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Catherine Belling, “Horror: Medicine’s Disturbing Subtext”

Catherine Belling, Associate Professor of Medical Humanities & Bioethics, Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine

What does the word horror mean in the context of medicine? It can refer to an affective response,  a narrative genre, or a moral position. Horror as genre is sometimes viewed as a debased version of tragedy; as an emotion, it can be seen as a reactive, and hence maladaptive, form of fear, or as the absolutist rejection of a morally repugnant action or situation. The word “horror” is associated with the sensational and irrational, the indecorous and disruptive, with gratuitous excess. The horror genre engages many of the same bodily disasters that motivate medicine. Yet it seems that, beginning with medical students who dare not show dismay or revulsion while dissecting the anatomy cadaver, the discourses of medical education and clinical health care work hard to keep horror in its place, contained, repressed, and unprocessed. Does this matter?

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