is in the larynx’[38]. Bergonzi notes that readers would have taken offence at the suggestion that ‘there is no essential differences between man and animal, nothing which cannot be affected by surgical manipulation’[39]. As Moreau’s creations are ‘an attempt to link beasts to “superior” humanity[40]’ this would have lead readers to doubt their biological superiority. McNabb states that at the time, many believed that ‘humans were a perfected species; for others, they would soon be so. Very little in the Victorian world experience contradicted this, but Wells was keen to rectify this misconception’[41], doing so through presenting the similarities between man and beast in his creations. The resulting fear that humans are not as perfect as originally believed certainly would have evoked feelings of fear and disgust in contemporary readers. When Prendick first encounters Moreau’s creations, he regards them as deformed but still human: ‘He was, I could see, a mis-shapen man […] the facial part projected, forming something dimly suggestive of a muzzle, and the huge half-open mouth showed as big white teeth as I had ever seen in a human mouth’[42]. This explicitly relates to the trope of monsters and monstrosity, with these creatures being unnaturally abnormal and malformed, setting them further apart still from the human ideal. Ania Rucinska writes that ‘while monsters in Moreau are humanoid, their physical familiarity to people is both a source of empathy and discomfort’[43] as again, Wells is showing the close link between man and beast. Danta also notes that ‘what shocks Prendick about the Beast People […] is their literal anthropomorphism. As they cannot help but betray their animal origins to him, their semblance of humanity becomes for them the very source of their monstrosity’[44]. It is important to note that in Wells’ first draft, the beast folk lived in a more sophisticated community with built houses, books and even a police force; McNabb writes that ‘their society is a pale reflection of men’s, mirroring the rudiments of an ethical society’[45]. That Wells’ did not include this in the final draft is significant: the Victorian readers would have feared the close similarities between themselves and the beast-folk, further encouraging fears of degeneration seeing their own bodies and society mimicked by animals. When it is later revealed that these are in fact animals ‘manufactured’ to appear human[46], Prendick, as does the reader, although still shocked by the morality and ethics involving vivisection, seems to relax somewhat. This is due to humans viewing animals as inferior beings, and so whilst the ethics of mutilating the body of an animal are questionable, the circumstances are not as severe now that it is understood that humans are not being experimented on, suggesting that the body may only be a site of horror if it is the human body in question. The feelings of shock, fear and disgust elicited from the use of gore, vivisection and monstrosity certainly show the body to be a site of horror, as the body is where these actions and concepts take place. Abnormal appearances of beast men and partially grafted animals meet the descriptions of monstrosity, and the consequences of moral corruption for the sake of beauty result in entrapment both physically and mentally. Simultaneously, physical traits such as beauty may suggest that the body is not a site of horror, however there is sufficient evidence to prove that the primary site of horror may be the mind, for in both novels discussed, it is the possibility of what could be that produces feelings of horror, more so than actions done to the physical body itself. However, with the mind being a part of the brain and therefore the body, it is difficult to draw a distinct line between mental and physical features of horror, but it is undeniable that certainly to some degree, the body is a site of horror.

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