by Tauriq Moosa
In his treatise, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke wrote: “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” The extent to which this is true is beyond our concern, but there is little doubt fear often puts rationality in a cage, chains the door and kicks it into a silent corner. It is this reaction that great horror writers, from Edgar Allan Poe to Clive Barker and Stephen King to John Ajvide Lindqvist, have sought in their works. It is not the alien beings or giant monsters which terrify us as readers, but often human characters portrayed in vulnerable positions fighting to escape the horror of their sudden environment.
Consider a world populated by giant monsters. Giant monsters who hunted other giant beasts, as non-human animals do here ‘in the wild’. A book that described this might be interesting, but hardly terrifying if it made no reference of threats to humans or creatures with vague properties of personhood (emotions, consciousness, etc.). It would be about as terrifying as a nature documentary on whale sharks. And think of the corollary: a house. Houses on their own hardly seem interesting places, but in the right kind of light, penned by a master story-teller, they can become the most terrifying of places.
It is thus the relation to humans or beings with personhood that matter. The wonderful movie ‘Wall-E’ has a robot title-character who displays emotions, actions, self-consciousness (i.e. properties of personhood). We identify with Wall-E because of these properties, showing that we care for persons not necessarily or only for humans. That is why any robot or alien – or even toys – have to display personhood for us to care: they need not even be shaped like humans for us to care about them. As long as they display engagement with their environment, there is reason for us to care about their well-being (since they display a care for their individual well-being and others’).