American Horror Film and the Critical Public Sphere

April 2, 2018 Cultural

American Horror Film and the Critical Public Sphere Should film be purely entertainment or should it contribute to the critical public sphere. In discussing the above argument, I will explore how the horror genre, often derided as simply pure entertainment, can contribute to the public sphere. Horror is one of the more prominent genres in film, back as far as the dawn of cinema with films such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). As a genre, it is studied and criticised for its potential for layered symbolism and metaphors for real world tensions and anxieties.

Despite this, very few films of this genre ever exceed past cult following. It could be argued that horror merely satisfies as entertainment with cheap shocks and scares and fulfils a base taste for gore and gruesomeness. In this essay I will argue against this and reason that the horror genre can exceed cult value and cheap trills and be a valuable contribution to the critical public sphere. American horror will be the focal point as I feel it has a rich history in cinema with regards to contribution of cultural value and reflection of American society. Horror film has a propensity toward expressing a contemporary more moeileu.

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Night of the Living Dead (1968), George A. Romero’s cult-classic and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) are two of the most important horror films ever made. Not only were they innovative in their special effects, they depicted stories that were culturally relevant, even if in a horror setting. Romero’s film depicts a sudden state of emergency sweeping the country – not forgetting that this was the time of the Vietnam War – as the dead back to life in order to eat the flesh of others. The film explored many deep seated fears and prejudices in society.

A noteworthy example of this is the fact that the protagonist, an African American man, display many heroic qualities without being elevated to anything more than human but is ultimately killed in a shocking twist, not by the zombie outbreak but by a white man with a rifle picking off the remaining undead. The chilling echoes of the sheriff’s words, “That’s another one for the fire,” sent shockwaves through audience members still reeling from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (as well as that of Malcolm X some three years earlier), in an age where lynching of black citizens was still all-too-common.

Indeed, the groups “search and destroy” mission during the film’s closing scenes, with reporters on-hand and helicopters in the air, spoke resoundingly to American citizens of the period, mirroring the media coverage of the war in Vietnam. Many critics immediately grasped the sociological impact the unpopular war had on the tone, style and content of Night of the Living Dead, and Romero himself agreed that his film was a product of the times. This film was deemed so culturally significant that it decidedly preserved in the United States National Film Registry.

Blending psychological insights with gore, it moved the genre even further away from the gothic horror trends of earlier eras and brought horror into everyday life. Romero also satirised the consumer society in the sequel Dawn of the Dead where a group of civilians are trapped in a shopping mall, a seemingly utopian location in contemporary society, by the zombie hordes. Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978, a time in which America began to get swamped in commercialism and materialism, Shopping malls were appearing on every corner and were becoming central meeting points for the masses.

Designer clothes and McDonald’s were at the forefront to America’s culture. To mirror this, Romero chose a shopping mall as the backdrop to Dawn of the Dead. Rather than the tense, rising action of the first film, we are treated with almost a parody of its own genre. The materialism that was sweeping through the country at the time became the focal point of the film with the non-dead greedily taking everything that they can from the mall. Now, fortified in the mall as their safe haven, all of the possessions that they have acquired become fruitless. The characters dress up in expensive clothes, play poker with real money that means less than matchsticks and spread caviar on their cream crackers. “[1] This was reflective of the time. It was the decade of the blockbuster and Hollywood celebrities were getting more money, more publicity and people looked up to them, wanting to be them. With this film, Romero was showing what could happen in that scenario – money doesn’t always make you happy; too much of something is like having nothing again. As for Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it was made at a time when war was being televised and people were becoming desensitised to violence.

As well as that, there were backlashes against the excesses of the feminist movement. Notice how “the film’s villains ignore the sexual dimension of their victims. To the demented family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the body is sexually manifest but meaningless beyond its material components. ”[2] This film falls into the horror-of-personality sub-genre, which displays some of the more frightening aspects of contemporary society and the dark side of human nature which is often considered to be more harrowing than films which contained supernatural forces as a threat.

A prominent theme in this genre is patriarchal rage. According to film critic Vivian Sobchack, “As the culture changes, as patriarchy is challenged, as more and more “families” no longer conform in structure, membership, and behaviour to the standards set by bourgeois mythology, the horror film plays out the rage of a paternity denied the economic and political benefits of patriarchal power. ”[3] The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick, is an example of a film with patriarchal rage as the foremost danger.

In the film, Jack Torrance, the schizophrenic father protagonist played by Jack Nicholson, undergoes a mental breakdown and his turmoil is exorcised through the attempted murder of his wife and son and his repressed patriarchal doppelganger serves as the monster. On a sociological level, Torrance himself is stalked by the cultural demons of success and status that highlight his own failure as a struggling writer. His denial of impending failure and his blaming of the wife and child reflect the dynamics of the contemporary patriarchal crisis.

This denial serves as a plot device to fuel and project his insecurities into supernatural and malevolent forces conspiring against him. The representation of race and class in demonic horror is examined by critics as many have likened the development of horror to the rise of the bourgeoisie and the dialectic of class. A classic horror film like King Kong (1933) evokes the fear of racial miscegenation in the figure of the dark ape, the beast in love with the white beauty. Dracula’s appeal in each of his incarnations is fundamentally his aristocratic background.

The 90’s film Candyman examined the link between an invented urban legend and the realistic horror of the racism that produced its villain. Critics have also argued that horror films are particularly enjoyed by adolescents because in their awkwardness they can easily empathize with the monsters, who are social outcasts, and because they express in metaphoric form the physical changes—the hairiness of the werewolf, the sexual drive of the vampire—that occur with the onset of puberty. Certainly horror films do function as adolescent rites of passage and socialisation. ut such theories do not account for the appeal of all horror films. In conclusion, the genre of horror within film draws upon contemporary society’s fears and worries and projects them in the form of monsters, supernatural entities and deranged psychopaths. While the unreal aspects of the genre may cushion the viewer into a sense of security that these things could never happen, it still conveys very real terrors that exist in the modern world. It is arguably the most effective means in film of expressing the true horrors that dwell beneath the unstable foundations of society.

American horror has proved to be an important contribution to the public sphere through its unique way of conveying real life fears and terrors and shows how it can continue to do so while still reeling in ticket sales or by acquiring a loyal cult following. Bibliography * Dika, V, Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art & Film. Cambridge University Press, USA, 2003 * Newman, K, Nightmare Movies. Bloomsbury Publishing Limited, UK, 1984 * Maddrey, J, Nightmares in red, white and blue: The evolution of American Horror, McFarland & Co. , Inc Publishers, USA Filmography Murnau, F. W. , Nosferatu, 1922 * Weine, Robert, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920 * Romero, George A. , Night of the Living Dead, 1968 * Romero, George A. , Dawn of the Dead, 1978 * Kubrick, Stanley, The Shining, 1980 * Hooper, Tobe, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974 * Rose, Bernard, Candyman, 1992 ———————– [1] Newman, K, Nightmare Movies. Bloomsbury Publishing Limited, England, 1984. pg 200 [2] Dika, V, Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art & Film. Cambridge University Press, USA, 2003. pg 73 [3] Jenkins, P, Interrogating Popular Culture, pg. 98


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