New book on philosophy of horror asks readers to confront their biggest fears

Flemish art philosopher and historian Dimitri Goossens released his first book, In de ogen van Medusa (In the Eyes of Medusa), earlier this month. This is the first book on the philosophy of horror to be published in Belgium and The Netherlands and the third book published on this subject internationally. The author focuses on the relationship between horror, art, death and society.

Death and the individual

In his new book, Goossens explores the origins of horror from a philosophical standpoint and how the genre has changed over the years to reflect an ever-changing societal climate and current events. While horror is generally associated with slashers and gore, the author attempts to go beneath the surface to link topics such as zombies and colonialism, women and society, the philosophical sublime, and why death affects the decisions of individuals.

The title of the book refers to “Our human inability to have a direct experience of death,” says Goosens, “You cannot look Medusa straight in the eye, just like you cannot experience death directly.” This concept of “impossibility” leads to a human fascination with horror and death, the author claims in his work.

According to Goossens, the heartbeat of the human condition can be found in horror as he says, “Horror and philosophy are both about existential questions that ask: What does it mean to be human?” The author refers to society’s fear and repression of the concept of death, "Death is the greatest mystery on earth. It raises big questions: What is the meaning of our lives? What are we doing here?”

Goossens points out that statistically, after pornography, horror is the most sought-after video rental or purchase made. He believes that the intrigue and engagement with these genres can be attributed to the bookends of life: sex/reproduction and death.

©Universiteit Antwerpen
©Universiteit Antwerpen

History of zombies

A significant focus of the book is on the rise in popularity of zombies in both films and television shows. Goossens delves into the colonial history of the creation of zombies, saying these monsters are, 'Where capitalist exploitation, colonialism, racism and religion come together.” The term “zombie” first appeared in the early 20th century and was used by a white expeditioner to create legends about his encounters with people in Haiti. This image aimed to depict Haitians as barbaric cannibals, which Europeans and Americans exacerbated in a bid to control the land. The history of defining indigenous people as “cannibals” has been used historically as a means of dehumanisation making colonisation or even extermination easier to implement.

The concept of zombies grew from there and eventually morphed into the familiar images on screen. American director George Romero used the idea of zombies to, in turn, criticise American society and make commentaries on consumerism, racism and the Vietnam War with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.

Women in horror

The genre's evolution also examines how women are depicted, “When it comes to the position of women, horror is a mirror of society. In Victorian horror stories, women are characterised as sensual or hysterical creatures. That says something about Victorian England's tense, highly conservative morals,” notes Goosens. In more recent films, women are often among the only survivors at the end, “They are the ones who are intelligent enough to survive in all the brutal violence. In this way, horror criticises the ideas of male bullies who think they don't have to listen to women,” the author concludes.

The book brings in the musings of philosophers such as Bataille, Nietzsche, Kristeva and Foucault to support Goossens’ arguments concerning how horror can be connected to the concept of the sublime and unease around abject behaviour. While he acknowledges that philosophy can be abstract and metaphysical, his book aspires to bring these points from the subconscious to the conscious in how people regard their own mortality.

Goossens, who previously appeared as the host of Fans of Flanders: Once Upon a Time, has given lectures on the topics of death, art and shocking images in Belgium and The Netherlands since 2012. He will give a lecture on topics covered in his new book at The University of Antwerp on 26 October from 19:30 until 21:30, which is open to the public.

#FlandersNewsService | ©FREDERIK DUSESOI and Cover Art by Kris Gevers

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