The Paradox of Tragedy

Children watching horror movie.
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How is it possible that human beings can derive pleasure from unpleasant states? This is the question addressed by Hume in his essay On Tragedy, which lies at the heart of a long-standing philosophical discussion on tragedy. Take horror movies, for instance. Some people are terrified while watching them, or they don’t sleep for days. So why are they doing it? Why stay in front of the screen for a horror movie?

It is clear that sometimes we enjoy being spectators of tragedies. Although this may be an everyday observation, it is a surprising one. Indeed, the view of a tragedy typically produces disgust or awe in the viewer. But disgust and awe are unpleasant states. So how is it possible that we enjoy unpleasant states?

It is by no chance that Hume devoted a whole essay to the topic. The rise of aesthetics in his time took place side by side with a revival of a fascination for horror. The issue had already kept busy a number of ancient philosophers. Here is, for example, what the Roman poet Lucretius and British philosopher Thomas Hobbes had to say on it.

"What joy it is, when out at sea the stormwinds are lashing the waters, to gaze from the shore at the heavy stress some other man is enduring! Not that anyone's afflictions are in themselves a source of delight; but to realize from what troubles you yourself are free is joy indeed." Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Book II.

"From what passion proceedeth it, that men take pleasure to behold from the shore the danger of them that are at sea in a tempest, or in fight, or from a safe castle to behold two armies charge one another in the field? It is certainly in the whole sum joy. else men would never flock to such a spectacle.

Nevertheless there is in it both joy and grief. For as there is novelty and remembrance of [ones] own security present, which is delight; so is there also pity, which is grief But the delight is so far predominant, that men usually are content in such a case to be spectators of the misery of their friends." Hobbes, Elements of Law, 9.19.

So, how to solve the paradox?

More Pleasure Than Pain

One first attempt, pretty obvious, consists in claiming that the pleasures involved in any spectacle of tragedy outweigh the pains. "Of course I’m suffering while watching a horror movie; but that thrill, that excitement that accompanies the experience is totally worth the travail." After all, one could say, the most delectable pleasures all come with some sacrifice; in this circumstance, the sacrifice is to be horrified.

On the other hand, it seems that some people do not find particular pleasure in watching horror movies. If there is any pleasure at all, it’s the pleasure of being in pain. How can that be?

Pain as Catharsis

A second possible approach sees in the quest for pain an attempt to find a catharsis, that is a form of liberation, from those negative emotions. It is by inflicting upon ourselves some form of punishment that we find relief from those negative emotions and feelings that we have experienced.

This is, in the end, an ancient interpretation of the power and relevance of tragedy, as that form of entertainment that is quintessential to elevate our spirits by allowing them to surpass our traumas.

Pain is, Sometimes, Fun

Yet another, third, approach to the paradox of horror comes from philosopher Berys Gaut. According to him, to be in awe or in pain, to suffer, can in some circumstances be sources of enjoyment. That is, the way to pleasure is pain. In this perspective, pleasure and pain are not really opposites: they may be two sides of the very same coin. This is because what’s bad in a tragedy is not the sensation, but the scene that elicits such sensation. Such a scene is connected to a horrific emotion, and this, in turn, elicits a sensation that we find in the end pleasurable.

Whether Gaut’s ingenious proposal got it right is questionable, but the paradox of horror certainly remains one of the most entertaining subjects in philosophy.