Scared behind the couch
Opening speech Kino-Eye 4: Screening Violence,
Antwerp, September 29th 2000
"Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion."
- Director David Cronenberg
"Our society desperately needs monsters to reclaim its own moral virginity."
- Sylvère Lotringer
THE DEBATE ON VIOLENCE AND FILM never focuses on westerns, detective stories or war
movies. The discussion is not about James Bond, Rambo or Dumb and Dumber. It
is always about horror, thrillers and SF: about Chucky and Natural Born Killers.
Aren't we made insensitive to violence by such movies, people wonder with concern.
Don't such films put the wrong ideas into people's heads? Aren't these movies a sign
of our culture's sick fascination with violence? Shouldn't we protect our young
people from such evil influences?
But is this all true? Have we indeed become this insensitive to violence, and if so,
do movies and news programmes help to desensitise us? Do people really use horror
movies - films about slashers and serial killers - as scenarios? And is there
really so much violence in modern movies?
Unwaveringly, the media believed that Child's Play, part of the horror movie
series about the murderous doll Chucky, was used as a "shooting script" by
the two eleven-year-olds who abducted and killed Jamie Bulgar in Liverpool in 1993.
That police investigation had not pointed this out, and that the two eleven-year-old
had watched Child's Play only once or twice, did not change the media's view
at all. To me, it seemed apparent that the media had a bone to pick with Chucky
anyway, and that this child murder offered them an excellent opportunity to kill two
birds with one stone. Teenagers who go about killing people, are always "accounted
for" with a reference to horror, fighting games and malicious music. The massive
shoot-out carried out by students of the Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999,
was alternately put down to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, the pop group
Marilyn Manson, and the computer game Doom. As if you can simply find a causal
connection when you have to deal with something as complex as a murder case. As if
the hundreds-of thousands of Doom players and the millions of Marilyn fans, who would
never hurt a fly, can be pushed aside just like that.
And, more importantly: such "random", or inexplicable, violence - whether
induced by movies or not - is only a fraction of "normal" violence: of crimes
of passion, liquidations in the drugs scene, angry moneylenders and of gangs of
youthsters who are fighting each other. Those types of violence, although considerably
more frequent, are kept out of the debate on violence and movies. Even if movies would
cause "random" or "indiscriminate" violence, its percentage is
negligibly small, especially in the face of other, better understood forms of murder
And yet, the question that keeps popping up is: do horror movies influence people? Do
such films cause violence?
FOR STARTERS, LET'S TURN THIS QUESTION AROUND. Can violence be banned, and
if so, will it be helpful if violent scenes are not broadcast or shown? Suddenly the
question turns rhetorical: after all, there is no period in human history during
which there was no violence. The only thing we can hope for is that violence can be
kept under control: and that is indeed what we attempt, by assigning authorities the
monopoly of using violence and by punishing, avoiding and regulating all other forms
of it as often and as best as we can.
But madness, planned anger and cool revenge cannot be abolished. No society can ever
be so perfectly organised that no one of its citizens will ever stab down someone in
a fit of anger or will ever shoot down bystanders. What is even more difficult, is
this: the degree of protection and control that must be enforced by a society pursuing
such a goal, would mean an enormous limitation of freedom for all its citizens:
cameras would be everywhere in the streets, metal detectors at each entrance, micro
chips would be watching our movements, and even worse, there would be daily check-ups
of everyone's state of mind. In other words: a society like that necessarily implies
a move from incidental public violence to structural, institutionalised violence. And
that is a price no one is prepared to pay. In other words: individual acts
of violence will, and must, continue to exist.
To get at the second part of the question: in what way do images contribute to
spreading violence? Is there a chance that somebody would interpret a movie or a
documentary in the wrong way and might get the idea that violence is a solution to
his specific problem? Yes indeed, it may be possible - but thanks to the fact that in
almost all movies evil is punished eventually, it seems to me that movies are not the
greatest risk factor. Documentaries and images from news programmes are considerably
more ambivalent in the way that they depict and frame violence: for while the voice-over
or the newscaster makes it clear to us that what we see is abominable, we also are told
that most crimes go unpunished: the murderer is at large, the perpetrator is unknown,
or worse, has seized power in a (hopefully) distant country. Yet nobody would favour
the banning of pictures wars and slaughter from news programmes, or to censor
documentaries that describe cruelties. Nor will you even hear a plea to stop fighting
games on TV, while rugby, boxing and hockey are of such a violent and gory nature, that
I, an adamant horror lover, can't stand watching them. Nor do people seem to realise
that the average medical programme shows more intestines, blood and gore than horror
Why in the world does violence in movies evoke so much opposition? Perhaps
because movies deal with entertainment, whereas whoever watches the news or a
documentary falls under the imperative of the provision of information, and they who
watch sport can ease their conscience with notions like "air competition"
and "a healthy spirit of rivalry"? Is it because violence in movies is not
embedded in the reassuring "need to be informed" or "to be aware of
what is happening in the world", but is, quite to the contrary, presented as
amusement? I suppose that this is indeed the case: we know that violence exists, and
we have grudgingly reconciled ourselves to this fact, but to be amused by it
or to take delight in it without an acceptable excuse, that is a taboo.
Well then, let's have a good look at horror movies and analyse the way that they
portray violence: its explicitness, its realism, its intentions, and even: how they
depict violence as a means of warning against violence.
The failing warning
IN THE NINETIES, a number of directors, mindful of the social debate, started to
make films about violence. They wanted to criticise the media and their supposed
glorification of violence, they wanted to scratch off the plastic layer covering
violence in movies and show the audience how unethical, dishonourable and
unbearable violence really is.
The movie in which Oliver Stone tried to do so was Natural Born Killers
(1994), a road movie about two young people who both had an unhappy childhood, find
each other and then cross America looting and murdering. They don't murder for money
nor out of self defence: they exclusively kill for 'kicks'. Meanwhile the film shows
how they are practically bombarded into becoming national heroes by the media. What
is remarkable about the film that the actual killings are not shown; Mickey and
Mallorie aim their guns at someone, but as soon as they start shooting the camera gets
out of balance: it aims too high, is out of plumb, it shakes, it gets out of focus or
gets supplanted by a brief cartoon sequence. Bang! A few seconds later you see someone
lying down on the ground. The camera seems to visualise the hysteria of the killers;
it is at least as unstable as they themselves are.
Stone failed in his intentions. Not only because his camera, in spite of himself,
falls in love with sensation or, even with the murders out of sight, we are
nevertheless treated to an orgy of bullets, blood splatters and people who are shot
dead over trivialities. The deciding factor is that Stone, in his urge to reform
people, forgot about an important film convention: in a movie you should always be
able, as a spectator, to find someone to identify with, someone you can feel for, and
for want of other constants in the film, the two killers take that place.
Especially in this respect Kalifornia (Dominic Senna, 1993) is more convincing,
because the serial killer's girlfriend is appalled at his conduct, tries to stop him
and hopes to calm him down by humouring him. She offers us a point of identification.
The film, however, ends in a strange paradox. We, the audience, see that the girlfriend
doesn't dare leaving him: he may well be a great asshole, but at least he cares for her,
she thinks, and she wouldn't know how to cope without him in the world. Through her
resignation, a connection is forged by the script between us and him, the killer. Her
emotions form a bridge between the absurdity and criminality of a man who, as a fixed
formula, kills thrice per a day, on the one hand and on the other, a frightened, somewhat
stupid, but otherwise ordinary girl. Our compassion for her makes his murders become
less and less relevant. We begin to hope that she will make it and are less concerned
with his punishment: his ravages are gradually disregarded.
Michael Haneke also wanted to bring up the issue of violence in his film Funny
The film deals with two teenagers who terrorise and finally
massacre a family. The film itself does not show any violent scene: all of them take
place outside the range of the camera, which chastely turns away. All that the
audience is allowed to see is the devastating effects that violence has on its
victims - slashes in someone's face, a demolished knee, terror in people's eyes,
tears on their cheeks, a distorted mouth, a screeching hysterical crying fit, blood
on the wallpaper, a body that stopped moving - and the radiant look of the
perpetrators, who glory in the fact that they made it even more clear to their
prisoners that they are defenceless and powerless.
The real horror of the film though is this: there is no catharsis, no happy ending,
there is not even an explanation for this violence, however vulgar or banal such
explanations usually might be. The perpetrators are not socially discriminated, are
not ostracised or poor, nor are they accidentally of the wrong colour or class. They
are well-expressed, well-educated and well-off. They typify themselves as "spoiled
pricks, troubled by boredom and the weariness of life, who are burdened with their
existence". No standard excuse will work here - only violence does, and that
proves to be filthy and lethal. Even though, as a viewer, you know what all this will
lead up to - very early in the film it becomes clear that these boys are up to no good
and their 'games' will lead to blood and mayhem - even then you keep hoping, more
and more against your better judgement, that someone will be able to escape these
monsters. The perpetrators even make this explicitly known to the audience, in a
cinematic aside. Hereby, the film turns against the public: there is no escape from
it for us either, we will have to experience everything, we are caught in a trap.
(Unless you get up and leave the theatre - which is what I saw many people do, crying
What really makes the movie indigestible is that Funny Games was shot consistently
from the victim's perspective. To have to watch their humiliation, without a prospect
of their deliverance, is the real torture of this film. Haneke's film is a slap in
the audience's face - a slap which makes us sensitive, but also a slap without hope,
without expectations and thereby a slap which crushes us.
Isn't that bizarre: films that want to warn us against violence are caught in their
own trap: they willy-nilly flirt with their subject or they put us off. Part of the
reason might be that such films take violence in movies too seriously: they are too
literal. Cinema does not intend to depict reality as it is, after all. On the
contrary: cinema aims at going beyond that reality. Cinema wants to be a spectacle.
And exactly that is what happens in the films which are so often the subject of debate.
The realistic nightmare
VIOLENCE IN HORROR IS BY DEFINITION far-fetched, abundant, excessive and over the top.
Monsters like the Cenobites in Hellraiser
have nails in their faces,
their intestines are opened up and their bowels are used as body decoration; they
have metal tubes and steel wires running through and along their bodies, birds'
claws are growing out of their heads, and so on. They come from a shadow world which
unfolds itself ingeniously, a world which exists alongside our world, and where secret
fantasies are being realised. Sometimes a mortal gets lost there. No one ever dies
there: whoever is incorporated, is transformed into one of them and has to endure
torture which is directly related to his own deeds in our world. The world of the
Cenobites is actually a horror version of Christian hell. No much blood flows though:
no heads are cut off, no eyes are cut out, no daggers are thrust into bodies, nobody
is fried over a fire. In their world, Christian tortures are considered to be
absolutely vulgar: the Cenobites are after more refined forms of torture. Violence
is completely embedded in and restricted to the appearance of the Cenobites
and in the transformations they subject their (depraved) victims to. And there is
always an angelic young girl that happens to be lost in their world - or who had the
courage to enter it, to get someone out of it who landed there by accident. That is the
theme that causes the suspense in the movie: the frenetic search by the innocent for the exit
from this hellish world, the permanent thread of their incorporation into a nightmare,
our reluctance to see her transformed - for all the others have seriously
The outward appearance of the Cenobites (and thus of their threat: it is this
appearance that they can force upon others) relies heavily, if not wholly, on
modern-day technology: without high-tech special effects, image manipulation and
editing, such images are impossible to achievable, and that is obvious from the
Cenobites' appearance. All in all, it is not violence that you can take serious as
a spectator, in the sense that it relates to our world. The Cenobites are simply too
bizarre, too nightmarish, too impossible for that: too unreal, in short. And yet you
don't wish sweet girls to be transformed like that, you want your heroine to get
safely home and you know that she will save herself at last. And precisely that
creates the perfect mix for a horror movie: it is gruelling, but with a screen in
front of it; it is safe precisely because of its unreality, and it gives relief
through its catharsis.
THE SUB-GENRE OF SLASHERS invariably deals with a murderer with supernatural powers,
who is mainly after high school students. One of his characteristics is that he will
always return: Freddie and Jason are the best-known of the group. Freddie, the man
with the knifehands, the protagonist from A Nightmare on Elm Street, has six
sequels to his credit.
Jason, the white-masked murderer from Halloween, only four
(but on the other hand, he has had many cameo-appearances in other
movies, and his mask is a much applied reference in other horror movies).
The slasher decimates his self-chosen opponents and is not very particular about
them. Anybody who he finds on his way is a goner: the slaughters are displayed with
much blood, knives, screaming, yelling, fighting, chasing and panic, and during the
first half of the picture at least a dozen people die. Finally a minimal group is
left, from which the heroine arises: the Final Girl.
She is much more cold-blooded
than the rest - however just as scared - and of a much more impeccable character; she
is smarter, more persistent and more inventive. She defeats the slasher eventually -
and the police are always late to arrive. You can't depend on them.
Slashers are seriously violent, but at the same time the scenario is geared to
protection against violence: to survival, to fighting back, to taking decisions and
not to waiting until some one else saves you.
Apart from that, whoever saw a slasher among a group of people, will watch this kind
of violence with different eyes. The audience, mostly teenage boys, are at first
delighted when Jason or Freddie show up again and encourage them loudly. "Yeah,
get them!", you'll hear when the slasher is about to kill somebody. But the more
the opposition against the killer increases, the more the audience's sympathy changes
and the cheers suddenly are showered upon the heroine instead of upon the slasher - it
is as if you see a football stadium full of yelling fans change their alliance all of
a sudden, and Ajax supporters begin to cheer for Feyenoord all at once. The Final Girl
is fervently encouraged and she even gets tips from the audience, somewhat like
children warning Punch in the puppet theatre that the officer is behind his back with
a truncheon. "Laurie! Get that stick!" the audience whoop, and "Do it
now, bitch!" when she can't get him killed at once. Everybody wants Laurie to
win and Jason to be sent to his death again. And that os what happens. Time after time.
Bad things are punished, good things win. Films like these makes it clear that we
cannot rest on our laurels after that. Evil will always keep popping up. We should
always stay alert, not have other people determine our fate, and we should fight -
which are definitely no pernicious morals.
AS A KID I WAS GREATLY FASCINATED by fairy tales: exciting stories about dragons,
witches, trolls, giants, gnomes, crystal palaces, forest cabins and ice castles.
I didn't find fairy tales horrifying, although I sympathised partially with Rapunzel,
Elsegrim, the Brave Tailor, the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel.
Fairy tales have a fixed pattern in which the tension of the story is safely embedded:
you knew beforehand that the story would have a happy ending, it was a fairy tale
after all; only nasty children were eaten by the giant.
During the same period I saw, accompanied by my parents, Walt Disney's Snow White.
That stepmother was frightening. She wore black and purple and had tight
bandages around her head; her eyebrows were thin, extremely agile and they always
looked furious; and she left no stone unturned in order to play Snow White a nasty
trick. And stepma succeeds in doing so, until the dwarfs and the animals finally find
out about her foul play. What especially frightened me was the ensuing hunt of the
stepmother: in the end she is challenged by the animals of the wood who want revenge,
and while stepmother is climbing the rocks, the weather breaks, thereby adding
meteorological primary forces to the chase: thunder, lightning and rain are pattering
down on her.
Stepmother falls from a high mountain top into the depths. The black
clouds and her fluttering robes stayed in my memory for a long time: really the most
horrifying thing I had ever seen. But I was only six or eight, and after the matinee,
it was reassuringly light outside and we had french fries with mayonnaise.
Real things were much more frightening. Everything which was probable and could
happen in real life, required more protection than fairy tales routinely offered through
their safe and known patterns. Pipo the Clown for instance, a highly innocent
series for children on television, was scary. Pipo opened with the smiling clown's face,
blowing up a balloon more and more, until it would burst, right in his face. I knew that
he balloon would burst, that's what it always would do. I was usually afraid that exactly
this would happen to me whenever I blew up a balloon. When Pipo started, I therefore went
on all fours behind the couch, fearing the bang in his face, and then, secretly, watched
the scene through my fingers, from around the corner, so that I would know when it was
over and I no longer needed to be scared. Only hidden behind the couch I could be scared
According to a Dutch study from 1997, children find the news, and realistic soaps like
Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden much more terrifying than the Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtles and manga movies, an observation which rings true when
I compare it to my own kiddie years. And it seems reasonable: each Manga or Ninja
Turtles film ends with an closure, a solution; a catharsis if you wish; whereas
soaps depend on cliff-hangers and it can take long months before the bad guys are
discovered and one's need for justice is satisfied. There is no instant justice in
soaps. News programmes assure you time after time that all this mess and bad news is really
happening, that there is indeed war in the air, that people are really starving or
being killed. As a kid, you can even see how it affects your parents: they watch the
news with concerned, grave faces and they groan and moan, whereas, whenever you are
watching a Manga, they never stop reassuring you "that you shouldn't take it
seriously" because "it is only a story".
Fairy tales for grown ups
FAIRY TALES ARE FEAR WITH A COUCH IN FRONT OF IT. You can shiver safely. Besides,
fairy tales help you to get to know a world about which you understand nothing yet
and of which you don't know how things work. You are taught there about virtue and
about bravery. You learn that you will often have to try things three times if you
want to succeed. You learn that you will have to give a part of your provisions,
even if you are hungry yourself. You learn that you can sometimes hope for miracles.
You learn that parents can sometimes be cruel, and that you can sometimes hate them
(but you will have to call them 'stepparents then). In short, fairy tales protect
you. To put it in somebody else's words:
"Fairy tales are indispensable [for a child] because they deal with the
things that occupy them most deeply: their fears, their feelings of inadequacy, their
conflicting feelings of love and hate for their parents. Fairy tales offer children
examples and suggest possibilities to them, of which they would never have thought
themselves, and which help them to deal with all kinds of difficulties. [They]
confront a child with the fact that life is full of problems, but that you can solve
these problems by facing them with courage. They teach the child to do the right
thing, by presenting the hero of the story in such a sympathetic way, that each
child will identify with him or her, and not with the bad brother or sister."
Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim concluded in his studies about fairy tales:
"The fairy tale does not refer to the outside world, although it may begin
realistically enough and have everyday features woven into it. The unrealistic
nature of these tales (which narrow-minded rationalists object to) is an important
device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales' concern is not useful
information about the external world, but the inner processes taking place in an
individual ... The fairy tale is therapeutic because the [child] finds its own
solutions, through contemplating what the story seems to imply about him and his
inner conflicts .. which seems incomprehensible and hence unsolvable. ... In a fairy
tale, internal processes are externalised and become comprehensible."
HORROR AND THRILLERS HOLD exactly the same positions, but at a cultural level.
Indeed, they are fairy tales for adults. Horror, science fiction and thrillers are
pre-eminently genres in which the fears and obsessions of a culture are represented,
in which forbidden subjects are entered upon in wrapped images, and in which ways
are invented to get at the bottom of taboos, to handle them and to nullify them.
Take sex. While during the forties and fifties, sex was just as important for people
as it is now, in those decades the subject was almost unmentionable, let alone that
sex could be shown on screen. It was explicitly forbidden for movie makers to depict
of sex: you couldn't go any further than a prim kiss or an embrace. There even was
a rule that characters that were married always had to have two separate beds with
a night table in between, and that they, should they find themselves on one bed -
note: on, not in - they were obliged to keep at least one foot on
the floor. During that same period the British film company Hammer Studio produced a
great number of vampire movies which became immensely popular.
Those who consider the matter for a moment, immediately see the hidden meaning of
the vampire: sex. The vampire is the seducer - or the conqueror - who, by
means of a simple bite in a throat, transforms his victim from a chaste lady into
a lecherous slut, into a flesh-lusty woman who throws away all her inhibitions and
who then only cares for seducing men herself. Lucy, the first victim of Bram
Stoker's Dracula, is described after the bite in exceptionally sensual words:
"Her bloodstained, voluptuous mouth ... her carnal appearance... leering eyes
Hammer was the first to openly show the sexual symbolism of the vampire on the
silver screen, and to choreograph the vampire's bite like a seductive dance: at
first the vampire's aristocratic attraction, then the victims' look that gets
locked together with Dracula's eyes, then the lady's bosom, heaving up and down
fiercer and fiercer, the groan which escapes her mouth, Dracula who slowly bends
over his - preferably lying - conquest and covers her with his cloak, and finally:
the penetration of her throat by the vampire's fangs, accompanied by the sighing
and panting of the lady, rounded off with her exalted look, while virginal blood
is lavishly flowing down her throat. After that she acquires a taste for it...
The vampire's bite is sex in a nutshell, a coitus culminating in orgasm.
Films with real sex didn't pass the censor in the forties and fifties: there was
no producer who, for a moment, thought about making an attempt. But sex found
asylum in vampire films: horror offered a refuge from the censor and from the
culture's inhibition. In horror, sex could be depicted on the screen lavishly,
with virgin's blood and all.
Horror as a back mirror of culture
THE VAMPIRE GENRE CLARIFIES SOMETHING ELSE AS WELL. Just like in fairy tales,
originality is totally irrelevant in science fiction, horror or thrillers. It is
inherent in fairy tales that the same story is told again and again in
different words, with different images, with different nuances. After all, it's not
about the story itself, but about the formula, the template. And that's why it makes
no difference at all whether we watch Nightmare on Elmstreet 1 or 7,
or that Jason and Dracula return for the umpteenth time. Nobody will condemn a fairy
tale because it is again the third son who eventually succeeds, or that once more a
princess is to be set free, a riddle is to be solved, a tyrant to be defeated or an
assignment to be carried out. That's how fairy tales are made, otherwise they
wouldn't be fairy tales.
Film tales deviate from folk tales in one point: whereas fairy tales have become
codified, horror mutates. Since horror incorporates the prevailing cultural taboos
and not the psychological conflicts of the child's mind, the horror templates
developed trough the years reflect the changed social mores somewhat more directly.
The repertoire slowly changes. Therefore horror, SF and thrillers are rather
appropriate barometers to assess the current obsessions or discontents of our culture.
To stick to vampire films: whereas religion used to be an invincible weapon against
a vampire and conversely, the vampire was a kind of devil (on seeing a crucifix, he
cowered and hurried away), later on, when the impact of religion decreased, holy water,
the cross and the figure of Christ lost their guaranteed effects as well. They would
only be effective if those who were fighting the vampire were truly religious
themselves. Strange dialogues developed between vampires and vampire killers:
[The vampire killer is swaying a crucifix:]
"Back, you spawn of Satan!"
[The vampire, bored:]
[The vampire takes the cross, crushes it and throws it aside:]
"You have to have faith for this to work on me!..."
In the seventies and eighties even politics made their way into the vampire genre.
Vampires were introduced as wretched foreign workers, who had to cope outside their
They were just gypsies, actually, or something like that. The
culmination of the development in which vampires were more and more symbols of
outsiders was the movie in which vampires met in Brooklyn and organised 'support
group' meetings, during which they shared "their happiness at finally discovering
that they weren't the only ones", where they where discussing "coming out of
the coffin" (a clear reference to the 'coming out of the closet' of homosexuals),
and where they discussed the problems of modern vampire life, such as the high
cholesterol level of their victims' blood.
Gradually, vampires were presented
more as creatures who couldn't help being what they are. They really were just
genetic mutations, creatures who were also entitled to a place - albeit under the moon,
not the sun.
During the eighties the genre was split up. From that time the rock-n-roll vampire
was central in the cinema, the vampires who - like punks - lived in the underworld,
who celebrated their difference with 'ordinary' people and looked down on mortals.
In books, vampirism slowly became a metaphor for aids: it was a virus, an infection
which was passed on by exchanging body fluids and which caused death and destruction
IN THRILLERS COMPARABLE SHIFTS ARE TO BE SEEN, changes born by culture. Thrillers
which, contrary to horror, never deal with the supernatural or with monsters of any
kind, and which predominantly have personal relationships as their subject matter,
in the seventies and eighties practically always had a plot hinging upon the
discovery that the protagonist's lover was the one that had been threatening her all
the time (in such movies the target used to be a woman), had committed assaults on
her et cetera. An approach which was not far from the observation in feminist
circles that women practically always suffer more from men in their immediate
surroundings, with respect to rape, than from anonymous strangers. In that period
love was the thriller's venue par excellence.
(12) In the nineties the thriller
developed towards the outside threat: the family, the relationship, was besieged
from a pathological intruder. The series is endless series: Dead Calm,
Cape Fear, Funny Games, and to some degree Falling Down, are
its best-known mainstream versions.
THOUGH SF MORE THAN OTHER GENRES CLAIMS to have released itself of the constraints
of the present social order, seemingly untouchable beliefs and conventions of the
times resound permanently, and willy-nilly, in that genre too. Thus, we see trends
in monsters, creeps and enemies. Every time and age knows its own typical likes,
or better, dislikes: there are trends in what is considered to be a menace, the
ultimate threat for civilisation as we know it; trends in the interpretation of
terror. The insane scientist with his dangerous and deadly inventions is one of
them; he is a model, just as recognisable as the one of extraterrestrial invaders,
mutated insects, viruses and bacterial plagues, of computers which are running amok
or trying to take over from us, or, the most recent one: the fear to be sucked up
into cyberspace and never to be able to return.
Similarly, the green one-eyed monsters who in the SF of the fifties and sixties
flocked down from the red planet Mars in order to invade Earth, were full relatives
of the red danger which the Americans suspected hid behind the Iron Curtain.
Although they were both figments of the imagination, green celluloid creeps and red
political monsters occupied the same prominent place in the heads of many western
citizens: they represented the malevolent outsiders, the invaders, the ruthless
infiltrators, the ones who wanted to overthrow governments, who wanted to destroy
civilisation, who would turn law-abiding and virtuous citizens into zombies, slaves
and puppets. And if you didn't take care, they would disguise themselves, and they
would look just like ordinary people. That was the most frightening about hem: the
aliens were always among us. They were alternately called: spies, commies, or
Martians. The trick to survival was to learn to recognise them. And to fear them.
By the end of the seventies, when the hippies had preached their love & peace,
and the Cold War was past its culmination, extra-terrestrials were finally allowed
to represent a different aspect: from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
(1977) onwards they mutated from creeps to gurus. They became the Magi, who had come
to give us a higher level of consciousness. It was only in 1996, with Independence
Day and Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, that SF films started to make fun of
the elevated idea, nourished by New Age views, that extra-terrestrials mainly exist
in order to save mankind, or to present it with a special gift.
Horror as discontent with culture
AND FINALLY: HORROR AND THRILLERS BIND THE STRAY FEELINGS OF DISCONTENT which linger
in so many people, and make it external. They offer a voice for and a validation of
the inner conflict which many people experience, even though that voice does no more
We don't really have a place for suffering, death, sorrow, hatred, disgust, horror,
aggression and rage in our culture. We know dying people practically only from pictures
from films and news programmes, agony only from horror movies and thrillers, true fits
of anger are shown indoors at the most, but outside they are immediately quenched with
soothing comments, putting them into perspective. In daily life relatively little
actual violence takes place, precisely because we concentrate on keeping it taboo; and
if somewhere something happens anyway, everybody is immediately terribly upset, a
reaction which particularly emphasises that violence is unwanted, unseemly and
Rightly so. But yet there is a friction between the relatively controlled mutual
contact which we have managed to cultivate and the amount of fear, dread &
hate which is going around in an average human head. Fear of madness, of violence,
of love and loss, of rape and murder, of dreams and demons, of others and of
yourself, of suicide.
There is hardly room for such 'negative' or 'destructive'
feelings: no stylising or structuring takes place which enables one to express them
safely and securely, as is the case with feelings that have gained a positive label.
For such we have even developed silent witnesses and tokens: we are permanently
reminded of the possibility to give flowers as a sign of reconciliation; commerce
invents chocolate boxes called 'Merci', so that we have something ready to thank
someone without words; we don't need to think about formulating good wishes, because
cordial picture cards are pre-printed; we have been taught to consider jewellery as
love tokens; for 'loving' ready-made forms are designed such as matrimonial and
partnership contracts; from women's magazines we know how to make an evening or
dinner-party pleasant; and soaps show us that things can get out of hand, it's true,
but 'talking about it' is the modern panacea.
To put it briefly, we constantly learn what is normality and also how this holy
state is to be gained, maintained and expressed.
But what happens to everything that is out of the ordinary and the desirable? For
such feelings and emotions, there are hardly any references in mainstream culture.
Because we have to get rid of them, preferably as soon as possible. In the
face of someone's loss, sorrow, anger or disgust we normally don't know better than
sending a mourning card, recommend antidepressants or to say encouragingly that it
is not so bad after all and that 'you'll get over it'. And there you are. For you
don't get over it that easily. And you are afraid that you can't carry on.
When you have to celebrate something you throw a party, but what do you do when you
have something to be afraid of, to mourn or to abhor?
Maybe such feelings don't always need to be hidden or to be masked. After all, there
are safe means of expression. Horror is, just like punk and death metal, a refuge
from normalcy and normality. It is there that such awkward, but real emotions have
their pound of flesh, it is there that you'll find plenty of shouting, raving,
trembling and screaming going on. Horror offers compensation for the superficial,
phoney view in which everybody is shiny happy and everything is irritatingly
harmonious. The world is not without friction, and therefore we would sometimes like
to scream. Loudly. In times like these, it is relieving and illuminating to watch
a horror video tape, in which vague fears are portrayed and put into context, and
thereby interpreted and canalised.
In other words: horror movies offer a regulation of discomfort, both cultural and
individual. They are no schools of violence. They are exercises in sublimation.
Horror is simply Grimm for adults.
- For a more elaborate discussion about Funny Games, see my article
An unforgivable film,
Het Parool, February 2 1998.
- Meanwhile five films have been released: Hellraiser, Clive Barker,
1987; Hellbound: Hellraiser, Tony Randel, 1998; Hellraiser III: Hell
on Earth, Anthony Hickox, 1992; Hellraiser: Bloodline, Kevin Yagher
(as Alan Smithee, because he found it too bad) together with Joe Chappelle
(unbilled, for the same reason), 1992; and Hellraiser V: Inferno,
Scott Derrickson, 2000. The first three films are the best.
- The first one, A Nightmare on Elmstreet, was released in 1984 (direction:
Wes Craven); the last one, New Nightmare, in 1994 (direction; Wes Craven).
- Halloween by John Carpenter, 1978 was the first one; the eighth is planned
for 2001: Halloween H2K: Evil Never Dies (director not known yet).
- The term was introduced by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws.
Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1992.
Her book is indispensable for everyone who wishes to study horror.
- The scene lasted for fifteen minutes at least, I was convinced, until, as an adult,
I watched Snow Whiteagain. Only then did I discover that the chase took no
longer than ninety seconds.
- Wim Hora Adema in her review of Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment,
in the Haagse Post, February 12 1977.
- Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment. The Meaning and Importance of Fairy
Tales, Vintage Books New York 1977, p. 25.
- Fright Night, Tom Holland (1985); to my knowledge the first vampire film in
which the vampire actually says that religion is no longer able to offer general
- See for instance Dracula père et fils, Edouard Molinaro (1977).
- I am not sure about it any more, but it probably was Vampira by Clive Donner
(1974), with David Niven as Dracula.
- The famous clip Thriller by Michael Jackson (1982) has exactly this
as a subject (and it mixes this theme with horror elements): Jackson watches a
horror movie with his girlfriend, what offers him an eminent opportunity to put his
arm around her for comfort. Later, on leaving the cinema with their arms ardently
entwined, they are attacked by a group of zombies: Jackson saves his girlfriend,
and only then, when she assumes that they are safe at last, does he reveal himself
as one of them.
- Dead Calm, Phillip Noyce, 1989; Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese, 1991;
Funny Games, Michael Haneke, 1997; Falling Down, Joel Schumacher, 1993.
- Something similar applies to the characters in the brat pack books, Graham &
Caveny argue: "What attracted all these people .. to varieties of murder,
mutilation, medical deformities, nazi regalia and drugs, what it was about 'dark
things' that attracted people .. indicated a vast impatience with what was presented
as 'normal' within a crudely over-simplified, media-dominated national moral
framework." Young & Caveney: Shopping in Space. Essays on
America's Blank Generation Fiction, Atlantic Monthly Press with Serpent's Tail,
New York 1993 p. 299-230.
Translation by Maria Bank.
Copyright Karin Spaink.
This text is offered for private use only. Any
other use requires the author's written permission.