I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. To my way of thinking, if I’m aware I’m doing something wrong, I try to change it at that point, rather than waiting. Needless to say, then, I’m up to my old habits of reading about horror movies. Actually, Darryl Jones’ Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film goes a bit broader than just the cinema. As the subtitle indicates, this charming book also addresses narrative fiction as well and the result is quite engaging. Divided thematically, Jones considers the various types of horror without delving into pretentious theorists to give him academic credibility. Here is a true fan who’s capable to sharing the excitement of the genre. Along the way, accompanying the usual observation that horror and religion share considerable conceptual space, he makes the point that in movies horror is one genre that makes use of academics as characters of authority. Sure, there are others, but in this realm to be educated is a benefit, whether the plan is to take over the world or to stop some evil force from doing the same.
I’ve been watching movies that can be broadly classified as horror since I was young. And I had admired—emulated to some extent—the professors and scientists I saw in those presentations. When a monster was on the loose, you went to find an expert to learn what to do. At the risk of contradicting myself, theorists have been suggesting that one of the problems with post-truth is the death of expertise. Anyone can be an expert these days. The question, “Why should I listen to you?” is on every self-appointed smarty’s lips. Earning a doctorate, the horror world tells us, gives you access to some kinds of knowledge that others don’t have. Problem is, zombies don’t respect such learning. They only want brains to consume.
It never seemed to me that watching horror was a means of learning. As a kid escapism is part of everyday life—taking things seriously is for adults. Growing up, however, I kept my love of scary movies in reserve. Little did I realize that it was a form of training. Now university-affiliated academics are finally able to begin admitting that they find monsters compelling. More than that, they actually learn something from them. Although not a resolution, I see myself reading further books about horror movies this year. It may be a naive hope, but it would be wonderful if they were all as insightful as this one has been.
Posted in Books, Current Events, Higher Education, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Darryl Jones, Higher Education, horror movies, Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film, Monsters
Horror films are something you either “get” or you don’t. I have no empirical evidence for that, but then again, “getting” is hardly a precise verb. In my recent desire to find some explanation for my own fascination with the genre, I turned to James B. Twitchell’s Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. This is a smart book. Twitchell, an English professor, knows to include Gothic novels in his accounting for this strange addiction. He has several insightful things to say about the differences between terror and horror. He gives a fairly complete analysis of the “big three”—vampires, Frankenstein monsters, and werewolves/wolf men/Jekyll and Hydes. Still, at the end, I have to wonder if he really “gets” the monsters he explores. Part of this is his early admission that he didn’t grow up with monsters, but that he was introduced to them academically. Another part of it is his sometimes dismissive style when talking about movies that meant a great deal to us monster boomers when they came out. Either you get it or you don’t.
Still, I recommend this book for those who want to make sense of some of the hidden dynamics of classic monsters. That the analysis is sexual should come as no surprise. Twitchell finds evidence for a sublimated incest in many of his creatures, but the true fan knows there is more to them than that. The monster does indeed cross boundaries—that’s what monsters do, after all—but that’s only scratching the surface with their claws. Of course, the book suffers from having been written perhaps a little too early. Although there is protest to the contrary, horror films have grown up considerably since the 1980s. Not all of them, of course. The same thing could be said of the kids I knew in high school.
Having a single theory to approach a phenomenon is respectable. So respectable that it’s called Occam’s Razor and everyone is expected to shave with it. I’ve never liked shaving. The more I reflect on reality, the more it seems to me that answers are more complex than single causation. Sometimes the simplest answer isn’t the most parsimonious. Sometimes there is far more going on than meets the cyclops’ eye. In my experience, limited though it may be, the horror movie has unexplored dimensions. One of them is the coping ability that they offer when evens such as 11/9 occur. There’s no simple way to understand monsters, but if we see them around enough, we might just be able to survive them.
For those of us accustomed to ancient things, horror movies are remarkably new. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are scarce or even easy to understand. While it is beginning to erode, the academic derision of popular culture has long avoided the decidedly low brow genre of horror. It doesn’t know what it’s been missing. Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror is an insightful attempt to make some order out of a century of monsters and mayhem. Beginning at the stage when “horror film” was still just a demonic gleam in some vampire’s eye, Dixon points out that from the very earliest experiments with movies “horror” was a popular trope. It seems only natural that the idea of a full-length scary movie would be the expected development. What happened in Universal Studios in the 1930s is that business began making money out of monsters. Where there’s money, there be monsters.
Dixon takes us through the early days into the tired era in the 1950s when life was, apparently just so darned good that people weren’t really thinking about monsters. (Dixon’s analysis is a bit more sophisticated than that.) Horror films matured in the 1960’s and spun out of control in the ‘80s. His book continues up to the first decade of our current century. There’s obviously a lot that can be said about this, but what caught my attention, naturally, was how quickly religion entered the discussion. Those of us who approach horror with an open mind know that religion is its next-door neighbor. Indeed, one of the nihilistic aspects of the proliferation of horror movies since the 1980’s has been the lessening of this getting to know the neighbors. Horror, as Dixon notes, seems to have devolved to brutality and cruelty with no real message.
I’ve never been a fan of gore. I’ve watched my share of slashers, I suppose, but they’re not my favorites. Horror can—in the best of its offerings—be very profound. Indeed, it can even inspire thoughts not so terribly far from those generally classed as religious. For what is worship if not carefully managed horror? The concept of the holy as mysterium tremendum underscores this dynamic. Part of this connection is the appeal to emotion. Horror movies make you feel something, and that is a large part of their appeal. They can be more, however. A smart horror movie will feed your brain rather than just having zombies eat it. Academics, eventually, will catch up with it. Dixon starts to show the way.
Posted in Books, Higher Education, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged A History of Horror, horror films, Monsters, mysterium tremendum, Universal Studios, Wheeler Winston Dixon