As promised, and in honor of Halloween, I'm launching a series of posts about narrative compassion in horror films.
This has been a research paper fantasy of mine for awhile now. But I'm not an academic, really, and I don't have the discipline to do a properly researched paper. I can, however, write blog posts (believe it or not).
What is narrative compassion?
There may already be a term for this, but essentially, narrative compassion is the empathy and understanding that the narrative (whether book/film/comic/game/etc) shows towards antagonistic characters. Does the story encourage us to see them as people, or are they the Other?
This is separate from whether the characters show compassion. A character can show compassion to another, but that other is just a tool to show how Good that character is. Similarly, a story can be full of characters who are always cruel and yet each character is a fully realized human that the audience can empathize with. You could say that it's the compassion a writer has for her characters, but that would imply that a story with little compassion has a heartless author, and there are many other reasons a story can lack compassion. I prefer to treat the narrative as its own entity.
Best understood by example
Probably the best way to understand what I mean is through example. The one that always pops up in my mind as almost completely lacking in compassion is the 2011 tv mini series of Stephen King's Bag of Bones
In Bag of Bones
, a 1930's black singer Sara Tidwell is raped by a group of white men, and she & her daughter are murdered to cover up the crime. Conveniently, she is also a witch, and so she lays a curse on her attackers: they & their descendants will drown their daughters, just as they drowned hers. The curse seems to be more directed at the daughters than the men themselves; even after little Kyra's father dies, other men take his place in the curse and try to kill her. The only way to stop the curse & save her is for Mike, the heroic lead, to destroy Sara's bones with lye.
This is the difference between a tragic backstory and showing a character as a fully realized person. While we are shown her tragic past, the story focuses almost entirely on the monster that she's become. The horror is not the atrocious crime committed against her & her daughter; it's the lives destroyed by her curse. Kyra's father, who was murdered by her mother in an attempt to thwart the curse. Max, Kyra's grandfather, who commits suicide. The other children who died because of the curse. In the final confrontation, Mike says how sorry he is about what happened to her, but the emphasis is put on how innocent Mike & Kyra are of wrongdoing. And in the end, she is stopped not by being appeased, not by finally getting justice, but by having her bones, the only evidence of what happened to her, completely destroyed. She is robbed of her life and her humanity, and is treated like a rabid animal that must be put down.
Bag of Bones
uses tragedy to explain the horror, but it never really engages with Sara's humanity. The viewer isn't encouraged to feel empathy for her suffering, only terror at her implacable anger and catharsis at her defeat. She is not treated as a person deserving of compassion.
Is there a cultural component?
Silly question, in a way. Of course culture is a factor. But what role does culture play? Are some cultures more likely to have compassionate narratives than others? The only way to find out is to watch a lot of horror. Wow, such hardship.
Next week I'll do a write-up of One Missed Call
, a Japanese horror film from 2003. After that I'll work my way through my Netflix options. If you have any suggestions, send them my way!