Issue Editor’s Note: Contemporary Horror Films: Notes on Radical Acceptance
By Animesh Bag
You cannot haunt your house at will. It is a question of storm and fire. There have been times when mine rejected me. It withheld its assistance. The walls absorbed nothing. They lacked the great shadows of fire, the sheen of water. The more my house ignored me, the more I ignored it. This lack of exchange caused the deadlock…What one saw was this emptiness, an attic of emptiness, a dustbin of emptiness, an emptiness full to the brim. The ghost queued up in it (Cocteau 74).
Radical acceptance, philosophically, refers to the idea of accepting one’s painful banal existence. It considers that human suffering does not come directly from pain but rather from the emotional attachment every individual share with others. Even while grief and despair are natural responses, suffering comes in when the initial pain is prolonged as a result of a refusal to accept what has happened. Let me give you an example before I go into further of this concept of radical acceptance and how it is related to contemporary horror films. Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) ends with the baffling, sadistic smile of Dani looking at her boyfriend Christian burning alive. Earlier we come to know that the suicide by charcoal burning of Dani Ardor’s mentally disturbed sister, who also killed their parents in the apartment, has left her with a traumatic memory. Dani is unwillingly invited to join Christian and his friends on their trip to Sweden to celebrate the midsummer festival, despite the fact that Christian wishes to end their relationship. As a companion, Christian comes out careless, not emotionally supportive, and at times manipulative. Even under intoxication, he had sex with one of the Harga girls, which Dani witnessed. It caused her panic attack. She burst into tears while the women imitated her wailing. Things in this primitive, rural Harga community become gradually darker. In the final maypole ceremony, Dani who has been crowned as the May Queen must choose one person either a member of the commune or Christian among nine people who need to be sacrificed to purge the evil from society. Unexpectedly, she chooses Christian, who has been set on fire while still alive. She initially sobs in despair and horror with the other community members, but eventually, she starts to smile.
In spite of depicting bizarre rites, human sacrifice, and cult rituals, I would contend that this folk horror largely addresses the fear of a bad romance – about a partner who can be trusted both in intimacy and also when processing grief and pain. It alludes to the radical decision to get rid of someone or something beloved, accept solitude and solitary existence, and seek fulfillment afar. This film is neither romantic nor inspirational. It demonstrates how agonising the process of separation can be. This extreme manifestation of reality is made visible by Dani’s final choice to abandon her relationship with Christian in the form of his cruel death. Radical acceptance underlines this extremity when one must confront the terrible circumstances of life without striving to resist them further. Dani, thereby, smiles while losing everything in her life.
Perhaps, this is the new turn contemporary horror films conceive in the twenty-first century is to accept their monsters, ghosts, and zombies – the radical ‘Other’. Understanding the inevitable sorrow of human existence and its painful experience becomes an essential part of them. This ancient philosophical issue of what it means to suffer and endure pain was previously explored by Socrates, Aristotle, Dionysius, the polymath Al-Kindi, Buddha, and others. Modern horror films, for instance, Lars Von Trier’s The House that Jack Built (2018), take us on a similarly violent and dreadful journey to purgatory where Jack, an unfulfilled architect, and serial killer, repeatedly fails to construct his own small house. Psychoanalytically, Jack’s compulsion to kill people reveals his constant efforts to transform his sense of aesthetics into art, while his failure demonstrates the inevitable nature of suffering. This acknowledgment of sorrow and still being in its pursuit without running from it is what can be considered radical acceptance.
In this post-truth era, information is abundant and our memories are continually crammed with social media news that may be true, false, or even meaningless. Our memories are transient and fading because of the clutter of information overload that we scroll down every day. The positive characterization of a phenomenon becomes difficult with this communal loss of cultural memory. By using the mass media’s propagandist communication model, the public’s “permission” is manufactured nowadays. On the other hand, the world in the last decade observes fundamental humanitarian catastrophes: pandemics, religious fanatism, refugee crisis, the Russia-Ukraine war, and so on. We become afraid of “Other” in this maddening cultural tidal wave, whether it be racial, ethnic, or religious. Horror best serves the occasion in this perpetual state of distrust. We are only viewed as potential enemies to each other in the neoliberal market economy. The jumpscare, which frequently takes the shape of an abrupt sound effect, startling sight, or sudden abrupt scream in horror films, is tied to our ongoing anxiety about daily life. Horror captures the human angst, the peril of living, and the everyday horror-reality. It’s like never before questioning the human nature of embracing the ‘Other’ whether it be a diseased body, a racial other, or even sharing one’s own food and territory. However, this dialectic of acceptance is not so simplistic. It posits a significant question of assimilating the agency of the other.
According to Levinas’ philosophy, the central problem of the self-other dichotomy is the ontological assumption. The other gets assimilated to the self as the self is the producer or the meaning-maker of the world. The other lies in infinitude and is ultimately unreachable, beyond the grasp of the totality of knowing. The self, therefore, projects only its knowing onto the other. Levinas, thus, calls for the precedence of ethics to the self and its relation to the other. As per Levinas, feeling obligated to the other is not a choice made logically; rather, it is something that occurs and that one perceives as being ‘elected’, which makes the self, unique and indispensable to the other. The ethical imperative, which comes before all considerations, is to submit to the other and experience his suffering. It is like offering oneself as a ‘hostage’. Levinas concludes that the process of acceptance requires an openness to the other without any prejudice or pre-exist judgment. This opening, although, is not ‘receptivity’, when one remains in its self while receiving the outside other. Levinas calls it ‘passiveness’ which refers to the complete submission or surrender of oneself before the other without even determining the process.
In our present crisis-ridden world, we need this unadulterated openness to the other, where the other can live with their own subjectivity. Unlike any other genre, horror which generally thrives on its un-genericness captures this radicality of acceptance more poignantly. Rarely do modern horror films depict the struggle between good and evil or the triumph of good over evil. It is like breathing, as Levinas puts it, in which one lets oneself to the other, good or evil. This is most likely the reason Amelia in Babadook (2014, directed by Jennifer Kent) is finally able to confront Babadook. She realizes that she cannot escape from the trauma of her husband’s death. Amelia not only retreats Babadook to the basement but also feeds it earthworm in a bowl. She develops the ability to coexist with the monster in all of its monstrosity. The statements of Cocteau that our psyche needs an open interchange with our house or symbolically with our externality unless there will be only emptiness, are once again confirmed by Amelia’s final act. Radical acceptance of what modern horror films refer to defies this process of otherization. It discourages a priori knowing, rather opens oneself to the path of assimilation which our present world requires badly.
This special issue on contemporary horror films addresses these issues of differences including political, corporeal, sexual, ecological, and technological, among others.
Aster, Ari, director. Midsommar. A24, 2019.
Cocteau, Jean. The Difficulty of Being. Trans. Elizabeth Sprigge. Melville House Publication, 2013.
Kent, Jennifer, director. Babadook. Umbrella Entertainment, 2014.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburgh Duquesne University Press, 1969.
Von Trier, Lars, director. The House that Jack Built. TrustNordisk, 2018.
Animesh Bag is an Assistant Professor in the department of English, K.K Das College, Kolkata, India. He is presently pursuing PhD at Jadavpur University, West Bengal. He has completed M.Phil. from Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal. His edited volume, The World of Amitav Ghosh: Blending Aesthetics with Politics (2020) has been published from Prestige Books, New Delhi. His articles have been published in journals and books including Atlantic, Gangchil, Dibrugarh English Studies Journal, Mizoram Central University Journal of Literature and Culture Studies, Muse India, Yearly Shakespeare, among others. His forthcoming articles will be published from Routledge, Bloomsbury, Dey’s, and others. His related domains of specialization are 19th century studies, Postcolonial studies, Horror Literature, Critical Theory and Continental Philosophy.
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