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.