The Paradox of Fiction

Charlie Protheroe (Philosophy BA) reveals why being terrified of a horror film is more complicated than it seems.

We have a peculiar relationship with fictional literature. We are emotionally vulnerable to fictional narratives, despite being fully aware that they are not real, and we think it is rational to have emotional responses to the fictions on a page or film screen. This is especially evident when it comes to the fear experienced during horror movies: heart rates quicken, grips are tightened on seats, and we draw back from the screen. Yet we know the film is pure fiction; we do not think that we are in danger, nor do we think that the characters on screen are not actors.


Why is it then, that we see our emotional responses to fictions as rational, when in ordinary life if we are emotional about anything that is not real it is seen as irrational?

The Paradox

P1. We have rational emotional responses to The Blair Witch Project.
P2. We believe that The Blair Witch Project is purely fictional.
P3. To have rational emotional responses to something, we must not believe that it is purely fictional.
C. Emotional responses to The Blair Witch Project are irrational.

The way out of a paradox is to reject at least one of the premises. I follow Kendall Walton’s idea in rejecting P2 by suggesting that we engage in games of make-believe when we react to fictions. The stories become make-believedly real to the audience.

Though Walton believes this is achieved by the audience make-believedly co-existing alongside the fiction (as extra characters so to speak), I propose that the audience is actually make-believedly an extension of the characters already present.


This piece was originally published for Helicon Magazine’s weekly Features column

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s