Cycles in Western Horror, Culture and Monsters?

29 08 2012

70’s – 80’s 80’s – 90’s 00’s – Present
Supernatural Iconic/Transitory Romantic
-> & -> -> ?

Note: A conversation between Greg and Hank. Tim wanted to participate, but had to coyote some mojito vendors across the Arizona border.

I want to explore the possibility of a cycle in horror films over the past three decades:

70’s -> The breakaway from Christian superstitions caused by the rise of the 60’s & 70’s counter-culture causes demonic/supernatural films to manifest from guilt and fear that we feel as a betrayal of traditional religious fantasies. Our notion of order in the world is being shaken, i.e. hell is below us heaven above us. Naturally, the forces of our subconscious imagination become subjects of horror as we are afraid to encounter them and deal with them, maybe even uncertain what to make of them like we want to believe that they are real. Prototypes of this period are The Omen, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.

80’s to 90’s -> Gothic horror elements that once held fantastical but sinister reputations in Christian folklore become weirdly familiar through daytime TV broadcasting and other developing markets. The 80’s produced so many terrific horror films that it invented an opportunity for popular culture to market icons such as Jason Voorhees, Freedy Krueger, and Michael Myers as franchises. Kids from this generation saw so many cartoons that were packed with ghouls, goblins and other horror elements. Tim Burton’s works stand as a prime example for what branched out of the genre in the 90’s. It’s like the new counterculture began to embrace horror elements and superstitions by virtue of their acceptance into popular culture; sort of opposite to the culture that preceded them.

00’s -> One word: Twilight. Now we’re romanticizing about the legacy of horror elements. Not just vampires but zombies and werewolves are cooler than they have ever been. It’s like the cycle is coming full circle leading back to an alignment with superstitious thinking. I’ll bet that the next stage will go back to the 70’s style of demonic/supernatural horror mixed with features of our global and highly technological civilization. What do you think?

You’re on to some good stuff, Greg. You’re dead on with the romanticizing of horror and fantasy these days. I think a lot was weirdly spurred by Jackson’s LOTR films and the Harry Potter books, but those—or at least the former—actually contain a depth of material beyond a good yarn. It’s strange because there really is so much potential within horror and fantasy to work through serious stuff, but it all gets churned through the machine of commerce, resulting in this pulpy tween bullshit.

The cycle’s moving, but this time around it happens to converge with unprecedented levels of commercialization. It’s sort of like ‘indie’ or ‘hipster’—words that have been rendered virtually meaningless except as terms denoting a sort of meta-fashion: you’re only cool if you’re slightly ahead of what everyone else thinks is cool. As soon as it plateaus to some arbitrary degree of popularity, it’s dismissed. Any independent thought or quality creativity of those movements (if we can call them ‘movements,’ and I’m thinking late 90s, Modest Mouse, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc.) got ripped up in the 00s and since become mostly a question of what’s fashionable (bullshit) now. There are a few exceptions, of course, and angry digression on the state of music aside, my point’s simply that this stuff runs in cycles, but commerce co-opts it to a crazy degree these days.

I agree. Anecdotally, I feel like its periodicity is accelerating as advances in technology bridge gaps of time and space that once delayed the diffusion of cultural values in the past. You make a good point about the role of capitalism in all of this.

One the one side, and again anecdotally, I feel that the free markets have exploited aspects of our society that were once taboo or above commoditization. This reduces the innate profundity that topics like death, faith and the afterlife should have on us by trivializing our access to them through material caricatures. Also, as you stated, it prevents us from even having the ability to belong to an ideology because of how meaningless popular culture and the media renders labels. Second, it is inevitable that such an event would curtail the richness of the dialogue that film and other criticisms of our society should provide. It is too dangerous a strategy from the filmakers perspective to release something that goes over the heads of the masses to linger in the hearts of penniless philosophers—sad but true. Today’s Hollywood is all trash because of it (knock-on-wood). Tim once told me that in the 70’s and 80’s, competition from television broadcasting forced producers to take big risks by financing low-budget B-movies in the hopes of hitting a sweet spot. Maybe that’s why that era produced so many great horror movies.

Also, about LOTR and Harry Potter, great point. Both films certainly have strong roots in gothic tradition in their original form as well as horror elements in the film adaptations. Although I don’t think that Jackson, or whatever their faces from the Harry Potter series, were able or trying to synthesize the genres of fantasy and horror, there is definitely a precedence for such a concoction in the brilliance of Guillermo del Toro and other Spanish filmmakers. Suspiria by Dario Argento also comes to mind — great movie. I wonder if you could argue that this synthesis is a symptom of a perverse escapism; some feral instinct that results from our inability to understand the overwhelming forces of competition and technological innovation that constantly dislodge us from stability in modern times.

In the same token, movies about dismemberment and disassociation from reality through insanity would also fall under relevant manifestations of escapism in horror. Zombies and Vampires as well: Zombies because they represent an opportunity for humanity’s rebirth and redemption through holocaust and Vampires because they represent mastery over death and total domination over humanity. To clarify my train of thought, I guess we won’t be seeing haunted house movies for a while. Ghost stories also won’t make any sense in this proposed cycle unless they pertain to our heritage and/or technology.

I was thinking of Pulse (2006) while I wrote this. There are tons of J-Horror films that deal with guilt and liberation from these pressures.

Great observation about ghosts—they’ve not caught on like any of the others, and I think you’re right that they’re all about history and grappling with mistakes, change, etc. Faulkner’s full of ghosts but tweens don’t want to think about the sins of their forefathers, much less Hamlet’s tenuous grasp on reality.

Notice, too, that each of the others reflects a deep need to lose control over yourself: vampires are these lusty feeding machines that lose it over sex/blood, and the sex and death connection goes back forever—not to mention the whole ‘clean’ slate of undead rebirth, which in its current incarnation has been made ridiculous, but since even semi-modern Dracula adaptations has carried a sort of weird ‘badass’ current, which reached up through Anne Rice and into whatever today. It even plays into evangelicalism (Twilight author is a Mormon who originally wrote them about abstinence, after all). The modern incarnation of vampires in culture works like a big creepy tease, titillating the audience and eternally withholding consummation, because that would mean death.

In terms of commerce, this plays neatly for two taboo-ed crowds: underage tweens (we’re talking a Lolita demographic on the cusp of self-aware sexuality and puberty—one that it’s pretty clearly wrong to market sex towards, but morals haven’t seemed to slow down many marketers…Anyone else been creeped out by Miley Cyrus for years?) and hardcore Christians (who still are susceptible to sex as a marketing device, if not the real thing; conveniently, this content has sex equals death and damnation!). You ostensibly can’t sell sex to them, but Twilight has been a loophole to work the commercial magic on these groups.

Werewolves are about as ‘lose control’ as you get, though even that condition has been dumbed down these days. Whether all of this concerns some Freudian or otherwise ‘repressed urges’ (partially true, probably) or just some other cultural need to resist some other sort of shackles, I don’t know.

Zombies, as you noted, carry a sort of global rebirth through apocalypse. The whole appeal (which back in the day was considered a horror) has become the ‘there are no more rules’ thing, which has now become an aesthetic. 28 Days Later did it right, made it terrifying, still, but something like Walking Dead seems to make it less scary and more an American fantasy of ‘we make the rules in this dangerous new frontier’ thing. It’s becomes an adventure rather than a nightmare. But the zombies also represent eternal strawmen. Feeling stressed? Whip out the shotgun and blow some zombies apart! Wife cheating on you? Baseball bat that writhing corpse! Rage against the confines of your new society? Get the chain saw!

(Note the difference cross-pond. The English make it a vision of isolation and madness and the Americans turn it into a jaunt through the wilderness, from the safety of your living room sofa. I’m curious about zombie movies from other nations, like the Spanish Rec.)

There’s the obvious, superficial level of release within the whole construct of watching fiction, but these genres all carry this theme of release and losing control. It’s important to note that they trade one set of chains for another—the various curses of needing blood/sunlight, lycanthropy, constant danger of zombies, etc. But they wouldn’t be so commercially popular—even dumbed down—without some attraction in trading our current chains for something more viscerally free to let loose.

Also, I think there’s something weird and totally unspoken (it ought to be spoken) about the necrophiliac aspect of all this. Is nobody else freaked out (besides Anne Rice and the Dracula adapters of old) about the whole sex with corpse thing? It’s deeply disturbing, but it’s been stripped (sorry) of all that.

It’s the fascination with death—and a totally unspoken one—taken to a really frightening (for me) extreme of making it attractive to sleep with dead people. What the hell is up with this? It’s true, art has tied sex and death together forever, for lots of reasons, but it usually retains that deeply disturbing aura—it wants you to think. The commodified stuff we’re seeing today has set up the reanimated dead as sex icons in the same way that James Dean or Marilyn Monroe were icons: eternally young, naughty/nice dichotomy, dangerous and intelligent, etc. There are no repercussions in these worlds. They’ve made death superficial, sure, except that it’s death. It makes ‘horror’ fuzzy and cuddly.

(Zombies are tangential to this, obviously, in that they carry the whole fascination with death aspect but are thankfully devoid of the sexuality, aside from repugnant films about strippers)

I can understand what you mean about the therapeutic/vicarious appeal of vampire, werewolf and zombie films. There is something attractive about the aspect of transformation, new found power and yet also the pain and isolation of monsterdom. It’s like cat nip for teenagers who are going through the same experiences. What you say about necrophilia reminds of a disturbing movie I once watched: Nekromantik (1987). Watch at your own risk. This film is interesting because it uses a totally taboo subject, necrophilia, to discuss other taboo subjects like the legacy of naziism in Germany and the effect of violence and film on society. I can’t respond to your observations any better than by pointing you to this movie. I wouldn’t watch it unless you had a good amount of time to recover from it, however.


What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions.




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