The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses
by Angela Ndalianis
McFarland Press, Jefferson, NC, 2012
231 pp., illus. 39 b & w. Paper, $40.00
ISBN: 978-0-7864-6127-1; Ebook ISBN: 978-0-7864-9043-1.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
This new book by a well-known scholar in the field of visual mass media studies reads almost like a first-person shooter, but one in which the reader is less the shooter than the target. One could say also the book obeys the WYSIWIG philosophy: The reader is not only informed on the bodily impact of horror genre, he or she is also confronted with a kind of direct assault on the senses, resulting both from the pace of writing and the overwhelming encyclopedic knowledge dispatched by the author. If the reader continues the experience online, for instance by checking on YouTube some of the often really shocking material discussed by the Ndalianis, it becomes easy to understand why the author has chosen for this highly personal approach of the material (sensitive readers may better not google words like "grindhouse cinema" or titles such as "Planet Terror", to take just two examples that are frequently and most of the times almost voluptuously mentioned). Indeed, the reader or spectator that scholars tend to construct as abstract or theoretical notions, is here replaced by the flash and blood subjective voice of Ndalianis herself, who is not afraid of adding personal testimonies to the material under scrutiny. Together with the well-documented reflection on the existing scholarship, these very individual reactions to the horror works she examines represent the alpha and omega of the approach defended in this book.
What the book has to tell on horror is not entirely new. The Horror Sensorium has a double starting point. On the one hand, Ndalianis criticizes all readings of horror as a purely either visual or cognitive phenomenon and, hence, the necessity to take into account the multisensory nature of our reaction to it. These reactions are ruled by synaesthesia, i.e the fact that one sense, for instance viewing or hearing, can speak to other senses, and conaesthesia, i.e. the perception of one's whole sensorial being. On the other hand, she stresses the blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction, of which horror remains a key cultural example (other examples being melodrama and pornography).
The interest of the book does not lie in its theoretical proposals, though. True, Ndalianis offers much evidence of these two major claims (the multisensoriality of horror and its questioning of the frontiers between real and unreal), but that does not make these claims original or innovative. The most stimulating aspects of this book are elsewhere.
First of all, The Horror Sensorium elaborates a very subtle position on the discussion on medium-specificity. Although the author rightly stresses the increasing importance of intermediality and transmediality in horror, as demonstrated for instance by the dominant position of the genre in contemporary's convergence culture, and although she gives many convincing examples of, for instance, the collaboration of sound or of online and offline shaping of a storyworld, she emphasizes throughout the whole book the fact that media are no passive vehicles for migrating themes or stories, but that each of them contributes to the permanent expansion and reshaping of the horror genre. The chapter on horror romance stories is very illuminating in this regard, since it shows the extent to which a classic medium (print) is the most appropriated one to tackle issues of sexual identity that other, more directly visual media are less well equipped to explore. Another challenging example is the study of mimesis in video games, where the relationship between perceptual reality and referential unreality is quite different from what may observe in a film theatre.
Second, Ndalianis succeeds also very well in displaying the historical dimension of the horror genre, which certainly refers to universal fears and desires while simultaneously being in permanent interaction with the culture of its time. This cultural context, moreover, is never narrowed down to the works themselves, but includes always the study of the cultural industries that determine the making as well as the consumption of this kind of material. An excellent illustration of this way of reading is given by the author's historical contextualization of Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque and the redefinition of its "unholy" aspects after the fading of the religious framing characteristic of medieval and folkloric forms one still finds in Rabelais or Shakespeare. Corollarily, the sensory overkill that defines so many recent forms of the horror genre is gainfully linked to the necessity of multimodality in modern entertainment corporations, where the mixing of sings and senses is also a way of cutting costs and producing new types of customers. On all these aspects, Nadalianis' study offers a wealth of historical and analytical details, which help reframe the genre.