- The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses by Angela Ndalianis
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 also say the book obeys the WYSIWYG philosophy: the reader is not only informed on the bodily impact of the genre of horror, 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 the author dispatches. If the reader continues the experience online, for instance by watching some of the often shocking material discussed by Ndalianis on YouTube, it becomes easy to understand why the author has chosen a highly personal approach to the material (sensitive readers had perhaps better not Google words like “grindhouse cinema” or titles such as Planet Terror, to take just two examples that are frequently and most often voluptuously mentioned). Indeed, the reader or spectator that scholars tend to construct as abstract or theoretical notions are here replaced by the flesh 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 say 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 either a purely visual or cognitive phenomenon, hence the necessity to take into account the multisensory nature of our reaction to it. These reactions are ruled by synesthesia, i.e. the fact that one sense, for instance viewing or hearing, can speak to other senses, and conesthesia, 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, however. True, Ndalianis offers much evidence to support 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 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 not passive vehicles for migrating themes or stories; rather 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 appropriate 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 videogames, where the relationship between perceptual reality and referential unreality is quite different from what one may observe in a film theater.
Second, Ndalianis also succeeds 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 always includes the study of the cultural industries that...