Monday, August 17, 2015

Horror Theory: Schneider’s Hyperconstriction and Hyperexpansion

Kirk J. Schneider’s Horror and the Holy, Wisdom Teachings of the Monster Tale (1993) is an insightful and accessible book about psychological processes underlying the nature of horror.  He starts with an interesting premise: that horror entertainments—his focus is primarily on the cinema—can be classified along a continuum, from “hyperconstriction” to “hyperexpansion”. 

Both are deviations from the norm, and as their magnitude increases, our discomfort is amplified until it becomes horror, “…the world of the nightmare and the grotesque.”  However, an encounter with such extremes can be therapeutic if it leads to greater self-awareness and integration.  Schneider implies that horror entertainments, whether literature or film, are similar to the wisdom literature of various religions.  Studying them can facilitate “wholeness” or even “holiness”.

While not identical to my own suspicions, Schneider’s are certainly close in spirit.  In my view, horror entertainment, nightmare and religion exist in close symbiotic relationship with each other, a triumvirate forming a unity derived from a single substance, despite the superficial differences among their members—not unlike that other, more exalted Trinity you may have heard about.

The characteristics of the hyperconstricted mode include confinement, claustrophobia, diminishing life force, descent, retreat, and isolation.  Hyperconstriction directs one toward the grave—or toward the womb.  Taken to an extreme, it leads toward the experience of obliteration.  Schneider offers the film Dracula (1931) as an example of hyperconstriction, citing Harker’s incarceration in the vampire’s castle, Lucy’s seduction by the evil count, and Mina’s struggle against being overwhelmed by Dracula’s powers, among other vampire motifs.  In Schneider’s view, Van Helsing, the “professor” who rescues the other characters, is the most psychologically healthy.  He alone is able to integrate his awareness of the horror of Dracula with knowledge and reason, and so develop a plan to combat the evil.

The other end of the continuum is hyperexpansion, characterized by themes of extension, proliferation, enlargement, dispersal, acceleration and explosiveness—“…the nightmare of mania, the end-state of ruthlessness and disarray.”  Schneider feels that Frankenstein (1931) best exemplifies this mode of unfolding chaos.  (It is interesting that the monster and its creator’s name have been confused almost from the beginning.)  The hubris and megalomania of Dr. Frankenstein, the horribly ironic consequences of his experiment, and the ensuing chaos his creature brings about in the country side are hallmarks of the hyperexpansive mode.

These psychological tendencies occur in the individual to varying degrees, as well as in society, culture, and in art.  In the individual human being, extremes of one or the other modes lead to mental illness.  In societies, extreme forms of hyperconstriction or hyperexpansion result in tyranny on the one hand or chaos on the other.  In art, when these tendencies proceed unchecked and unceasingly in either direction, they produce tragedy and horror. 

This is not exactly a new idea, though Schneider has made clever and original use of it.  Friedrich Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy (1872) attempted to show how Greek culture, mythology and literature could be aligned along a continuum with Apollo at one end and Dionysus at the other—the two gods serving as personifications of order, restraint and intellect on one side, and passion, creativity and chaos on the other.  E.R. Dodds, in his classic study The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) explores similar notions in the context of classical Greek literature and mythology.  Both extremes are needed, but the tension between them is never resolved, and this conflict can be seen as a source of cultural creativity and development.

Schneider arrives at a sensible solution to these extremes, a “middle way”, that he calls “wonderment”: 

For the purposes of this study, wonderment combines the idea of inquiry (“to wonder about”) with enchantment (“to wonder at”).

He goes on to propose a way forward, at least psychologically, toward relative peace of mind:

Perhaps each of us, thanks to the recognition of wonderment, will be able to nurture the marvelous in the maddening and maddening in the marvelous, to achieve fuller lives…to become passionate people who master our passions.

Schneider applies his categories of hyperconstriction and hyperexpansion to other examples of classic horror.  He considers The Phantom of the Opera, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Invisible Man, and The Incredible Shrinking Man to be examples of the “hyperconstrictive”; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Birds, and Forbidden Planet are classified as “hyperexpansive”.  However, Vertigo and Alien defy easy categorization, containing elements of both modes—they are deemed examples of “bi-polar horror.”  

Amusingly, Schneider takes various famous monsters and shows how, with a bit more balance and reflection, (read, treatment) each might have succeeded in a particular field by applying their unique talents or habits.  At the time he published Horror and the Holy, Schneider was a psychologist at the “Center for Existential Therapy” in San Francisco, and so approaches Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with a very clinical perspective, as if they might have been actual patients. 

Thus the Phantom of the Opera might have applied his obsessive-compulsive nature to the composition of great music or architecture, Mr. Hyde might have channeled his reckless aggression into a successful political or acting career, and “Dracula…could have become a celebrated psychologist.” It is the most entertaining part of this thoughtful book.    

Schneider concludes his book by applying his insights to several case studies involving individuals suffering from schizophrenia, bi-polar syndrome, and depression, and then more broadly to problems in the fields of psychology, science, and religion.

Schneider’s approach seems relevant to an analysis of H.P. Lovecraft’s work.  Some examples that may be labelled hyperconstrictive—his primary mode—include Imprisoned with the Pharaohs (1924) In the Vault (1925), The Temple (1925), The Colour Out of Space (1927) and The Thing on the Doorstep, (1937), among others.  All of these emphasize darkness, depth, submersion, confinement and burial.  Lovecraft’s characters almost always descend, through stairwells, tunnels, caves and watery depths to find some soul shattering knowledge about the nature of reality.  (See also Looking Up and Looking Down (Mostly Down)). 

On the other hand, when Lovecraft’s characters and monsters ascend, as in the much anthologized The Outsider (1926), all hell breaks loose in a nightmare of unbridled freedom and terror—that is, when something invoked or discovered escapes its confines.  Some examples of his stories in the hyperexpansive mode would include Herbert West—Reanimator (1922), The Call of Cthulhu (1928) The Dunwich Horror (1929), and the The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943).  It would be interesting to examine a timeline of Lovecraft’s work to see whether oscillations between the hyperconstrictive and hyperexpansive modes coincide with events in his troubled life.

Over the past year—in fact, since a year ago today—The R’lyeh Tribune has examined different aspects of horror theory in an effort to obtain a deeper understanding of the genre, its origins and significance.  Interested readers may want to peruse these earlier posts:

(two part series)

(three part series)


Fans of the “psychic detective” subgenre may want to check out John Linwood Grant’s new blog, at  The tradition of the psychic detective begins somewhere around the time of William Hope Hodgson’s John Cornacki (circa the 1910s and 20s)—if not before—and is continuous with much later versions of this popular type of character—think of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, for example.  Grant also discusses horror literature in general at his site.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.