Worse, we’ve created a generation numb to horror films. Their reactions alone – laughter, mockery, derision – bespeak the failure of the modern genre film. Imagination in our young has been replaced by the instantly gratifying images of interactive video games and other high-tech fare that spell it all out on high-definition monitors. There are no spooky walks through the woods, no backyard sleep-outs, no summer camp rites of passage to tantalize and tickle those dark spots in our subconscious. Folklore that once fueled imagination is on the decline, with yarns about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and the Bermuda Triangle reduced to tabloid fodder and ridicule from even the youngest of minds. Campfire tales and urban legends have been replaced by sensationalized newscasts. In our scientific world, everything has a rational explanation and there’s little room left for the possibility of things unknown to us. We’re arrogant in our knowledge as a society, and the simplicity of horror cinema has suffered. Sometimes ignorance is bliss – at least when it comes to our horror movies.
Theofantastique ponders on our current social and cultural context of postmodernity and the influence of commodification... oh my.
The problem with today’s horror movies is our current social and cultural context of postmodernity and the influence of commodification. No doubt, at this point, readers are scratching their heads and saying, “What?” Allow me to explain.
Horror is a complex genre involving multiple layers of interpretation, and as Stephen King has noted it “is extremely limber, extremely adaptable, extremely useful.” One of the ways in which horror demonstrates its adaptability is that it provides a means of not only entertainment, but also an expression and means of grappling with some of our greatest fears as individuals and cultures. It should come as no surprise then that as individuals and cultures change, so do their fears, and these changes result in differing cinematic expressions of horror.
Earlier in the modern period horror helped express fears of the Other in its various manifestations that were symbolized in the monster. But with late modernity or postmodernity, a post-1960s phenomenon which is often tied cinematically to films like Psycho (1960), The Night of the Living Dead (1968), or The Exorcist (1973), there has been a shift from the monster as Other to an internalization process whereby the monster is us. The shift from the externalized monster as the locus of horror to an internalized terror is the result of social forces and perceptions that in turn colored interpretation of the self. Lianne McLarty discusses this in her chapter “‘Beyond the Veil of the Flesh’: Cronenberg and the Disembodiment of Horror” as part of The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant (University of Texas Press, 1996):
This ‘delegitimization’ of social institutions and the ‘instability’ of subjectivity finds expression in the ways in which these films depict both the monstrous threat and its consequences for protagonists. In contemporary (postmodern) horror, the threat is ‘not simply among us, but rather part of us, caused by us.’ Institutions (like the church and the military) that were once successful in containing the monster and restoring order are at best innefectual (there is often a lack of closure) and at worst responsible for the monstrous. Contemporary horror also tends to collapse the categories of normal and monstrous bodies; it is said to dispense with the binary opposition of us and them, and to resist the portrayal of the monster as a completely alien Other, characteristics of such 1950s films as The Thing (from Another World) (1951), Them! (1954), and The Blob (1958). This tendency to give the monster a familiar face (the monster is not simply among us, but possibly is us) is tied, in postmodern horror, to the focus on the body as site of the monstrous.
This shift from modern horror with the monster as external Other to the internal us with a related emphasis on the body has resulted in the continued tendency toward the production of slasher films beginning in the 1970s and gaining steam in the 1980s and beyond. A further development of this may be found in more recent films where the monster is not the lone psychological deviant such as Michael Myers of Halloween, but a group dynamic (in terms of the perpetrators) of psychological deviance as in Saw (if not in the original at least in the sequels), and Hostel, where the body most strongly becomes the site of the monstrous through graphic depictions of torture and mutilation.