Tuesday, May 15, 2012

My Roots of Classic and Post-Modern Fears

I've been keeping my head down this week, trying to finish my paper on post-modern horror for a Film & Philosophy graduate class.  Hoping to blog about that eventually, summarizing my views on said topic, but until then, here's essentially my opening statements, reflecting on my earliest brushes with the horror genre....

As an adolescent and then later a teenager, I wasn’t a consistent fan of the horror genre. I mostly devoured science fiction novels and comic books and Saturday morning cartoons, though childhood staples such as these certainly possessed enough strains of horror DNA in their own right, even back then. But mostly, I was a Flash Gordon, Star Trek, Star Wars, Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends kind of kid. So memories of the few times I actually saw something that frightened me stand out vividly.

The earliest incident occurred in a movie theater lobby, when my father took the family to see Never Cry Wolf. The movie itself wasn’t scary. But in the lobby before the movie, while waiting in line, I saw a poster for My Bloody Valentine. My memories of the poster’s exact details are sketchy – a shadowy face in a blood-smeared gas mask – but I remember a very visceral reaction, deep inside. Something seemed wrong about that poster, that hidden face and those wide, crazed eyes.

The second incident occurred a few years later around Christmas, visiting my Aunt and Uncle’s. Bored and ready to go home and flipping through the television channels, I came across Vincent Price’s House of Wax, circa 1953. Apparently, the adults must have been busy elsewhere, because I kept watching uninterrupted. And while the concept of being turned into a living wax dummy – unable to speak, talk, or move, dead and alive at once – was frightening enough, the scariest scene came when a female character (if I’m remembering the right movie) was impaled through the abdomen with a metal pipe, pinned to the wall. But that wasn’t the worst. The worst was watching blood slowly trickle out of the pipe’s end. Like she’d become nothing more than a bag of blood drained by a big metal straw. Like those weird “space milk” pouches they’d started serving with our school lunches.

The third incident occurred many years later, when I was fifteen. One day in Art class, I went into the storeroom for supplies. There, I accidentally discovered my Art teacher’s old stash of EC Horror Comics. In one of them, I read a story about these two brothers, out in the woods. They came across a swamp or bog or something. One brother got stuck, sucked down by the mire. The other, a coward, left him there, fled home, and lied to his parents about his brother’s whereabouts, saying he didn’t know where he was.

Of course, it wasn’t long – after the dead brother was declared missing – that the cowardly brother heard slurping, mucky footsteps outside his window at night. Driven mad by guilt and fear, he eventually returned to that bog, and...well, I guess we all know how that story ends. 

And it certainly left me disturbed. Filled with an unsettling disquiet. How could someone leave their brother to die like that? How horrible would it be carrying all that guilt...and think about the OTHER brother, the one now transformed into a walking mud-thing. He may’ve gotten his vengeance...but he was still dead. And made of mud, forever. Nothing good about that, at all.

Looking back on those three very different experiences, I can recognize in them now the seed of what the horror genre has tried to grow in readers (and by the 1930’s, viewers) for centuries. Fear. But not fear for mere sadistic, masochistic enjoyment. Not for ghoulish pleasure, or for the satisfaction of watching others suffer. But fear of things that violate our sense of what is right and natural. Fear of things that aren’t supposed to be.

And, even though my retrospective is certainly colored by hindsight, an ironic thing: how relieved I felt after leaving that movie theater and my Uncle and Aunt’s. Because in both cases, the safety of the family car, the familiar sounds of my parents’ conversation and music from their favorite light rock station reaffirmed my unconscious belief in things as they were meant to be. Even as I shivered a little, gazing into the dark night, normality had been restored, and I felt happy for it. And my happiness, I believe, had been intensified by the fear I’d felt only moments before. In a strange way, my fear had reaffirmed my belief in and desire for normality. 

The emotional fear and eventual relief I felt in the first two incidents - my reactions to a movie poster and snippets from a movie playing on television - embody decently enough the function of a “classic” horror movie. Essentially, in classic horror movies, the narrative opens with the violent disruption of the normative order by a “monster". The monster could be almost anything, of course. Aliens, supernatural beings, mad scientists, even a deviant transformation from within a person. The rest of the story then revolves around the “monster” wrecking havoc, instilling terror in the hearts of the people (and the audience) and the people’s ineffectual attempts at defeating it. Eventually, either violence or knowledge is used to defeat the monster, restoring the normative order. In essence, the unnatural thing or “monster” is bested, and everything becomes as it once was – as it should be.

Also, the boundaries between “good” and “evil”, “normal” and “abnormal”, “human” and “alien” are clearly marked in classic horror movies. In the classic horror movie, threats to the existing social order are external, and eventually, human agency – or the forces of “good” - prevail. My perception of My Bloody Valentine’s movie poster was informed by this paradigm. A strange, inhuman thing leering at me with an almost tangible air of malevolence - I knew that was bad. When a little older and bit more sophisticated, I viewed the killer in House of Wax as clearly evil, killing innocent human beings (even though, in the fullness of the plot, the killer is seeking revenge for a crime perpetrated upon him).

My reaction to my third fear experience - the EC horror comic I discovered -was a little more nuanced. Because, really - who was “evil” in that story? One brother was certainly a selfish coward, abandoning his other brother to die in a swamp. And it could certainly be viewed as a morality play, the moral of the story being: “Don’t desert your loved ones, because they’ll come back and get you from beyond the grave.”

But his guilt and remorse for this cowardly act seemed to exempt him from being truly evil. And the swamp monster his brother became wasn’t exactly evil, either. Merely a sorrowful, vengeful wraith seeking vengeance. I came away from that story feeling uneasy, because I didn’t know where my sympathies should lie. With the wronged brother, now turned into a lurching, gurgling horror that would never find any peace? Or with the weaker brother whose worst crime was merely fear and indecision in a crisis?

This reaction more closely resembles what has become known as post-modern horror cinema. Very much like classic horror cinema, post-modern horror revolves around the violent introduction of a “monster” upon a normative state. People ineffectually try to defeat this monster. However, post-modern cinema differs from classic horror cinema in ways similar to my reaction to that EC horror comic. 

Because throughout the post-modern horror movie’s narrative, lines of “good” and “evil” are blurred. Very quickly, characters – and by proxy, audiences – learn or at least suspect there’s no way to beat this monster. “Good” (or whatever is loosely defined as “good”) will not win in the end. Audiences are left perhaps feeling uneasy, unsettled because the narrative’s resolution doesn’t offer closure. The monster still lingers at the movie's end, ready to strike again.... 

And that's all for now.  More later by the end of the week, hopefully.  Thoughts?