Since the dawn of time, the human mind has been predisposed to making sense out of phenomena that transcends its understanding. The very heart of mythology stems from this predisposition. Thunder claps in the distance, striking fear in the hearts of early man. That fear diminishes when the source of thunder is discovered, or fabricated: Gods are at war, or are angry. Only later does science begin to supplement the psychological need to understand the world around us.
Despite the fact that science has all but squelched man’s propensity for creating myth, we still feel a need to exercise this primitive part of the mind, to be presented with phenomena which transcends our conventional understanding and challenges us to think outside the box, to generate and construct meaning. For years, surrealism has offered us possibly the last bastion for our faculties that allow us to construct meaning from the potentially meaningless, to generate order from a palette of chaos.
Chaos and surrealism share an interesting relationship. Principia Discordia, a treatise on chaos, is filled with nonsense phrases and collages of disconnected images, which ultimately result in a single message: chaos evades sense or a single meaning. The smallest units of expression in the text lend themselves to alternative interpretations, however. There is talk of gods, social criticism, and more between the pages of the text. Every word and image can take the reader in a different direction, obscuring the central message and proving the primary point of the text simultaneously. Surrealism works in a similar fashion in that it provides us with a chaotic barrage of the abstract, and our minds construct meaning from it.
Surrealism is the manifestation of postmodern ethos. Obscure input is fed through a subjective filter, resulting in a plethora of conflicting interpretations, each of which has no more or less value than the preceding or subsequent. It provides us with a means of embracing the subjective, finding personal truth in the potentially meaningless. Even those who deem the surreal nonsense have made a choice, have validated their subjective notion of reality upon confronting the surreal.
The difference between the context in which we once used these faculties and the context in which we use them now is that interpreting the surreal offers us a safe haven for the desire to make sense of the world. This desire is satiated outside of the context of emotional necessity. We don’t interpret to reduce our fears. Rather, we interpret to enhance understanding, to reinforce the value of intellect.
In horror, however, we often see the intellectual striving to make sense of something they do not understand: the psychopathic killer or a paranormal phenomenon. Once again this desire to make sense of the world is placed in the context of emotional necessity. To understand the killer or paranormal phenomenon is to increase one’s chances of survival, or so some films imply. This is particularly true in crime drama and crime-related horror. In Red Dragon the detective has a natural propensity for understanding the criminal mind. By understanding the criminal mind, he catches the villain and saves the masses from destruction.
The example from Red Dragon represents a glorified manifestation of our faculties. In truth, understanding the criminal mind or the paranormal does not exempt us from destruction, just as deeming thunder the anger of the gods does not protect us from nature’s wrath. This is shown in the film Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, when the two victims-to-be at the beginning of the film hear about atrocities committed by the criminally insane. The boyfriend goes on a rant about the underlying motivations of the criminally insane. Though he’s sure of his prognosis, he still ends up falling victim to Leatherface and his family. The meaning he’s constructed from his interaction with the phenomena he does not understand does not protect him from the dangerous nature of these phenomena, just as fabricating a meaning for the sound of thunder did not protect our ancestors from nature’s wrath.
In a context of emotional necessity, this faculty provides us with only a false sense of security. Horror films reveal to us the futility of interpreting the unknown to generate a sense of safety. But in those moments when we get to construct meaning to acquire understanding not only of a work of art, but ourselves, that is when something good comes from knowledge construction.