In her 1998 essay “The Aesthetics of Fear,” a revised version of a keynote address the author gave at a conference of the same name the year previously, Joyce Carol Oates asks the question that is central to an appreciation of horror fiction: “Why should we wish to experience fear, if only aesthetically?” Oates reaches back through the Western canon to adumbrate some of the ways significant books and authors have addressed the matter of aestheticizing fear, which she quotes H.P. Lovecraft as calling “the oldest and strongest emotion” humans are heir to.
While the examples of Bluebeard and Dracula are common and understandable, more surprising is the line Oates draws to ancient Greece, citing Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as “the earliest of our consummate art works of fear.” Perhaps The Odyssey, with its journey to the underworld and plentiful consort with monsters – the Cyclops, “the cannibal giants of Laestrygonia,” Scylla and Charybdis – is more readily comprehensible in this regard, but The Iliad? The great epic of war?
Seeing the subject of war itself as a locus of fear is not unreasonable, but Oates goes further: “The Greeks who constituted Homer’s audience would surely have recoiled in horror from scenes of actual brutality like those celebrated in the poems, as we would, but the strategy of the poems is to present horror through the prism of a reflective consciousness” – in other words, to aestheticize horror as a means of rendering it approachable.
“[T]he most haunting horror of the Odyssey,” Oates writes, “is probably, for most readers, the House of Death, where ‘burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home’; ghosts emitting ‘high thin cries / as bats cry in the depths of a dark haunted cavern.’ ” She points to the encounter with the ghost of Achilles, who tells Odysseus, “I’d rather slave on earth for another man – / … than rule down here over all the breathless dead,” neatly inverting the formula John Milton, writing some 1,400 years later, would give to his Satan in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.”
Satan‘s soliloquy in Book I of Milton’s epic provides another moment of primal horror being given an aesthetic refinement:
Farewell happy Fields Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time. The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
The idea that the “mind is its own place” cleaves to one of Oates’s key assertions in her essay: our most potent fear, Oates asserts, is a loss of meaning, and it is surely in the mind that meaning is created and understood. The artistic project of Gothic writers, or practitioners of the art of fear, is the imaginative venturing out into realms that we as humans otherwise elect to remain oblivious of or closed off to. Oates references Lovecraft again: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
The horror writer’s essential project is to venture out on those black seas of infinity and report back what they find there. To do so is not abnormal or deviant: by contrast, it is one of the core projects of human existence. As Oates concludes: “These fears, these anxieties, these recurring and compulsive nightmares, so powerfully dramatized by artists of the tragic and the grotesque through the centuries, are not aberrations of the psyche but the psyche’s deepest and most profound revelations. The aesthetics of fear is the aesthetics of our common humanity.”