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Darryl Jones on Thematic Horror

darryljones

Darryl Jones teaches at the School of English at Trinity College Dublin. He is the author of Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film (A. Hodder Arnold, 2003). After several weeks of trying to connect we were finally able to get together to explore some of the topics covered in this fine book.

TheoFantastique: Darryl, thanks for talking about your book. I was interested in your perspective that began with Gothic literature and then moved to connect this to horror cinema. Why is tracing this literary thread helpful in understanding not only the development of horror film, but also its ongoing expressions?

Darryl Jones: My own background is as a literary scholar, so all of my critical training is in that field, and it’s one I understand: I’m used to dealing with literary texts, and if anything tend to flatten out the differences between fiction and film as a consequence. So, it’s partly a matter of disposition and intellectual tendencies, allowing me to see connections across media. That said, it’s also the case that very many classic horror films, right up to the late 1960s, were adaptations of Gothic literary classics – however loosely adapted some of them may have been. I’ve a sense that it’s not until Romero’s Night of the Living Dead that the connective tissue between horror fiction and film is really severed. Universal and Hammer horrors are inconceivable without the Gothic novel, but the generation of horror film makers that came after 1968 – male baby-boomers – were cineliterate, their sensibilities were formed by moviegoing, rather than by reading, I suspect. Slasher movies, for example, have very little in common with nineteenth-century Gothic fiction.

TheoFantastique: Your book traces horror through various themes, including hating others, mad science, vampires monsters form the id, forbidden knowledge, narratives of invasion, body horror, and the occult. I’d like to probe a little bit in a few of these areas with you. In your chapter “Hating Others” one of the films you discuss is the original The Wicker Man. In what ways does this film depict hatred of the other in terms of Christian views of Paganism, and how might it also depict it in Pagan concerns about Christianity?

Darryl Jones: The Wicker Man is a very even-handed film, I think, and one which doesn’t commit itself on either side of the debate. What people often forget, or overlook, is that the Summerislanders in that film aren’t exactly aboriginal pagans holding on to Druidic, Celtic, or pre-Christian forms of thinking. Paganism was introduced onto the island in the nineteenth century, by a freethinking agronomist, the first Lord Summerisle. So if we want to historicize that film’s religious debates, it would be in the context of a whole complex of Victorian thinking, about anthropology and comparative religion (Anthony Shaffer had certainly been reading The Golden Bough before writing the screenplay, which is almost like a fictionalized version of Frazer’s great work of systematizing anthropology), and about Celticism and occultism. It’s an extraordinarily rich film, and very much an intellectual’s piece. That said, I suppose its ideological heart is really with the pagans rather than with repressed old Edward Woodward in his brown pajamas. An interesting question, though: will his sacrifice really make the crops grow? Do we read that film as materialist or spiritualist? Our Victorian predecessors wouldn’t have understood that distinction, not in the ways we do, but the film’s still smart enough to allow plausible interpretations from both perspectives.

TheoFantastique: In your chapter “Monsters from the id,” you discuss doubles, split personalities, evil twins, and mirrors and mirror images. Can you sketch some of your thinking in this area, and how the frequent use of the mirror surfaces as a symbol of horror in this area?

Darryl Jones: I’m always reminded of that famous line from Borges, who’s my favourite writer: ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable because they increase the numbers of men.’ I’m fascinated by mirrors, doubles, twins, reflections, symmetry, repetition. In part, this links to the issues of materialism/spiritualism, and body/soul I was discussing above, but it also refers us back to Freud’s Uncanny, a fundamental ambiguity or undecidability as to the ontological status of the subject. Living or dead? Flesh or machine? Simultaneously both? For some thinkers, the double was a kind of warning or harbinger, a messenger sent from the other world to prepare you for your own death, the moment you clap eyes on your own soul.

I also discovered a really startling statistic while researching the book: 25% of pregnancies are twin gestations, but in three-quarters of these cases, one twin is simply absorbed into the other. In other words, a substantial minority of us begin life by eating our own twin! I was always intrigued by the fact that Elvis Presley believed that his own stillborn twin, Jesse, was a part of him, the face he saw in the mirror. Elvis sang gospel, while Jesse sang rock’n’roll. Perhaps, like Bart Simpson, we all have our Hugos in the attic. But what if, like Bart, it’s we who are the evil twin? We like to think we’re all individuals, indivisible, that which cannot be divided, one. What if we’re not? I have no idea what the answers are to these questions, but I know that they’re questions horror poses again and again, consistently puncturing complacent assumptions about identity.

TheoFantastique: In this chapter you naturally discuss the classic tale of doubles and split personalities, Jekyll and Hyde, and you made a connection with this that I should have made before in one of my favorite films, Fight Club. How do you see this film as a contemporary telling of Jekyll and Hyde?

Darryl Jones: In part, as a case in point for what I was talking about above. Fight Club is a kind of Marxist-Anarchist fable: we are alienated from the source of our labour, in classic Marxist fashion, and so alienated from ourselves. We are unrecognizable to ourselves. We feed off waste and conspicuous consumption, wash with soap made from liposucked fat. On top of that, there’s the whole issue of alienated masculinity – Edward Norton’s a white-collar grunt, a wage-slave, emasculated by capitalism (as is Meat Loaf’s Bob, who grows ‘bitch tits’, remember). He transforms into Brad Pitt and starts the fight club in order to be a man again. Interestingly, ‘White Collar Boxing’ is a bit of a boom sport, even amongst us academics. With Jekyll and Hyde, the thing to remember is that this is a novel which takes place in a world without women; it’s strongly implied that Jekyll’s friends believe Hyde to be a spot of rough trade he’s picked up from the docks. If so, the sexual relations between the two of them are narcissistic, masturbatory. And there’s no more narcissistic wanker than Brad Pitt! I mean, can you imagine him choosing to have sex with a woman when he could have sex with someone he really loves?

TheoFantastique: I also want to thank you for some serious reflection on the “cult classic” Phantasm in your chapter “Monsters from the id.” You place this within a “small series of films from its period to feature dream-demons, and to unfold with the narrative logic of a nightmare.” Here you include it with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Dreamscape. Do you think Phantasm has been neglected as having something serious to contribute in our reflections on horror and dreaming, and if so why is this the case, and how do you see Phantasm as significant in this regard much like Freddy Kreuger’s cinematic nightmares?

Darryl Jones: You’ll get no argument from me – Phantasm is a wonderful film, and, yes, much overlooked. In some ways I’m glad it never became the semi-camp, endlessly-reproduceable number that Elm Street did. I’m not sure Don Coscarelli ever wanted to be anything other than a cult film-maker, whereas Wes Craven’s ambitions were there for all to see. I can’t imagine ever wearing an Angus Scrimm mask to a Halloween party.

All I can really say about film and dream is how very close they are, and many of the most interesting horror directors know this, either consciously (like Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, the dreamiest and one of the best of all horror films) or intuitively (many of John Carpenter’s films, from Halloween to The Thing to Prince of Darkness have this nightmare quality, this dream-logic to them. Of course Michael Myers is unkillable; of course he’s everywhere, omnipresent; of course he’s William Shatner, and Laurie Strode’s brother, and the boogeyman, all at the same time. This is what Rob Zombie’s witless, credulous, mean-spirited remake simply doesn’t get, and no end of juicy cameos from Ken Foree or Sybil Danning or even Mickey Dolenz can rectify that one.

TheoFantastique: In your chapter “‘Them!’ Narratives of pestilence and invasion,” you make a comment on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. You write,

“The novel closes on a relativist note with Neville’s realization that, as the Last Man, he, and not the vampires, is the ethnic minority, and that given his vampire-hunting existence he is the ruthless predator, or even themass-murderer, who deserves to be hunted and killed. The vampires are the victims of a plague, not the embodiments of evil. The monstrosity is his.”

I don’t know if you’ve seen the latest film inspired by this story, the one starring Wil Smith, but there was something of a minor controversy in the horror and science fiction community when an alternative ending was included when the film was released on DVD. In my view the alternative ending was the one that should have been released in theaters in that it not only flows better from the film’s previous narrative, but also brings the film more in keeping with the spirit of the ending of Matheson’s novel. In this way I think the paragraph I quoted form your book above can also be applied to the recent film. Any thoughts on this?

Darryl Jones: I think you can guess from the above that I have an ambivalent relationship with contemporary remakes of horror classics. The Hills Have Eyes may have been an improvement on the original, The Omen was pointless but faithful (or faithfully pointless?), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre didn’t insult the memory of my favourite horror film too much. But as for I Am Legend, I haven’t seen it! I mean to say, Will Smith?

TheoFantastique: You might be pleasantly surprised by both I Am Legend and Smith’s performance in it. I’d encourage you to see it if you can. But at any rate, thanks so much for your book and for discussing it here, Darryl.

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There are 1 Comments to "Darryl Jones on Thematic Horror"

  • James Gracey says:

    Great interview! I own a copy of this book and it was interesting to get a little added insight from this interview. Good stuff, indeed.

    James :)

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