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“The problem with horror movies is…”: Reflections on our cultural context

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Hostel

The League of Tana Tea Drinks (LOTT D) elite group of blogging horrorheads is putting together another unity blog, and one of the topics for discussion involved an invitation to complete the following sentence: “The problem with today’s horror movies is…” Contributors were given the opportunity to finish this sentence in keeping with its negative connotation, or take another approach that completes it more positively. Given my perspective on the current state of affairs in American horror films I complete this sentence by writing, “The problem with today’s horror movies is our current social and cultural context of postmodernity and the influence of commodification.” No doubt at this point readers are scratching their heads and saying, “What?” Allow me to explain.

Horror is a complex genre involving multiple layers of interpretation, and as Stephen King has noted it “is extremely limber, extremely adaptable, extremely useful.” One of the ways in which horror demonstrates its adaptability is that it provides a means of not only entertainment, but also an expression and means grappling with some of our greatest fears as individuals and cultures. It should come as no surprise then that as individuals and cultures change so do their fears, and these changes result in differing cinematic expressions of horror. Earlier in the modern period horror helped express fears of the Other in its various manifestations that were symbolized in the monster. But with late modernity or postmodernity, a post-1960s phenomenon which is often tied cinematically to films like Psycho (1960), The Night of the Living Dead(1968), or The Exorcist (1973), there has been a shift from the monster as Other to an internalization process whereby the monster is us. The shift from the externalized monster as the locus of horror to an internalized terror is the result of social forces and perceptions that in turn colored interpretation of the self. Lianne McLarty discusses this in her chapter “‘Beyond the Veil of the Flesh’: Cronenberg and the Disembodiment of Horror” as part of The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant (University of Texas Press, 1996):

This ‘delegitimization’ of social institutions and the ‘instability’ of subjectivity finds expression in the ways in which these films depict both the monstrous threat and its consequences for protagonists. In contemporary (postmodern) horror, the threat is ‘not simply among us, but rather part of us, caused by us.’ Institutions (like the church and the military) that were once successful in containing the monster and restoring order are at best innefectual (there is often a lack of closure) and at worst responsible for the monstrous. Contemporary horror also tends to collapse the categories of normal and monstrous bodies; it is said to dispense with the binary opposition of us and them, and to resist the portrayal of the monster as a completely alien Other, characteristics of such 1950s films as The Thing (from Another World) (1951), Them! (1954), and The Blob (1958). This tendency to give the monster a familiar face (the monster is not simply among us, but possibly is us) is tied, in postmodern horror, to the focus on the body as site of the monstrous.

This shift from modern horror with the monster as external Other to the internal us with a related emphasis on the body has resulted in the continued tendency toward the production of slasher films beginning in the 1970s and gaining steam in the 1980s and beyond. A further development of this may be found in more recent films where the monster is not the lone psychological deviant such as Michael Myers of Halloween, but a group dynamic (in terms of the perpetrators) of psychological deviance as in Saw (if not in the original at least in the sequels), and Hostel, where the body most strongly becomes the site of the monstrous through graphic depictions of torture and mutilation.

I am not a prude when it comes to violence in film, but I do have my preferences in expressions of horror, no doubt due to the influences of my social environment as I was growing up. I first encountered horror in the late 1960s and early 1970s through horror’s twins in science fiction and fantasy films that depicted the monsterous Other as alien invader, the result of science gone awry, or prehistoric beast meets modern society. Later I encountered the classic Universal and Hammer horror films which again depicted the monster externally, and it was only in my later teens that I engaged postmodern horror with its emphasis on psychological deviance, the internalization of horror, and bodily mutilation as the primary expression of the horrific. In essence I suppose I was inculturated in a particular expression of horror, the early modern expression with the externalized monster, and as a result I have always found this expression of horror more frightening, indeed, more appealing. I think I might also find the complete internalization of horror within myself extremely distasteful. I recognize that human beings are indeed a curious mix of greatness and tragedy, but for me, postmodern horror’s revelry in human evil and bodily mutilation presents an overly dark and nihilistic expression of human nature and horror that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Related to these social and cultural considerations that result in a struggling horror market is its connection to commodification. Horror films are commodities designed to provide the highest return on investment possible, at least in those films produced by Hollywood and mainstream studios, and the emphasis on horror as commodity often leaves creativity and good storytelling by the wayside. In my view, some of the best contemporary horror comes from independent filmmakers and from the international market, with directors from Asia and Mexico, not the United States. In regards to independent filmmakers, the priority is given to good stories and frights, and while international horror is just as connected to commodification as the American horror market, somehow they have manged to provide a fresh infusion of creativity and conceptualization into the American horror market.

I recognize that my preferences for horror cause me to lean largely toward the Gothic, although my preferences for an early modern form of horror certainly go beyond this specific expression of horror. I am not alone in such preferences, as evidenced by others such as Bruce Lanier Wright in his book Nightwalkers: Gothic Horror Movies (Taylor Publishing Company, 1995):

..I believe that ideas have consequences, and I do worry about the idea embodied both in gore-porn and a good many modern ‘horror’ films. The underlying theme of Grand Guignol entertainment can be stated quite simply: You and I are pieces of meat, and all our interactions – anything we do to or for one another – are merely the random collisions of pieces of meat, without meaning or significance. This is a legitimate artistic position, and one developed with some brilliance by George Romero and others. It’s also a tremendously popular idea in mass media. The handful of individuals how decide what appears on television and in our theaters, not being particularly altruistic by nature, must believe it’s what you want to see.

The Gothic position, by contrast, is that good and evil do exist, and that men’s actions carry a moral weight; that our choices count. And if our actions have some sort of importance, maybe we do, too. Maybe we’re more than just the some of our desires and hatreds.

This post will likely be a little more “heady” than many of my fellow LOTT D unity post bloggers, but I think there’s something worth thinking about here. If horror is indeed an adaptable and useful genre we might be thinking about not only why it entertains, but also why it changes in its expression, and what the internalized “monsterous us” of contemporary, postmodern, nihilistic horror says about us as individuals and as a culture.

(For those readers interested in reading more of McLarty’s thoughts on Cronenberg and the body as site/sight of horror, as well as the other contributors to The Dread of Difference, or Wright’s further thoughts on Gothic horror in Nightwalkers, these books can be found as part of the TheoFantastique Amazon.com store.)

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There are 9 Comments to "“The problem with horror movies is…”: Reflections on our cultural context"

  • [...] worry that anything will be lost in transition. His most recent post is about the “Problem with Today’s Horror Movies,” which he blames on our post-modern cultural context – a thought that was ricocheting around [...]

  • CFQ Online says:

    I posted a response to your editorial, but since it didn’t show up as a trackback, I’ll put the relevant portion here:

    “It just occurs to me that I would be interested to hear Morehead’s reaction to MOTHER OF TEARS, a film that exploits the kind of body horror he decries, while at the same time espousing a view of the world in which Good and Evil are locked in a life-and-death struggle, with benign forces from divergent backgrounds (White Witchcraft, Christianity, and secular law) converging to defeat Mater Lachrymarum.”

  • admin says:

    Steve, I haven’t seen MOTHER OF TEARS so I can’t comment directly. I’d be interested in seeing how this dynamic plays out in relation to my thoughts in this post.

  • dan says:

    To me, “the Monster is Us” also is a reaction to supernaturalism. It’s the 21st century – we’re too sophisticated to be afraid of the non-material. Here in America we’ve moved beyond fearing the unknown because we’ve moved beyond belief in the unknown. Today our biggest bogeys are Science (28 Days Later, myriad other films) and Our Own Dark Hearts (torture-porn). And don’t get me started on the Whedon-effect — atheist supernaturalism. Fortunately Japan, where they have a different relationship with their dead, is still scared of ghosts.

  • Dan, thanks for your comments. Obviously with my post I disagree that we are too sophisiticated to be afraid of the non-material. Certainly this trend is reflected in contemporary horror,however, there are still plenty of supernatural or mystical offerings of horror that frighten plenty of people. We just tend to redefine such things to take the overtly supernatural edge of it and call it things like “supranormal.” Some of Japanese horror is a good example, although ghosts are interpreted differently in that cultural framework. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  • Allix says:

    Hey do you have any academic journals or references to your thoughts on how the monster was more external in the past compared to now, where it is more internal in the present day horror films?

  • I’m not sure that it’s appropriate to make a hard and fast boundary between the shift from a focus on external fears in older horror to internal fears in late or postmodern horror, however, I have seen it surface in the academic literature as I touch on in this post. You might consult David J. Skal’s treatment of external fears and the other in The Monster Show, and Barry Keith Grant, ed., The Dread of Difference for discussions related to an internalization related to gender, although this is surely an externalization as well. Hence, the boundaries between internal and externalization in horror is not clearly demarcated, but may be more a matter of emphases.

    My two cents. Hope this helps.

  • Allix says:

    Thank you for your help. I am actually writing a paper comparing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the film “Mr. Brooks.” I argue that both films deal with the psychological battle between the id and ego, however in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the Other is externally seen as a monster (the hideous transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde). In Mr. Brooks, he remains a normal citizen, no physical transformation–thus the monster is more internalized. I have currently read parts of David J. Skal’s Monster show, however which chapter are you referring to when you speak of his treatment of external fears?

  • Skal’s thesis throughout the book is that horror, particularly in its classic form in films in the 30s and 40s, provides a cathartic means of expressing fears related to the Depression and World Wars I and II. He also discusses how later horror externalizes the fear of AIDS through changes in the vampire mythology. So throughout Skal’s book we find a discussion of the externalization of fears through horror. Look to books from late modern theorists who write on horror as exemplifying a shift to the internal as the site for horror.

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