The Horror Genre
Cours de Madame Bourgois
Licence 1, U4 : Etudes Cinématographiques
Semestre 1: The Horror Genre
Semestre 2 : The Western
Objectifs et savoirs visés :
1. Initiation au langage cinématographique
2. Compréhension orale : questions portant sur un dialogue de film, exercices lexicaux.
3. Introduction à deux genres du cinéma américain : le film d’horreur, le western.
4. Initiation à la lecture critique et à l’analyse de films.
Evaluation du semestre 1 : contrôle continu, deux épreuves.
1. Questions portant sur le langage cinématographique.
2. Questions de compréhension portant sur un dialogue.
3. Analyse d’une séquence représentative du genre étudié.
TD : 2 heures
Le cours théorique sur le langage cinématographique et sur les genres, les analyses de films ainsi que les glossaires illustrés et raisonnés seront distribués aux étudiants qui pourront également les consulter sur le site de la BA. Des projections de films en VO, des entraînements systématiques à l’écoute et à l’analyse seront pratiqués en TD. L’étudiant inscrit, pourra visionner des films du programme dans les cabines de projection du CRL. Des CD-Rom, réalisés par l’enseignante, traitant du langage cinématographique et de questions de genre seront également en consultation au CRL.
Les séances se dérouleront de la façon suivante : soit 1/2H d’écoute et de questions de compréhension, 1H 30 de projection de films au programme, soit 1H projection suivie de questions et d’entraînement à l’analyse, soit une projection de séquence suivie de son étude. Attention ! Les cours théoriques qui vous sont distribués doivent être lus et appris lors des premières semaines. D’ailleurs, rien ne peut exclure qu’une interrogation écrite ne vienne fort opportunément vérifier que cela fut bien fait. Rapidement, vous aurez tout loisir de poser des questions sur des points que vous ne comprendriez pas. Il importe que vous puissiez parfaitement vous approprier les thèses qui sont exposées car ce sont elles qui éclaireront les films que vous allez voir et guideront vos analyses. Certes, si je rédige ce cours et vous le donne, c’est afin de vous épargner de fastidieuses et soporifiques heures de prise de notes mais aussi parce que je pense pouvoir être convaincue que vous savez écrire. Il m’importe avant tout de nous faire gagner du temps afin que les séances soient consacrées à l’acquisition d’une bonne culture cinématographique dans les domaines choisis, à la discussion sur les thèses abordées et les questions suscitées. Je souhaite que vous soyez très vite en mesure de participer activement à l’élaboration des analyses que nous ferons en TD des films visionnés. La qualité et l’intérêt du TD dépendront ainsi largement de vous. Ceci me conduit à aborder un aspect de votre vie étudiante dont dépendra votre réussite.
Le travail personnel
L’étudiant écoutera très régulièrement la radio anglaise et s’il regarde un DVD, il optera pour la version sans sous-titres ou avec sous titres anglais. Il ira régulièrement au CRL où il s’inscrira à des modules de compréhension orale, ce qui lui permettra d’améliorer notablement son niveau. L’étudiant de L1 doit comprendre qu’en aucun cas sa présence aux TD, même studieuse et active, ne suffira à sa préparation. Il doit se rendre compte qu’un TD représente 24H de travail, ce qui est largement insuffisant. Le TD doit s’envisager comme un lieu d’apprentissage, de confrontation et de débat. Le travail personnel d’entraînement systématique est obligatoire si l’étudiant veut faire partie des 20% de réussite de la première session. (20% représente le cas de figure optimiste, certaines unités enregistrent des taux de 13%). Par ailleurs, il est indispensable, tant pour l’épreuve de compréhension que pour l’analyse, que l’étudiant entreprenne un travail systématique d’acquisition lexicale soit dans des manuels spécialisés, soit par la lecture attentive d’écrits critiques et la prise de notes des expressions et formules pertinentes à l’argumentation. Lors du TD, l’enseignant n’hésitera jamais à procéder à des révisions ponctuelles de champs lexicaux, mais il serait illusoire de croire que cet apport puisse suffire à la préparation de l’épreuve. Il est raisonnable d’envisager que la part du travail personnel représente 70% de la préparation, le TD étant réservé à la présentation des grandes lignes d’un sujet (cours sur les genres), à des exercices exemplaires, à des conseils méthodologiques, à des temps d’évaluation et de diagnostic permettant à l’étudiant de se situer par rapport à son projet. Il en résulte qu’il serait salutaire que, dès le début des cours, l’étudiant confectionne son propre emploi du temps de travail personnel et qu’il s’y tienne scrupuleusement : le plus grand danger de la première année provient de l’impression illusoire d’un luxe de temps libre, or 12 semaines passent très vite et l’échéance arrive toujours trop tôt. Chaque semaine, l’étudiant fera un bref bilan du travail produit en répondant sincèrement à la question : qu’ai-je fait, cette semaine, pour me préparer à l’épreuve ? Qu’ai-je appris ? S’il venait à l’oublier, l’enseignant rappellera, impitoyable, le nombre de semaines qui reste avant l’épreuve finale. En ce qui concerne l’U4, on peut envisager une période d’écoute journalière de 1H et une séance au CRL hebdomadaire. L’acquisition de la terminologie à partir du Poly demande un travail régulier et consciencieux de 1H hebdomadaire : il ne suffit pas d’apprendre par cœur les chapitres, il faut répondre aux questions types que vous trouvez dans le poly, afin d’être certain que vous vous êtes bien approprié ce savoir, que vous êtes capable de le mobiliser et d’en jouer en toutes circonstances, que vous parvenez quand vous regardez un film à identifier et à nommer les techniques utilisées. En ce qui concerne la question portant sur les genres, le cours devra être connu et compris, l’étudiant retravaillera chaque section afin de demander des éclaircissements à l’enseignant si nécessaire. Le poly devra être lu dès les premières semaines car les séances seront ensuite essentiellement consacrées à la projection, en vue de les analyser et de tester les thèses avancées dans les cours rédigés, de longues séquences. L’étudiant s’entraînera à rédiger des analyses précises en suivant les conseils méthodologiques dispensés en cours. Il veillera à ce que son étude se déroule logiquement, soit cohérente, bien articulée, pertinente et justifiée et qu’elle soit parfaitement lisible et convaincante. Seul un entraînement régulier et méthodique permet d’acquérir les réflexes, les compétences nécessaires à cet exercice. Il faut donc prévoir chaque semaine une plage de 2H pour cet entraînement : on divisera les différentes phases de l’apprentissage en a) révision et acquisition du lexique, b) prise de note devant une séquence, c) rédaction du plan, d) rédaction d’une introduction, e) rédaction d’une partie, etc. en suivant scrupuleusement la démarche indiquée en cours. N’oubliez pas que ce que vous aurez appris dans cette Unité vous servira pour toutes celles qui demandent rédaction (en civilisation et en littérature), que le vocabulaire sera utile en traduction, et que le travail de pratique orale sera également précieux pour vos oraux. La réciproque est également vraie. Les 6 H prescrites seront ainsi largement rentabilisées, ce qui vous permettra d’envisager votre cursus avec confiance.
Liste non exhaustive des films utilisés :
1). Pour la comprehension: A Secret beyond the door, Psycho, Rebecca, The Rope, To Be or not to Be, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Dark Mirror, Witness for a Prosecution.
2) Pour le film d’ horreur: Nosferatu, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mark of the Vampire, The Bride of Frankenstein, Cat people, The Haunting, The Circus of horror, Psycho, The Night of the Living Dead, Scream, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Rabia, Sisters, Friday 13th , Carpenter’s films.
3) Pour le western: The Big Trail, The Naked Spur, High Noon, My Darling Clementine, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, Stagecoach, Rio Bravo, The Searchers, Alamo, Johnny Guitar, Yellow Sky, Unforgiven, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, Bronco Billy, Winchester 73.
The horror genre
Cours de Annie Bourgois
Before we move on to the aesthetics of horror, we shall try to trace and understand the constructions of the genre through a historical approach. Then we shall identify the essential features, explore the key themes, point at the main issues and debates raised by the genre and engage in the various approaches that have been applied to analyze it.
A History of Anxiety, part I
The history of the horror genre is essentially a history of anxiety in the 20th century. In the ways that fairy tales, folktales, gothic romances articulated the fears of the old world, likewise horror films (HF) have defined and illustrated the phobias of a new world characterized by a rationale of industrial, technological and economical determinism. Arguably, it has interrogated the deep-seated effects of change and responded to the newly determined grand narratives of social, scientific and philosophical thought. We could argue that HF appropriate the fears of an age and the anxieties of the species, exploit them, dramatize them, and by exhibiting them they may exorcise them when they do not simply comfort them. In a way, watching HF may help one understand what, in a given historical period, most frightened people, or rather what they were required to fear. The evolution of the various disguises of the monster from the vampire to the serial killer provides a perfect way to approach the fantasies and phobias of people. In whatever way the monster is conceived and act, it serves to operate as a mode of disruption and breakdown in the status quo. A major theme of the Horror genre is therefore the expression of the ways in which individuals try to maintain control of their lives in the face of profound disruptions which only comments on the frailties and brutalities of the status quo and its habitual norms. Fundamentally, then, horror films engage with the collapse of social/socialised formations. These range from the personal to the familial, the communal, the national, and the global. Any one level of identity can be impacted upon by the monster, and either radically changed or annihilated. These formations are the very structures which offer humanity a sense of purpose and order; their collapse is an indication that they either exclude, cannot contain, or misrepresent forces which ultimately re-visit and challenge them. This occurs in many ways and the monster depicts these forces whether they are in effect ‘the beast within’ or ‘the other from without’.
Horror films and Gothic literature
Many histories connect the HF with forms of literary and theatrical horror that pre-existed the emergence of cinema: gothic literature and romanticism
Questions and assignments:
- Have you ever heard of gothic novels?
- Mrs Radcliffe, Walpole, Lewis ? Mary Shelley? Bram Stoker? Dracula? The Monk, The Italian, The Castle of Otranto? Do these names ring any bells at all?
- When ? Second part of 18th century, beginning of 19th ? (Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, much discussing it with Byron and her brother Shelley. Hence romantic period)
- What could those fears of the ‘old world’ have been?
- Anyway, who was likely to be able or have enough leisure time to read?
- The heroines of Gothic novels are often young women pursued, chased by lewd catholic priests or monks. See the satire by Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey. Can you account for this sinister view of Catholicism?
A few insights and clues:
- Reason can be overwhelmed by passions and feelings; sensations are not reliable and yet human senses are the only ‘doors’ to the world.
- These novels were fervently anti-rationalist and explored the nature of transgression, creating an uncertain space between the natural and supernatural orders. This ambivalence prevails in HF. Established ethical considerations were challenged, the tales are often sexually explicit and blasphemous, with strong expression of uninhibited desires. The tensions in these novels were clear reactions to an acknowledged order, expressing feelings constrained and oppressed by social laws and practice, and addressing psychological, emotional and physical imperatives.
- The notion of division and ‘the divided soul’ is often expressed.
- The motif if the divided sensibility expressed in Frankenstein (1818) also characterized Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Stoker’s Dracula (1897). These novels became the primary models of HF concerning themselves with how the limits of human desire and endeavor play out within an established social and spiritual order. Dracula engages with ideas about European otherness, predatory threat, uninhibited expressions of sexual desire, the secular power myth of blood and the sacred religious symbolism it challenges. Frankenstein establishes the scientist as a key figure, introduces a creature which plays out issues of identity and ethical conduct. Dr Jejyll and Mr Hyde plays out the tension between social identity, civilised codes of conduct, and more primal and inchoate instincts of humanity. Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin (1820) deals with the Faustian myth of a man. It examines the limits of law and order, aspects of madness, the destabilisation of the body, and the transience and lack of purpose of life itself. In the United States, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798) anticipates one of the prevailing sites of American horror, the family home, in dealing with a man, driven by supernatural imperatives, to kill his wife and children. Poe was also a source for many films.
- Mechanization and technological advances seemed to substantiate the notion of man’s triumph over Nature. But the figure of the mad scientist who wished to rival with God and caused catastrophes was there to remind the readers that Nature could take its revenge.
- A sense of history developed a keen eagerness to learn about old civilizations not without a certain thrill and apprehension. (Egypt and mummies proved a source of inspiration)
- The rise of the bourgeoisie, the revolutionary theories, the example of France, the fear of riotous mob spread uneasiness and anxiety among the aristocratic classes. Their rule and leadership were questioned. It has been argued the fairy tales, as a genre, had meant to please the new rising class, so did the new novels in the 18th century.
- Now what, in the first part of the 20th century could cause anxiety? The many technological discoveries and human prowess tended to assert a final mastery of mankind over nature, but the creed that nature would take its revenge was never uprooted and inspired many HF. We think immediately of the atomic bomb, the dread of which features high in HF of late 40s and early 50s. Darwin’s theories as exposed in The Origin of Species, 1859 and which proved a similarity between men and apes had also deeply affected human pride and had long-lasting effects. Even now the point is questioned. Many films tapped on this shock. Freudian theories and psychoanalysis would cause another shock and prove a great source of inspiration.
A Brief Survey of the Evolution of the Genre
We shall return to these points, but I now wish to give you a brief survey of the evolution of the genre, citing the most famous and characteristic films of each period. We shall address the chronological evolution of the HF, looking at how it has reflected and commented upon particular historical periods.
Trip to the Moon, a turning point.
To account for the purely cinematic roots of the genre we should turn towards Melies with his Trip to the Moon, 1902. Melies creates a cinema of pure fantasy which does not seek to document reality but uses the potentials of cinema to present images of things that cannot exist except in our imagination. Melies’s film is not exactly HF, but it signals a turning point when cinema forsook the documentary trend to choose the path of creation and imagination, preferring story rather than history.
It follows that Cinema and more particularly Hollywood’s films is not expected to film what is, to help us see better, closer and more clearly what is already there, but to create what is not or has never been, what should be, could be to fulfill our desires or please our fancy.
German Expressionism is seen as the next key moment in the development of HF. The key feature of German Expressionism was its anti-realist aesthetic. With Expressionism, representation is no longer merely what is represented; the actual, concrete representation is merely an invitation to venture beyond the canvas, beyond representation, to catch something of the invisible, the ineffable, the transcendent (in this sense it is the direct heir of romanticism and symbolism). Distorted lines, jagged lines and fragmentary shapes, strong black and white contrasts reflect madness, dream states and paranoia. They envisage and illustrate interior states and supernatural vistas. This emphasis prioritised abstraction over narrative and addressed the precarious nature of human sanity in a world of complex power relations and unknown forces. These are the classics :
Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1919; Paul Wegener, The Golem, 1920; Murnau, Nosferatu, 1922; Lang, Metropolis, 1926-27, Dr Mabuse der spieler 1922, and Das testament des Dr Mabuse, 33.
The Thirties: the monster.
The period of German Expressionism was followed by the Hollywood productions of the 30s. Some critics include King Kong 1933, as a horror film, but most concentrate on the films released through Universal Pictures such as:
James Whale, Frankenstein, 31 The Invisible man, 33 and The bride of Frankenstein,35
Ted Browning, Dracula, 31, Freaks, 32, Mark of the vampire, 35.
Tod Browning is a significant figure in defining the HF in the United States. His films all serve to engage with the monster in a way that demonstrates ‘situations of moral and sexual frustrations’. They evidence an obsessional interest with the attraction and repulsion of sub-human figures, thus posing the question of what it is to be human. His monsters wish to understand their own monstrosity in the eyes of others, and it is only when they are further alienated do they seek revenge, and use their Otherness in a spirit of aggression. Whale and Browning address notions of social facades, the damaging sexual inhibitions of civilised codes of practice, and the guilt and anxiety in not being able to adjust to social orthodoxies. The monster is threatening by virtue of its Otherness, but more by its proximity to humanity. Essentially this sense of humanity-at-one-remove is a displacement of anxiety and a ready context for the social ills of the 20s and 30s America. The monster represent the sheer ‘difference’ being shown on screen.
Many HF of the 30s demonstrated a particular concern with science and its centrality in the context of social progress. The mad scientist’s curiosity extends beyond finding out the laws of nature and creates his own law. It is in this transgression that Frankenstein violates scientific conventions and the work of God. The horror of this narrative lies in witnessing the violation of humanity’s limits and the sense of the human. His monster is only a materialisation of an unnatural and unwanted order. He is a physical manifestation of the consequence of misconduct.
In Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Mamoulian, 31), the key imperative of the mad scientist is an avoidance of the everyday and its inhibiting values, a desire to break social limitations. The monster represents what is ultimately a comment upon the limitations of the moral and cultural infrastructure.
Hollywood responded to the poverty and hardships of the depression by largely ignoring it, producing instead a range of escapist and utopian entertainments. King Kong(33) is a mythic compendium of Depression-era anxieties. It embodies the key themes of the genre: the ambivalence of the monster, the metaphoric implications of Kong’s (black) masculinity and sexuality, the consequences of imperialist intervention and exploitation, the predilection for confrontation and irrationality. It questions the maintenance of social norms while allowing the most intense feelings experienced by humankind to find an appropriate context. Fears are not merely expressed through brutality but through a sentimental apocalypse which both acknowledges consensus and constraint and simultaneously reveals how it is possible to feel.
1. Find information about these two directors.
2. Find information about The Hounds of Zaroff, Schoedsack (32), and The Black Cat, Ulmer (34).
3. Compare Mary Shelley’s novel (1818) with Whale’s film. Which episodes have been cut, which character is conspicuously missing. What is the result of these modifications? Find information about the Luddite Movement in 1811-17 and the Pentridge rising of 1817 and more generally about machine breaking riots. (“One of the first attempts to mount a wholly proletarian insurrection without any middle-class support”) Through the twin narratives of Walton (the polar explorer) and Frankenstein, Shelley presents two models of scientific progress. Walton works with a crew while Frankenstein works alone. What the text then appears to offer is a straightforward contrast. Scientific development subject to some form of strong democratic control can avert the dangers its researchers encounter and save human beings from the possibly fatal consequences of these researches. But scientific advance pursued for private motives and with no reining and directing social control or sense of responsibility leads to direct catastrophe. Since the film removed Walton, Frankenstein model alone is presented as a universal model, replete with reactionary moralizing about the dangers of meddling with the unknown. The film introduces Fritz, the assistant, who drops the normal brain and replaces it with the abnormal one. Due to this brain, the monster is seen in the film as biologically determined, a result of nature and not nurture nor of circumstances. Violence is seen as rooted in personal deficiencies, viewed with horror and not an understandable response to an inhuman treatment. In the novel, the creature is human, in the film sub human, in the novel he saves a child from drowning, in the film he drowns her. The end also evidences the ideological re-structuring of the film. In the novel, Frankenstein dies as he chases his creature in the Artic, whereas in the novel the monster is chased by the villagers for his killing the girl and he is burned in the windmill. The politics of the mill-burning are overt: as the blazes engulf the blades they form a gigantic cross that suggests the KKK virulently active at the time. Whereas Mary Shelley was trying to understand the revolt of the working class, the counter revolutionary mob violence is comfortably justifiable and sanctioned, since the monster represents a threat to the community and the end is a ritual cleansing, a prompt removal of this threat. The film was released during the depression. What it sought to say to the mass audience at whom it was aimed concerned above all mass activity in times of crisis: where that activity might be assertive and democratic and beneficial (the Walton episode) it is removed and concealed; where it is violent and insurrectionary (the monster’s story), it is denigrated; where it is traditional and reactionary (the mill burning), it is endorsed. Branagh’s adaptation will keep the two narratives, do they serve the same purpose?
More generally speaking, why would you say that Frankenstein is an ambiguous figure?
A comparative analysis of the various, successive incarnations of the two main ‘monsters’ Frankenstein and Dracula might be of interest. Their different treatments according to the historical context, the current sociological or scientific issues they could illustrate ( for instance, Aids in the late Dracula by Coppola) might prove a most enlightening entry into the genre. How is the relationship between Doctor Frankenstein and his creature interpreted? Whether the beast is pitied as pathetic victim of the hubris of the doctor or as illustrating the thesis of hereditary and biological determinism, the implications change completely. Doctor Frankenstein assumes the role of God in creating life. What is the retribution?
As to Dracula, it is interesting to consider whether he embodies a foreign decadent aristocrat, an ante Christ, the bearer of Syphilis or Aids, the incarnation of the budding sexual desire of young virgin women. How do you understand the twisting of Dracula’s story into a romantic love affair, the desperate lover striving to triumph over time and death in Coppola’s adaptation?
These films drew on some of the techniques of German Expressionism and established the now familiar figures of Frankenstein (or as we should say, the creature of Frankenstein) and Dracula. They made the monster an ambiguous figure and a central concern. Monster derives from the same lexical root as monstration, demonstration; it is a matter of showing, rendering visible. Can you explain this etymology, what can you infer from it?
The famous stars associated with this period are Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Lugosi’s delightful pronunciation has enchanted generations of film-goers and fans love to quote him: ‘I bid… you… welcome;(…) I never drink…wine;(…) listen, the children of the night;(…) blood is life, Mr Renfield; etc” Many websites about these two famous actors.
It was uniformly assumed that HF were inappropriate in the light of the real horrors of warfare. Hence the monsters of the 30s became comic figures with Abbott and Costello. The audience was encouraged to laugh at the fears of others rather than empathise with the threat towards the victim. These films mixed horror and humour. They drew attention to horror, but dissipated its effects. Concurrently, they acknowledged the war, but displaced its outcome.
The psychological horror produced by Val Lewton and directed by Tourneur, Robert Wise at RKO Studios returned to the fairytale archetypes of old world myth and superstition to engage with ‘the dramatisation of the threat of the unknown’. Psychoanalysis was brought to bear on the paraphernalia of supernatural legends. Lewton’s films harboured hidden knowledges that the modern world was ill prepared to accept and needed to absorb or repress. He returned to a ‘people-centred’ approach. These films of the 40s focussed on the sympathetic and ambiguous nature of the monster. Lewton effectively modified the notion of transformation in HF into a psychological and emotional act that recalled primal imperatives. Further, he played out a variety of perspectives on ‘reason’ which were largely inadequate or ill-conceived in the light of unknown facts. These films tend to locate the story in a recognizably modern world and call into question the very uncertainties on which this world depends. The horror no longer takes place in some exotic never never land but erupts within the normal and everyday world. In Cat people, the invisible, uncanny monster haunts a swimming pool, lurks along a dark street or steals in a bedroom. The film illustrates Todorov’s theory about the fantastic because the spectator keeps wondering whether there exists a real monster or whether it is just the manifestations of a neurotic frigid woman. There are some visible signs of a monstrous presence which remains invisible till the end. By reducing the physical monstrosity of the Universal films, and simulating the audience to induce their own terror, Lewton’s work does much to parallel, invoke, and implicitly illustrate the unimaginable terrors of the Second World War.
Lewton and Jacques Tourneur: Cat people, 1942 (La Féline), I walked with a zombie, 43, The Leopard Man, 43.
Find information about The Body Snatchers, 45, Curse of the Catpeople 44.
1.The 50s introduced a series of monsters that were clearly associated with the world of modern scientific America and the Bomb. They often involved an alien invading force from the outer space or else a horde of invaders caused by human science itself. The rise of ‘Creature Feature’ engaged with post-Atomic Bomb anxiety. In Them! Gordon Douglas, 1954 and Tarentula, 55, normally harmless animals grow to fantastic size due to exposure to nuclear radiation or human experimentation and thus threaten the whole humanity.
2.We may also attribute the taste for this genre to the Cold War fear of communist infiltration and the growing rivalry over interplanetary exploration between The United States and the Soviet Unions. There was in America a wave of paranoia fuelled by the hysterical fear of communism. Directors who had had sympathies for communism were chased and tried.
Christian Nyby, The Thing (from another world), 1951
Don Siegel, Invasion of the body snatchers, 1956
In the first film, the aliens proceeded through violence but in the second they spread stealthily, inconspicuously by replacing humans with alien copies. It implied that the enemy roams around, invisible, assuming the features, the voice of a friend, nobody can trust anybody any longer; it is the perfect fantasy to nurture the necessary fear of foreigners, of others, to foster the belief that one’s nation is jeopardized, hence justifying all kinds of retaliation. The prevailing anxieties about communism, widespread poverty, and racial tension undermined the ‘comfort ethos’ of the middle-class. These were the pre-occupations of a nation increasingly divided in outlook, unable to fully comprehend the implications, on the one hand, of the Atomic Bomb, and on the other, of the new freedoms of a post-war social mobility that it had afforded. In fact, the United states had created its own monsters and needed to understand them in what has been defined as ‘invasion narratives’ and ‘outsider narratives’ as well as ‘creature features’.
3. A rising target: teenagers
These films were popular with teenagers and American International Pictures produced a huge number of alien invasion narratives aimed directly at this public who, because they had money, became an interesting target, a lucrative market.
For example, I was a Teenage werewolf, 57, Gene Fowler , in which a modern American teenager is regressed by a scientist and becomes a bloodthirsty monster.
4. Crisis in gender relations
1950s horror films were also concerned with ‘the systematic destabilisation of movie-made masculinity’. The Thing from Another World (1951), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), I married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958) as well as articulating the deep-rooted paranoia of a politicised otherness, all address the crisis in gender relations, the re-configuration of masculinity and femininity and anxiety about the ‘natural’ environment. Men shrink while women rise; taken-for-granted and insignificant aspects of the domestic environment, like ants and spiders, or cats and dogs, grow in proportion and threaten the natural order, different models of sexuality begin to threaten heterosexual and patriarchal norms. Otherness in the alien can in some ways be allied to the difference inherent in women, or indeed other paradigms of sexuality.
1. By the end of the decade, Roger Corman was directing the first cycle loosely based on E.A. Poe. These films were made on small budgets, using lavish colours and visual excess to create a nightmarish world of melodramatic fantasy. Among these films: The Pit and the Pendulum, 61, The Premature Burial, 62, The Tomb of Ligeia, 64.
2. Meanwhile a small British company called Hammer had phenomenal success with its own version of Frankenstein and Dracula. The films were cheaply made, using colours and carefully set design to create a vividly realized gothic world that initially shocked audience with its gore.
3.Throughout the 60s, a whole series of national popular cinemas made horrors of their own; among them, Jess Franco in Spain and Mario Bava in Italy. Cannibalism became a favourite.
4. Psycho and the focus on family (more about this film in a following chapter)
The 60s also saw the release of Psycho, by Hitchcock which transformed the horror genre in two ways:
1. It is claimed to have placed the horror firmly within the context of modern American society and attributed its cause to the hero’s crisis of identity.
2. It is supposed to have located its origins within the modern American family.
In Psycho, the monster is not a supernatural being, but an apparently ordinary teenager who is psychologically disturbed and not able to control his murderous impulses, he is actually unaware of them. He believes his mother is the murderer, a clear case of split personality: the gentle victimized son and the killer-mother. The focus on the family in Psycho can be seen as initiating a cycle of family horror films. The cycle started with the release of Night with the living Dead by Romero, 68. The film involved a feuding group of humans who are besieged by a horde of flesh-eating zombies. The film largely concentrates on the tensions between the humans and features a shocking moment when a young girl becomes a zombie, murders her mother with a trowel and eats her father’s body.
It launched the career of Romero who was joined by a series of other horror authors in the 70s:
Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 74; Wes Craven, The Hills Have Eyes, 78; Larry Cohen, It Lives Again, 78 ( a new-born baby slashes the throat of the doctor and the nurses, a prelude to a long series of gory crimes); Return to Salem’s Lot, 78, where the vampires are doomed to drink cow milk to evade all risks of AIDS. Brian de Palma, Sisters, 73; Carrie, 76; Cronenberg, Shivers, 75, Rabia, 77; Carpenter, Assaults on Precincts 13, 76; Halloween, 78. These films recycled feminism, psychoanalysis, Aids and other topical issues.
After the success of Halloween, emerged the slasher film. It is concerned with a process of terrorization in which a serial killer methodically stalks a group of teenagers who are killed one by one. (It has been presented as a highly conservative genre on behalf of women. Wes Craven in Screams gives the recipes and among them, a maid should remain virgin!) It is argued that these films encourage audiences to identify with the killer and not with the female victim; this is achieved through the use of the point of view camera shots (most famously used in the opening of Halloween) It is claimed that the most graphic attacks are performed against women and particularly the ones who have just had sex. These films are thus argued to be part of a violent reaction against feminism since the women who are terrorized and slaughtered tend to be those who resist definition within the virgin/wife/mother framework. It has also been argued that one of the distinctive feature of these films is the absence of male hero and the presence of a ‘final girl’: a female heroine who does not rely on male action to be saved but tackles the monster herself. See 13th Elm Street; and the sagas with Michael and Jason. More about gender and HF later.
The end of the 70s and the 80s: Body Horror and Science
Alien, Ridley Scott, 79, was also released after Halloween and while it shared a very similar plot structure to that of many slasher films, it has been central to the development of two different tendencies within the 80s, both of which were associated with the work of David Cronemberg: the development of science fiction/horror and of body/horror.
Most of Science fiction horror films are remakes : Invasions of the body snatchers, 78; Invaders from Mars, 86, The Blob, Aliens, 86 refers to Them!
Body/horror can be associated with the modern collapse of distinction and boundaries (notion of hybridization). The monster’s threat is not simply external but erupts from within the human body and it challenges the distinction between self and other, between inside and outside.
In The Fly (Cronemberg, 86) Seth Brunded uses a teleportation machine and in the process his body is fused with that of a fly at the molecular level. His DNA has been rewritten and the film concerns the gradual transformation of his body and his inability to maintain a sense of mastery and control over his physicality and identity. The threat comes from the inside not the outside and many have complained that the film displays a fear of physicality and sexuality.
Meanwhile, by the 80s, a new category emerged: the video nasties (sex and violence, cheap films for TV) which created a sub culture.
Ironically, this period also saw the emergence of a new form of horror comedy. Films such as An American Werewolf in London, 81, The Return of the Living dead, 85, Fright Night, 85. They were highly self conscious plays toying with the codes of the genre, with powerful horrific moments, but they also mocked them. In Fright Night, a teenage fan of horror films becomes obsessed with the belief that his new neighbour is a real vampire and enlists the support of an old horror movie actor to help him. The humour is based on the film’s references to earlier films and the familiarity of the audience with them.
The early 90s saw a different development starting to a large extent with The Silence of The Lamb, 91, Jonathan Demme, ( we shall examine the critical reception of this film later, showing the different ways it was evaluated by different sections of the media and differently generically categorized. Some critics insisting on refusing to see it as a horror film: hence a perfect example to follow the struggle over the meanings of films and the cultural politics that underpin them.) Then a series of big budget films were made with star costs and great directors: Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reaves in Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 92; Robert de Niro in Branagh Kenneth’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 94, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire, 94, Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichol’s Wolf, 94. These HF made a bid for respectability and they presented themselves as ‘quality production’, not only through their casts and directors but also through their clear allusion to the classic horror movies of the 30s. Each film turned back to a classic horror monster and some claimed to be faithful to the classic novel.
This cycle was short-lived and by the end of the 90s it was on TV that the really interesting developments in horrors were taking place in shows such as X Files and Buffy the Vampire.
96 did see the release of the hugely successful Scream,
which went on to spawn 2 sequels and a host of imitations. This series picked
up on the slasher movies of the 70s and 80s and treated them ironically. In
these films, the teenage characters are overly familiar with horror and popular
culture and continually comment on the generic qualities of the narratives within
which they are located. The success of the cycle did not satisfy everyone and
while the knowing self referentiality soon lost its charm for some, others saw
them along with the TV series as commercial appropriation of authentic horror
which they identified as low budget, underground and potentially subversive.
For these fans, The Blair Witch Project, 99, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, became a ‘cause célèbre’. Supposedly made by unknowns on a non existent budget, the film concerns a group of teenagers who go off into the woods to make a documentary and the premise is not only that the teenagers have disappeared but that the film itself is composed out of the footage that they shot. In spite of the huge financial success it did not start a new cycle.
At present Hollywood seems to have turned back to the 70s and is making a series of films that draw on stories of demonic possession and conspiracy, such as The Exorcist, 73 and The Omen, 76, with Lost Souls 2000, Bless The Child, 2000. Well, it’s up to you now to tell the rest of the story…
For further investigations here is a list of Web sites:
Or easier and just as efficient type ‘horror films’ and just wait!
Vocabulary: the semantic field of fear
To scare, to frighten, to terrify, to terrorize, to horrify, to appal
It is blood curdling, to be panic-stricken, struck, to be frightened out of one’s wits. To stand in awe. To awe. To abash, to feel abashed.
Gruesome, appalling, macabre, dire, ghastly, loathsome, awful, horrible, horrified, horrid, frightful, dreadful, fearful, terrible, awesome, awe-stricken, awe inspiring.
Strange, weird, eerie, ominous, queer.
To be scared, afraid, scared, beset by fears.
To recoil, to apprehend, to shrink.
Threatening, to threaten.
Analysis of a sequence: some advice
The sequence is representative of a genre.
Problematics: Three phases
1. Brief definition of the genre, reminder of its main characteristic features or of its purposes or modes of appeal to the spectator. You may also situate the film within the evolution of the genre (decade and specificity). You may approach it through questioning its appeal. There are many ways of leading to the analysis and you should pick up the most adequate, the most appropriate or most relevant in regards with the sequence to be presented. The first phase may remain rather general, the movement being a gentle shift, or glide from the general to the particular.
2. The second phase introduces the sequence under study. You may select among different approaches: either descriptive, analytical or thematic.
That is, you may proceed by describing the atmosphere or you may prefer to raise immediately a question as to the genre, or again draw attention to an unusual aspect or, on the contrary, to what seems to be the central theme or interest of the sequence. You may focus on the expected or sought for reaction of the audience, the types of expectations that are aroused, thus proceeding to a reception study. Or, again, you may turn to a gender approach, examining how the film deals with gender categories: does it enforce them, deviate them, question them? Another option would consist in studying the ideological purport of the film; a basic question may consider whether the film is progressive, reactionary.
3. The third phase is programmatic.
The simplest way consists in differentiating between the hows and the whys; whereas the whys may be unfolded into a) thematic import and b) impact and reception.
If we agree to distinguish narrative from narration then your analysis may focus a) on the how it is told, then on the what is told (even this level requires subdivisions to be able to locate the sequence within the plot: initial situation in terms of states and being, disruptive event, lack and loss, then the sequences of doings, deteriorations through gradual transformations or improvements through acquisition of competences - power, will, knowledge, moral sense - and finally restoration). The narrative involves the analysis of the enunciative strategies (essentially the point of view, the function and status of the camera)
Hence the first part should concentrate on the forms or ‘mise-en-shots’ (types of shots, angles, point of view, movements of camera, editing), soundtrack.
When the hows have been examined, the questions concern the why thus. And the field to be explored may lie towards the spectator’s place and expectations or functions or towards the message or themes thus dramatized.
Never forget that an essay must be well written, in not only correct but elegant English; your statements must be qualified and precise and the general move of your demonstration should unfold logically and smoothly. It therefore requires that you should acquire the necessary vocabulary of argumentation and read critical essays.
A History of Anxiety, part II
As a genre, Horror is closely linked to the history of
anxiety, since it may be safely stated, as we suggested in our introduction,
that it articulates the fears of an age, illustrates the phobias and interrogates
and responds to the new challenges each century has to face. If we consider
the roots of the genre, that is gothic narratives and novels, we must bear in
mind that Gothic literature itself had borrowed the ambivalence that shaped
it from the aftermath of the Enlightenment and of the French revolution and
became increasingly uncertain as to the location of evil and nature of vice.
The locus of evil vacillates between outcast individuals and the social conventions
that produced or constructed them. The agent of evil ranges from the alienated
misfit to the riotous mob. The nature and source of evil are problematic and
hard to define: is reason too weak to resist the overflowing imagination, have
drives the power to move us, and where do they find their source? Abnormality
is becoming a wide field of investigation in hospital, in court and in the media.
As the 19th passed into the 20th this prevailing moral and ethical tension between
the individual and the socio-political order was profoundly affected by significant
So our point here is to examine how the horror genre responded to the narratives of socio-scientific and philosophical thoughts. We are entitled to call these theories narratives since each one, the Marxist one, Darwin’s, Nietzsche’s or Freud’s, proposed to reconsider the history of Mankind, the place of man in the world, its origin and future.
Bourgeois Orthodoxy versus the alienated and rebellious
Indeed, the late 19th saw the development of several significant and transformative social discourses and among them, Marx’s political economy theories. Concerned with proletarian identity and power in the face of an emergent industrial and capitalist society, Marx’s view posited the necessity of a class struggle, in the light of the potential estrangement of the working class into an increasingly alienated condition. This perspective becomes especially important in relation to the horror film since it may be argued that it implicitly embraces the critique of this process, by consistently invoking the monster of the alienated and disadvantaged as the key protagonist against the bourgeois middle class. From Nosferatu to Frankenstein, to the Hammer and Corman Studios, to The Night of the Living Dead, to films by Franco and Jodorowsky (Cannibals, Dr Orloff), the genre has often been used to explore modes of social revolution in which the bourgeois orthodoxy is transgressed and to expose how the working class in Weimar Germany, in Depression Era America, or Franco’s Spain has been manipulated.
The revenge of Nature
These issues may be intrinsically related to the ideas expressed by Darwin in Origins of the Species, 1859. Evolution is a process of natural selection according to which only the fittest survive. Darwin argued that natural selection is always at work and immensely superior to man’s feeble effort at meddling with nature. While mankind imposes itself upon earth, nature slowly but surely, organically and invisibly, changes the world.
The tension between Man and Nature is a key theme in HF in a variety of ways. From the monstrous metamorphosis in Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, 31, Mamoulian, to the anthropological imagination of King Kong, 33, Cooper- Schoedsack, to ‘creature features’ (in the 50s-cold war) and to ‘revenge of the nature’ films (including The Birds), the genre has explored the ways in which humankind has engaged with the process of natural order. The apparent restlessness and indefatigability of nature are pitted against the ’will to power’ of Mankind.
The order of the monster
Now, this ‘will to power’ is the notion developed by Nietzsche who argues that humanity is subject to spiritual crisis and undergoing a constant process of degeneracy – foregrounding its own inherent desire to impose order. A nihilistic view: man is a depraved animal capable of wanting what is harmful for him. This view implies that there is no certainty to existence and that humankind lives in an amoral universe, merely subject to a series of conflicts and confrontations, a process of one imposition upon another, without any true consensus. Arguably, this may be the fundamental theme of HF. Take the monster in the following films: Dracula, 31; the spawn of the devil in Rosemary’s baby, 68; the child in The Exorcist, 73; the presence in Blair Witch Project, 99. They represent the archetypal struggle not merely between good and evil, but for the presence of an order which seeks to evidence and maintain the idea that there is someone or something to believe in and which justifies material existence.
The monster within
Last but not the least, Psychoanalysis changed the ways Mankind perceived itself. It reveals a primal existence, a libidinal energy beneath the codes of socialized behaviour. It suggests that repressed and unconscious feelings are active, that dreams tell the truth about one’s desire, that nightmares are but the staging of fulfilled a-social desires. The HF engaged in madness, psychosis and played with the idea that the monster is in the mind.
These four narratives of social collapse and revolt, spiritual and moral disorder, evolution, unconscious are the conditions that underpin HF. Indeed this genre explores the fears which arose in the contemporary world, it shows what it is to be frightened. We could say that HF play the role performed previously by fables and fairy tales.
Configuring the Monster
Now our approach aims at catching the fundamental unvarying features of the genre, suggesting critical paths to interpret the monster
The Doubles and the Devil or the struggle within
Central to the horror genre is the configuration of the monster which is likely to be redefined with each development of social and cultural history. We could suggest that the horror text focuses on the amorphous nature of evil and logically interrogates the limits of the human conditions. The archetype of the monster is Satan.
The struggle between good and evil, played in HF, can also assume different forms such as a struggle between Law and order, or the sacred and the profane, truth and lies, barbarism and civility.
These dialectical positions are addressed through one of the dominant motif of the horror text: the doppelganger, the double (often symbolising a struggle within competing sides of an individual rational and civilised vs uncontrolled duality between competing sexualities.) It follows that the monster should be read as a metaphor.
The Monster as metaphor
The horror genre is concerned with the relative and fragile nature of existence. The monster is a metaphor: a projection of threats and fears and dreads and phobias, a direct and unfettered expression of the horror that surrounds us.
The monster serves to operate as a mode of disruption and breakdown in the status quo. A major theme of the Horror genre is therefore the expression of the ways in which individuals try to maintain control of their lives in the face of profound upheavals which only comments on the frailties and brutalities of the status quo and its habitual norms. Fundamentally, HF then engage with the collapse of socialised formations (whether personal, familial, communal, national or global). Any one level of identity can be impacted upon by the monster and either radically changed or annihilated. The monster adequately depicts the forces (whether it is the beast within or the Other from without) which will challenge the formations, that which threatens the maintenance of life and the defining practices of societies. The way Dracula arouses the inhibited sexuality of women and unbridles their libido is quite telling: if the wives to be are tempted, then it is the very foundation of the patriarchal societies that is threatened. The treatment differs widely of course whether it is Browning or Coppola who film the story, but it is worth noting that in each film Dracula’s appearance tends to coincide (rather than to provoke) and therefore seems to materialise the budding sexuality of the young heroines.
Who’s afraid of what?
We have seen that the fame of the genre may be attributed to the specific, topical fears of an age, each period causing specific fears with which HF toy or which they exorcise or entertain. But this should not lead us to undermine some other fundamental archetypal features. The genre indeed registers also deep fears that seem to be inherent to humankind whatever the social or historical context. Hence an anthropological approach may be justified.
The HG is predominantly concerned with the fear of death, the multiple ways in which it can occur and the untimely nature of its occurrence. The central generic image of the corpse reminds the viewer of his own extinction.
Anxiety arises from the sight of the undead, those who resist the notion of finality and demonstrate the perpetual agonies of a non corporeal and sub human existence; the walking dead testifies to a blurring of the categories which fails to differentiate safely the states: living and dead. Hence the feeling of the uncanny generated by these figures, and the wondering of the spectators oscillating between belief and disbelief which is the characteristic of the Fantastic as explained by Todorov.
One may also presume that the vampires exemplify the triumph over death which meets men’s desire of eternity but that the sufferance which they ultimately acknowledge render death desirable. Hence, the films provide a kind of ‘mourning work’ for our desire of eternity, allowing us first to dream of an eternal life through an identification with the vampires, then gradually rendering this life obnoxious and loathsome, so that at the end of the film the spectators are reconciled with a blessed mortality.
The Horror genre (HG) also plays upon that which is parallel and threatening, that which brings chaos to what was previously a known, highly controlled environment. Can we mention here the unheimlich, or the ‘uncanny’ of Freud, that which was perfectly familiar but was repressed returns all of a sudden into something strange, odd and quaint? The uncanny is that class of frightening things which leads back to what was formerly known of old and long familiar but which has undergone a strange metamorphosis and can hardly be recognised, even if it still, but vaguely, reminds us of something familiar. Freud claims that the uncanny signalises something which has been repressed, censured, foreclosed. Now, the monster would embody the return of the repressed. It can be the perpetual decay of the body, repressed as is our mortality, the first human love: the body of the mother, repressed by the incest taboo or infantile sadistic drives. In a good number of films, the monster represents an archaic mother image ( see Alien and the queen, the monstrous womb in Cronemberg’s Brood, 79, the witch in Brian de Palma’s Carrie, 76 or the victim of satanic possession in The Exorcist,73. Hence HF may express man’s fear of women.
Ever since Psycho, 60 and Bad Seed, 56, the family has been perceived as the locus for incest, abuse and horror. The domestic space has become the locality for the worst horrors. In fact, in a gradual process, the HF continually address the dysfunctional and antithetical aspects of the romantic and the domestic, collapsing all received notions of predictable gender identities and social formations.
Stephen King’s recipe
If we are looking for specifically human fears we may ask a writer who has made a carrier exploiting them. Stephen King lists several key fears that underpin most horror texts: fear of the dark, of squishy things, snakes, rats, insects, closed-in spaces, deformity, other people and fear for someone else. The deep rooted fear of the unknown, of life threatening events, is a primal anxiety, inherent in human psyche. The fear arising from the parallel world teeming with insects, vermin, reptiles, likely to challenge our own world and life, comes from the fear lest another order might become capable of overthrowing our precarious order. The fear for someone else requires a certain degree of empathy and identification.
Some critics assert that these primal feelings are fundamentally bound up with the construction of HF.
This is true, but if we reconsider the post 60s, we are struck with the idea that the greatest fear addressed was then the fear of other people, a fear which engaged with the very notion of the Other. We may indeed notice that the monster as Other has indeed evolved into the features of the most perfect incarnation of the Other: an unknown but quite human serial killer, the boy next door, a brother, a colleague, a student, etc.
As Jonathan Demme, author of The Silence of the Lambs, novel by T Harris, claimed: “The one thing that is able to utterly and uncomplicatedly fill us with true terror is the serial killer, because we know any of us could be his/her next victim. He is the staple villain of the post-Psycho films.” (see Seven, Copycat, Amiel, 1996). Issues concerning identification are bound up with the construction of the horror text.
We may also feel fear, as King suggested, when we are afraid for a character, having the impotent desire to protect him/her: in Cameron’s Alien, 85, the little girl, Newt, is in danger; the film concentrates several causes of fear: fear for the child, fear of tight space, lurking lethal ominous presence, fear of the squishy.
We might conclude this approach by suggesting that the frisson of the HF for the audience is underpinned by the expressed desire to experience feelings which relate to taboos agendas and the limits of gratification (see next chapter). This is a given of the genre appeal: horror fans enjoy the pleasure of being frightened and enjoying emotional extremes. In this sense we may claim that the genre is challenging because it makes us confront our worst fears and most perverse feelings and desires, playing out basic drives, primal feelings by proxy. However, there still remains an issue that has not yet been tackled but which is quite puzzling. It is the matter of pleasure. Fear, disgust and pleasure, what a strange mixture!! Let me formulate it in different ways:
What kinds of pleasure are derived from HF? Why do we go to see a HF? And even pay to be frightened? It is a serious question. And worth the investigation.
Several explanations have been proposed: a cathartic pleasure; a carnivalesque mode of subverting and reversing established codes and conventions; surrogate sadistic drives.
Indeed when you think seriously about it you come to wonder
why should anyone be interested in this genre? Why does the genre persist? (after
all some genres disappear : the western, for instance) How can we explain its
very existence, since why should we want to be horrified or disgusted?
The questions become especially pressing if we take into account a key element in HF: repulsion and disgust. Horror necessarily has something repulsive and loathsome, therefore how can spectators be attracted by it? In the ordinary course of affairs, people shun what disgusts them; being repulsed is unpleasant and consequentially avoided. So, again, how can we explain that we should seek out HF for the purpose of deriving pleasure from sights and description that customarily would repulse us?
In short, there appears to be something rather paradoxical about the horror genre: it attracts consumers by means of the expressly repulsive. It is pleasurable and it is so by trafficking with things that cause disquiet, distress and displeasure. Hence the puzzling question: why are horror audiences attracted by what, in every day life, should repel them? How can horror audiences find pleasure in what by nature is distressful and unpleasant? Actually, we have partly answered the question when we suggested that the monster embodied the repressed and that the horror films toyed with our unconscious; we might compare them to nightmares. Nightmares are dreams and as such they fulfil a repressed or checked desires, but unlike pleasant dreams, they transgress taboos in such a drastic way that our conscience interferes and intrudes, veiling the pleasure with a cloak of fear. We shall develop this idea later. Read The interpretation of dreams by Freud.
Let us first try to find a comprehensive answer to this question of what attracts audiences to the horror scene, a plausible explanation for the attracting power of Horror.
Horror narratives : the desire to know the unknowable
Since horror thrives above all as a narrative form, it implies that, to account for the interest and the pleasure we take from horror, we may suggest that the locus of our gratification is not the monster as such but the whole narrative structure in which the presentation of the monster is staged.
These stories revolve around proving, disclosing, discovering and confirming the existence of something that is impossible, that defies standing conceptual schemes. Hence the expectations of the audience revolve around whether the existence of an intuition will be confirmed or not. In detective narratives, the reader experiences a similar curiosity but it is just a matter of hidden identity and the certainty that there is a murderer is never challenged. He is simply an anonymous presence, whereas, in horror narratives, we can’t even be sure that there is someone likely to be known.
Postponing devices: delayed disclosures
The revelation or disclosure of the monster are achieved by putting off the conclusive information. The process is deferred till the end. Even if the audience has been given the privilege to see it, the characters may have to undergo a process of discovering followed by a process of confirming that discovery. Horror stories are therefore protracted series of discoveries; a drama of iterated disclosures.
Thus, the horror story is driven explicitly by curiosity; it engages its audience by being involved in processes of disclosure, discoveries, proof, explanation, hypothesis and confirmation.
Horror stories are, in many cases, dramas of proving the existence of the monster and disclosing the origin, identity, purposes and powers of the monster. Monsters are perfect vehicles for engendering this kind of curiosity because they are impossible, inexplicable things, highly unusual, thereby instilling a desire to learn, to know about them.
A desire to know
All narratives may be thought to involve a desire to know. The horror fiction is a special variation on the general narrative motivation: the monster is given as, in principle, unknowable and impossible.
Once its improbable existence has been established, the narrative is driven by the question of whether the creature can be destroyed.
Horror fictions are predicated on the revelation of unknown and unknowable, unbelievable, incredible, impossible. And the pleasure derived from them resides in the process of revelation; hence a pleasure which is cognitive.
Horror films and the return of the repressed
Another path can be explored due to the similitude between dreams and horror fiction. If dreams, and more precisely nightmares, are successful achievements of repressed desires, then horror films are also a matter of toying with repression, of bypassing barriers and of transgression. Dreams – the embodiment of repressed desires, tensions, fears that our conscious mind rejects – become possible when the censor that guards our subconscious relaxes in sleep, though even then the desires can only emerge in disguise, as fantasies or as meaningless lunacies, or again as disgusting things. Therefore the fantastic side of horror films is not mere escapism, it is a way of dealing with what the rational, realist discourse exists to repress and is therefore a potential critique of the social world. According to Robin Wood, the desires that erupt in horror films are the products of social repression and in giving expression to these desires, horror implies a critique of the social world that represses them. The true subject of the horror genre would be the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses and oppresses. As a result, we may argue that it is due to their nature as embodiments of repressed desire that audiences have such ambivalent relationships with horror monsters. On the one hand, they are monstrous: that which audiences cannot socially acknowledge and accept, but on the other hand they also represent our desire to flout social norms. Central to their fascination would lie their fulfilment of our wish to smash the forms that oppress us.
Let us introduce a distinction between basic and surplus
Basic repression is universal, necessary and inescapable. It is what makes possible our development from an uncoordinated animal capable of little beyond screaming and convulsions (the infant) and a human being: it is bound up with the ability to accept postponement of gratification, the development of thought and memory processes, capacity of self control and recognition and consideration for other people. Surplus repression is specific to a particular civilization and is the process whereby people are conditioned to take predetermined roles within their culture. It is surplus repression that makes us into monogamous heterosexual bourgeois patriarchal capitalists. That is, if it works and if it doesn’t then the result is either neurotic, or revolutionary. The most immediately obvious characteristics of our life in our culture are frustration, dissatisfaction, anxiety, greed, possessiveness, jealousy, neuroticism.
What then is repressed in our culture?
1. Sexual energy
Bisexuality and homosexuality
2. The Other or Otherness, representing that which the bourgeois ideology cannot accept but deals with by rejecting it, annihilating it or converting it.
The Other is repressed within the self, in order that it can be discredited. The dominant images of women in our male dominated culture are male created and male controlled: on to women, men project their own innate, repressed femininity in order to disown it as inferior; the other is also the proletariat, the negro and children: all of them featuring in HF.
Playing with repression
Now let us turn to HF. Indeed it responds in a very clear cut and direct way to these repressions, because central to it is the actual dramatization of the dual concept of the repressed/the Other, in the figure of the monster. The analysis of repression combined with our survey of the notion of otherness as it functions in our culture should offer a comprehensive understanding of horror film monsters from German expressionism on. It is possible to produce a monstrous embodiment of virtually every item in the above list.
1. Women: early examples are the panther woman of Island of lost Souls and the heroine of Cat People. See also Alien and the analysis which I propose. The definitive feminist horror film is De Palma’s Sisters (a complete and rigorous analysis of the oppression of women).
2. Children: Since Rosemary’s baby children have figured prominently in HF as monster or medium: The Exorcist, The Omen. It’s Alive, offers an impressive ex. There is also Michael in Halloween.
3. The proletariat: Frankenstein. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with its family of retired slaughterhouse workers. The underprivileged devil worshippers in Race with the devil and Assault on Precinct 13
4. Homosexuality: Nosferatu and Frankenstein identify implicitly their monsters with repressed homosexuality. The bisexual god of Larry Cohen’s Demon.
5. Ethnic minorities: blacks are prominent in Assault on Precinct 13 and Puerto Ricans in The Possession of Joel Delaney. See Candyman.
6. Alternative ideologies: communism threat spawned the 50s cycle of invasion movies.
This offers no more than a beginning from which one might proceed to interpret specific HF in details as well as to explore further the genre’s social significance and the insights it offers into our culture. I shall add here that these notions of repression and the other afford us not merely a means of access but a rudimentary categorization of horror films in social and political terms, distinguishing the progressive from the reactionary, the criterion being the way the monster is presented and the modes of resolution, or the return of the repressed. See the analyses of the films we watched this term in the last chapter
Basic formula of American HF
Let us focus on the American HF to define the particular nature of its evolution in the 60s and 70s.
1. Popularity and disreputability: The HF is both highly popular and disreputable. It is set apart from the other genres: restricted to fans and dismissed with contempt by others or ignored. (Little serious reviews on Raw Meat, It’s Alive and The Hills have Eyes; Psycho conferred something like a dignity on the genre). Most of the aficionados will tell you they go for the fun and to ridicule the films: an interesting psychological aspect.
2. Dreams and Nightmares: The analogy between films and dreams that is often invoked concerns the experience of the audience. The spectator sits in the dark and the entertainment involved implies a certain switching off of consciousness: hence a kind of partial sleep of the consciousness. HF are our collective nightmares, a dream becomes a nightmare when the repressed wish is so terrible that it must be repudiated as loathsome. The disreputability, this belief that HF should not be taken seriously protects them and lulls the censor into sleep.
3. Basic formula: Normality is threatened by the monster; Normality meaning conformity to the dominant social norms. Or if we take Frankenstein, the monster is the shadow of normality.
The HF would evidence Freud’s thesis: the repressed will always return.
This aspect must be qualified since it has also been suggested that the late slasher films mean to punish permissive women who, whenever they have had sex are elected for the role of the victim. The killer is distinctly male, his fury is unmistakably sexual and his victims are mostly women, often sexually free.
Consuming Fears or the marketing of fears
When we talk about the fame and endurance of a genre,
we cannot ignore the role of the media and the advertising policy of the studios.
How the films were targeted, at whom?
Various advertising ploys in the 30s and after.
“take the girl friend and by the middle of the first reel she’ll have both arms around your neck and holding on for dear life.” (Review of Doctor X, 1932.)
This review is quite explicit and clearly explains what a man had to do to be a good horror viewer in the 30s? He had to take his girl and subject himself to her hysterical clutches. Here the men are cast as the genre’s brave patrons while women cower in their seats, HF providing them with a socially sanctioned reason to grab on to their boy friends. But if we read on the review the prospect changes: “And you’ll be giggling hysterically, too, trying to convince her you are not scared to death either.” This direct address to horror’s male viewers suggests in fact that gender traits can be performed and are a matter of role playing: women displaying their fear as a means to garnering male attention and men using female fear to disguise their terror behind a socially prescribed behaviour. This 1932 commentary confirms the findings of modern analysis of horror spectatorship which states that contemporary HF offer prime arenas for teenagers to play out the conventional mandates of gender roles and heterosexual couplings.
The marketing tactics consisted in addressing viewers on the basis of gender expectations.
Besides, there were promotional gimmicks such as ambulances parked outside the theatre door or first aid stretcher placed in the lobby. During screenings of Mark of the Vampire (Tod Browning, 35), a woman was planted in the audience at each show and paid to scream and faint, after which she was carried to an ambulance and whisked away. Female scream was a horror gimmick, it promoted fear and guaranteed the genre’s effectiveness. Emotion tests were hooked on spectators to register the affective roller coaster experienced by viewers of The bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 35).
We should also remember how Hitchcock organised the promotion of Psycho (1960), actually preventing the spectators to enter after the beginning of the film, which, at a time when you were allowed to enter whenever you wanted and remain in the cinema as long as you wished, created a small revolution. The long queue of eager spectators waiting to buy their tickets represented such an event that it was filmed and shown on the TV news. Moreover, no journalist or critic had been allowed a preview and the spectator who had seen the film were advised not to reveal its resolution. Hitchcock even asked the owners of the cinemas to maintain the room in utter darkness for five minutes after the end of the film, with just one single electric bulb shedding a greenish light. The new DVD of Psycho contains an interesting documentary of this event.
Horror genre, Part Three
Other directions for different critical approaches
1. Genre Classification and cultural distinctions in the
mediation of The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme, 1991.(Mark Jancovich
examines the critical reception of the film.)
Different sections of the media framed the film differently and it was differently generically categorized. Some critics have seen the film as a horror film while others avoided any association with the genre. It tells us much about the struggle over the meanings of films and the cultural politics that underpin them.
It could suggest that genre definitions are produced more by the ways films are produced, mediated and consumed, rather than by any internal properties. It raises the question of the genre definition itself, in relation to given historical periods, different taste formations and the question of cultural authority. In the case of HF which are reckoned popular and low or middlebrow, mass culture, it’s also a matter of social stand and claims, different expectations in terms of social response and recognition. And there are different positions to be assumed even within the groups of fans. Hence, films may be the objects of intense struggles.
A case in point is Demme’s The Silence of the lambs which many critics identified as HF, while due to its awards and Oscar it was considered by others as ‘quality film’ or ‘art cinema’. Actually, the film’s promotion tried to negotiate a special status for the film as distinct from H. It’s a good instance of historical reception study, an approach of films paying attention to subsidiary publications such as reviews, interviews, feature articles, advertising campaign, that is the system of social relations that sustains it : the production of value or of belief of value of the film.
The point for this film was that middle class audiences should not feel guilty, and that homosexual should not feel caricatured. The point was also to foreground the role of Starling as a positive image of women.
A good example to examine what forms of cultural authority are at stake in the process of generic definition.
2. Why do women supposedly avert their eyes from HF? Because
there is no position from which they can look that is not simultaneous with
their own victimisation. (Linda Williams’s theory)
The HF addresses a male spectator and is founded on the subjugation of women. In patriarchal culture, women are defined not only as inferior to men but as Other, as different, deviant and monstrous. These relations have effects on the visual organization of film in general so that the act of looking is defined as both masculine and desiring. The gaze is associated with activity and control, and women are therefore either refused the active gaze or punished for exercising it.
In the specific case of the HF, we may argue that not only is the woman effectively denied the gaze but the images with which she is presented provide her with a distorted image of herself. In other words, she is made to bear strong associations with the monster, who, like her, is defined by its difference from the masculine norm. When the woman looks at the monster, she recognizes their similar status within the patriarchal structures of seeing. Both the woman and the monster therefore prove deeply threatening to male power and must be violently punished. If women avert their eyes from HF, it may be because there is no position from which they could look that is not simultaneous with their own victimization.
3. The Final Girl: Gender in slasher films (Carol J. Clover’s essay)
In slasher movies which feature a female (“The Final Girl”, in Halloween for example, or Stretch in Texas Chain Saw II, Ripley in Alien ) rather than a male hero, cross gender identification is not only possible, it is central. Hence these films would no longer be clear stories of violence against women. The female exercise of scopic control results not in her annihilation but in her triumph, indeed her triumph depends on her assumption of the gaze.
In short, the presence of the female hero is seen as a way of providing the male with a point of masochistic identification while also allowing its disavowal. Male viewers can take pleasure in a masochistic identification while still telling themselves that victimhood is synonymous with femininity. Furthermore, as the narrative progresses the female hero becomes masculinised while the monster is effectively feminized and, in this way, male viewers are able to engage in masochistic fantasy while also reaffirming their own sense of superiority and power.
4. Horror and the Monstrous feminine, an imaginary abjection
(Barbara Creed, Kristeva’s Power of Horror)
The horror movie associates the woman with the monster through their difference from the male norm. Besides, the monster is also associated to category violation and marginality, both of the self and not of the self, all that must be excluded and expelled from the self to provide a clear sense of identity and independence. Abjection is that which does not respect borders, positions, rules, that which disturbs identity, system and order. One of the key figures of abjection is the mother who becomes abject at that moment when the child rejects her for the father. The ultimate in abjection is the corpse; the body protects itself from bodily wastes such as shit, blood, urine and pus by ejecting these substances just as it expels food that it finds loathsome. The body extricates itself from them and from the place where they fall.
In their dealing with abjection HF should be associated with rituals as means by which societies both renew their initial contact with the abject element and then exclude that element. Kristeva centrally locates the abject in the patriarchal culture’s fear of and revulsion towards the maternal body and its fluid boundary-crossing potential. In horror, the abject is coded as feminine and the narrative is a ritual through which the male subject reproduces itself through the renunciation and expulsion of the feminine. The male subject is formed through its separation from and rejection of the initially close and powerful relationship with the mother and, in HF, this process is repeated in symbolic forms through the violent eradication of the abject monster. HF, such as Carrie and The Exorcist saturate the audience with scenes of blood and gore, deliberately pointing to the fragility of the symbolic order (the father or priest) in the domain of the body which never ceases to signal the repressed world of the mother. In The Exorcist the foulness of woman is signified by her putrid, filthy body covered in blood, urine, excrement and bile. The HF’s obsessions with blood and the bleeding body of women suggest that castration is a central concern in HF. Woman’s body is slashed and mutilated, not only to signify her own castrated state, but also the possibility of castration for the male who enacts on her body the one act he most fears for himself, transforming her into a bleeding wound.
The HF appears as an illustration of the work of the abjection. Firstly, it abounds in images of abjection, foremost of which is the corpse, whole and mutilated, followed by an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, putrefying flesh. Viewing the HF signifies a desire not only for perverse pleasure but also a desire to throw up, to throw out, eject the abject. Secondly, the concept of a border is central to the construction of the monstrous in HF: that which crosses or threatens to cross the ‘border’ is abject. The function of the monstrous is to bring out an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability. The monstrous is produced either at the border between human and inhuman, beast and man, normal and supernatural, good and evil, normal and abnormal sexual desire, proper gender role and contra-straight.
The HF brings about a confrontation with the abject and re-draws the boundaries between the human and the non-human. As a form of defilement rite, the HF works to separate out the symbolic order from all that threatens its stability.
See The Alien Saga, especially the last one, Alien, the Resurrection by Jeunet.
5.The monster queer: homosexual and/or homophobic dynamics
of Horror films.
From the outset, H has had a long history of being produced and consumed by gays and lesbians. If we refer to queerness as not implying just gay and lesbian, but rather as suggesting that all such sexual identities are, in fact, social constructions that are used to order and regulate desires that are far more fluid and perverse than the identities straight, gay or lesbian would suggest, then HF may well be the genre toying with this same notion, by blurring categories and classifications. Harry M. Benshoff argues that the figure of the monster can frequently be equated with that of the homosexual. Now, what this means from decade to decade and from film to film can be shown to change dramatically, according to the forces behind their production as well as the societal awareness and understanding of human sexuality as it is constructed in various historical periods. In the 70s, critic Robin Wood suggested that the thematic core of the genre might be reduced to three interrelated variables: normality (as defined chiefly by heterosexual patriarchal capitalism), the Other (embodied in the figure of the monster), and the relationship between the two. If these monsters can often be understood as racial, ethnic, and/or political/ideological Others, they are constructed primarily as sexual Others (women, bisexuals, and homosexuals). As such, many monster movies might be understood as being ‘about’ the eruption of some forms of queer sexuality into the midst of a resolutely heterosexual milieu. ‘Queer’ is not only ‘what differs in some odd, questionable, suspicious, strange ways from what is usual or normal’, but ultimately is what opposes the binary definitions and proscriptions of a patriarchal heterosexism. Hence, queerness disrupts narrative equilibrium and sets in motion a questioning of the status quo, and in many cases within fantastic literature and HF, the nature of reality itself. Queer activism has been seen as unruly, defiant and angry. As Sue Ellen Case has noted: “The queer, unlike the rather polite categories of gay and lesbian, revels in the discourse of the loathsome, the outcast, the idiomatically proscribed position of same-sex desire. Unlike petitions for civil rights, queer revels constitutes a kind of activism that attacks the dominant notion of the natural. The queer is the taboo-breaker, the monstrous, the uncanny. Like the Phantom of the Opera, the queer dwells underground, below the operatic overtones of the dominant, frightening to look at, desiring, as it plays its own organ, producing its own music.” It follows that HF and monster movies, more than any other genre, actively invoke queer readings because of their obvious metaphorical forms and narrative formats which disrupt the heterosexual status quo.
Another far less optimistic way of approaching this issue is illustrated by a 1984 study of anti-homosexual attitudes. It is a well known fact that right-wing conservatives and Fundamentalist Christian sectors of American society have sought to demonise homosexuals. They do so primarily by painting the gay and lesbian community as monstrous. Hence horror movie iconography has been used in seasonal Halloween “Hell Houses” in an attempt to frighten teenage patrons into conforming to heterosexual norms. The traditional Halloween haunted house tour is re-appropriated for anti-gay propaganda, vampires and werewolves being replaced by degraded homosexuals. The AIDS crisis also fuelled this ‘homosexual as monster rhetoric: gay men are contagious –vampires- who, with a single mingling of blood, can infect a pure and innocent victim, transforming him or her into a living dead. The concepts “monster” and “homosexual” share many of the same semantic charges and arouse many of the same fears about sex and death. Hence, the figure of the monster throughout the history of the HF can in some way be understood as a metaphoric construct standing in for the figure of the homosexual. Actually, the early writings on the links between cinematic horror and (homo)sexuality used a Freudian model of repression as a theoretical rubric. Hollywood monsters of the 50s were seen as representing an eruption of repressed sexual desire. The monster serves as a metaphoric expression of the hero’s lusts; it is a displaced and concretised figure of phallic desire. (1951’s The Thing). The monster movies of this era repeatedly reveal this trope: The Creature from the Black Lagoon, 54, The Giant Gila Monster, 59 and other scaly brethren seem to pop up whenever the hero and heroine move into a romantic clinch. During the 70s and 80s, Robin Wood developed this thesis, expanding it to all horror films (especially Larry Cohen, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooker). Wood invokes the concept of repression (Marcuse and Horowitz’s reading of Freud and Marx). Society cannot survive without a certain amount of basic repression; but surplus repression is used by those in control to keep all “Others” subjugated to the dominant order. In HF, these “Others” are cast in the role of monsters: repressed by society, these sociopolitical and psychosexual Others are displaced (as in nightmares) onto monstrous signifiers, in which form they return to wreak havoc in the cinema. Now, since homosexuals are The Other per excellence, they are also the necessary “Other” of society and, therefore, naturally find their ways in HF which, as we have seen, dramatise the eruption of the repressed Other. To conclude we may safely argue that in HF and monster movies a “complex range of queerness” circulates through and around the figure of the monster in his/her relation to normality whether it is deliberate or not (wilful or wishful), explicit or implicit, attractive or repulsive.
See White Zombie, Victor Halperin, 32, The Old Dark House, Whale, 32, The Seventh Victim, Mark Robson, 43, To Make a Monster 58, Interview with a Vampire, Neil Jordan, 1994, The Hunger, Tony Scott, 1983, The Vampires lovers, Roy Ward Baker, 1971, The Fearless Vampire Killers, 1967 But also Polanski’s adaptation: Le Bal des Vampires.
This is the end, folks!
Beware, who’s standing behind you! The stalker-slasher is on his way, followed by a starving zombie and a thirsty vampire…
Girls! Now you know both what you should and should not do!
Boys! You know why you invited her to this HF; or do you?
“Here they come, Barbara; they’re going to
get you!” (identify the quotation!)
The following chapter is devoted to the analysis of some representative films
The Horror genre
cours de A. Bourgois
Notes about some films of the program
Tod Browning and James Whale : Dracula, 31 and Frankenstein, 31.(This analysis means to complete the reading of the film we made in class, a reading which focussed on the characterisation and metaphoric significations of Dracula. )
By directing five key films between 27 and 36, Tod Browning became a significant figure in defining the horror film in the US. London After Midnight, 27, Dracula, 31, Freaks, 32, Mark of the vampire, 35 and the Devil Doll, 36, all served to engage with the monster in ‘situations of moral and sexual frustrations’. Browning poses the question of what it is to be human. The tensions are clear oppositions to acknowledged order, expressing feelings constrained and oppressed by social laws, examining the limits of human desires and endeavours, the limits of law and order. The monster is indeed that which embodies ‘existential predicament’, and the monstrous that which is feared in the adventure of the discovery of the self. Browning, like Whale, consistently addresses notions of social facade, the damaging sexual inhibitions of civilised codes of practice, and the guilt and anxiety in not being able to adjust to social orthodoxies. Nevertheless, the intensity of these thematic interests is often undercut by the melodramatic and sometimes comic thrust of both performance and narrative outcomes. It follows that, if the monster operates in a manner that shatters forms and familiarity and triggers tragic disruptions, he, ultimately, offers the possibility of cathartic purgation or comic redemption, if alone in the relieved laughter which horror texts provoke. We find a similar sentimentalised approach of the monster with Whale. Arguably, the two key horror figures – Dracula and the creature of Frankenstein - merely wish to understand their own monstrosity in the eyes of others, and it is when they are further alienated by the gaze of others that they seek revenge and use their Otherness in a spirit of aggression. Freaks and Dracula remain however persuasive in having a sense of unease which permeates each scene and represents the sheer ‘difference’ being shown on screen. The monster is threatening by virtue of its otherness, enhanced paradoxically by its proximity to humanity (the ‘scapegoating mecanism’ of Girard). Essentially, this sense of humanity-at-one-remove is a displacement of anxiety for the social ills of 1920s and 30s America, therefore ready to be simultaneously forgotten or attributed to other contexts. (Remember the analysis we made of the figure of Dracula as foreigner, as decadent aristocrat, as metaphorically bearer of syphilis, as Darwinian animal-like man.) In this sense, horror films have always been most ambivalent: providing both escapism, oblivion and radical exposures of alienations, conservatism and transgression, orthodoxy and subversion. We might suggest that they are quite exemplary of the pornographic, sadistic and obsessional turn of mind of a repressive puritan culture.
Since we are right in the 30s and will later have to comment on Romero’s film, let me introduce here a note on Zombies. Halperin, in White Zombie, 1932, was the first to engage with the ‘undead’ zombie as a metaphor, here a nod to Depression conformity and exploitation. Later Romero’s zombies would tramp in like the returning dead American soldier of the Vietnam war.
Now let us proceed with the 30s bearing in mind that all the horror films of this era actually created the rules of the genre with its codes and conventions: the paraphernalia. It is consequently also from this angle that they must be approached, assessed and interpreted, even if the rules are now so well known and familiar that what was meant to arouse fear, precisely by defamiliarising everyday, common things, now causes peals of laughters! The Hands of Orlac, 35, by Karf Freund and The Hounds of Zaroff, 32, by Schoedsack were to introduce and ritualise, in the cinematic code, models of fetishistic and sadistic extremism which would later prove very productive.
Now, students must not forget that Censorship had an eye on horror films which, at first, had provided fascinating opportunities to exhibit sexual scenes, while passing them as the exotic mores of exotic, extraordinary beings, such as vampires and which thus had avoided, for a while, the strong lashes of the Board of Censorship (the Hays Code). Indeed, the first horror films exhibited overtly sadistic, erotic and pornographic scenes which would soon be censored yet remain rampant until the gore explosion of the 70s.
Many horror films of the 30s demonstrated a particular concern for science and the notion of social progress through scientific innovation or discoveries (a concern that was to grow through the dark post-war period with nuclear threats, radiation fantasies and monsters generated by the atomic bombs in the cinema of the 50s). In the 30s, the ‘mad scientist’ was invariably concerned with visionary eccentricity that risked all for the sake of progress or megalomaniac ambition and caused damaging outcomes. The horror of such narratives lies in witnessing the violation of humanity’s limits and the sense of the humane. These transgressions and violations however often originate in a very human faculty, curiosity: "Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond?". "Have you never wanted to look beyond…, to know what causes trees to bud and what changes darkness into light?”, asks Frankenstein. Indeed, Frankenstein’s narrative is the story of two transgressions, two usurpations: the doctor usurps the role and the place of Nature or God, considering from which point of view you interpret the film, and the lynching mob usurps the role of institutionalised justice. In both cases, the monster tends to draw our sympathy because, in both circumstances, he materialises the consequences of an unnatural and unwanted order. The ‘mad scientist’ becomes the symbol of patterns of change which are in the wrong hand, at the wrong time, inappropriate and out of control.
The key imperative is avoidance of the ‘everyday’ and its inhibiting values. The willingness of the mad scientist to transcend the laws of nature has a parallel desire in wanting to break social limitations. Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde comments on the limitations of the moral and cultural infrastructure.
Psycho, Hitchcock, 1960
It challenged all expectations by implicating the spectators in a totally amoral universe. Besides, the film is thoroughly ambivalent in the sense that Norman Bates is both mother and not, is and is not dead, is neither masculine nor feminine, neither mother nor son, neither corpse nor living body (Consider his very name: nor man!). Rather it is all these states amalgamated into one fantastic body, into whose presence Hitchcock has drawn us. It posits the idea of the modern monster as mutable, protean, unspeakable, unknowable, but ironically and frighteningly domesticated. Norman is ‘the boy next door’, the completely familiar. It locates shockingly transgressive events in an everyday context, subject to ordinary conditions. Hitchcock manipulates our sympathies with cunning mastery, first for Marion, a thief, then for Norman whom we are meant to accept as a dutiful son, covering up his mother’s crimes. Any clear sense of right or wrong has been eradicated and the world is seen to be an amoral and random place. Every body lies and cheats, even minor characters, while a duly wed wife still needs pills to face sex (the scene in the office with Patricia Hitchcock playing the other secretary). Marion who craves for respectability and sanctified marriage steals to get them. This world is everyday America, represented as a remote place in which any semblance of moral or ethical sense and security have been destabilised, removed and proved illusory. The film delights in skewering America’s sacred cows: virginity, cleanliness, privacy, masculinity, sex, mother love, marriage, the reliance on pills, the sanctity of the family… and the bathroom.
Such themes had been addressed elsewhere, of course; the psychosexual problems in Corman’s adaptations of Poe, male anxiety and marital instability in the ‘creature feature’, and the unspeakable acts conducted in private in many of the ‘mad scientists’ narratives. However, a horror film had never previously had the legitimacy of one of cinema’s acknowledged master: Alfred Hitchcock, and the previously latent dynamics of psychoanalysis as a prominent part of the story itself. It is the film where the monster, as metaphor or myth, is conflated with the reality of a modern world in which humankind is increasingly self conscious and alienated from its pre-determined social structures. Psycho works as an act of permission for film makers in the genre to further expose the illusory securities and limited rationales of contemporary life, to reveal the chaos which underpins modern existence and constantly threatens to ensure its collapse.
Hitchcock made the film a determinedly modernist engagement with the genre. The film challenged permitted orthodoxies in relation to sex, sexuality, violence and social identity and it did so with an aesthetic sensibility and mastery which justified itself as ‘art’ and insisted upon the necessity of addressing the material seriously, not to mention the famous black humour which exposes the irony of modernity.
Arguably, Psycho inspired the two dominant paradigms of the horror film in the late 20th century. Firstly, in identifying, implicitly summating and definitely expressing, the core meanings of the horror genre: psycho-sexual, and psychosomatic angst, non-socialised violent imperatives, the instability and inappropriate nature of established socio-cultural structures and the oppressive omnipresence of death, Psycho ends the classical, low budget, horror B. movies and ushers in the Postmodern era in the genre.
After Psycho, these key themes, already subject to ambiguity and contradiction, became increasingly unstable, unfixed and ungrounded in any reality, truth or identity other than those that the narratives would provide, and consequently there emerged a threat of sublime excess, of a new darkness of multiple and labyrinthine narratives, in which human myths again dissolved, confronted by an uncanny force beyond its control. That was the first horror trend which it initiated. Brian de Palma who repeatedly quotes Hitchcock would be delighted to be considered as the heir and so would Tim Burton, and Ridley Scot, and Carpenter, of course. Now, the second model may be viewed as ambivalent realism and is predicated on locating horror in a realist context, but playing out an essentially amoral agenda or determining a scenario where moral or ethical certainty is unattainable. Ultimately, both promote excess in the genre and refuse the consensus and constraint of much in the previous Psycho years. The third will be considered in a short escapade in cannibalism.
After Psycho, only The Birds, shot in 63, flirted with horror, with the motif of the ‘revenge of nature’ aroused by a mother’s resistance to her son’s relationship. Moreover, as in Romero’s film, the brutal attacks of the birds defy humanity’s ability to defend itself and the film revolves around a ‘community under threat’ narrative. This quiet, almost ambivalent apocalypse remains deeply threatening in its horror.
The post-Psycho years opened the floodgates for horror,
intrinsically related to bodily torture and mutilation. Cannibalism featured
high in that genre. Let us briefly mention some Italian notoriously carnivalesque
grotesqueries which exploited the path opened by Lewis.
In 1963, Gordon Lewis made an exploitation picture Blood Feast and invented the sub genre of ‘intensive gore’ films. A brain is removed from a skull, legs are amputated, a tongue is pulled from a girl’s head in gory details. It satiated an appetite in the popular audience for ever more bloody excesses. In the same year, a pseudo anthropological documentary Mondo Cane showed tribal activities with unusual rituals of animal abuse, human sacrifice, spawning a further sub genre of mondo movies, all exploiting supposedly authentic yet horrifically titillating rites in a number of foreign or marginalised contexts. It has been suggested that these films were a key influence on the cannibal films made in Italy in the 70s and the theme of cannibalism in general. (Cannibal Holocaust, 79, Deodato, Cannibal Ferox, 80, Lenzi)
The Night of the Living Dead, Romero, 1968
Belonging to the post-Psycho era, the film provided a further
turning point in horror. Its subversiveness echoes the radical politics of the
period (civil rights, anti-Vietnam war movements, beat movement, general rebellion
against adult orthodoxy) and its approach both parodies and advances the generic
expectations. Indeed, there is now a public quite familiar with the genre and
its codification, enjoying a real ‘horror culture’, and filmmakers
must take this into account, dropping in their films conniving hints at previous
classics of the genre, playing with the defensive sardonic distance of this
public, while being also obliged to invent and surprise.
The Dead return as zombies, (see in the first part of this chapter the first staging of zombies) killing and cannibalising their victims: the message echoes the dystopic atmosphere of the period. The mass of zombies, as ‘silent majority’, operates as an unstoppable force which refers also to images of riots in Paris and illustrates the implicit demise of old institutions. Uncertainty prevails and any notion of society collapses in the teeth of (if you allow me this pun!) this silent but relentless rebellion. Romero explained this trend thus: “It came out of the anger of the times. No one was gleeful at the way that the world was going, so these political themes were addressed in the film. The zombies could be the dead in Vietnam, the consequences of our mistakes in the past, you name it…”
The main point of the narrative focuses on the way a group of people (among them Ben, the black man, Harry, the bigot, Karen, his daughter and Barbara) will manage or fail to resist an external and hostile attack. It is a variation on the ‘community under threat’ theme. Both witty and subversive, influenced by EC Comics and again by Hitchcock, this time in relation to The Birds, pessimistic and resisting any degree of sentiment, the film suggests that all the consensual bonding that was possible in previous models of ‘community under threat’ has now dissipated into petty feuding and almost wilful misunderstanding predicated on each person’s belief in their own intrinsic ‘rightness’ (self-righteousness). As Romero suggests “the most frightening thing is that nobody communicates. Everybody is isolated and alone with his/her own version of the world. They are all kind of insane. The trouble is that they can see that the afterlife is no better. Even if you are good, there are no guarantees.” It is in this relativism that the film reveals its true dystopic nature. The monster is the embodiment of the revelation that the machinations of the world are unstoppable and inevitably destructive and meaningless. The following films, Dawn of the Dead, 78 and Day of the Dead (Zombies), 85, extend these premises to expose the collapse of consumer capitalism, the inevitable lack of fulfilment in current models of existence, the deep anger that still fuels the limited desire to find alternatives and to somehow create a new society. Romero is ultimately a dark satirist, exposing the profound fragmentation in social structures and the complete vulnerability inherent in any one individual’s life expectancy.
Like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw massacre released in 74, shot by Tobe Hooper, is a key example of the rural gothic; it calls upon the brutalities of a mythic past and distorts the imperatives and philosophy of frontier life. Self determination, survivalism, familial loyalty and the progress in settlement become the depraved and corrupted conventions of a backwoods family slaughterhouse, where the chainsaw wielding ‘Leatherface’ treats all human life as meat. The film with its slaughterhouse mise en scène of bones and flesh configured into a surreal living space, through its sudden sledgehammer attacks, to its extended persecution of Sally, shows only contempt for the body and with it the tangible credentials of humanity. This theme preoccupies much contemporary horror. (‘Body-in-pieces horror’)
Halloween, directed by John Carpenter, 1978 and other related films.
The most notable aesthetic imitations in the Psycho model
were stalker movies : Halloween, by Carpenter, Friday the 13th by Sean Cunnigham,
80, and Graduation day, Herb Freed, 81. These films and many others share a
formula which is often predicated on simultaneity of the commemoration of a
previous murder or violation in the past and a historically determined social
ritual (Halloween, prom day), and ultimately deal with the overvaluation of
family ties, the viewing of the primal scene (or its variant, in acts of illicit
sexuality or violently unlawful actions) and the horrible consequences of such
perversions. The key defining element of these films, however, is the unseen
presence of the stalker and the ensuing suspense which is caused by not knowing
where the monster is, or when he will strike. The free-flowing movements of
the camera and the sustained use of point of view shots are often signifiers
of the murderer’s approach, arguably implicating the audience in the violence
that follows. More plausibly, the audience is merely situated in the best place
to observe the extreme effects of violence, or often in more orthodox constructions
of the mise en scene, made to observe the unseen monster in the back of the
frame ready to pounce. The ‘He is behind you’ chants during the
screening do much to make these violent moments as comic as they are potentially
horrifying, especially since the audience of the stalker film tends to respond
as a group, regardless of class and social background and a group of peer-oriented
The acts of violence in these films are of a primitive nature, usually enacted with a knife, an axe or other similar sharp instrument. This supports readings of the films as sadistic rape-oriented narratives or misogynist texts. Arguably, the monster may be viewed as a moral force, excessively punishing the young for their immoral or amoral acts. Equally, the monster may be read as symbolic embodiment of evil incarnate, psychopathically reaping as a consequence of past misdeed, and ultimately undefeatable. As a post-Psycho film, Halloween evidenced also the collapse of assurance in, and promotion of, the family and conservative family values, in the sense that the murderer is both a young boy and a brother. It also questioned the representation of childhood and is interesting in this regards.
Children, in the aftermath of Psychoanalysis, were no longer regarded as innocent and pure, but became configured as monsters to exemplify the inevitability of evil as a natural phenomenon in the nurturing process. The children, seen as totally wild and uncivilised, were seen as demanding vampire-like figures. The earliest example of the utter Otherness of children, transgressive and threatening, was staged in Bad Seed, Mervyn Leroy, in 1956, then Rosemary’s baby and The Exorcist were to propel the devil child into the mainstream.
Let me briefly introduce Polanski’s ‘secure horror’ films, secure in the sense that the forces of rationality are mobilised to restore order to a state of absolute paranoid horror in which all notions of established and transparent status quo are suspended or challenged and above all, where it is a young woman or very young girl who brings this utter collapse. Then I will briefly comment on The Exorcist, Friedkin, 73.
Rosemary’s Baby was effective in drawing together archetypal, religious-oriented myths (fear of rape by the devil, satanist practices and witches) with modern pathologies about domestic economy, health and the body. By addressing religion, the impact of children, the fears of women, and in playing out conspiracy, the film wrestles with powerful social anxieties and radically anticipates the ways in which the body is configured in horror films as the key site of ideological struggle. The film engages our empathy and identification, in the sense that we are offered Rosemary’s perspective and necessarily must believe in the ‘conspiracy motif’ otherwise our own sanity, sense of perspective, and rational order are questioned and shattered and eradicated. Yes, the film wrestles with powerful social anxieties, and child bearing is not the least one, which is the point I wanted to make.
Now, The Exorcist toyed also with this fear, since the struggle between God and the Devil, Good and Evil, takes place over/within the body of a thirteen year old girl. Arguably, the film is merely a parental fantasy in which a rebellious adolescent is coerced through patriarchal authority into obedience to orthodoxy. At another level, the metaphoric struggle between the maintenance of the sacred, humanistic culture in the face of sheer profanity, vulgar and lewd wilderness proved persuasive in the minds of the audience which adopted this archetypal narrative, even though the film’s excesses now seem quite preposterous and shallow.
Anyway, both films focus on extremely significant social acts: pregnancy and child bearing, and parental education. Both have a ‘folkloric status’ for their notorious and devastating effects upon the audience (Vomiting, urinating, fainting and miscarrying were reported, growing commitment to the occult). Both were big-budget films. Due to their success, they drew the horror films into mainstream commercial cinema, followed by box office success relying on the generic characteristics of horror films and concentrating on similar themes: The Omen, by Richard Donner in 76, The Sentinel, Michael Winner, 77, Jaws, by Spielberg in 75.
But, it was Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive, 1973, ( not to mention the sequels, It Lives Again, 78 and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive, 87), with its unwanted baby, bent on revenge, which was to dramatise the full horror of this new feeling of fear and uneasiness for children. The sequels dealt with the issues of abortion, anxiety about AIDS. The popularity of these films among female audience indicates that the idea of pregnancy as ‘graphic possession’ has some currency and that monster babies are somehow caricatured depictions of the more troubling aspects of child development.
Let us return to our film, after this necessary digression the better to explore its impact. We must take into account the emergence in Halloween of the figure of the ‘Final Girl’ who resists both temptations and the monster. More about her in Part Three in The Final Girl: gender in slasher films.
What about the response of the public? I heard you laugh during the screening and indeed, sociological enquiries among focus groups concluded that the spectators enjoyed the chase aspects of these narratives and the oscillation between fearing for the victim, fearing the presence and eventual actions of the monster itself, and fearing their own and other’s responses to the outcomes of events, even if it proved to be laughter rather than screams. Crucially, however, all spoke of knowing that they were instrumental in the artifice of these films because they recognised the conventions. The explicitness of these murders and the super real rendition of their special effects make up, the exhibited gore, allow the spectator to see the wounds but temper or actually reduce any appropriate levels of fear or regret. The self consciousness of these films enables them to pastiche the genre while extending the limits of what they depict.
Actually, the underlying problem of many 70s films, and Halloween echoes it, was to suggest that the essence of humanity is to be violent, anti social and auto satisfied and that socialising structures merely attempt to prevent, hide, or police these tendencies. Through this reading, radical imperatives would seem to emerge in these films, converting the authors into committed moralists or missionary prophets. Wes Craven argued that The Last House on The Left 72, seeks to show what violence is actually like, and how it really affects us. “It’s a comment on how the violence in Vietnam became television ‘junk’, and didn’t affect anybody anymore. I tried not to make the violence romantic or attractive, but real, so people would be affected, and speak out against it.” Craven attests that “someone has to take responsibility for preserving values, so it is important to shock people into a full recognition that ethics, morality, everyday ‘getting along’ are under tremendous threat and it’s likely that things won’t hold up.” A laudable aim in an era in which the unspeakable, unimaginable and unthinkable had all already been dramatised on screen and in life. However these realistic films essentially tended to dispose of the persuasiveness of the metaphors and cast the monster as the audience, who thus were invited to recognise themselves, only to endorse or resist the representations they saw.
This leads us to mention the ambivalent realist horror
films which Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer by McNaughton (86) exemplifies
and which may also be approached as an answer to the Mc Donaldisation which
the sequels of Friday the 13th and of Elm Street culminating in the final encounter
Freddy versus Jason, (not to mention the Halloweens and Screams) illustrate
and which we shall study after.
John McNaughton stated: “Horror films traditionally incorporate fantasy, which gives you a space to accept that this is not real, and you are protected. We decide to pull out the buffer of fantasy, and make this as real as possible’. The film, based on the real case of a serial killer, depicts a number of amoral, seemingly unmotivated, brutal murders. It proved challenging in its removal of known archetypes and its refusal to adopt ethical stance. It does not contain its own moral context. The moral context is brought by the viewer from the outside. It is therefore possible to read Henry in any number of ways. It’s a morally blank film, and in some ways that’s its strength. Forensic experts said it was surprisingly accurate in getting into the psyche of someone who had no feelings for his victims at all.
Crucially, if Jason was dehumanised, masked model of relentless ‘killing for fun’, the horror is re-introduced when given an ambivalent human face. Henry refuses to engage with the reality of his actions even when gaining fulfilment from them. These actions were deemed problematic when the film was released and the censors made cuts in a scene which features the slaughter of a family, in order to show that Henry is actually watching a video recording of his exploits. McNaughton’s intention was to show the murder so that the viewer had a complicity point of view in observing the brutalities before it was revealed that they were actually watching a video recording of the events. He believed that the cuts lessened the shock and moral impact of the film. But the censors just did not want any complicity.
It is clear that the power and persuavineness of Henry is in its denial of mythic or camp credentials, and its return to a view of the monster as not merely frightening in its actions, but in its actuality. Further, the film shows the indifference in contemporary culture by refusing to allow the audience to remove themselves from ‘experiencing’ Henry’s brutalities, or having them explained or finally rationalised. Thus Henry potentially redefines the radical nature of the horror text by exposing and commenting upon the collapse of human values and the instability of the social framework. By privileging the spectacle of violence over narrative, the film echoes the conventions of reality TV and the representations of known killers in news bulletins. It has been argued by feminists that the killer is eroticised because he is aligned with the generic codes of heroism in mainstream cinema and that these elements naturalise a climate of gender encoded violence. Ironically, even though this seems to endorse a conservative perspective, yet the focus group (a selection of spectators who agreed to answer questions of a critic about their reactions to the film) suggested that they were so used to reassurance through some model of closure in the horror film that this realist ambivalence and sense of social continuum were genuinely troubling. These groups also noted that, without any leavening humour or attractive villainy, the film also denied them any easy sensations of pleasure from the fulfilment of already-known outcomes.
Let us now proceed with the series of Stalk’n slash
movies, spawned by Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, featuring their
empathetic central characters: Jason, an automaton mass murderer and Freddy
Krueger, the torched child molester, and which ran through the 80s epitomising
the Mc Donaldisation process.
George Ritzer’s McDonaldisation thesis, 98, addresses the processes of organisation that underpin consumer society, looking at the social models that lead to highly specified and efficient bureaucratic, industrial, and commercial outcomes.
During the 80s, the horror genre became part of this process, particularly in the franchised series of 7 Nightmares and 9 Fridays and the proliferation of adaptations of Stephen King’s novels. Ritzer suggests that beneath the surface of MacDonalds lies a cold skeletal framework ready to construct an iron cage of rationalisation for any merchandise. Ironically, the genre that most epitomised the address of the irrational was being rationalised for a known and commited demographic of horror fans. A clear formula was in place; an ambivalent realist construct in which the monster acts upon a socially familiar context, largely characterised by children and young adults, which operates as a limited, economically secure, but morally indifferent universe. Calculated to deliberately appeal to the very people they were portraying, adaptations of King’s work were intrinsically conservative.
In many senses, these films are exercises in the cynicism of market-led phenomena in relation to the expression and depiction of a cynical society in which little matters. Common sense, let alone intelligence is at a premium, and inertia underpins even the most energised of sensations. The monsters become the ‘frisson’ in valueless worlds informed by boredom, inadequacy and the sense that nothing is surprising anymore. Freddy occupies the vacuity of dreams and becomes the genuine threat that translates them into real nightmares.
Jason merely engages in relentless attacks. However, the real cynicism lies in the fact that there is no particular answer or response to the problem of the monster. Jason is anonymous and randomly brutal, Freddy is perverse, vengeful and petty, and yet there are no values, standards, ideas or traditions with which to challenge them. The world is rife with futility. This, perhaps, is why the films ultimately descend into models of black humour. The absurdity informing the conflict between the monster and potential victims is effectively meaningless, and, operating purely on the terms, conditions and outcomes of the chase, it has no terms of reference elsewhere. Its own conventions become the terms of engagement and render the series, despite moments of originality, the epitome of pure merchandising.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream, 96 and Gillespie’s I Know what You Did Last Summer, 97 became knowing deconstructions of the sub-genre, and spoke only limitedly about the culture that produced them. This was largely because the Horror genre had been absorbed into other mainstream genres (‘erotic thrillers’ such as Fatal Attraction, 886, Basic Instinct, 92, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, 92: all variations of the sociopath as monster, many exploiting sociopathic tendencies in women and addressing the place of women; actually, that is how I would see the Alien quartet - Ridley Scot’s in 79, Cameron’s in 86, Fincher’s in 92, Jeunet’s in 97-) or had engaged with ambivalent realist models which were re-workings of urban myths, translating the mythic serial killer tendencies of a Freddy or Jason into ostensibly ‘real world’ contexts. Just like Henry we discussed before.
To follow: Cronenberg, The Alien Saga, Carpenter and The Blair Witch Project by Myrick and Sanchez.
Body Horror and Cronenberg
Disease, decay, and malfunction feature high in Cronenberg’s
films. The author seems to suggest that these aspects inform everyday human
self consciousness. The point about his films is that he sees these issues in
a rather objective light, refusing to emphasise the damaging aspects of a virus
on human life but concentrating instead on the imperatives of the virus itself:
“A virus is trying to live its own life; the fact that it’s destroying
you by doing so is not his fault”. In Shivers (1975), he explored the
idea of the body being infected by a sexually transmitted parasite which ensures
its further transmission by acting as an aphrodisiac, and works to de-stabilise
the rationality which underpins social structures. Reduced to a libidinous and
violent chaos, the world is on the edge of imminent collapse. Cronenberg argues:
“It’s about repression and restriction; it tries to remove responsibility
from the equation, and look at how certain more instinctive drives might work.”
Unlike the anxiety experienced by the pregnant Rosemary, Cronenberg’s
parasitic bug insists upon a perverse eroticism. “It’s a very sexual
thing; you want to know what’s inside you; you want to know what’s
driving you to do certain things”. The film works as a critique of middle-class
ethics and socially-determined sexual attitudes, mining the grotesque excesses
of the very idea. Rabid (1976) features a female vampire with a phallic under-arm
spike, which again provokes anti-social action in those who are ‘vampirised’.
In both cases, the crises are generated by failures in medical science, positing
questions of a more ‘liberated’ culture, but one which unfortunately
still sees women primarily as agents of social ‘dis-ease’. Ironically,
the story may be read as proto-feminist, if the radical outcomes are the collapse
of patriarchy and the usurpation of the phallus.
Cronenberg plays out psychosomatic disorder in the physiological manifestations of psychosis in The Brood (1979), telekinetic powers and the political ownership of the body in Scanners (1980), hallucinations of physical mutation and reconfiguration in Videodrome (1982), transformation and hybridisation of human flesh, machine, and insect anatomy in The Fly (1986), narcotic consumption and metamorphosis in Naked Lunch (1991) and the eroticisation and physical imperatives of damaged, wounded and dismantled bodies in Crash (1996).
Fundamentally, Cronenberg has articulated the centrality of the body in late 20th century horror. He claims that “the body is our material; flesh and blood is human life, so I deal with as many concerns about its preservation and continuity as possible. This might mean mutation, evolution, metamorphosis, who knows…” His sense of social disintegration is never far from the relationship between physical needs, human progress and utilitarian contexts created for industrial and economic development.
At this point and for the students who are really interested I should mention Clive Barker’s films and his monsters: Pinhead and the cenobites in Hellraiser and its sequels ( at least four films , each one with an inviting sub title: Hellbound, Hell on earth, Bloodline, from 87, to 96). The films center on sado masochism and the protean nature of the body and identity and draw together eroticism and brutality. Barker’s sense of the mutability of the flesh and the combinative propensity of organs and tissues is played out through characters with ambivalent sexual orientations and the problematics of bodily needs. Horror comes out of the fear of a perverse yet partially-desired experience of a marginalised or unknown otherness.
“Killing and coitus are pre-eminently private acts, intensely personal experiences… because they impart a wordless kind of knowledge mediated by the body. The carnal knowledge shared by lovers, or by murderer and his victim or witness, does not involve the communication or discursive meaning between two discrete individuals, but a communion at the instant of death between bodies that are no longer distinct from each other.” (Joel Black, 1991:121 TheAesthetics Murder).
Barker seeks to explore this excessive acts upon the body which may range from self mutilation to unknowable assault. Sexuality is intrinsically entwined with the pleasures and pains of violent impositions. He contemporised the sexuality of the horror film through an aesthetic veneer and witty repost but he should also be related to ‘body art’, tattooing, gothic movements and other manifestations of attraction of the perverse, the transgressive, and of inscriptions on the bodies. In this sense his heroes are kin to Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, by Demme, 1991. We can’t deal with this complex attractions and the pre-eminent role the mutilated body plays in all these trends, movements, artistic achievements, and I can only invite you to ponder on these issues which are central in our ideology.
The Alien Quartet (Ridley Scott,79; Cameron, 86;Fincher,
92; Jeunet, 97)
The four films may be read as the trajectory - initiation, revelation and transformation - of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). First, she establishes herself as senior professional and careerist of high achievement, engages with and defines her maternal feelings, responds to a perpetually sexist and patriarchal culture, and finally re-configures her body and identity by fully embracing the thing she most fears : the alien itself. H. R Giger’s design of the monster, the Alien, the Queen, as a sexualised and gendered, yet quasi-mechanistic organism has facilitated readings in which gender orientation, sexism, feminism, sexual determinacy are played out in contradictory and ambivalent ways. However the fundamental tension in the films remains the threat of the alien to human life and consequently raises the key question of the genre: what is it to be human? Yet the achievement of the films lies in the fact that they transcend the question and posit a symbolic understanding of what it is to be a woman in the end of the 20th century. It has been argued (Janice Rushing, 1995, in Alien and Aliens) that the representation of the Mother Alien, the ‘Queen’, retrieves the myth of the ‘bad mother’ avenging her exploitation and relegation in patriarchal culture, only to be confronted by a patriarchally co-opted ‘good mother’, Ripley, without mentioning the computer of the Nostromo called ‘Mother’. The rise and impact of the ‘dark goddess’ and her offspring (in Jeunet’s Alien), the homosexual couples (two men, two women) which achieve the ‘comic resolution’ (a literary term designating the denouement of comedies when all the problems that prevented the restoration of order, love and peace, have been solved and when the celebration of the union of two lovers crystallises a new community).
I invite you, now, to watch the Saga bearing in mind these essential aspects: Ripley faced with a patriarchal, conservative, authoritarian world or, the term is more adequate, discourse, and her evolution. Plus again, the centrality of procreation (with the eggs which are pointedly qualified as ‘face hugger’ and ‘breast buster’), pregnancy, childbearing, that is the fatal attraction and repulsion which this feminine activity seems to exert on men, presumably, or all patriarchally educated mind: the horror here is the horror of motherhood incarnated in the dark ominous, brooding Queen in Jeunet’s film. The horror is also the horror and fascination of the insides of bodies (see , the slimy, sticky secretions , emphasis on moist viscera). Once again, these films deal with the horror of the bodies, and the disgusted and horrified gaze is explicitly male. More about this in Part three: Horror and the Monstrous feminine, an imaginary abjection.
The Blair Witch Project, 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo
The film recovered ‘suggestion and allusion’ in the horror genre with the idea that the most persuasive horror is the one suggested in the mind of the viewer, rather than that which is explicitly exhibited on the screen (remember, on the one hand the subtle allusive nature of Cat people by Tourneur, 1942, opposed, on the other hand, to the grotesque, carnivalesque, gory exhibition of Coppola’s Dracula.) The more is shown, the less the spectators feel. Obvious exhibition reveals less than allusion, and ultimately veils and covers what suggestion discloses and unveils. The spectacular blinds the spectator who is harassed by the mass of visual information. The deliberate aestheticism of the film dilutes and anaesthetises his attention.
Crucially, this was achieved by using new technologies: video camera and personal computers. The film advertises itself as a movie assembled from documentary ‘actuality footage’ found at Burkittsville, Maryland, by ‘Haxan films’, a small production company; this premise blurs the line between fact and fiction. Student film-makers who are undertaking research about a legendary witch and a number of unsolved child murders have supposedly filmed the material but are now missing, presumably dead. The film pretends to be an amateur footage shot with inexperienced eyes and limited techniques, and thus, ironically, possesses greater veracity, or real effects, authenticity in its approach. Whatever the audience sees, it is assumed, actually happened. Shot from the point of view of characters, it offers no objective place for the viewer to watch what is shown, or suggested. The film plays cleverly with the trust one has on ocular proof and the close link between ‘seeing and believing’; it revolves around this need for the Marvellous, the Supernatural, a need to believe in something beyond which, if you remember, echoes Frankenstein’s curiosity. It is a hoax, of course, but of the kind Orson Welles would have enjoyed.
We won’t have time to deal with Carpenter’s
films and I regret it, though you won’t, having enough to learn! His films
are being reedited in excellent conditions, each DVD offering an enlightening
booklet written by critics of Les Cahiers du Cinéma. The analyses are
thorough and clever. You will learn a lot and thus discover an independent American
filmmaker who is not as well known as he should. Christmas comes, a time to
buy and get gifts so, why not Carpenter?
To conclude, I shall suggest, as Clive Barker, that “Our fears can only be addressed in the language of the dreams, and the horror fiction gives us that vocabulary, and helps our conscious mind confront anxiety and shape our world view. Understanding fear is part of us, and must be embraced” Horror films, in rehearsing our deepest fears and visualising our worst nightmares, operate a cathartic function, as I suggested during the lecture, in class, I devoted precisely to ‘Fears: which fears, fears of what, and why?’
Body horror: the explicit display of the decay, dissolution or destruction of the body, foregrounding bodily processes and functions under threat, allied to new physiological configuration and redefinitions of anatomical norms.( Cronemberg’s films Shivers, 75, Rabid, 76, The Brood, 79, Videodrome, 82, The Fly, 86, Crash, 96.)
Camp: an approach to representation which foregrounds the ironic, and often exaggerated ‘performance’ of certain gender positions, sexual orientations and social identities, challenging previous cultural and historical orthodoxies.
Carnivalesque: The excessive celebration of the temporary reversal and revision of social orthodoxy, privileging often taboo forms of human expression and the primacy of bodily functions.
Creature Feature: A cycle of largely B-movie films made
in the US during the 50s which feature a whole range of prehistoric, alien or
imagined monsters who terrorise big cities.
Gore: the excessive display of bodily organs in a state of bloodied transition or exposure.
Revenge of nature: a range of horror films based on the idea that the everyday things that humankind takes for granted in nature: the complicity of insects, animals and birds; the predictable growth of flowers and vegetables, the elemental and seasonal cycles and so on, will one day cease to operate in the anticipated manner, and inexplicably ‘rise’ to take its revenge on the exploitation and insensitivity of human beings.
Serial killer: a comparitively modern phenomenon in which an individual commits a series of related, often ritualistic murders, while sometimes courting a symbiotic relationship with the authorities and the media who are attempting to apprehend him.
Urban myths and conspiracy culture: reconstitute the monster as something that will inevitably re visits its site of origination or destruction. A sense of secrecy and betrayal underpin many of these films. Fundamentally, this monster is usually grounded in some real event, and its return works as a historical refusal; sins will be re visited and cannot be repressed and denied. In many senses, it is a key theme of the gothic, and gains greater credibility reconfiguration in the information era, where it would seem that all private things may soon be knowable, available aspects of the public domain. In the postmodern horror films, shock emerges from the revelation of a key piece of information which exposes the corruption at the heart of known and trusted figures and social structures, but from the relentless proliferation of open secrets which serve to mask any one dominant paradigm of significance, stability and security. Everything appears to be a lie, and the truth seemingly unknowable. (Candyman, Bernard Rose, 92, Carpenter’s films: Fog, Invasion of Los Angeles, Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, 84 “I want to address trivial fears, but also major fears too, like when a generation tells lies to the next and causes real harm”.) Candyman provides an excellent illustration and a most persuasive urban myth films: the candyman is the ghost of an ex slave, Daniel Robitaille whose returns prompts his revenge upon white, civilised society. Clearly a metaphor about racist culture and the legacy of slavery, the monster, essentially a brutal avenger, is morally ambivalent. Here the arcane, primitive world perpetrates a seemingly justifiable horror which the contemporary world must confront in order to find understanding and achieve atonement.
There just remains for me to thank you for your kind and active attention. While I was presenting, explaining Horror, I have always met very alert, intelligently amused gazes or expressions, and it has helped me a lot. I really enjoyed our weekly meetings and hope it was reciprocal. I was worried, at the beginning, lest the huge number of students who had registered, not to mention those who managed to ‘steal in’, might prevent all kinds of communication. It did to a certain extent, and it is obvious that, with a smaller group, we would have had much better working conditions, but, since the university budget could not afford the opening of another group, I do believe that we have done the most with what we had. And, I got the impression, through sympathetic silent communications, side remarks, alert, curious faces and friendly smiles, that you enjoyed the lecture. What I have to say then, is that, if the lecture was good, which is not up to me to say, it was mainly thanks to you, to the quality of your attention, and for this I am most grateful.
Now, there comes the time of evaluations and exams, a time of all fears and anxieties, a time when the ‘nice’ teacher metamorphoses into a ‘grade-thirsty, monstrous examiner’, wielding his red pencil! For this blood curdling encounter, I wish you good luck. Now, there is an antidote to tame the monster, if garlic warded off vampires, likewise ‘evidence of work’ abates the teacher’s murderous drives. Therefore, I do hope you have worked, exactly as I advised you to do in the first pages of the ‘poly’, if so, you have nothing to fear, the monster will be as gentle as a lamb. If not, well, you’ll just have to face your own responsibility in the ‘silence of the lambs’…