Archive for Horror

Survival Horror

Posted in Cultural Theory, Film, Utopia with tags , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2009 by traxus4420


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.


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.


More Notes on Horror

Posted in Cultural Theory, Film with tags on June 8, 2009 by traxus4420

Here’s a potted history of horror film, cobbled together from the opinions of academics and my own observations, acoompanied by a few examples, All imaginable disclaimers apply.

UPDATE: The most damning of these is that this list is extremely U.S.-Anglo-centric, with other cinemas only entering the list when they were officially recognized as ‘influences’ on the U.S.-Anglo dominated ‘mainstream.’ Sorry.


– Georges Méliès’ cinema of fantasy. J. Stuart Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel (1907) is perhaps most topical if not most relevant.

– German expressionism – especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Metropolis (1927), Faust (1926), M. (1931), but also deviations and offshoots like The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Vampyr (1932)

Horror proper:

– the Universal Studios period – from the silents: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Man Who Laughs (1928), to the Golden Age: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), to the generally weak sequels of the 40s like i.e. Son of Dracula (1943) (though don’t forget the exception of The Wolf-Man (1941)),  to the minor ’50s revival led by the sci-fi-tinged Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) — in 3-D — and capped by the ‘canonization’ of the ’30s classics with their move to syndicated TV.

– the Val Lewton/RKO phase – Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Body Snatchers (1945) — largely exists as a distinct stylistic type because of later auteur criticism.

– 1950s Sci-Fi monster thrillers- Thing From Another World (1951), Them! (1954), Gojira (1954), largely aimed at adolescents in drive-thrus; more traditional Gothic elements sneak back in with I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

– Hammer Horror – with the exception of the first, The Quatermass Experiment (1955), this was a (more lurid) return to the Gothic, with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), and the various sequels and spin-offs that went on until around 1974.

– Roger Corman and the ‘B-movie’ – started in the ’50s working in the sci-fi monster genre, but did his best work in the ’60s, including House of Usher (1960), Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Mask of the Red Death (1964) — also notable for the number of careers he helped launch (Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, etc.). Notable non-Corman B’s include Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1964), the first “splatter” film.

Horror’s ‘new wave:’

– ‘psychological’ horror – Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960), The Birds (1963), The Twilight Zone (1959-64) – received and still receives disproportionate attention by critics; the first application of auteur theory to the horror genre, though mostly just Hitchcock.

The highbrow respect garnered for such harrowing fare during this period (beyond middlebrow, which the Universal pictures catered to) initiates what may be horror’s longest-running subgenre, the ‘classy’ horror movie, typically High Gothic in style and produced by A-listers (I also include the ‘demon movies’ subgenre here, in its highbrow form of course). The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980), Poltergeist (1982), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others (2001)

– Italian and Mexican independents of the ’60s-’80s – led by Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Jess Franco – Black Sunday(1960), Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965), Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966), Suspiria (1977), Tenebre (1982), The Beyond (1981), Justine (1969), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Alucarda (1978)

– Golden Age of auteurist horror (late 60s-70s) – might as well just list names: George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Brian DePalma — thought to have ‘sold out’ with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and the rise of slasher films. Also establishes what remains the ‘official history’ of the horror genre.

– Body-horror (late 70s-80s) – the major auteur here is David Cronenberg. Shivers (1975), Alien (1979), The Thing (1982),Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) — full of references to the ’50s SF monster movies.

Horror’s ‘decadent’ era:

– Teen slasher movies – Friday the 13th (1980), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the dozens of sequels, rip-offs, and contemporaenous parodies (i.e. Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

– Suburban horror – frequently based on parodic references to earlier subgenres and pop culture more generally. Like the slashers, aimed at suburban teens, but usually far less intense/nihilistic. Contemporaneous both with the rise of video rental and Stephen King-led paperback bestsellers. When not out-and-out absurd tend to be heavy on family values: American Werewolf in London (1981), Cujo (1983), Return of the Living Dead (1985), Fright Night (1985), Evil Dead 2 (1987), Lost Boys (1987), Pet Sematary (1989)

– mainstream horror becomes ‘respectable’ again by assimilating the intensity and gore levels of the previous few decades with the pedigree of subjects derived either from the ‘classic’ ’30s (and consequently literature), or psychological, ‘Hitchcockian’ thrillers  – Silence of the Lambs (1991), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Wolf (1994), Seven (1997). Interview with the Vampire (1994) probably belongs here as well.

– (re-)ironizing of the genre, TV-centric but also auteurist in a weird way – The X-Files (1993-2002), Scream (1996), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

– ‘new authenticity’ – includes (though maybe these should be distinguished) non-traditional, ‘underground’ sources (Blair Witch Project (1999), low-budget ‘world cinema’ imports like Ringu (1998)) and ostensibly straight-faced reproductions, mostly of the ’70s or ’80s (Saw (2003), Hostel (2005), the innumerable remakes and reboots, etc.) and with increased gore.

What interests me the most about this are the ‘ironizing’ moments, where the history of the genre is (re) established, and alternately portrayed as dumb, naive, reactionary, misogynist, authentic, etc. Seems to coincide both with auteurist phases and when critics identify ‘radical potential’ and/or subversiveness. Should be distinguished from its comedy and pastiche-oriented counterparts (the late ’80s and ’00s, respectively).

Notes on Horror

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Film with tags , , , , , on June 4, 2009 by traxus4420

“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.