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Thinking Through Fear in Film and Haunts

  • Author(s): Bessette, Eliot;
  • Advisor(s): Williams, Linda;
  • et al.
Abstract

My dissertation advances a new methodology for studying horror cinema, which I call “thinking through fear.” This concept designates two mutually reinforcing approaches. First, I contend we can employ fear as an aid to thought or even a mode of thought. Second, we can figure things out about the structure and phenomenology of fear. If we treat the emotion as a meaningful and scrutable response to our environment rather than a crude reaction that is antithetical to higher thinking, we may find in fear a hidden intelligence. Film and haunts (immersive theatrical haunted house attractions) afford safe, aesthetically potent opportunities to experience fear and think through it; because fear is central to human nature, film and haunts are irreplaceable sites for studying emotions and ourselves.

In Chapter 1, I define what it means to think through fear, and I challenge the long philosophical history from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell that opposes fear to thought. I examine the intimate connection between various film styles (“high,” “low,” showing, concealing) and the corresponding types of fear generated. Lastly, I demonstrate how thinking through fear charts a path forward in horror studies that does not rely on subsurface interpretations of texts.

In Chapter 2, I think through fear with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and argue the film systematically depicts how strong emotion influences perception. I call this technique “emotional POV,” which can operate whether or not we share anyone’s literal or “optical POV.” There are three cases of emotional POV: Sally’s fear, Pam’s horror (as distinct from fear), and Leatherface’s anger. The contrast of fear with horror and anger demonstrates the applicability of the “thinking through fear” methodology to other emotions.

In Chapter 3, I dispute the predominant assumption in horror studies that we empathize with characters’ fear. I argue instead, through an analysis of Halloween (1978), that in response to horror films we most often fear non-empathetically, and we only empathize with characters’ fear in non-horror films, such as Saving Private Ryan (1998); we may empathize during horror films, but only with non-fear emotions, like love in The Babadook (2014). Lastly—with reference to M (1931) and Midsommar (2019)—I raise ethical problems with empathy, and in its place I propose compassion.

In Chapter 4, I investigate how thinking through fear changes when we move from film to haunts, especially “extreme haunts,” which incorporate aggressive physicality. I offer a brief history of frightening immersive entertainment spaces from the eighteenth century to the present. I consider the phenomenological shifts in fear when our entire bodies and every sense could be engaged. I argue extreme haunts have a different relationship to pleasure than almost any other fear-based art form, since the most extreme elements are categorically displeasurable. I conclude with a discussion of the co-optation of haunts by evangelical Christianity into “Hell Houses,” which frighteningly dramatize sin and damnation. Throughout, I draw on my firsthand experience of dozens of haunts and Hell Houses spanning ten states.

In the Conclusion, I argue fear itself can be an expression of freedom, and its dissolution can promote further experiences of freedom.

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