Liz Vaadeland on Horror & Human Nature

In our FIG classes, “Introduction to Modern Literature since 1900”, “Europe and the Modern World from 1815-On”, and our seminar, “Historical Representations of London”, several themes and general ideas have overlapped between the lectures and materials. Though many of the similarities in concepts are quite interesting, none is as striking as the representation of horror and human nature. Through the works of From Hell (1999) by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) by Sigmund Freud, and Time’s Arrow (1991) by Martin Amis, we see the parallels aspects of the concept. Together these pieces, by illustrating the sheer violence and animalistic tendencies of humans, work harmoniously to convey a deeper understanding of mankind’s inborn inclinations.

"The death of Mary Kelly." Illus. in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, "From Hell" (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2004)

“The death of Mary Kelly.” Illus. in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, “From Hell” (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2004)

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell (Fig. 1), discussed in “Historical Representations of London” (October 16, 2012), is a graphic novel depicting a version of the infamous Jack the Ripper Murders of Whitechapel. In it, we are introduced to William Gull, who through lifelong fascination with death and destruction becomes the royal physician to Queen Victoria. Through this connection, he is dispatched to rid the royal family of a “problem,” that is, leaked information about the secret marriage of Prince Eddy to a very poor woman and the child the had together. Under orders of the Queen, William begins to murder the women connected to the secret, but takes his killings to a new level of deranged and vicious fantasy. Campbell’s illustrations of the all too graphic murders of five Whitechapel prostitutes convey the sickening horror felt by the detectives on the case, directly to the reader. Through the actions of Gull, we are able to see the true monstrosity of human nature come out from the depths of the mind and wreak havoc on society. Specifically in the truly ghastly scene of the murder and dismemberment of Mary Kelley, shown in Fig. 1, we see Gull give in to pure evil, not for the sake of the royal family but for his own atrocious desires to slice and tear the flesh of the prostitutes. In the image, we see how Gull, in a very cruel and intimate way, begins with a slow incision across Mary Kelley’s face, and then proceeds to gash out her nose and gouge out her eye. He later tears out her throat, slashes her breast, and rips out her cheek to expose her full set of teeth. This utter monstrosity performed on another human being shows the pure inhumanity of sadists like Gull. In Gull, we are able to see the absolute darkest nature of human kind become unleashed, and the horrific truth of human potential to destroy others.

In “History of Europe 1815-On”, we studied Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, in which Freud discusses and explains that all behaviors exhibited by human beings can be explained by animalistic drives. Freud even goes on to suggest that instilled in every person is the desire to kill, as in the following quote from Civilization and Its Discontents:

… men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. (58)

Indeed, Freud believed that humans are naturally inclined to truly aggressive behavior as well as a craving to take advantage of others for personal satisfaction. That horrific conduct should be ingrained deep within the human mind was a very bold claim by Freud, one that many do not agree with, though everyday violence can be interpreted as an effect of this innate need. Appalling behavior can also be seen throughout the history of mankind, especially in the 20th century with the advancements of technology used for death, which occurred during the time Civilization and Its Discontents was published.

Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, a novel we examined in “Modern Literature since 1900”, follows the life of Tod and its narrator, who seems to be separate from the aforementioned protagonist. Time itself works differently within the boundaries of the novel, as it starts with Tod’s death and moves backward through his life, ending with his birth. Over the course of the novel we learn that the American doctor, Tod Friendly, was once Odilo Unverdorben, a Nazi doctor at Auschwitz. Through the narrator’s eyes, we see the true horrors Tod – through several different aliases – commits, ranging from torturing Gypsies and Jews to aborting his own children. The narrator, who sees the events of Tod’s life backward, views events that are good, such as his giving a toy to a child, as bad because he instead sees Tod taking the toy away from the child. Likewise, awful events, like the massacre of countless Jews, he thinks are miraculous because he sees the creation of people from the gas chambers. In this way, Amis suggests that the actions of the Nazis in the concentration camps were truly backward to that of moral and righteous behavior. However, this is but another example of the direction human nature moves toward – that of aggression and cruelty. Horror – true horror – was witnessed in the camps such as Auschwitz, and only because people gave in to their animalistic desires.

The three classes that compose our FIG, “Introduction to Modern Literature since 1900”, “Europe and the Modern World from 1815-On”, and “Historical Representations of London”, deal with several of the same concepts, though none is as fundamentally remarkable as the connections of horror and human nature through each of the courses. Through the parallels between the visually explicit and gruesome graphic novel From Hell, the intellectually enlightening theory of Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents, and the jarring account of Nazi terrorism in Time’s Arrow, the similarities of horror throughout time and medium are much easier to see. Perhaps by learning the truth of human potential to commit such acts of terror, future generations will have learned the lesson of time, and be able to rise above the instinctive need to destroy.


Amis, Martin. Time’s Arrow. New York: Vintage International, 1991.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization And Its Discontents. Martino Fine Books, 2010.

Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell. From Hell. Marietta: Top Shelf Productions, 2006.


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