How’s this for a Grand Unified Theory of horror: All horror monsters (including aliens, vampires, plagues, and slashers) are the personification of the guilty conscience that punishes unrepentant sinners (especially those who’ve transgressed God’s sexual code). The Monster is Remorse, which author E. Michael Jones defines as regret without repentance.
Jones’s interpretive theory of horror is easy enough to apply, especially to what’s been called the “have sex and die” cycle of films. Consider Halloween: P.J. Soles engages in premarital sex. She knows that she has violated the moral order, but she suppresses her guilty conscience, thus eschewing repentance. But the guilty conscience never relents, and returns in the personification of Myers. Myers is also Nemesis (another of Jones’s metaphors), the Greek goddess of “retributive justice” who restores God’s/Nature’s moral order to balance. Appropriately, Jamie Lee Curtis, a “good girl,” escapes Myers.
After positing his theory of horror, Jones attempts to prove its validity by tracing the “trajectory” (a favorite term of his) of “Enlightenment thinking” over the past 250 years, paralleling it to the trajectory of the horror genre.
Jones regards Enlightenment thought as the desanctification of Man. The Enlightenment redefined Man as a soulless animal, a biological machine in a mechanistic universe. Man-the-machine (a clockwork organge, as Anthony Burgess termed it) is not restricted by God’s laws, and is thus free to improve himself (e.g., eugenics) and free to live according to his pleasure (e.g., free love).
Enlightenment thinkers believed that Man, once returned to his natural state, would be a Noble Savage bound by his own Reason, but Jones claims that Reason has proven a poor substitute for Religion. The Enlightenment trajectory (which encompasses de Sade, whom Jones often cites) has spread syphilis, AIDS, abortion, prostitution, pornography, divorce, and the genocides of Bolshevism and Naziism.
What has this to do with horror?
Jones believes that horror films are popular not because so many modern people are sinners, but because they refuse to admit it to themselves (i.e., no repentance). Thus, Monsters From the Id is informed by Jones’s devout Catholicism: All sex outside of heterosexual marriage is desanctified, in violation of God’s law. People subconsciously know that desanctified sex has caused many of their social ills and personal miseries, but because they refuse to repent, they suppress their guilty conscience. Horror is popular because it resonates with people’s guilty conscience. Catharsis comes when people face “dark truths” they dare not consciously admit, even to themselves.
The idea of horror and catharsis is old, but not everyone agrees about which “dark truths” are being exposed. Film critic Robin Wood has a different Grand Unified Theory. Wood believes civilization requires some “basic suppression” (e.g., delayed gratification), but that “bourgeois morality” enforces “surplus suppression” (i.e., suppression beyond what’s needed, done so that people will conform to roles deemed productive for patriarchal capitalism).
To get an idea of Wood’s perspective, here’s a sample: “The most significant development in film criticism and in progressive ideas generally … has clearly been the increasing confluence of Marx and Freud, or more precisely of the traditions of thought arising from them: the recognition that social revolution and sexual revolution are inseparably linked and necessary to each other … it is here, through the medium of psychoanalytic theory, that Feminism and Gay Liberation join forces with Marxism in their progress toward a common aim, the overthrow of patriarchal capitalist ideology and the structures and institutions that sustain it and are sustained by it.”
Wood believes horror monsters are the personification of suppressed sexual desires. Jones believes horror monsters are the personification of suppressed sexual morality.
Jones questions Wood’s trajectory. If Wood’s interpretive theory is correct, then horror’s popularity should parallel society’s “surplus suppression” of sex. Instead, since the 1970s, horror’s popularity has risen while sexual suppression has fallen. Jones offers this as proof that horror reflects suppressed morality rather than suppressed sexuality. (Wood might dispute that “surplus suppression” of sex has significantly diminished.)
Whatever the reason for horror’s popularity, Wood and Jones seem to agree that horror will lose its appeal once its “dark truths” are no longer suppressed. But perhaps there are enough fears for everyone? Wood may concede Jones’s point that Cronenberg’s films reflect horror as suppressed sexual morality (Wood has called Cronenberg’s work “reactionary”). But Jones is mute on I Married a Monster From Outer Space, a film that portrays “bourgeois morality” as stifling.
Monsters From the Id has been both lauded and excoriated. Most praise pertains to Jones’s analysis of Frankenstein and the French Revolution, which fills over a third of the book. Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist and Enlightenment advocate (and victim) of free love. Wollstonecraft moved to France in 1792 (the heady period following the Revolution) and practiced what she preached with an American, Gilbert Imlay. Wollstonecraft expected to settle down in America with her revolutionary soul mate. Instead, Imlay got Wollstonecraft pregnant, then abandoned her in Paris just as the Terror was intensifying.
After losing many friends to the guillotine, Wollstonecraft returned to England, married Enlightenment political philosopher William Godwin in 1797, and died the following year. In the interim, Wollstonecraft gave birth to their daughter, Mary Godwin.
Despite Wollstonecraft’s misfortunes during the Revolution, Mary was raised with Enlightenment values, which were encouraged by her future husband, and free love advocate, Percy Shelley. Percy was married to Harriet, but like Wollstonecraft, Percy practiced what he preached. He first committed adultery with Mary, then altogether abandoned Harriet for Mary. Harriet, mother to Percy’s children, committed suicide.
Here is where Jones’s interpretive theory kicks in.
Mary was struck with remorse over her part in Harriet’s suicide. But because Mary Godwin Shelley believed in Enlightenment values, she could not admit that she and Percy had behaved immorally. They’d only practiced free love; Harriet had made her own choice. Unable to confront, or even understand, her guilty conscience, Mary could not repent her sin and be free of guilt. So she sublimated her guilt in Frankenstein, a character who espouses Enlightenment values (a mechanistic universe in which men are free of moral restrictions) as a means to human progress and happiness. But instead of happy progress, Frankenstein is baffled to discover that his noble intentions result in a monster that destroys both the Enlightenment practitioner and the innocents around him. The monster is remorse, both Frankenstein’s and Mary’s.
Monsters From the Id is an uneven book. The section on Frankenstein and the French Revolution is intriguing and extensively-researched. The section on Dracula, Darwin, and syphilis is more speculative. Jones relies on circumstantial evidence to postulate that Stoker suffered from syphilis. In his section on “Blood and Berlin,” Jones pays only cursory attention to Nosferatu, instead obsessing on homosexuality in Weimar Germany. (He unearths Samuel Igra’s curious claim that Dollfuss was assassinated partially because he was about to expose Hitler as a male prostitute from 1907-1914.)
Jones often strays off topic (as when he discusses the 1954 Reece Committee investigating Foundations). He may counter that such tangents are required to establish historical context, so as to show the parallels between the Enlightenment and horror trajectories. Fair enough. But sometimes he establishes much historical context, only to show a tenuous connection to horror. I expect horror fans will feel cheated by Jones’s scant analysis of German horror — although fans of Dr. Laura should feel well compensated.
Jones’s recounting of the Reece Committee does set the stage for his analysis of Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers. Jones thinks it key that Finney’s two lead characters are both divorced (from previous marriages), and that their victory over the pods parallels their decision to marry. When they re-acknowledge God’s marriage code, the horror dissipates.
Jones’s writing tends to be turgid and redundant. He belabors his points, citing more than necessary for us to understand his position. Perhaps he hopes to preempt hostile responses with a mountain of citations. Still, compared to most academic texts, Jones’s verbiage is only middling. His prose could be tightened, but I’ve read worse.
Because Jones discusses the Illuminati’s influence on the Enlightenment, some readers at Amazon have accused him of being a conspiracist. However, Jones alleges no conspiracies. Nor does he claim the Illuminati is extant. He only claims that the influence of the Illuminati (and of the Enlightenment) is extant.
Jones earned his PhD. in American literature at Temple University.
Thomas M. Sipos’s essays on horror film aesthetics are available in his collection Halloween Candy. Details: HalloweenCandy.net.