Sunday, November 4, 2018

Darryl Jones's "Sleeping with the Lights On"

Darryl Jones is Professor of English and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin, where he teaches nineteenth-century literature and popular fiction. His books include Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film, the Oxford World's Classics editions of M. R. James's Collected Ghost Stories, and Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson.

Jones applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Sleeping with the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror, and reported the following:
What’s happening on page 99? This page is towards the end of a chapter entitled ‘Horror and the Body’, and it’s part of a discussion of the very troubling post-millennial subgenre known as ‘torture porn’, exemplified by films such as Martyrs, The Human Centipede, Hostel, or Funny Games. Throughout the book, I’m concerned with defending horror against the generally ill-informed reactions of those who do not understand it, or who fear it, who think it is a dangerous genre because they believe that a tendency to watch violent acts leads inexorably to a tendency to commit violent acts. ‘The history of horror is also the history of outraged responses to horror’, I suggest. Torture porn, I think, comes closest to realizing the fears of censors and moral majoritarians that horror is simply empty sadism.

More specifically, page 99 begins by contextualizing torture porn within the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’, in a post-millennial culture of the normalization of torture, taking in, for example, photographs of abused prisoners from Abu Ghraib, the continuing extrajudicial use of Guantanamo Bay, media discussions about the ethics and utility of waterboarding, and the popularity of counter-terrorist entertainment thrillers such as 24. I initially thought 24 was a superbly-made series, with a brilliant real-time conceit, and a revelatory central performance by Kiefer Sutherland. But at some point I just stopped watching, as Jack Bauer increasingly relied on torture as a first resort, to be used immediately on whoever got in his way, including members of his own family. This struck me as deranged.

The page closes with a meditation on pain and the human body. Studies by, for example, Bob Brecher or Shane O’Mara have demonstrated that arguments for torture are philosophically empty, and that torture has no efficacy as a means of information gathering. But that’s not the point. The point is to demonstrate that the torturer has no moral limits, and thus to spread fear. The page closes with these words, which sum things up for me:
Our pain is inexpressible. Having no straightforward linguistic object, it lies beyond the limits of language, articulable only through imprecise similes (it is like burning, it is like torture, it is like death, it is worse than death), or else non-verbally (we scream, we howl, we cry). In our pain, we are uniquely alone and vulnerable. To exploit this vulnerability, knowingly to inflict extreme pain on others, is to place oneself beyond the boundaries of humanity.
Learn more about Sleeping with the Lights On at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue