The Grotesque in Modern Horror
Anthony Servante, PhD
Toward a Definition of the Grotesque and Irony
The noun Grotesque comes from the Italian word "grotta" for underground, what we would call sewers today. The distinction between lit places above-ground and dark habitations below-ground served critics who focused solely on darker works in Art and Literature. The adjective grotesque describes facets of such works. The various approaches to defining the Grotesque include perception, imagination, and irony.
Let's begin our definition with some examples of perception.
Human perception includes touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. The tactile sense is responsible for our sensory understanding of tangible or concrete "reality", real objects in the real world (a chair, for example). Even in the dark we can determine the chair's properties by touch: back, seat, four legs, wood, height, et cetera. The Grotesque enters when touch fails or falters to perceive what is no longer real or misconstrues the properties (thinking the chair is a dog, as an extreme example). The failure of the tactile is more subtle than an error. When a person has a leg amputated, he can still feel the leg, even though it is no longer there, no longer "real". This phenomenon is called "phantom limb pain". Therefore, the experience of touching something outside of reality we can refer to as grotesque perception.
Visual acuity also follows a similar path as the tactile experience. What we see in a mirror is not us: it is the inversion of ourselves. That scar on your right hand appears on your left hand in the mirror, but your mind accepts that they are both the same hand, when they are not in fact. In another example, when we turn a picture of rivets upside-down, they appear to be dimples rather than protrusions. This also holds true of the moon's craters, which are actually mounds, depending on your view or perception. So, the Grotesque here relies on what the mind accepts as real.
Aural, olfactory, and taste perceptions can be understood along these lines without going into too much detail. We hear things that aren't there or things that are there but heard as something else (it must have been the wind, a cliche by now). We smell something good and it tastes terrible. Something that looks terrible (a fried grasshopper or escargot) but tastes delicious. Our perceptions lean toward a reliable interpretation of reality, and when they fail, we perceive grotesque dimensions that can only be entered by a failure of perception.
The human imagination takes over when perception fails. You are riding your bike, a bug flies in your mouth, and you gag till your vomit. It turns out you merely swallowed a leaf. This is a grotesque experience. Someone taps you on the shoulder, you turn around, and no one is there. It turns out your sweater shifted and it felt like a tap. You imagined an unreal bug and an unreal person, but for an instant, they were real. This false reality is the Grotesque. It is the face at the window staring at you when you know there's no one there. It is the person you glimpsed in the kitchen when you know you are alone in the house. (In no way do I include medical conditions as schizophrenia that cause people to hear voices, as this enters chemical understanding, which is not necessary here). We imagine things to fill the gap left by the perception's failure.
Which brings us to Irony. When we intent or cause the perception to fail by word or gesture, we manipulate how the gap of misperception will be filled. In Wayne C. Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony, he establishes four steps for defining irony, the most important being "reconstruction" of "intent". As one example Booth uses Chaucer's line, "My wit is short, you may well understand." He just called the reader "stupid" (intent). The reader must deconstruct "well understand" short wit to mean "You only understand stupid (short wit) things" (reconstruction). Chaucer appears to be complimenting the reader when he is in fact mocking him.
As such, when the writer intends the reader to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning from his writing, he is employing Irony. So, in this sense, we are not using the classic definition of the word, which is incorrectly defined as the opposite of what is said, calling the fat man thin, for example. This is sarcasm, one of the tools of Irony, not irony itself.
"Four steps to reconstruction:
Reader must reject the literal meaning – recognize a dissonance between what he reads and what he knows
Reader must try out alternative interpretations – eg that guy must be crazy
Reader makes a decision about the author’s knowledge or beliefs
Reader chooses a new meaning based on his beliefs about the author."
(A Rhetoric of Irony 1974)
Let's consider Night of the Assholes by Kevin L. Donihe. Our initial perception is Night of the Living Dead. We are wrong and reject it. It must be a typo. No, the author intended us to misperceive it; therefore, Night of the Assholes is legit. The gap (no Living Dead) is filled by Assholes. The irony is that the author intended the work as a parody of Night of the Living Dead. Keep in mind that we are examining these steps slowly; for many, irony is perceived in an instant, while, for others, it takes a few seconds before the "ohhh" moment is realized ("My wit is short, you may well understand", remember?). So, now we have a working definition of the Grotesque and Irony.
How then do we apply the Grotesque to works of Horror? Well, quite simply, we first need to distinguish the tools of Irony (parody, absurdism, satire, sarcasm, et cetera) as well as distinguish the sub-genres of the Grotesque (horror, terror, weird, strange, odd, bizarro, supernatural, et cetera).
Which is where we will pick up in our next chapter.
The Grotesque, Horror, and Sub-Genres