Graduation Year

2011

Document Type

Thesis

Degree

M.L.A.

Degree Granting Department

Humanities and Cultural Studies

Major Professor

Amy L. Rust

Keywords

Cognitive Studies, Cyborg, Evolutionary Psychology, Posthumanism, Theory of Mind

Abstract

Pleasure experienced in an unpleasant film genre, like horror, has prompted numerous discussions in film studies. Noted scholars like Carol J. Clover and Noël Carroll have rationalized spectatorial enjoyment of a genre that capitalizes on human anxieties and complicates cultural categories. Clover admits that horror initially satisfies sadistic tendencies in young male viewers but then pushes them to cross gender lines and identify with the strong female heroine who defeats the film's threat. Carroll provides a basic explanation, citing spectators' cognitive curiosity as the source of pleasure. Both scholars are right to consider emotional, psychological, and cognitive experiences felt by viewers, but the main objective of this thesis moves beyond one particular demographic and considers how spectatorial experiences can differ radically but still offer pleasure.

This work involves a methodology, Theory of Mind (ToM), that addresses the basic yet complex issues that inform spectatorial interactions with the horror film. Clover, Carroll, and others agree that viewers realize violations to cultural conventions occur in horror. Therefore, these anticipations, anxieties, curiosities, and tendencies of the spectator exist before and after a film rather than taking place within the two hours of watching its narrative. ToM is a cognitive ability that allows individuals to predict and make sense of others' behavior and underlying mental states and is a hardwired faculty that undergoes constant conditioning to ensure individuals can better interact with their environments, whether real or fictional. With horror, expectations are challenged, since spectators are forced to renegotiate cultural knowledge, as horror does not adhere to convention. Horror exercises ToM intensely, but as this project proves, it is a pleasurable workout.

Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror film, Alien, is this work's case study, because it falls into the horror genre and challenges a few culturally-imposed binaries that are entangled in the film, including human/android and masculine/feminine. As this thesis shows, these entanglements demonstrate how ToM is both biological/cultural and is not categorized as a programmed mechanism in humans. With these enmeshed binaries, this study argues that Alien involves posthumanism, because it rejects traditional categories of identification and information and embodies fluidity. This works for ToM, since it is an ever-developing and conditioned process of observing and anticipating behavior. ToM is also posthuman, because information does not remain stagnant but is challenged or modified constantly in pleasurable ways. By witnessing the contradictions and complications of cultural categories through Alien's characters, spectators can learn to observe the flux of identity outside the film's narrative, too. Because this learning process is in constant motion, this thesis points out how horror's stimulation and development of it are enjoyable.

Share

COinS