[Opening speech Kino-Eye 4: Screening Violence, Antwerp, September 29th 2000. Translation kindly provided by Maria Bank. ]
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 programs 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 manslaughter.
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 programs, 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 program shows more intestines, blood and gore than horror movies do.
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 Games (1997). 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 defenseless 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 judgment, 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 and all).
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 1 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 deserved it.
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 knife hands, the protagonist from A Nightmare on Elm Street, has six sequels to his credit. 2 Jason, the white-masked murderer from Halloween, only four 3 (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. 4 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 is 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. 5 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 his 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 safely.
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 programs 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.” 6
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.” 7
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 … insatiable.”
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!…” 8
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 own country. 9 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. 10 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 everywhere.
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. 11 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. 12
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 than scream.
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 unbefitting.
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. 13 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.
- Curently, 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 and directed by Wes Craven; the last one, New Nightmare, in 1994, also by 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 at least fifteen minutes, or I ao I believed, until, as an adult, I watched Snow White again. 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 protection. ↩
- 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. ↩