Horror as a Shield from Madness

Horror tends to stay closer to a less-optimistic reality than other genres. It’s not afraid to kill the protagonist, let the bad guy win, or leave the wicked unpunished. Perhaps this explains why the genre has not traditionally held popularity in mainstream media; while often garnering a cult following, horror doesn’t often maintain the spotlight because it offers a version of reality that most would rather not acknowledge.

It’s an under-appreciated and often-hated, genre because it’s not afraid to explore the darkness that lurks within all of us–the darkness that’s inherent in human nature. It makes us afraid because it holds up a mirror that reflects not just the good, but the bad and the ugly too. It gives life to the impulses that most of us ignore or pretend not to feel. It explores the mind of the psychopath, the deranged, and sometimes, it asks us to sympathize.

Horror often attempts to challenge the limits of psychological tolerance. It asks you to contemplate the dark truths of life, the “what ifs” that you don’t want to accept as a possibility. It shows us things that we’re afraid to see but too curious not to see. Whether its the classic horror obsessed teen or the elderly couple watching the nightly news, everybody finds an outlet for reveling in the grotesque. This undeniable attraction to horror must indicate that it does something for us, whether we conscious realize it or not.

The Theory 

In his article “Madness: Terror and Necessity–thoughts on Winnicott”, Christo Joannidis draws from psychological theory to consider the necessity of terror and to understand our psychological responses to it. He writes that “various psychotic manifestations, be they delusions, hallucinations, schizoid withdrawal, catatonic states, or foreclosure of experiences, are the not madness per se, but a defense against it” (54). That is to say, according to Joannidis, that the psychological manifestations of madness are actually our mind’s attempt to combat true psychological destruction.

He takes the argument further by suggesting that our social institutions have accommodated this necessity by allowing for controlled madness, of sorts. That is, we’ve created traditions that allow us to lose ourselves within a semi-controlled environment. Joannidis writes:

“What if it is the remembering of the madness within that has created institutions of social akrasia such as the Roman Saturnalia and their orgies or the ritualistic events described in Euripides Bacchae?” (57). 

If this is a possibility, then the question becomes, in what ways does our contemporary society account for the necessity of madness? I propose that this is where the rise of horror fiction might be explained. Reading about horrific happenings, particularly well-written stories that persuade us to sympathize with the people committing horrific acts (or silently bearing witness to them), provides a safe and cathartic experience of madness. It shields us from the dark impulses that we all feel by allowing us to experience those impulses through an outside entity–the story and its characters.

Horror fiction, especially that which closely mirrors reality, would be understood as a shield from madness. To apply this theory, I will offer a reading of a short story based on an actual event.

Harlan Ellison’s The Whimper of Whipped Dogs 

Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” fictionalizes the events of an actual murder in what seems like an attempt to explain how such a heinous event could take place.

Ellison’s story is based on the 1964 murder of Catherine Genovese outside her apartment in Queens, New York. Though there’s some dispute over how many witnesses saw and to what extent they understood the crime they were witnessing, there were at least a dozen who saw the crime in progress, a few of whom knew that Genovese had been stabbed. The story piqued social scientists to study the bystander effect, and inspired Ellison to probe the human psyche by fictionalizing the event.

Within the story, the protagonist, Beth, is one of the witnesses. Ellison begins with a description of the murder, keeping relatively close to the known details of the event:

“On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. She was one of twenty-six witnesses to the ghoulish scene, and, like them, she did nothing to stop it” (118). 

From this point, the story follows Beth through the psychological aftermath of witnessing such an event. In response to the trauma, she begins to see the world differently, focusing more and more on the ways in which people are cruel and unkind. In response, she begins to fray, becoming more unkind herself. This is the beginning of her descent into madness–the coping mechanism she utilizes to deal with the trauma of witnessing a murder.

The relatability of her change allows readers to feel the trauma with her, without having witnessed a murder. As she’s haunted by scenes from the stabbing, readers share in that fictional memory:

“She could not blot the scenes of the night before from her mind; she re-ran them again and again, every moment of that reaper arm playing over and over as though on a short loop of memory. The woman’s head thrown back for silent screams. The blood. Those eyes in a fog” (121). 

As Beth’s mental state weakens, she takes an abusive lover, Ray. She tolerates his ill treatment because she’s afraid, and he offers her a sense of protection. He is the physical shield that she hopes will save her from harm, both from the outside world and from her psychological degeneration. Ray serves a purpose to readers as well; his insights on human nature help explain the murder, which perhaps alleviates the personal stress associated with witnessing a horrific act. In response to his cruelty toward her, Ray explains to Beth that he cannot help it, that it’s part of living among so many. He says:

“They take rats and they put them in boxes and when there are too many of them, some of the little fuckers go out of their minds and start gnawing the rest to death” (125). 

He further explains that the city has made him crazy:

“I’ve lived in this great bit snapping dog of a city all my life and I’m mad as a mud fly, for crissakes!” (125). 

This is an interesting moment in terms of understanding madness because Ray is meant to be the protector, yet he is a manifestation of the city’s madness. He’s both a shield and a weapon. Though he hurts Beth, like madness, he also protects her–coming to her aide at the end of the story when she’s attacked by an intruder. In the final scene, she gives herself over to the madness of the city, and the madness that her protector represents. In giving herself over, she finds safety and peace:

“As Ray’s naked body pressed tightly against her, she drank deeply of the night, knowing whatever voices she heard from this moment forward would be the voices not of whipped dogs, but those of strong, meat-eating beasts. At last she was unafraid, and it was good, so very good, not to be afraid” (131).

When read in this manner, the story works on readers in two ways. First, it’s a cathartic brush with madness that we experience along with the protagonist that helps us cope with our own dark impulses. Second, it illustrates the ways in which madness can bring about peace and psychological healing.

Experiencing horror is a way to understand and embrace the madness that dwells within each of us. It’s a coping mechanism for things we don’t know how to explain, and it’s a shield from complete alienation of the self. It’s a socially-sanctioned outlet for temporary madness and psychological relief.


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