Between the Scream and the Smile: Examining the Ontology of the Horror Selfie

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Image source: selfiesatseriousplaces.tumblr.com

In an essay entitled the “The Selfie and the World” Pramod Nayar states:

The selfie, this essay argues, is a means of social interaction. It is a mediated presentation of the self that then interfaces, digitally but no less materially, with the world. The selfie is an act of agency that allows the individual to interrupt or punctuate the flow of information and conversation around and about her/himself even as s/he participates in this flow. (Nayar 79)

He then goes on enlist the various features associated with the vogue of selfies such as the urge to script ourselves as subjects, the primacy of the body even in the digital age, self-image as a tool of “empowered exhibitionism” that may even create a culture of counter-surveillance or endow one with a positive body-image or as a modality of being within a technological medium of continuous spectacles, visibility and mutability[i]. What the article does not interrogate is the extent to which the vogue for the selfies caters to a pervasive postmodern culture where the image reigns supreme with a hyperreal aura that alluringly invites us to a fragmented dehistoricised world marked by what Fredric Jameson would call the “waning of affect”. Let me illustrate what I mean with the help of the recent fad for “horror selfies” in Kolkata, as pointed out in the earlier article “Skeletons Out of Our Closet”, in the wake of the so called skeleton-saga revolving around the shocking event of horror and intrigue involving the residents of 3, Robinson Street, now a veritable tourist spot in the itinerary of the voyeuristic Bengali citizen.

What sort of empowered exhibitionism is performed by taking a picture of oneself with a smiling face while standing in front of a house that has been the seat of unexpected perversion, horror and trauma? This is neither simple indifference or insensitivity nor a desperate quest for 15 seconds of fame among the tweeple or other digizens. Instead the dissonance between the facial expression of the selfie takers and the grim reality associated with the events that had taken place in the house in the background point perhaps to a dissociation between the signifier and the signified which constitutes the age of the hyperreal in Baudrillard’s terms, where individuals are becoming willing inhabitants of a simulacra in which horror fails to frighten, death fails to sadden and the grotesque fails to disgust. What all of this points to, is a digital economy of images where ethics and affect are equally absent. Since individuals as subjects are themselves becoming pre-coded by one trend or another (from clothes, to food, to how you spend time with your beloved to how you organize your marriage and so on), the entire psychopathology of the individual, within which such concerns and resultant emotions of anxiety could have been located, disappears as well. The selfie, therefore, though prompted by a “passion for the real”, far from being a mode of fashioning one’s own subjectivity becomes another medium through which the depthless superificiality of postmodern culture, which Jameson illustrates through paintings of Andy Warhol, comes to the foreground. It welcomes us to what Žižek would call the ‘Desert of the Real’ where we encounter a “‘derealization’ of the horror” (Žižek 13)[ii].

Incidentally, this waning of affect is nothing new in the domain of Indian culture in general. In the famous Bollywood film, 3 Idiots, starring Aamir Khan, the poverty endured by the family members of the character played by Sharman Joshi was consistently portrayed through black and white shots that represented the present through a loop into the 1950s and 60s and the black and white films of those ages. In the process the debilitating poverty of the family, far from being a source of pathos, became a source of almost universal laughter and the laughter was made possible by the dehistoricising mechanism of the film which relegated concerns regarding vegetable prices to an apparently archaic past, thus unmooring the film from the lived reality of inflation, starvation deaths and the growing gulf between rich and poor in the ‘shining India’ of the 21st century. Instead there only remains the amply marketable tricks of what Jameson would call “gratuitous frivolity” which again reappears through the horror-selfies doing the rounds. It is in this context that Jameson further adds,

As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings — which it may be better and more accurate, following J.-F. Lyotard, to call “intensities” — are now free-floating and impersonal and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria…[iii]

 It is the same euphoria that again reveals itself through other online phenomena such as funeral selfies, duckfaces in front of the Vietnam War Memorial and even a Chernobyl Selfie. The latest in this line was an Auschwitz Selfie taken by an American teenager who could be seen grinning from ear to ear while standing in front of the erstwhile Nazi prisons inside the notorious concentration camp. In all of these cases the insurmountable trauma and horror associated with these events for millions of people became blithely substituted by the carefree euphThe_Screamoria of the selfie which instantly emptied those sites and memorials of their significances within the confines of the pictures that immediately went viral as well. In case of the horror selfies surrounding the incidents of Robinson Street in Kolkata even the temporal distance applicable in case of the earlier events becomes negated and a site of appalling disgust becomes an object of voyeuristic curiosity devoid of ethical or affective paradigms.

Now, more than ever, it is ethically as well as aesthetically imperative to recuperate the anxiety and agony of either Edward Much’s iconic ‘Scream’ or “The horror! The horror!” experienced by Conrad’s Kurtz as such works of art help us recover the depth of affects and sensibilities that the postmodern regime of images has dispensed with. Otherwise we too would soon be flapping in the wind, selfies filled with straw.

– Abin Chakraborty


[i] Pramod Nayar, “The Selfie and the World”, Seminar 663 (November 2014), 79-81.

[ii] Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, (London: Verso, 2002).

[iii] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke UP, 1991).

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