Nearing the end of this paper, so hopefully tomorrow will see an original blog. Here again, however, for your interest or for simply kicks, part of my closing statements in my paper for Film & Philosophy: (WARNING! NOT EDITED!)
In Isabel Pinedo’s assessment, horror is an “exercise in recreational terror”, a simulation of danger not unlike a roller coaster ride – something that provides thrills and chills, but is essentially “safe” (25). Horror also denaturalizes the “repressed” (fears, worries, anxieties), by transmuting the “natural” elements of everyday life into the unnatural form of the “monster” (26).
In other words, the things we fear in life - loss, loneliness, failure, death, betrayal, loss of self, marginalization, age – are often (but not always) transformed into monsters in the horror film, making them more emotionally accessible. And, up for potential “defeat”. So by “monstrifying” these fears, horror films unearth our repressed fears and worries to be dealt with in a unconscious manner we may merely recognize as “narrative pleasure”, IE. we “enjoy the story”.
Pinedo relates this to Freud’s dream theories, that as dreams displace and condense repressed thoughts and feelings, so horror films introduce monstrous elements to “disfigure” or diminish our own horrors. As dreams are unconscious attempts to express conflicts and resolve tensions, so horror films allow audiences to express and master feelings too threatening to articulate or face consciously.
So because of this, Pinedo believes that all horror films must strike a tenuous balance: they must produce a fear-experience that will not generate too much distress to make us walk out of the theater, but be thrilling enough for us to engage in this “fear-experience” (26). This, of course, varies depending on the film and director, as well as on individual film viewer’s varying constitutions and tastes.
Though not a movie but a television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer serves as an excellent example of this method of “monstrifying fears”, especially in regards to teenage fears. First, and most basic: Sunnydale High School sits over a “Hellmouth”, which is a portal to hell, presenting an excellent image of what many students must think: ‘school is hell.’
Other struggles are “monstrified”: a possessive boyfriend literally transforms into an abusive “monster” after taking a home-made serum that amplifies his abilities, an overbearing mother desperate to relive her high school glory days uses magic to switch places with her daughter. Xander, one of Buffy’s friends, “falls in” with the “wrong crowd” and begins acting (and turning into) a hyena, preying upon the weak.
A boy beaten into a coma by his little league coach for missing a fly ball projects his astral self and fractures the time-space-continuum, bringing everyone’s nightmares – Buffy’s casual dismissal by her estranged father, Giles’ failure as a Watcher, resulting in Buffy’s death and resurrection as a vampire - to horrifying life. A homicidal cyborg tricks Buffy’s friends and even mother into accepting him into their lives, playing the role of a caring, loving man who just wants to make Buffy's single mother happy - who then begins to mistreat Buffy behind the scenes.
And finally, when Buffy and Angel consummate their love, he “transforms” into a monster, losing his soul, their very consummation destroying the love they once had, which most high school partners never consider, that sex is a huge, cataclysmic event that alters us all: on a deep, fundamental level of the soul. Whatever else can be said about Buffy as a vehicle for post-modern horror or just as a television show in general, one thing it succeeded at was “monstrifying” the fears and struggles of teenagers into literal monsters within the show’s narrative.
Noel Carroll agrees with this proposed relationship between horror films and audiences, and offers a more nuanced expansion of Pinedo’s idea of “narrative pleasure” with his theory of General and Universal Theories of Horrific Appeal. According to Carroll, because many horror films are narrative-based stories bent on discovering unknown or unknowable things, he theorized that even as audiences are necessarily disquieted or distressed or even disgusted and repulsed by the revelation of these things, they are drawn to how these things unfold within the structure of the narrative.
Their desire to know draws them into these stories; they simply want to discover, to know, to see how it all ends. They are fascinated with the process of the investigation, exploration, discovery, and then - if possible – the overcoming of unknowable, impossible things (189 – 191), even if, in the postmodern sense, most of these monsters can’t be overcome. Audiences still want to see people try.
These are very broad ways that horror in general can provide “effective meditation on issues which affect society.”
And here's hoping I'll be done soon....
** quotations taken from Isabel Pinedo's essay "Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Film" and Noel Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror.