On the surface of things it would appear that author Franz Kafka and filmmaker George A. Romero don’t have much in common with each other, especially in terms of their respective conceptions of horror. Horror, in Kafka’s work, is a sort of existential dread, the terror dawning that God either doesn’t exist or is indifferent. One of Kafka’s friends, an admirer of his work, once asked him if he thought there was hope. “There is hope,” Kafka said, droll smile barely curling the corner of his lips. “But not for us.”
The idea that God is indifferent is disheartening, but not quite as terrifying as the Lovecraftian idea that there is a God, or multiple gods, and that they hate and despise us, and are waiting for some foolish mortal to stumble on them, say the right incantation or dislodge the correct lock so that they can break free and get this eldritch party started, settle the score with us fragile, blood-filled and morally hamstrung meat bags.
But let’s turn to George A. Romero, the man who gave us the Zombie film genre as we know it (and was neither remunerated correctly for his contributions nor many times credited, period). His horror is visceral and in the tradition of the Grand Guignol theater. There is suspense in his works, dread, but the true horror comes when nothing is implied and everything is shown in all of its gory glory, wet organs punctured, the reanimated dead fighting over uncoiling spools of long intestine jiggling like suet as they yank the slickened offal in both directions. It is, as Stephen King pointed out in his book Danse Macabre, especially terrifying because we feel like laughing even as the terror courses through us.
What both George A. Romero and Franz Kafka have in common is the belief that much of horror’s power stems from a refusal by the sadistic or indifferent force (or the plain hungry force in Romero’s case) to proffer the victim with a sufficient “Why” for what they are doing, or a “why” to explain this thing that is happening, or not happening in the case of Kafka. In The Trial a man is charged with some crime that isn’t divulged to him, and in The Castle he attempts to approach a castle which forever remains out of reach for him.
If something terrible happens to us, we obviously experience it as unpleasant and frightening. But we generally understand that the serial killer or rapist is looking to gratify some sort of sick urge. The kidnapper is many times looking just for ransom money. Sure it’s gross and grisly when an heir’s grandson gets his ear severed from the side of the head because Daddy Warbucks thinks the kid staged his own kidnapping to feed his drug habit, but it makes a kind of sense, and sense tempers the worst horrors.
This may explain the obsession with “origin stories” for bad guys (although these days such stories seem be the coin of the realm in superhero fare more often than in the slasher flicks I remember from my childhood in the eighties).
Jason Vorhees might be implacable and silent, as he gazes at you with black hollow eyes from within his blood-splattered hockey mask. Michael Meyers, appearing in his modified William Shatner mask with even darker eye hollows (and a butcher knife) seems to have a limitless capacity for evil and even less feeling than Jason, who at least occasionally looks puzzled and cocks his head to the side like a confused dog. But we know where these guys came from and how they got to be the monsters that they are. You just have to go back far enough in the series to get answers to such questions, but you get a “Why”? that stays the hand of ultimate horror.
But who turned Gregor Samsa into a bug, and why?
As for Romero’s lack of a clarifying “Why,” one can attempt to answer the question by simply saying that the zombies are eating people because they are hungry, and since they’re no longer human what they’re doing isn’t even what the anthropologists would call gustatory cannibalism (as opposed to the ritual type). But that doesn’t answer the main questions, which how did they become reanimated and why?
The first of the Dead movies seems to hew closer to the Cold Water atomic horror template (especially aesthetically, what with the eerie public domain horror music and the grainy black and white camerawork), or I think it’s implied or maybe stated in the movie that a comet or asteroid came to Earth with a payload in one of its craters that spread some sort of virus that reanimated the dead. But these kind of explanations in the Dead films always felt sort of pro forma and just there, insufficient explanation and all the better for it. There is no “why”.
Dawn of the Dead continues the saga, with the mystery abiding behind the source of the curse or the disease, or whatever the hell it is that animates the dead and causes them to feast on the living. There’s that great scene where the four main humans holed up in the Monroeville Mall have cleared the place of zombies, and are enjoying the fruits of their conquest of the temple to commerce. Fran (the only woman among their number) shivers in a massive fur coat she’s pilfered from a woman’s department store and mulls over the question that earlier, when the only concern was survival, never really got asked. “What are they?” (Close enough to “Why?” to suit our purposes for the night’s blog entry). “They’re us, that’s all,” Peter, one of the two National Guardsmen among their number, says. He then tosses out a chestnut from his grandfather, a practitioner of Macumba, a syncretic religion that spread from Sub-Saharan Africa to Brazil by way of the transatlantic trade in humans. “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”
This most memorable line is not really an attempt to answer the “Why,” since a good explanation (regardless of whether or not it satisfies any scientific or rational criteria) at least gives the confused and forlorn some hope. That the corpses of people who don’t even have functioning digestive systems are trying to eat you because (maybe) there’s no more room in Hell does not help one cope. And it leads quickly to an ugly infinite regress, in which the answer to one “Why” not only leads to another, but only makes things worse and increases the sense of terror in the face of the unknowable.
Franz Kafka said he (and by proxy his writing) was a dead end. Considering the amount of mileage so many have gotten from him, it might be more accurate via extended metaphor to say that he’s created a cul-de-sac around which the mind swirls again and again, searching for the hidden “Why”, until the traveling in circles begins to feel less like a stimulating exercise and more like circling the drain, a downward spiral toward Hell (presumably well-stocked with both man-bugs and flesh-eating zombies). I guess what I’m saying is the attempt to answer the question “Why is this happening?” and not getting an answer is at the heart of such disparate but abiding and timeless works of horror as The Metamorphosis and Dawn of the Dead, to say nothing of the greatest horror of all, human history.
Here’s as close as Kafka came to addressing the “why” …
Franz was walking with his friend one day, who, sensing there was some sort of metaphor to be gleaned from The Metamorphosis, prodded Kafka about the story’s meaning and offered his own suppositions as to what it meant, the metaphor behind The Metamorphosis.
Franz, the usually mild-mannered insurance claims handler, became unusually animated, interrupted his friend, and said that “the Dream reveals the reality, which conception lags behind.” That, he continued, was “the horror life.”
You are given the faculty to ask why, and the need to have that question answered and resolved, even in the face of a great threat. Asking someone or something a question while they are trying to kill you is not a good strategy, but the lack of an answer given for their reasons compounds the horror of whatever is to come next, which is usually your death.
I don’t want to get into theodicy (it’s late enough already), so let’s just say that both “horror” as a state of existential terror and “horror” as a genre seem to suggest it’s more plausible that either God doesn’t exist or that he or it doesn’t like us very much. I hope that’s not true. And considering I haven’t been turned into a bug (yet) or eaten by a zombie (yet), I’ll stick with Pascal’s Wager for the time being.