Michael A Arnzen
Cinematic Horror: The Awful Allure
When Leatherface pull-started his powertool to life for twenty-first century audiences, an unbelievable sixth time since his 1974 screen debut, the reception was anything but unanimous. Offering an encore of the gruesomely literal interpretation of bringing home the bacon, and once more uncovering the collectively suppressed nightmare of that lonesome Mr. Ed Gein and his penchant for feminine haute couture (skin stockings, nipple belts and mammary aprons galore), Leatherface re-entered our consciousness as the epitome of repugnance and the folklorish poster child for what happens when your uncle is ya’ daddy. But I joined not the masses that recoiled in unisoned disgust at the whole gratuitousness of the blood spilling, spurting, geysering, spraying and dinner-time ingestion; nor did I acquiesce with the majority who found the idea of remaking a story about cannibalistic hillbillies ridiculously redundant and conceptually primitive. Conversely, what the supernaturally dexterous creature of Texas Chainsaw Massacre – with the finesse of a pachyderm and the cerebral aptitude akin to Spackle-It, his sanguine pursuits, flesh fetishism and trademark extracurricular evisceration – invoked within, was a deep reverence for the uncanny ability of this genre’s archetypes to unashamedly defy the forces of pop-cultural demand and continue to exist onscreen as believable, discomfiting and as truly horrific as the day they were conceived in the artists’ imaginations. Everyone was horrified by Leatherface and his antics – fan or not, and that response, at least, was unanimous indeed.
When Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth introduced the world to the rather novel idea of torture porn, splatter porn, or gornography in 2005, a diligent reflection of the film did not unleash some latent feminist outrage at the objectification of the bound, gagged, and submissive sex; it also similarly failed to inspire pontifications on the terribly tragic demise of censorship. Instead, the much maligned Hostel confronted my cognizance with the power of this art form to inspire brazen allegorical connections within the observer – the allusions and parallels emphasising the deep interconnectedness and inescapable intertextuality of art and existence – unintentional or not, unsettling or otherwise. And once more, all who dared look did so in shock; but for most, the reaction remained purely visceral.
Indestructible monsters and graphic figurativism were never intended as pleasantries. They define a category that means to horrify. Should the above prove successful in doing just that, quite simply, you got exactly what you paid for.
Cinematic horror is observably dichotomous in nature, yet entirely enigmatic in its allure: it works according to a tacit formula, yet avoids dogmatism through boundary-pushing bravado; it speaks to our most primordial of responses, yet imparts veritable insights into the psyche and its frightening potential. It is definitively indefinable, the dark figure whose malevolence excites as much as it terrifies.
Not everyone gets the appeal of voluntary self-scaring, and even less so, the complex story-telling beneath the gore or the unconventional beauty of the macabre. It’s a matter of personal taste, individual constitutions and, in a tragic many instances, a simple case of shallow comprehension.
The reasons for aversion to horror and its devices are obvious.
But the enjoyment of horror is a highly subjective affair and authoritative explanations elude the seeker – or at least they should elude the seeker. Strangely, however, most rationalizations of the phenomenon seem to have demystified it rather economically, leaving us with two apparently simple reasons as to why the horror industry continues to inspire sadomasochistic patronage:
1. Medicine. Purgation, especially for the digestive system.
2. A purifying or figurative cleansing of the emotions, especially pity and fear, described by Aristotle as an effect of tragic drama on its audience.
3. A release of emotional tension, as after an overwhelming experience, that restores or refreshes the spirit.
4. Psychology. A technique used to relieve tension and anxiety by bringing repressed feelings and fears to consciousness; the therapeutic result of this process; abreaction.
The perpetually plugged notion of analgesic horror – watching achieves but two things:
a) Exhibits the frightful arrogance and ignorance of those who believe that the psychology of man is simple and shared, and easily interpreted; behaviour is a straightforward case of need-fulfilment, and the need is collective, a product of the very similar (if not identical) inner-make-up of all persons.
b) Extends no justice to the horror enthusiast, the genre’s cognoscente depicted as a group of individuals who have mistakenly perceived depth and artistic value in something merely purgative – mordantly remedial, at best.
Catharsis – in all its guises – has stained many attempts at understanding why one would willingly engage in something so unpleasant. What the catharsian logicians fail to remember is that Aristotle’s theory has been disproven. But curiously, it continues to be clung upon by many as a means of justification for participation in unconventional pastimes, or in an attempt to dramatise a lacklustre existence.
While the idea of cathartic-art sounds appealing in theory, in practice it really is just a tourniquet for the insecurities and inadequacies of its proponents.
Horror films operate primarily through the implied/explicit portrayal of death, and psychological and/or physical suffering, the two mechanisms inducing a fear-response – not relief (!) – within the viewer. One may argue that the viewer may experience relief upon the conclusion of the film, whereby the protagonist defeats the pesky forces of evil and overcomes his/her previously insurmountable Achillean weaknesses. The viewer might then attain a sense of ‘mastery through modelling’, adapting the hero’s mindset and success to fit and fix his own problematic reality. This postulation is flawed for a smorgasbord of reasons; I’ll point out the obvious: Firstly, people just don’t do this. No one goes home after an evening at the cinema and feels better about his defective existence because Jamie Lee Curtis gave him the tools for lifestyle success. Perhaps subconsciously, one might muse? Not likely. Research has uncovered a fear-response within viewers long after the conclusion of the film (Walters, 2004), victorious heroine or not. Admittedly, this lingering reaction may be rooted in the unspoken anticipation of the customary sequel or three; scriptwriters no longer seem to be bothered with felicitous endings these days, and agreeably so: killing off the Final Girl in the last few celluloid moments is decidedly more horrifying than anything else.
All things considered, the nature of the films and their paying customers pretty much precludes the possibility of the experience becoming a healing therapy session. (And it may be superfluous to mention that catharsis works upon the idea of a relatable scenario; if horror fans find themselves relating to scenes of torture, murder, mutilation and the odd case of necrophilia, the world has a lot bigger problems than understanding why they enjoyed Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Part:7.)
There might, however, be an unconscious need that the content of the genre could fulfil, but in no way does it provide the cathartic version of emotional anaesthesia. Quite the opposite, actually.
Horror, as previously mentioned, works around the core themes of death and suffering. Such mechanisms are not peculiar to cinematic imaginings, or any imaginings, for that matter. For everyone, death and suffering are the grim structures around which we build our reality; whether we choose to fixate upon them, suppress them, or accept them. But there remains a cardinal difference between the expression of death and pain on-screen, and the lived experience. Loss and suffering in reality are indeed far more painful; they are tangible, inescapable, and they are personal. But that in itself is not the severing difference. Reality’s traumas must be forgotten or at least repressed to some degree for the sake of functionality and sanity. This somewhat callous necessity can create a sense of guilt within the bereaved, as well as an unspoken feeling of betrayal and resentment for those who remembered the loss for as long as was considered suitably sympathetic, and then went on to continue with their own lives. Such is the tyranny of time. For the sufferer, the pain is relived each passing day, but for everyone else, the memory erodes. A failure to acknowledge another’s trauma is to negate its occurrence. Reality is a shared construct, and when pain incurred through personal experience goes unnoticed and unmentioned, it threatens meaninglessness. We move on. We have to. In reality, pragmatism is the aggressor; the significance of loss, the unfortunate victim.
For this very reason, unintentionally or not, the horror genre in
its entirety – from film to literature, theatre to poetry –
has created a dimension in which the ideas of death and suffering
may be romanticised, and in doing so, eternalises them. Art is the
personal imitation of immortality. The pictures of pain are not subject
to transience, but remain immovable memorials to the acuteness of
human experience, and the tragedy of the human condition. The symbolic
representation of the suppressed realms of the psyche is preserved
through abstraction, untouchable by euphemism, pragmatism and the
need for relief. In this dimension, death and suffering are justly
acknowledged. They are meaningful. And in the confines of spectatorship,
no one may ignore their disturbing power.
The flawed premise of horror-watching escapism is inherent in its definition:
Firstly (at the risk of insult to intelligence), horror cannot logically
be mistaken as fantasy. The two words – and genres – are
in no way the same, or even similar, either on an intrinsic or explicit
level – pathology aside, of course.
Cinematic horror, like the Minotaur, exhibits two significant characteristics: 1) it is a multi-dimensional concept, a series of motifs which signify subliminal intricacies and, 2) it is rooted in (or at least embellished by) fiction or myth. These commonalities do more than add credibility to my chosen metaphor, they point to the presence of two possible tools of seduction, both humanly irresistible.
From horror film, you can take what you will. Compositely elemental, it is both instinctual and cognitive; its effects both corporeal and metaphysical. The multi-dimensionality of horror allows it to speak to the individual, and not assume a collective simplistic audience mind-set through flat characters and symbol-less plots. It celebrates animalism, whilst impartially praising the intellect. Horror is the on-screen amalgamation of the human dichotomy. And unlike other genres, it is non-idealistic of man and his motives.
This non-idealism is important. Stephen King (1981) states that horror films often serve as a ‘barometer of those things which trouble the night thoughts of a whole society’. And so enters the second convergent path between cinematic horror and the Grecian beast. Once something has been mythologized or fictionalised, it has permitted the use of imagination. Imagination is not copyrighted material. It is a free-to-use, on-hand resource. Nor is imagination a public demonstration. It possesses the freedom to run rampant, but anonymously so. Indeed, film-makers encounter the occasional copyrighted claim to an imagining. And quite obviously, film-makers do engage in the public demonstration of their inner dreams (or nightmares). But the viewer is not subject to such constraints – or confessions.
The catalyst for frights of fancy is composed of more than evocative storylines; the flyblown effect in many contemporary films, the greater potential allowed by HD for flexibility, along with progressive editing techniques, has successfully broken down the fourth wall of film, blurring the viewpoints – both actual and moral. The decision is yours – the role of victim or aggressor can be assumed within the privacy of your own subjective experience. Further, the psychological distance a soundtrack offers – a ‘buffer’ to repugnance – is becoming less necessary in an industry where the skill required by auteurs to elicit bona fide terror is based on more realistic renditions, much like a home video of the most horrific things you can imagine. In this case, musical scores don’t quite fit in. And consequently, there is little reminder that this is an exercise in film, not voyeurism. (And what greater voyeuristic thrill than the convergence of antagonist and audience?) One may secretly engage in boundary testing and breaking by proxy through the film’s characters, without fear of retribution.
He is us and we are him.
Perhaps my initial disdain for escapist explanations was premature.
The philic displeasure demonstrated by horror audiences may point to the synonymy of horror and fantasy. There is quite obviously an illicit delectation involved in watching the films. Perhaps even an eroticism (it is important to remember that sex and death have been intertwined and juxtaposed for centuries, going far beyond clichéd assumptions of S&M; a telling example being the French metaphor for orgasm – la petite mort – literally translated into ‘the little death). Does all this point to psychological pathology on a mass scale, then? Surely not (?). But if the Jungian idea of the collective consciousness is to be believed, the imaginings of film-makers represent the zeitgeist. Anthropologist, Joseph Campbell (1988) once remarked that the monster concept in fiction can be traced to a ‘feared adventure of the discovery of the self’. Such a journey holds the potential for confrontation with feared selves but may also permit exploration of desired selves. And desire, as the above confirms, may easily be anything but chaste. The horror genre is rich in sordid social commentary.
A second classical analogy comes to mind. If one is to recall the realistic bases of which have inspired countless works of horror (remember Mr. Gein, for example), it might be theorised that a significant portion of society is finding entertainment in the very real demise of very real victims. The idea that perhaps we have not moved on as far from Roman arenas and blood sport for amusement as we might have idealised is a little more than disappointing. It should be frightening.
The accepted definitions of horror revolve around central elements of the supernatural and abnormal. The antagonist may be shrouded in normalcy for the sake of suspense, but is ultimately unveiled as the deranged serial killer or demon-beast (whether this process takes innumerable sequels to unfold or not, the formula is inescapably inherent in the genre). The truly unnerving thing is that there is no such thing as abnormal, only varying degrees of the very human condition.
What plays out on screen was seeded in human minds. And every time
we willingly expose ourselves to the grisly pantomimes, we imperceptibly
nod in approval and acceptance.
The metaphor is clarified and complete; the Minotaur is not the art form, but the artist. It is not the terrible tale, but the terrible truths that spawned dramatic inspiration. The Minotaur is the self, lurking within the maze of deluded identities and external scapegoats.
At this point one might hope that at least some sliver of sanctity divides the mere observer of horror flicks from the hard-core devotee (the unsettling idea of homages to death and deranged fantasias is hardly complimentary).
But there remains little to separate the two individuals.
Except that while both willingly white-knuckle it through the gore, perhaps one is more comfortable in admitting he or she enjoyed it. And in this admittance, a freedom to delve into the complexity and unorthodox beauty of the genre is achieved; ironically the ultimate escapism – and relief – then, from the mundane dishonesty of humanity and the fear of self-confrontation.
One might scoff at the assumed complexity of an entertainment form intended to provide cheap thrills and nothing more.
‘The horror fan... is... not only able but positively compelled to “read” rather than merely “watch” such movies. The novice, however, sees only the dismembered bodies, hears only the screams and groans, reacts only with revulsion or contempt. Being unable to differentiate between the real and the surreal, they consistently misinterpret horror fans' interaction with the texts that mean nothing to them’ (Kermode, 1997).
It is obviously crucial that the essence of cinematic horror is not lost through elitist snobbery and over-intellectualisation of something inherently instinctual.
But therein lies the magnificence of a genre whose allure remains enigmatic: one may never ascertain, with absolute authority, the intention behind horror’s creation or the motivation for its embrace. This may be in part due to uncomfortable truths about ourselves, tacitly revealed in our in enjoyment, but consciously ‘unnoticed’, or quite simply due to the amorphous nature of a genre that can never be articulated, its effects extending beyond the confines of human language – and awareness.
A brilliant horror film, whether you choose to intellectualise it or shun it, will scare you. However, it is not the film itself, but your voluntary participation within the film – self-confessed fanatic or not – that is the most terrifying thing of all. Catharsis and escapism theories are not befitting of attempts to explain the awful allure of cinematic horror itself, but would do well in understanding its revelations. When faced with the monster personified in your uncoerced involvement, who would not seek relief and escape from the horror revealed within?
King, S. (1981) Danse Macabre (New York: Berkley).
Walters, G.D. (2004) “Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror
Cinema: An Integrated-Interactive Model”, Journal of Media
Psychology 9 (2).
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