Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Horror as cultural window

by Ty Franck

As it relates to his recent post on Urban Fantasy, Daniel has asked me to talk a bit about straight horror.  Now Daniel has read a fair bit of horror, and has written Flat Diane, one of the better horror short stories of the last decade or so and a Horror Guild Award winner.  But he’s less into horror films, and that’s where my expertise lies.  And, by expertise, I mean watching all of them and obsessing over the tiny details of their crafting.

It’s well covered territory when we talk about American horror cinema’s puritanical roots.  But even that isn’t entirely cut and dry.  Sure, the slasher films of the late seventies and early eighties carried the message that surviving the attack of a supernatural madman was as simple as avoiding drinking, drugs, and sex.  But go back a bit further and you find a less blunt Christian message hiding in the films.  Frankenstein is the classic, “things man was not meant to know!” storyline, with the eponymous doctor attempting to enter into God’s domain by creating life.  Dracula is the man who turns away from God out of anger, and is given the curse of Cain, immortality and constant anguish.  The Wolfman is the lesson that no matter how good you think you are, the devil can still get his hooks into you.  All very Christian lessons.

An offshoot of this with a slightly different take were the genre mixing horror films of the fifties and sixties.  Specifically, horror mixed with science fiction.  These seem to primarily take two positions.  The cold war era horror sci fi films that are set on planet Earth are primarily about the horrors of nuclear power, often in the form of giant insects or mutated humans.   The sci fi horror set on other planets are generally manifest destiny tales of noble Earthmen facing a terrible monster (read: savage native) and defeating it to pave the way for human expansion.  And you have the greatest sci fi film of all time, Forbidden Planet, which revisits the “things man was not meant to know” theme, only now replacing God with godlike aliens who were themselves destroyed by tampering with powers they should not have.

Seventies horror moved, largely due to the success of movies like the Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, into pure religious horror with demonic forces actively attacking hapless humans while noble churchmen fought using the power of God.  Notice how in many of these movies, the victim first turns to scientists and rationality for help.  Notice that in every case the scientist is humbled or killed by the supernatural, and that only reliance on God or other mystical defenses saves the day.

But morality tales all.  Whether it’s a lesson about not having sex, or not trying to play God, or how much you need religious mysticism to defend yourself from the devil’s constant attacks.

Because Americans watch American (or sometimes British) movies, most people thought that horror movies were morality tales.  That these things were inseparable.

But watch how Japanese horror evolved.  The late nineties and early part of this century saw an explosion of Asian horror in the US.  Movies like The Ring and The Grudge took American horror buffs by storm.  We’d never seen anything like them before.  The look, the tone, the manner in which people died, everything was completely different from American horror cinema.

Even the lesson they taught.  Like, how do you survive in a Japanese horror film?

The answer it turned out, was as foreign as the language.  You don’t get noticed.  Look at The Grudge.  The structure of the film is a mess.  It is basically three different stories about people going into a haunted house and then being killed by the angry ghosts that live there.  Some of them try to figure out the mystery, and one person even does mostly figure it out.  But they still die.  The only way not to die in The Grudge is not to go in the house.

Japanese culture has a strong taboo about drawing attention to yourself.  And their horror films reflect this.  People who don’t draw the attention of the powerful and inescapable forces surrounding them are free to go on living their lives.   Get noticed, and you die.  There’s no way to defend yourself from this.  It’s inevitable.  Whereas in American horror cinema the girl who doesn’t have sex with her boyfriend at camp lives, in Japanese cinema it’s the girl who thinks it would be disrespectful to go into the haunted house and goes home instead.

I’ve gone over long, so I won’t go into the seventies Italian horror and its emphasis on sensuality, but suffice to say that Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci were doing soft core S&M porn thirty years before Hostel stripped out the erotic part and just turned it into torture porn.

I have a whole rant on what torture porn is saying, and how it relates to the Italian erotic horror of the seventies, that I’ll save for another day.

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6 Responses »

  1. What happens when Americans remake the Japanese films? Do they become morality plays, or are they true to importance of going unnoticed?

    • Well, the American version of The Grudge didn’t kill the main character, since she reappears in the sequel.

      But I think most remakes tend to lose the original point in the translation. You don’t have to look further than American made versions of Godzilla to see that.

  2. There’s not just a Christian morality underlying American horror, I think, but specifically an evangelical Christian morality which generally critiques denominations (i.e. Catholicism is the biggie) which holds the idea that they are an intermediary between man and God.

    Priests tend to be killed left and right, and when it’s a priest who succeeds in doing something useful against the grand evil, they tend to be unconventional.

    True faith isn’t found in the established Church, might be another way at looking at it. The experienced Father Merrin dies in The Exorcist, and it’s Father Karras who had been a skeptic and had been suffering a crisis of faith who finally finds “true faith” through his experiences and succeeds in defeating the Devil.

    The whole torture porn/horror thing has been a troubling development. Saw, The Hostel, yuck.

    • Yeah, I was actually just going to ask what modern torture porn says about us nowadays — or whether those films even really count as “horror.”

      • Well, I won’t do my diatribe, but I can lay out the difference in a couple paragraphs:

        Italian horror in the 70’s like the work of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci (to a lesser extent Mario Bava) sensualized violence. They blurred the lines between pleasure and pain by saying that at extremes, all pleasure becomes pain, and thus pleasure is always a part of pain. Dying people in their movies often writhe in ways that are reminiscent of sex. The violence often takes the form of extreme sex play. The most jarring example is probably Fulci’s “New York Ripper” which has a scene of a prostitutes nipple being cut with a razor blade while she writhes and moans in a way that could be mistaken for sexual pleasure if the blood weren’t gushing.

        Call this the “Hellraiser” brand of S&M horror. Pinhead offers people the extremes of sensation, remember. That these extremes include being ripped apart by fishhooks is to be expected.

        Torture porn removes the idea of pain as an extreme of pleasure, and just substitutes pain FOR pleasure. The killers in “Hostel” are not engaging in sex play that goes too far, they are replacing sex entirely with violence. They aren’t saying that pleasure and pain are points on a spectrum, they’re saying that they’re interchangeable drives.

        When the knife plunging into the breast is no longer sex that’s gone too far, and instead becomes sex itself, you’ve created torture porn.

        And I think it says something about the culture that created it (I’m looking at you, American cinema). A lot has been said about how Japan’s sexual repression leads to tentacle porn (read: enjoying sex becomes ok because it’s aliens that are doing it), and I think we’re seeing a similar thing. America has a lot of sexual hangups but embraces violence. Is it any surprise that we’ve started just swapping one for the other, outright?

  3. Hey, I just saw this article and it is very interesting!

    I HATE horror films. They gross me out. Plus they give me nightmares. That movie 8MM stole some innocence from me. I had no idea things like “snuff” films existed. I’d rather still not know, but you just can’t unsee what you’ve seen.

    Also, the Japanese have an interesting saying, “The nail that sticks up will get hammered down.” Ha! Put that in a horror film!

    Anyway, there are a few exceptions. I really really love the movie “Aliens”. It scared the b-jezuz out of me the first time I saw it, but I was about 10 at the time and I snuck a peek from the hallway after bedtime. Serves me right, I was afraid for weeks. Once I grew up, I watched it again and found a whole new respect for it– especially when Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) kicks that Queen Alien’s ass in that fork-lift-thingy. That. Was. So. Awesome.

    I like Bram Stokers’ Dracula with Gary Oldman. Maybe that is more gothic than horror?

    I’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein so many times. I read it because I feel so badly for the Monster and what he goes through. It isn’t his fault. It breaks my heart. And I suppose it could be an indictment of science gone wrong, but the book also hints at the awe of science going right. Also, I see it as not the science that is wrong, but Dr. Frankenstein’s cruel treatment of the sentient being he created. How many parents are guilty of this– especially harsh, rigid, religious ones?

    Well, just my $0.02. 😀

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