Survival Horror

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Just trying to stay alive, yo. Nothing personal.

A 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 ‘torture porn,’ a moralizing term ostensibly used to refer to one of the more recent discernible horror subgenres, which includes films like Hostel, Saw, and the Hills Have Eyes remake, but which I think really indexes the discomfort experienced by critics who don’t ‘get’ the fixation on extreme violence and gore that seems so prevalent in horror in general over the past 10 years or so. Through the reactions of ‘decent people’ to the horror genre we are told once again that we live in a period defined by unprecedented nihilism and a pornographic relationship to human suffering.

The cultural debts owed by most of this decade’s horror are painfully obvious: the Golden Age of the 1970s, when the genre was infused with as much ‘social commentary’ as fake blood and pigs’ guts. There still is that, but where before it was a barely conscious residue, as much product of critics and ‘the times’ as of the the auteurs themselves, now it’s a fading gesture, dispensed with by all but the most loyal. Joe Dante’s predictably clever zombie allegory Homecoming demonstrates the trade-offs involved in turning horror into a screed. Even Romero’s Land of the Dead, easily the most ‘radical’ zombie picture produced since Day of the Dead, creaks. One can appreciate the anti-capitalist message, but ranking it above the comparatively vapid 28 Days Later by any other criteria is pure nostalgia.

No, the legacy of ’70s horror (in the sense of its effect on later filmmakers) is not politics but reductionism. Zombies, ‘torture porn,’ even the sometimes more highbrow ‘new European extremity’ of Gaspar Noe, Alexandre Aja, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, etc., strip their horror scenarios of everything but the bare premise: the dead walk, a killer attacks at random, now deal with it. Watch.

That there is nothing for the protagonists to do but live or die, nothing to mean but success or failure, is no longer a mere precondition for a broader recontextualization of ideology but the entire narrative and ideological point. Saw speaks its philosophy out loud, from behind the mask of Jigsaw, its Tales From the Crypt-esque villain. “Most people are so ungrateful to be alive,” he tells the sole survivor of his Rube Goldberg execution scenarios, “but not you, not any more.” She thanks him later — her therapist (she ‘fails’ in a sequel when she begins to regard him as her cult leader). One is invited to pass judgment on the frat boy protagonist of Hostel or the stuffily perfect bourgeois family of Funny Games, but when they’re being tortured there is no one else to care about. Even more than the cartoonish ‘slasher’ monsters (Michael Myers, Freddy, Jason), but for notable exceptions like Jigsaw, the new breed are absent non-entities, a-causal killers. In Funny Games the murdering duo are fictional tropes — in Hostel torture is just a business. The Dark Knight‘s Joker,There Will Be Blood‘s Plainview, and No Country For Old Men‘s Chigurh all borrow the trope: the ’00s were the age of monsters without reason. To an audience that has learned how to sympathize with Norman Bates,  cheer on Michael Myers, and fall in love with Hannibal Lecter, it now (apparently) takes structural evil to convince and thrill (in the same way that supernatural and ‘psychological’ evil did in ages past). More than any sin they commit their power comes from defying the techniques of identification, giving the anarchic sense of having defied Hollywood itself.

Zombie stories, the great Robinsonades of the late 20th/early 21st centuries, differ from their 18th century ancestors in that they are unable to repress (or properly delay) the social, which inevitably appears as tragedy. In Night of the Living Dead Ben with his manly know-how is doing just fine surviving on his own. It’s only when people show up that things go wrong — the distrustful, strung-out, and frequently irrational group trapped inside the house with him, and the mass of rednecks who ‘accidentally’ shoot him down in the process of restoring civilization. The recent comic book series The Walking Dead (coming soon to a TV near you) takes its protagonist through a series of doomed attempts to restore the most banal forms of patriarchal ‘normality,’ all of which reduce to patriarchal authoritarianism before falling apart completely. Even Will Smith’s Last Man in I Am Legend, while alone for most of the film, is never portrayed as autonomous: he lives in and on the ruins of New York, driven half-crazy with loneliness (i.e. the scenes where he simulates the lost everyday with shop mannequins).

There are ‘left’ and ‘right’ versions of the zombie myth, but the message is always the same: the horrors wrought by humanity in extremis are always worse than the zombies.The absolute manichean split between human and zombie is insisted on only to be ‘shockingly’ deconstructed, with all other differences either elided or made to look ridiculous by comparison. Like them, we must kill to live, even if there is no reason to go on (civilization is destroyed, etc.). We are them, they are us.

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In horror anyone who cares about something other than the survival of themselves and their immediate allies is (or should be) dead. In that sense all horror is ‘survival horror,’ the name for the genre of video games started by Alone in the Dark and established by Resident Evil. It’s a structural limit, perhaps the only formalism applicable to the genre as a whole, and which has permitted a wide variety of thematic material: Peeping Tom‘s reflection of cinematic voyeurism, the weirdly seductive transformations of Cronenbergian body horror, Lovecraft’s cosmic nihilism, the dark satire of Romero. But in more recent horror the structural limit is treated as a natural one, as the only true reality principle and therefore the only true ethical axiom. A horror story is more visceral, more ‘realistic,’ more ‘effective,’ the less it allows itself to go beyond the arbitrary necessities of its genre.

So two basic functional ‘types’ of monster can be distilled: 1) the monster who kills for no reason and 2) the ‘infected’ masses who, for no reason, must kill to live.

The victims, if they survive, usually leave stronger. For the spectator, the encouraged affects are awe at type 1 and pity for type 2. Perhaps counterintuitively, the idea that life is all that matters is usually denied. A good example from 28 Days Later:

Selena: I was thinking I was wrong.
Jim: About what?
Selena: All the death. All the shit. It doesn’t really mean anything to Frank and Hannah because… Well, she’s got a Dad and he’s got his daughter. So, I was wrong when I said that staying alive is as good as it gets.
Jim: See, that’s what I was thinking.
Selena: Was it?
Jim: Hmm. You stole my thought.
Selena: Sorry.
Jim: It’s okay. You keep it.

Not just life in terms of individual self-interest or of abstract ‘life’ in general (animal rights activists start the plague in 28 Days, an attempt to cure cancer brings on the zombie-vampire disease of I Am Legend), but the lives of one’s mates. Domestic hedonism is about the best that can be hoped for under conditions of zombie plague, and that’s alright.

This is the very strange, hospital-waiting-room-universe of a world where popular ideology has nothing left in its critical vocabulary except relativism. Capitalism’s collective fantasy space is finally bulldozed free of class, race, gender, etc. and yet even in the post-everything Utopia shit still doesn’t work! People are even worse! For without a social vocabulary, such a space is only imaginable after the flood, under conditions of absolute constraint. If science fiction can only imagine post-scarcity utopias, horror can only imagine happiness where scarcity is accepted as God. Horror’s current appointed task, beyond affirming the value of life through suffering, is pointing out that mirrors seem to be the only properly universal means ‘we’ have for representing things we happen not to understand.

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7 Responses to “Survival Horror”

  1. Patrick Mullins Says:

    Damn, you’re getting fucking good. Fortunately for you, I know almost NOTHING about the subject, so I won’t be leaving my trademark tomes. Of course, it turns out that knowing next to nothing about the horror genre is fortunate for me as well, as I can ignore some aspects of it, even with great difficulty.

    ‘Saw speaks its philosophy out loud, from behind the mask of Jigsaw, its Tales From the Crypt-esque villain. “Most people are so ungrateful to be alive,” he tells the sole survivor of his Rube Goldberg execution scenarios, “but not you, not any more.” She thanks him later — her therapist (she ‘fails’ in a sequel when she begins to regard him as her cult leader)’

    I love it, fucking hilarious.

    ‘More than any sin they commit their power comes from defying the techniques of identification, giving the anarchic sense of having defied Hollywood itself.’

    That’s funny too, and there’s been a lot of wannabe-Hollywood talk under these very auspices in my emailbox lately. I still think such phenomena have the Poverty Row problme to overcome, though.

    Your thing about “In horror anyone who cares about something other than the survival of themselves and their immediate allies is (or should be) dead.” reminds me of old-fashioned WWII citizenry solidarity, or the ‘patriotic unity’ after 9/11 that was so thick in New York we all started fucking to relieve the pein–New York Magazine had a hilarious sketch of a girl who looked forward to masturbating under her cubicle as a means ‘to get them back’…but also ‘caring about something other than these basics’ really does point to that serious thing that never does change even in real life? The wartime or emergency bonding, followed by relative peace and proeperity in which things relax and morals get loose. It’s actually, therefore, quite natural to ‘lose our moral fiber’ when things are flush (of course, the better person won’t, I was talking about PLM–People Like Me.)

    Jin and Selena dialogue one of funniest things I’ve read in a while. You really have to work to get dialogue that bad.

  2. Patrick Mullins Says:

    ‘even in real life? The wartime or emergency bonding’

    should, of course, be ‘even in real life: The wartime,…’

    ‘A horror story is more visceral, more ‘realistic,’ more ‘effective,’ the less it allows itself to go beyond the arbitrary necessities of its genre.’

    This also very good, like ‘arbitraty necessity’ for future theft, but wonder also if all ‘genre fiction’, resisted by many (think certain literary bloggers who just can’t accommodate it for the life of them, and want to make sure everybody knows it, as well as that they’ve struggles with it in the long night), is like this, but just in different ways. I really haven’t thought it through, which accounts for the previous rather paltry sentence, but maybe the nigh-toned literary blogger has something about what constitutes ‘genre fiction’, which therefore seems to have something only if is delimited, but whether or not this can paradoxically make it more expressive (the deliminiting in high-modernist music sometimes can produce expression that would not come from something less closed and vigorously diesplined, but that in itself seems to therefore repiudiate what I was asking, because the complexities in Pierre Boulez’s music are not part of a kind of ‘genre music’, but rather that became what could be called ‘mainstream concert music’ before there was any looking around and tittering ‘Oh dear, PoMo’. It looks like ‘delimiting’ and ‘limited’ may not be the same thing, a little like what someone said to me recently about the ‘political’ and the ‘stylistic’, although I may not be quite clear on something that braod.

  3. Patrick J. Mullins Says:

    Oh shit, if you can change my moniker above, please change it, god knows that’s embarassing, and only because I was on Explorer. after all, this is the very home of my accusations of Identity Theft. Well, good that this happened, as it was always false. You don’t steal the identity of the person you’re fornicating. (especially when you don’t know who it is.)

  4. traxus4420 Says:

    thank you thank you patrick,

    “wonder also if all ‘genre fiction…”

    i’m going to say no, as the two that just popped into my head — noir and sci-fi — just seem to get more artificial the more they go ‘back to basics.’ my favorites among the former are the ones where the standard tropes are pushed to absurd degrees, like kiss me deadly and touch of evil. but even the ones that come to mind with a more classic hollywood feel, in a lonely place and sunset blvd, are all about movies and their own artifice.

    scifi is more confusing because there aren’t any narrative requirements until you get to subgenres (space opera, cyberpunk, etc.). if your definition includes plausibility then yes, but the majority of it isn’t.

    one can create one’s own ‘genres’ of course as a way to resist genre and to do this self-consciously is a modernist move (though perhaps unavoidable for anyone)…

    “You don’t steal the identity of the person you’re fornicating. (especially when you don’t know who it is.)”

    i’ll have to add that to my commonplace book

  5. traxus4420 Says:

    oh, and as for horror movies, just came to me you might like ‘daughters of darkness’ if you haven’t seen it. a much classier precursor to hammer’s silly lesbian vampire movies of the ’70s, when they were forced to pull out the cleavage to remain viable. delphine seyrig stars, and she’s really something in it.

  6. Patrick J. Mullins Says:

    Mais bien sur, monsieur, of course I have seen it…she is truly the very finest.

  7. […] are always onto something. What to make of the wave of torture porn in horror? I think this, from American Stranger, is interesting here: The cultural debts owed by most of this decade’s horror are painfully […]

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