Horror, Sci Fi, Taboo and Suicide

lanzagorta-happening-splshIn a recent post I made my own selections for the Premio Dardo Award, a blogger to blogger recognition of a sound contribution to weblogging. One of my selections was Dread Reckoning that is part of PopMatters, a magazine of cultural criticism and exploration. Dread Reckoning is the work of Marco Lanzagorta who goes into depth in his exploration of various cultural and social aspects of horror much as I do here at TheoFantastique. While I have great respect for the way in which the fantastic is probed at Dread Reckoning, of course this does not mean that I agree with every perspective offered in its commentary. In his most recent post Lanzagorta discusses a significant social issue raised at times by various horror and science fiction films, and with this post I will comment on my appreciation for aspects of this subject matter, but will also share areas of disagreement while urging continued dialogue over such issues and interaction with the fantastic that enables us to discuss difficult subject matter such as this. The reader should understand the personal perspectives and biases of mine that inform the commentary that follows, and these include different metaphysical perspectives from that of Lanzagorta, as well as personal experiences with the issue raised in his article.

In his most recent article titled “By One’s Own Hand, Then,” Lanzagorta points out that “horror is about transgressing boundaries and norms.” This means that horror portrays monsters or monstrous situations that allow us to project various issues which do not find expression within the normal venues of society. Lanzagorta, as well as other scholars, have noted that as a result horror films function as “partially sanctioned public venues where we can safely negotiate and articulate our fascination and/or dread of difference.”

One of the thorny social issues that have been raised in horror and science fiction is suicide. Lanzagorta draws attention to several films where this has been addressed in differing ways, including What Dreams May Come (1998), Constantine (2005), Soylent Green (1973), Videodrome (1983), and most recently, The Happening (2008). In Lanzagorta’s view, the latter three films touch on suicide most subversively in that they do so without recourse or conformity to the “moral and theological sphere.”

There are several things I agree with and appreciate about Lanzagorta’s treatment of this topic. First, he rightly draws attention to one of the helpful features of the fantastic (whether horror, science fiction or fantasy) in its ability to function as a venue for the exploration of difficult and taboo topics. The question remains as to whether or not the viewer will move beyond mere projection or surface flirtation with such topics in order to wrestle with the issues at hand, but the forum is available for those willing to take the journey. Second, Lanzagorta is correct that suicide needs to become part of the broader social discourse. Having lost a son, a brother-in-law, and most recently, a friend and neighbor to suicide, I have experienced the social stigma associated with this cultural taboo. In many Western cultures strides have been made in talking more openly about taboos such as sexual abuse but an unfortunate stigma still surrounds suicide which makes it more difficult to address this significant social problem.

Beyond this there are areas where I must disagree with Lanzagorta’s discussion in three main areas. First, he takes issue with moral and theological arguments that rule the day in forming social attitudes toward suicide, and while I agree that there may be other perspectives and voices that need to be brought into the public square in discussion of this important topic, I disagree that moral and theological arguments control the discussion (cultural perspectives that frame an issue are different than those that control it). Surely religion has not always been a force for good throughout history, in fact, many times it has been harnessed for harm, but this does not mean that current cultural perspectives on suicide informed by moral or theological arguments are necessarily harmful or unhelpful in wrestling with this issue. Second, I agree that different cultural, philosophical, ideological, and religious perspectives should be put forward in a pluralistic society when wrestling with such issues, but I stop short of being able to agree with Lanzagorta’s statement that “from cultural and philosophical perspectives, the idea of suicide as a natural part of the human condition is an interesting proposition.” Even assuming the framework of metaphysical naturalism, the act of suicide would seem an aberration that somehow overpowers the internal drive for continued life, propelled, according to some, by the “selfish gene.” And third, the question of suicide must be considered in its diversity, not only in terms of differing cultural perspectives on the issue, but in the differing forms in which it is expressed. Suicide as a political or religious statement, as well as euthanasia, are specific and specialized aspects of the phenomenon that need to be considered carefully rather than lumped together in broad-based fashion in general discussions over suicide.

Having personally experienced and witnessed the negative impact of suicide on numerous lives for several years, I find this topic intriguing. Perhaps this explains my visceral reaction to many scenes in The Happening, particularly the one where people threw themselves off buildings and thudded to the ground around the horrified living. Is this scene, and others depicting mass suicide so horrifying merely or largely because of the inappropriate influence of unfounded moral and theological perspectives on the topic? Perhaps. But it’s also possible that the premise of the film and the depictions of self-murder are frightening because something deep down inside of us tells us that it’s wrong, for whatever reasons. It is to the credit of both horror and science fiction, and to Lanzagorta, for drawing our attention to this important topic. In my attempt to move the dialogue forward on this taboo topic I present my thoughts above for further reflection.

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There are 5 Comments to "Horror, Sci Fi, Taboo and Suicide"

  • Hi John,

    First of all, I am terribly sorry to hear about your first hand experience with this topic. Regardless of the circumstances, the loss of family and friends is a terrible thing to go through.

    That being said, I appreciate your consideration towards my article. You raised interesting and valid points, and appreciate and value the disagreement. Now, taking advantage that you have opened the dialogue, I will briefly reply to some of your criticisms.

    Your first issue regards the use of moral and theological arguments to control the discussion of suicide. While organized religion provides a series of positive behavioral guidelines, it fails to present the entire picture. For instance, crime and infidelity are certainly negative conducts to the improvement of our society and culture. However, it is not enough to brand them as “bad”, “sinful”, or “immoral”. Such a moral dichotomy completely ignores the social, cultural, financial, medical, and psychological circumstances that led to that behavior. If we want to understand and constructively deal with these issues in the future, including suicide, then it is not enough to know that they may be immoral or sinful. It is only by dissecting the roots of these social issues, that we will be able to confront them. Furthermore, concerning the stigma that you mentioned, I believe that moral and religious ideals are its principal drivers.

    Your second issue regards my assessment that I found intriguing The Happening’s suggestion that suicide is part of the human condition. As stated on my article, I do agree that such a suggestion is illogical from a biological point of view. But then again, as society, I find interesting that mankind is such an overwhelming destructive force that threatens the ecological balance of our planet. Forget about global warming, the destruction of the environment with countless armed conflicts, unrestrained urban expansion, overpopulation, and contamination are appalling. Indeed, suicide and senseless murder are “aberrations” that are not observed in other animal species. While I celebrate that we have been able to put a man on the moon, I cannot accept that we also endanger animals on Earth. The reality is that, in spite of our moral, legal, and religious codes, mankind continues to be destructive, and as a consequence, self-destructive.

    Your third and final issue is about putting together all types of acts of self-immolation on a single bag. I do agree. They are vastly different types of behavior. However, going back to my reply to your first point, it is only through the analysis of this behavior outside the moral and theological realms that we can appreciate and understand their difference. Indeed, from a moral or theological perspective, euthanasia, ideological or religious immolation, and suicide are equally “wrong”. By thinking about quality of life, cost, pain and suffering, we can appreciate that euthanasia is a very complex and difficult issue.

    Rather than suggesting a solution, my aim has been to point at new questions that may help us understand the complexity of the problem. That being said, even if most people agree that this type of behavior is immoral or sinful, its true complexity and roots cannot be understood without exploring its varied social, cultural, financial, physiological, psychological, and philosophical motivations. My conclusion is that, this is a complex and difficult topic that should be dealt outside the moral and theological spheres. As it remains taboo, it is only though the imagination of the fantastic narrative that we can begin to deal with it.

    I am looking forward to read your comments to my comments.


  • Marco, thanks for stopping by, not taking offense at my comments on your article, and for moving the dialogue forward.

    I agree that we need a more complex and nuanced consideration of this topic. While various religions in general, particularly Christianity in the West, consider suicide sinful, even so there are Christian ethicists and philosophers who do recognize the complexity of this topic and move beyond the simplistic, black and white discussions of the issue found on a popular level within religious culture. Thanks for drawing attention to the need for deeper and broader thinking on a difficult topic.

    What can I say to your second point other than I am in complete agreement that despite humanity’s glints of wonder in a variety of areas, you are quite correct that we are also self-destructive, if not toward others then even to ourselves, as in the case of suicide. (As an aside, it would be interesting to consider whether this “aberration” not found in the rest of the animal kingdom might parallel theism’s ideas about humanity’s links to and yet differences from other creatures. But I digress.)

    As to your third point, with your comments providing clarification for me, we are in agreement. Just as it is inappropriate to take this complex issue and simply label it in black and white terms through moral or theological arguments, likewise it is inappropriate to consider it in ways that do not take into account the diversity of forms and issues that connect to it.

    Like you, I believe we are privileged to have the fantastic as a forum that enables us to wrestle with this difficult topic. But as I said in my artice, we have to be willing to do so. Thanks for taking the lead on this, and being willing to discuss it with me further.

  • Hi John,

    Our recent discussion couldn’t be more relevant to actual events. This just came out in the news:

    Also, I just remember, there is an episode from the exceptionally good TV series Millennium about an “angel” that assisted in the suicide of the elderly and terminally ill. Did you see that one?

    Finally, I forgot to add that you are right. Those scenes in The Happening are truly frightening, when people are jumping from the top of the buildings. It is a shame that the movie pretty much went downhill after that.



  • I saw this news item last night and thought of our discussion.

    I haven’t seen the Millennium episode you mention.

    As to The Happening, it started with promise, and included some genuine fright with imagery and sound, but lost me at the end with its explanation for the mass suicides. Better to have left that up in the air. As it was it came across to me like the Green Movement meets Day of the Triffids.

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