Stephen Asma on "The Horrors of Category Jamming"
Professor of Philosophy
Columbia College Chicago
Stephen Asma, in an article "Monsters on the Brain: An Evolutionary Epistemology of Horror" (Social Research: An International Quarterly, Volume 81, Number 4, Winter 2014, pp. 941-968), attempts to get to the essence of horror, and here's a sample of his analysis, in which he speaks of fear arising from "category mismatch," "category jamming," or "category transgression," though he also finds weaknesses in an overly cognitive approach to horror:
Research in the development of cognition and emotions demonstrates that the effects of stimuli on the organisms are delicate matters of degree. Moderate perceptual variations (for example, meeting subtly different creatures) from previously known schema only produce arousal and attention in the perceiver, not fear. When Ichabod Crane, or anybody in this genre, encounters a menacing headless person, their fear might be broken down and analyzed in terms of cognitive mismatch. Perhaps the sight of a combined normal (human) and abnormal (headless) creature bearing down on one is a mental confusion between what should be the case (having a head) and what is the case (no head). And perhaps this confusion produces fear as an automatic secretion from the cognitive tangle.The article is long, at 27 pages, but useful for readers interested in horror. Asma even considers H. P. Lovecraft's theory of horror on pages 955-966, for readers interested in Lovecraft's writings. I'm also interested in the ideas of Mary Douglas - I even wrote a review article on a new edition of her major publication - way back in the 1990s! And Asma's analysis might offer clues on improving my own 'horror' stories!
Of course, in this kind of rational reconstruction, one feels a little like a dullard trying to give a scientiﬁc explanation of a successful joke. In the order of felt experience, the fear is primary and doesn't seem to need an intellectual/cognitive glitch to kick-start it. In some important sense, Ichabod is not afraid because he's undergoing a categorial mismatch - he's afraid because a headless monster is bearing down on him. Isn't that good enough to cause fear in the protagonist and fear in the audience - do we really need a cognitive theory to explain it? But then we are forced back, given the experimental research of Hebb and Schleidt, to asking why fears are associated with certain experiences and not others. There seems to be some undeniable cognitive component to monster fear. Is the headless man particularly scary (when compared with the moustache-less man or the hatless man) because we've never experienced such an anomaly, or because we have some deep conceptual understanding that heads are essential for human life? And therefore, is the headless monster a multiple piece of "category jamming" - both morphologically incoherent and also transgressing the categories of animate and inanimate?
The philosopher of horror Noel Carroll invented this term "category jamming" and makes an argument that ﬁts quite nicely with Hebb's and Schleidt's mismatch theory. Carroll (1990) arrives at his own mismatch theory by noticing that most horror monsters are disgusting as well as threatening. Carroll follows the argument of British anthropologist Dame Mary Douglas (1921–2007), who posited that human beings appear especially disgusted by "impurity." Things that we ﬁnd impure, and consider as abominations, are usually interstitial entities - in between normal categories of being. For example, blood, feces, spit, snot, and vomit all blur the usual categories of me and not me, or human and not human. Pushing this idea of transgressing categories further, Carroll extends the unsettling aspect of interstitial awareness to the experience of all monsters in horror genres. The argument is made more compelling by the fact that so many monsters are depicted as truly disgusting. One thinks of the mucus-like slime oozing off most aliens, or the gelatinous blob monsters, or the undulating goopy transformations of shape-shifters, or the viscous twisting of monster reproduction.
Carroll thinks that it is this cognitive slippage, invoked by monsters, that explains why we are both repelled and drawn to horror ﬁlms and novels. The fascination or arousal produced by categorial mismatch is the solution to the paradox of why we seek out an experience that is at least partly unpleasant. This argument has compelling features, but also seems slightly too cognitive and intellectual (that is, pertaining to the conscious mind) and not sensitive enough to the unconscious noncognitive aspects of monster fascination. (948-949)
Moreover, Asma's thoughts on horror come to me at an opportune time, for I'm currently editing an interesting paper that offers a feminist analysis of the monsters and cyborgs in the work of the Korean artist Lee Bul, and the feminist literary critic that I'm reading offers views consistent with Asma's points, which thereby gives me more to think about as I prepare my advice.