In a recent post I made my own selections for the Premio Dardo Award, a blogger to blogger recognition of a sound contribution to weblogging. One of my selections was Dread Reckoning that is part of PopMatters, a magazine of cultural criticism and exploration. Dread Reckoning is the work of Marco Lanzagorta who goes into depth in his exploration of various cultural and social aspects of horror much as I do here at TheoFantastique. While I have great respect for the way in which the fantastic is probed at Dread Reckoning, of course this does not mean that I agree with every perspective offered in its commentary. In his most recent post Lanzagorta discusses a significant social issue raised at times by various horror and science fiction films, and with this post I will comment on my appreciation for aspects of this subject matter, but will also share areas of disagreement while urging continued dialogue over such issues and interaction with the fantastic that enables us to discuss difficult subject matter such as this. The reader should understand the personal perspectives and biases of mine that inform the commentary that follows, and these include different metaphysical perspectives from that of Lanzagorta, as well as personal experiences with the issue raised in his article.
In his most recent article titled “By One’s Own Hand, Then,” Lanzagorta points out that “horror is about transgressing boundaries and norms.” This means that horror portrays monsters or monstrous situations that allow us to project various issues which do not find expression within the normal venues of society. Lanzagorta, as well as other scholars, have noted that as a result horror films function as “partially sanctioned public venues where we can safely negotiate and articulate our fascination and/or dread of difference.”
One of the thorny social issues that have been raised in horror and science fiction is suicide. Lanzagorta draws attention to several films where this has been addressed in differing ways, including What Dreams May Come (1998), Constantine (2005), Soylent Green (1973), Videodrome (1983), and most recently, The Happening (2008). In Lanzagorta’s view, the latter three films touch on suicide most subversively in that they do so without recourse or conformity to the “moral and theological sphere.”
There are several things I agree with and appreciate about Lanzagorta’s treatment of this topic. First, he rightly draws attention to one of the helpful features of the fantastic (whether horror, science fiction or fantasy) in its ability to function as a venue for the exploration of difficult and taboo topics. The question remains as to whether or not the viewer will move beyond mere projection or surface flirtation with such topics in order to wrestle with the issues at hand, but the forum is available for those willing to take the journey. Second, Lanzagorta is correct that suicide needs to become part of the broader social discourse. Having lost a son, a brother-in-law, and most recently, a friend and neighbor to suicide, I have experienced the social stigma associated with this cultural taboo. In many Western cultures strides have been made in talking more openly about taboos such as sexual abuse but an unfortunate stigma still surrounds suicide which makes it more difficult to address this significant social problem.
Beyond this there are areas where I must disagree with Lanzagorta’s discussion in three main areas. First, he takes issue with moral and theological arguments that rule the day in forming social attitudes toward suicide, and while I agree that there may be other perspectives and voices that need to be brought into the public square in discussion of this important topic, I disagree that moral and theological arguments control the discussion (cultural perspectives that frame an issue are different than those that control it). Surely religion has not always been a force for good throughout history, in fact, many times it has been harnessed for harm, but this does not mean that current cultural perspectives on suicide informed by moral or theological arguments are necessarily harmful or unhelpful in wrestling with this issue. Second, I agree that different cultural, philosophical, ideological, and religious perspectives should be put forward in a pluralistic society when wrestling with such issues, but I stop short of being able to agree with Lanzagorta’s statement that “from cultural and philosophical perspectives, the idea of suicide as a natural part of the human condition is an interesting proposition.” Even assuming the framework of metaphysical naturalism, the act of suicide would seem an aberration that somehow overpowers the internal drive for continued life, propelled, according to some, by the “selfish gene.” And third, the question of suicide must be considered in its diversity, not only in terms of differing cultural perspectives on the issue, but in the differing forms in which it is expressed. Suicide as a political or religious statement, as well as euthanasia, are specific and specialized aspects of the phenomenon that need to be considered carefully rather than lumped together in broad-based fashion in general discussions over suicide.
Having personally experienced and witnessed the negative impact of suicide on numerous lives for several years, I find this topic intriguing. Perhaps this explains my visceral reaction to many scenes in The Happening, particularly the one where people threw themselves off buildings and thudded to the ground around the horrified living. Is this scene, and others depicting mass suicide so horrifying merely or largely because of the inappropriate influence of unfounded moral and theological perspectives on the topic? Perhaps. But it’s also possible that the premise of the film and the depictions of self-murder are frightening because something deep down inside of us tells us that it’s wrong, for whatever reasons. It is to the credit of both horror and science fiction, and to Lanzagorta, for drawing our attention to this important topic. In my attempt to move the dialogue forward on this taboo topic I present my thoughts above for further reflection.