Notes on Horror

“Certainly I will never again take for granted that audience males identify solely or even mainly with screen males and audience females with screen females. If Carrie, whose story begins and ends with menstrual imagery and seems in general so painfully girlish, is construed by her author as a latter-day variant on Samson, the biblical strong man who overcame all manner of handicap to kill at least six thousand Philistines in one way or another, and if her target audience is any high school boy who has been pantsed or had his glasses messed with, then we are truly in a universe in which the sex of a character is no object. No accident, insofar as it is historically and, above all, politically overdetermined, but also no object — no impediment whatever to the audience’s experience of his or her function. That too is one of the bottom-line propositions of horror, a proposition that is easily missed when you watch mainstream cinema but laid bare in exploitation cinema and, once registered, never lets you see any movie ‘straight’ again.”

— Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws (1992)

This striking paragraph makes clear that while the horror film as a whole has never been primarily about reinforcing the current patriarchal status quo, neither has it ever been about ‘celebrating difference.’ Regardless of how politically reactionary or radical the individual filmmakers, the genre has instead been progressive, in the bourgeois avant-garde sense of making the erasure of differences a violent spectacle. Underlying the rest of Clover’s book on changing gender roles in horror is a second narrative, variation on an old story, in which mainstream cinema first resisted then assimilated the extreme boundary-crossing of the low-budget, indie and semi-indie horror of the ’60s-’80s, now read in auteurist terms: things like the gore, the gender-bending, hermaphroditic figures, the mixed identification between stalker and victim/hero, the faux-vérité camera work, and the tone, constantly shifting between quasi-snuff and self-parody. When Silence of the Lambs swept the major Oscars (the genre’s moment of gentrification), the rules for popular cinema had plainly changed. By Kill Bill, they had been replaced.


The critics who missed the point, whether mainstream moralists or academics, mistakenly assumed horror filmmakers make things frightening in order to make them unappealing. Thus Robin Wood, who prefers that monsters be represented in (conventionally) sympathetic terms, says of Shivers (1975), an early David Cronenberg about nympho zombies, “it is a film single-mindedly about sexual liberation, a prospect it views with unmitigated horror…Shivers systematically chronicles the breaking of every sexual-social taboo — promiscuity, lesbianism, homosexuality, age difference, and finally, incest — but each step is presented as merely one more addition to the accumulation of horrors. At the same time, the film shows absolutely no feeling for traditional relationships (or for human beings, for that matter): with its unremitting ugliness and crudity, it is very rare in its achievement of total negation.”

Total negation, however, is a term best used to describe most mainstream films of the ’70s, in which homosexuality either didn’t exist or appeared as unthreatening comic relief. Shivers, on the other hand, is an affirmation of sexual revolution which is simultaneously denied to be possible. Horror’s aesthetic has always been negative. What horror makes hideous is what it desires, and not what it pretends to morally justify. Underline makes — the construction and shooting of the monster, or the gore effect, the performance of the villain, like the viewing of the above, is the chief source of pleasure for everyone involved in the genre’s reproduction. The accumulation of horrors ensures the pleasure of producing and consuming horror film.

The events and characters depicted in these photoplays are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


In a history of forms, one notices an increasing degree of indifference in the horror genre to traditional distinctions of all kinds. Those constitutive of the capitalist social body (or ‘civil society’): gender, class, race, sexual preference, etc., but also between monsters and between genres. The zombie subgenre is the latest realization of a long trend, traceable from the Gothic hybridizations of science, folklore, and literature to produce what Franco Moretti calls “totalizing monsters,” Draculas and Frankensteins, demons which refuse traditional categories, whose true horror is their inevitable promise to ‘go viral.’

That is, their threat is not due to their powers (easily altered to suit contemporary needs, thus guaranteeing ‘timelessness’), or their function as signs of a greater (Satanic) evil. The queer aristocratic vampire, immortal, the bestiality of the wolf-man and Mr. Hyde, the implied sexual perversion of the psycho killer, reduce a system of social differences to some founding trauma that defines the monstrous archetype. Its supernatural power is also its curse, the evidence of its exclusion from modern society, a mutation it threatens to replicate in the population at large. Monsters thus mediate social violence, substituting in an alternative mechanism, which as far as I can tell has always been some pseudo-biologial form of infection.


Between the unreal monster and the normal functioning of society, a fantastic, unbelievable narrative implies a deliberately spurious social theory, one that pretends to offer universal history complete with future apocaplypse. The ‘modern,’ ‘totalizing’ monster is formally parodic, but with no clear object beyond its own genre history.


Buffy is one possible apotheosis of horror, close in style to Tarantino and in tone to Scream. It adroitly stages a reconciliation between the horror genre and anyone who could possibly find it disturbing or offensive, by inviting its audience to replicate its cast, a ‘nerdy’ clique that isn’t socially disadvantaged, unfashionably misogynist, or even very awkward. The “Scooby gang” is a morally ambiguous secret elite, who while using the same skill set as Dungeons & Dragons, engage in the far more productive activity of ethnic cleansing. We don’t really notice this, though, as the the show makes a point of ‘not taking seriously’ its one truly horrific premise, preferring instead traditonal soap opera, blended with a kind of simulacral ‘nerd culture’ composed of various trivia categories which are referenced in clever ways. The nerd demographic gets to flirt with legitimacy, and the ‘average viewer’ gets another flavor of ‘ironic’ romantic outsider. Everybody wins.


The other is the faux universalism of the zombie virus, which completes horror’s reduction of this colorful gallery of ‘supernatural’ deviances to the dialectic of life (vitalistic, soulful, individual) vs. death (automatic, dull, anonymous). ‘Sexy’ monsters are nowhere to be found. The apparently innocent gesture of speeding up the zombies, employed in 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead, by eliminating their intrinsic silliness, further reduces Romero’s often witty play with the roles of collective ‘monsters’ and individual ‘protagonists’ into a contentless opposition between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The difference between human and zombie now seems based on a kind of bone-crunching nominalism, with self and other replaced by proxy and object.


3 Responses to “Notes on Horror”

  1. The opening gesture of this precis grants a little too much weight to the validity of Clover’s critique. Clover’s work on horror is largely confined to showing how the genre messes up presumed relays of identification in the Hollywood cinematic mode. What it loses sight of is the role fantasy plays in horror spectatorship.

    Parts of Carrie may well disrupt the M –> M equation of spectator and narrative subject, but the opening (shower) sequence also shows how De Palma reconstitutes heteronormative desire through the cutting up of Sissy Spacek’s body into so many wet and naked parts. We may come to tenuously identify with Carrie and her struggle against the bullies, but this doesn’t come at the expense of what Leo Bersani might call our gendered “self-shattering.” Instead, De Palma achieves cross-gender identification precisely through male gendered fantasies — at once desiring Carrie’s body and wanting to see it shamed, humiliated, come undone.

    Linda Williams’s work on the intersections between horror and porn do a much better job of accounting for the affective dimensions of the genre. While it is true that affects elicited through horror’s fantasies do not conform to presumed relays of identification, this does not mean they necessarily render the “erasure of differences a violent spectacle.” “Difference” is constituted in ways more complicated than what visual identification (in Mulvey’s classic formulation) would allow for. Following from the identificatory premise, this precis overstates much of the post-difference work horror supposedly does.

  2. traxus4420 Says:

    Kinohi, thanks —

    my point isn’t that horror is ‘post-difference,’ i.e. beyond gender or race concerns or anything like that. the opposite in fact — as you say of carrie, it exploits those differences in order to stage their erasure/destruction. not unlike how in romantic comedies the protagonist’s initial difference from ‘normal’ gender roles is both fetishized in the premise and denied or elided in the conclusion. as clover says, sex in carrie is no accident but also no object.

    infection is the thematic device i’m (provisionally) identifying as the most common way of accomplishing this in horror.

    could you expand on this: “What it loses sight of is the role fantasy plays in horror spectatorship.”?

    i’m reading clover’s theory of identification as structural — not that we ‘root’ for carrie necessarily but our perspective is matched to hers at some points (when her mom attacks, when the pig blood is dumped on her) and not at other points (the nude montage in the shower scene).

  3. […] while ago I posted a few things on horror. On my old blogspot (since deleted), I had a few posts on zombies as well as […]

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