The revival of horror – Jarkko Toikkanen offers a new approach to horror literature

Jarkko Toikkanen

The phenomenon we now know as horror comes from the Romantic tradition in the early 19th century, Jarkko Toikkanen says.

The place of horror

Jarkko Toikkanen says that modern horror needs a tension between reason and emotion.

In the black of night, a couple travels home through the New England countryside. Suddenly, the woman takes fright, saying that she saw a face by the roadside. In an effort to calm his wife, the man reasons with her that there is no one there.  However, the woman’s anxiety grows and she cries out into the darkness to confront the unknown presence. And out of the darkness the stranger comes…

This story comes from Robert Frost’s prose poem The Fear which was published in 1915. The poem epitomises the research conducted by Jarkko Toikkanen, a university lecturer in English language, literature and translation at the University of Tampere. What textual means are employed to achieve the feeling of horror?

”In Frost’s poem, a man, not a monster, comes out of the dark, but that does not provide any relief in the situation. If it were a frightening monster, you could just run away. An ordinary man is worse because there is no knowing what he will do,” he says.

Toikkanen has just published the book The Intermedial Experience of Horror: Suspended Failures, which offers a new approach to horror literature.

“I was interested in the images that are related to the experience of horror. Can they be analysed, and is it possible to find a method for investigating the differences in such images?”

In order to achieve his aim, Toikkanen ignored the traditional methods that have previously been applied to the investigation of horror.

Updating the analysis of horror

First we should forget the claim prevalent in the tradition of horror research that horror is a primitive reaction, a remnant from the time human beings first walked the earth.

“I don’t believe in this, although the capacity to feel horror must surely be ancient. The modern experience of horror always requires a tension between reason and emotion,” Toikkanen says.

”The phenomenon we now know as horror comes from the Romantic tradition in the early 19th century.”

In the early 20th century, the works of notable horror writers, such as H.P. Lovecraft became popular literature sold at newspaper kiosks, especially in the United States.

The horror film genre began in Hollywood in the 1930s, and our images of such legendary figures as Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula date from this time.

Horror is not usually seen as a critically significant field. It is often investigated as a popular culture genre and cultural phenomenon, and researchers tend to define its stereotypes and clichés. Another popular research tradition is psychoanalysis.

According to Toikkanen, these research strands have already been successfully exploited. In a research approach that starts from psychoanalysis or defining the genre, the actual literary perspective of textual analysis and close reading easily disappears.

“Horror has been investigated, even in the recent years, but the research has not had much new to add. This book brings horror back to the forefront,” he argues.

Captivating imagery

The textual strategy applied in Frost’s poem is ambiguity. The text guides the reader into expecting that the woman is just seeing things, but the reader’s images are turned upside down when someone actually emerges from the bushes. Another of the reader’s expectations is shattered when the character that steps out is not a monster, but a man.

”There are multiple interpretations of the end of the poem, for example that the stranger attacks the woman or the woman dies,” Toikkanen says.

”The power of the text is that it gives numerous hints, but in the end the curtain falls on the story and leaves many questions unanswered.”

In his book, Toikkanen analyses an essay, a short story, a prose poem and a lyrical poem. He deliberately picked texts that are not commonly identified as traditional horror literature and which are not already associated with strong imagery, like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster.

What all of the texts have in common is that they create a situation, an image, in which the people in the story – and simultaneously the reader – have no way out.

If you have watched a horror film, you will have experienced how some images stay with you and are repeatedly remembered. There is nothing rational in the repetition of the images, but even so, you just cannot shake them.

“Sigmund Freud thought that dreams were fantasy, wish fulfilment. However, he started to question why the veterans of the Great War kept having recurring images and relived the horrors of the war over and over,” Toikkanen remarks.

The short story Der Sandmann by E.T.A. Hoffman (1817) is one text that Freud used to draft his theory about repetition compulsion. Toikkanen also writes about this story in his book.

Rhetorical means

Toikkanen wanted to discover new tools for researching horror. He came up with two rhetorical means from ancient times: ekphrasis and hypotyposis.

Ekphrasis means the verbal representation of a visual representation, such as a poem describing a painting.

Hypotyposis was a rhetorical means employed by orators who wanted to provoke a strong reaction in their listeners. An event is described in such forceful language that the audience has no alternative but to visualize the scene themselves.

“The ancient orators used hypotyposis to manipulate their audiences. It would also provide an interesting research method for analysing the rhetoric of contemporary politics.”

By separating these two types of rhetoric, Toikkanen was able to find two ways in which horror-inducing images are created in literature.

The same tools can be employed for the analysis of other kinds of emotion or experience people get from literature, such as the strange, the beautiful or the exalted, and the research method could also be applied to the research of television series and films.

No horror without reason

To assuage their anxiety, some readers employ reason to escape the feelings of horror created by the text. This does not mean that experiencing horror would depend solely on emotion, however.

Fans of horror may explain the allure of horror by saying that the feeling is something that modern reason is unable to touch.

According to Toikkanen, such justifications are a means of escaping the real issue and are as senseless as reasoning and explaining away the feelings of horror.

“There is no horror without reason,” Toikkanen says.

“Horror can be researched and explained, and it can be used to explore new things.”

Jarkko Toikkanen: The Intermedial Experience of Horror: Suspended failures. Palgrave Macmillan 2013.

Vampires stand the test of time

In the past ten years or so, horror has fallen out of fashion and sci-fi and fantasy have dominated popular entertainment.

However, postmillennial television series, such as True Blood and the zombie serial The Walking Dead, have increasingly used horror film imagery.

Zombies and vampires seem to stand the test of time quite well. However, present-day vampires have been heavily romanticised.

“At one point vampires were quite repulsive creatures, but now they are beautiful and touching,” says Toikkanen.

Zombies first crawled onto the silver screen in the 1960s. They are usually part of a larger metaphor for the social or the political. The whole world is depicted as a zombie wasteland, and the brainless creatures typically symbolise the consumer society.

“Horror imagery provides a good effect that can be used in social commentary, but in those cases horror is not centre stage. I wouldn’t even call the current zombie films horror, they are something different,” Toikkanen says.

The experience of horror is different in cases where the audience is bombarded with unambiguously graphic scenes of violence, compared with the written text where readers produce the images themselves.

“Watching graphic imagery does not necessarily feed the imagination in any way and it can even have an adverse effect, I’m not denying that. Although I don’t think censorship should be the first option,” Toikkanen says.

”Instead, I would recommend that people read different books as much as possible. When you’re reading, you create your own images and this has an effect on how well your capacity for imagination develops.”

Jarkko Toikkanen’s reading tips
•    The Romantics and modernists such as William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Heinrich von Kleist, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Robert Frost, W. B. Yeats, H. P. Lovecraft, and the contemporary author Thomas Ligotti.

Text Tiina Lankinen
Photographs Jonne Renvall
Translation Laura Tohka