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Thursday, November 11, 2021

Danger Zones: The Transgressive Nature of Horror

In my defense, I thought it might be helpful, a kind of catharsis. First of all, I must say that my wife is the purest soul I’ve ever met, unendingly compassionate and completely selfless. Honestly, I have no idea how she puts up with me, but I am grateful for it every day. She’s never been a big fan of horror but was intrigued by the cover and synopsis of a Blu-ray I picked up—Ari Aster’s Midsommar. I warned her that it has some pretty intense stuff in it, but if she would like to watch it with me, it might ultimately be a positive thing.

Some background. A few years before we met, she found herself in a very bad situation and an abusive relationship, which she was able to escape with some help from a few close friends and a lot of innate bravery. I had read pieces and heard podcasts from women who had been in similar situations who found viewing Midsommar to be a freeing and empowering experience. I told her I’d warn her about the gory bits and that we could stop it at any time. To my surprise, she made it through the whole movie. The moment it ended, she stood up and said, “I feel like I’m going to throw up. I’m going to take a shower.” A few minutes later, I went to check on her and found her shaking and crying, disturbed to her core by what she had just seen.

I say all this (very much with my wife’s permission) to convey one salient point: horror is not a safe space. It is a danger zone. More than any other genre, horror is confrontational. It holds up a mirror to life, to society, to us as individuals and we don’t always like what we see. More often than not, fantastical monsters, horror icons, and Scandinavian death cults are masks placed over the very real terrors felt by the filmmakers that create them and the audiences that consume them. From its earliest days, horror was seen as a tool for social and political reflection. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari deals with a powerful man forcing his destructive and murderous will upon an innocent; perhaps a comment on the Kaiser sending a generation’s finest to its doom in the trenches of World War I. Nosferatu reflects on the fears and aftermath of a plague that had ravaged Europe and the world just a few years before. Dracula touched on American fears of the outsider, while Frankenstein and The Wolf Man asked audiences to sympathize with “monsters.”

‘Cannibal Holocaust’

None of these films are particularly confrontational or “dangerous” to us now, but in their day, they most certainly were, calling down the ire of critics and censors. The truth is, however, that the most extreme and outrageous art of yesterday quickly becomes the wall adornments for today’s hotel rooms. Edward Van Sloan’s prologue to Frankenstein, warning that what we are about to see may “shock” or “horrify” us, was serious in 1931 but is laughable today. Or consider the moral outrage ascribed to films like Peeping Tom, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Friday the 13th, all films that are considered acceptable, perhaps even tame today. Or to take a more extreme example, Ruggero Deodato, the director of Cannibal Holocaust, was brought up on murder charges because of the savage realism of his film. The charges were dropped when the film’s actors arrived in the courtroom very much alive and in once piece, but the opponents of the film were only barely satisfied. Today, none of these movies are considered to be “over the line” by most horror fans. The fact that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Shining, The Thing, Scream, and The Descent now adorn lists of “comfort horror” for many illustrates how quickly familiarity breeds desensitization.

This is why it is important, nay—the duty of new filmmakers to continue to confront us and make us uncomfortable.

The term “comfort horror” is in itself an oxymoron. Horror, by its very definition, is something uncomfortable, something disturbing, something transgressive. To be clear, I have nothing against comfort horror. There is nothing wrong with returning time and again to the movies we love. There is power in facing and overcoming these fears and finding comfort in that. The solace found in the familiar is good for us, but it also ceases to hold the same kind of power when we are lulled rather than disturbed. Horror is a call to examination and to action. Comfort rarely stirs us to either.

Wes Craven was particularly articulate on these points. He believed that the first thing the audience should be afraid of is the filmmaker. In other words, we should be uncertain of where they will take us and what dangers they will confront us with. It is a lesson he learned from Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho, who caught the audience off guard by killing off a star less than halfway through the film. He also learned it from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the only horror film he had seen before mounting his own extremely confrontational debut film The Last House on the Left. Craven recognized the power that the genre had to tell stories in an entertaining way that could tap into the conscience for social change. He recognized that Romero’s film was about revolution and dealt with hot button topics like race in America in a way that films like Look Who’s Coming to Dinner could not. Craven’s entire filmography deals with the deeper issues of society and he was often vehemently criticized for it, particularly by those who could not see past the violence and gore to what was actually being said.

It has never bothered me that non-horror fans are critical of the genre. It is perfectly understandable to be repelled by violence and monsters. I find it funny when they are surprised by how well-adjusted, compassionate, and empathetic horror fans tend to be. The value of horror is an age-old argument dating back to debates between Plato and Aristotle. Plato felt that the violence and horror on display in the amphitheaters of Athens were bad for society, while Aristotle argued for the value of catharsis. In the late 1950s, it was Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent which took aim at horror comics on one side and EC Comics’ publisher William Gaines on the other. In the 80s, Wes Craven took up the Aristotelian argument when he said, “horror doesn’t create fear, it releases it,” against the Platonists like Gene Siskel, Geraldo Rivera, and Morton Downey, Jr. who angrily condemned the genre as anti-woman, pro-violence, and harmful to American youth.

‘Don’t Breathe 2’

My concern now, however, is that all too often the Platonic argument is rising not only from outside the so-called horror community, but from within it. This is my main reason for writing this article. The impetus for it came a couple months back when a trailer for Don’t Breathe 2 was released. In it, the Blind Man, the extreme villain from the first film, appeared to be presented as the hero of the sequel. The discourse was savage on both sides. On the one hand, those taking a Platonic argument cried out “how could you make such a vile person a hero?” While the Aristotelians made the argument that we hadn’t actually seen the movie and those on the other side of the argument were sounding an awful lot like the satanic panic voices of the past.

When the film was released about a month later to a rather tepid response, it all appeared to be much ado about nothing, though some thoughtful criticisms have arisen concerning the film’s premise. It was instructive, however, in bringing to light an important question: is there a line to be crossed? I think there is, but I do not think it is “should we be forced to sympathize with a monster.” As I’ve already mentioned, empathy with the monster has been a key part of horror since the Universal classics. The objection to the anti-hero is the same objections that faced Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (or Goodfellas for that matter). A huge objection to The Last House on the Left is a scene in which Krug and company are humanized as they stare at themselves in disgust, picking grass from their bloody hands after a particularly brutal and inhuman act. This is also the sequence that raises the film above others of its kind. Or take the far older examples of Oedipus, MacBeth, and Raskolnikov the wanton murderer from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. When it comes to this tactic, it all depends on how the material is handled. Is it satire? Is it cultural examination? Or is it merely exploitation? The audience will usually be able to tell the difference.

It is also important to remember that just because a film (or any artform) depicts something does not mean it advocates it.

Where that line is drawn is to some extent subjective. Those who are not fans of the genre feel we crossed it a very long time ago. Others feel we haven’t even come close. Most fall somewhere between. For me personally, there are some films I just won’t see. That is my choice based on my own tolerances, experiences, and capacities. It is important for each of us to know our own limitations and to decide where we personally draw the line. I do believe that snuff films or movies that involve abuse or criminal mistreatment in their making are over the line, and I believe few would disagree with me on those points.

But I do feel that filmmakers should be given the freedom to push us and confront us without facing puritanical outcries that border on censorship. What we decried and scoffed in the era of the Satanic Panic we must not participate in now. The mantle of confrontational horror has been passed from Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and Hooper to new voices that challenge our biases and viewpoints, prodding us out of our comfort zones like Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, Karyn Kusama, Robert Eggers, and Nia DaCosta. I long for current and future filmmakers to be able to bring us the next Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chain Saw, They Live, Scream, It Follows, or Get Out. But films like that don’t happen when movies are made by committee based on fan outrage, which has unfortunately been the fate of far too many films over the past several years. Creators must be allowed to create.

When it came down to it, what disturbed my wife so much about Midsommar was not the gore or the emotional intensity, but Florence Pugh as Dani’s enigmatic smile at the end of the film. She felt that Dani had merely traded one form of abuse for another, possibly worse one. As a lifelong horror fan, I sometimes lose sight of how transgressive the genre is meant to be. I have seen a lot and am bothered by less. When my wife and I watched this movie together, I enjoyed the experience. I felt safe. But I had forgotten that I had taken a companion unexpectedly into a danger zone.

‘Midsommar’



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3691630/danger-zones-transgressive-nature-horror/

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