by Alex Valente
In the beginning, there were giant evil gods. Then we arrived, and started telling stories of things that go bump in the dark, of what lies between the cracks, of what lurks under the bed. Fears began to take shapes, looking more like tales of caution and of danger. They took the shape of bogeymen and chainsaw wielding killers, nightmare creatures and monsters from the deep. Afraid of sexuality? Vampires, werefolk and secluded cabins will tell you not to. Alcohol and drugs also covered. Religious terrors? We have possessions, exorcists, ghosts and devils aplenty. Coulrophobia, arachnophobia, nyctophobia? Here’s a clown-looking spider that waits for you at night.
Whatever new things we discover scare us, we create a monster for them. We try to impose order, and keep it under control. We give it a recognisable, if unsettling and still scary, frame. Then, at some point, we pushed too far.
Every year, costume companies manage to produce questionable, problematic and outright disgusting Halloween outfits, missing the target on audience appropriateness, cultural sensibility and general objectification. The weird gendering politics alone are enough to make your guts churn. Every year, film-makers add a new chapter to some dangling, practically zombified series focusing on mental institutions, or killers whose compulsion are hand-waved with ‘psychopath’, ‘traumatic childhood’, and other casual, lazy misrepresentations of mental illness. The burst of so-called ‘torture porn’ franchises, a strange growth on the limb of slasher and gore horror, has not-so-subtle elements of a hyper-capitalist/libertarian perspective on fetishes, e.g. Hostel (2005-2011), and morality, e.g. Saw (2003-2010), to mention just a few. And while not exclusively so, these all appear to be a predominantly Western mediatic concern.
I work for a company which is part of the ever-growing (it would shock you) scare industry, known as haunts in the US, scare parks or scream parks more in general. The creative life of the parks and mazes feeds on the tropes that the horror genre has to offer. The attractions and ‘scares’ that are developed each year find their doppelgängers in many films, and if we move outside of Norfolk, even further and more explicitly still. And there is always some form of criticism, from the more grounded – also part of a wider context of trivialising and profiting from depictions of mental health issues – to the eyebrow-raising ones. Most of the time, we are aware of what could have been done better, or even avoided entirely.
Whatever new things we discover scare us, we create a monster for them.
What it comes down to is that scare acting is fun, for both the visitors and the actors. Most importantly, it’s consensual. Even in the most extreme attractions, visitors are always safe. They are given a safe word. There are safety exits. There are alternative routes if someone feels too scared to continue. Actors are trained to deal with most scenarios, and first aiders are always on site. People choose to be scared, in the same way that we enjoy and consume horror films, zombie walks and ghost stories. The question, then, is why do we keep circling back to rotting tropes and reactionary themes? Why a ‘mental asylum’? Why the ‘deranged lunatic’? Horror seems to set its own rules and patterns, can it really not break free, and evolve?
Films like Scream (1994) or The Cabin in the Woods (2008) offer a commentary on some of the major themes, attempting an in-story dissection of the narratives that they are also following, if sometimes a little too far to actually be insightful.
In Cabin, the main cast are chosen to represent five archetypes: Scholar, Fool, Athlete, Virgin, and Whore. The characters are manipulated by an external agency to become more like those archetypes (through film-science) before they are ritually sacrificed. Because that is what ‘all horror films do’, in the supernatural sub-genre. The camera lingers on the young women more that the young men; a virgin/whore dichotomy is established rather than subverted, and even used a punchline; Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, behind the bloody curtain, make no discernible attempt to escape the woods they’re criticising.
The question, then, is why do we keep circling back to rotting tropes and reactionary themes?
Scream, on the other hand, chooses the slasher genre as its dissection victim, and Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson deliver much more than Whedon in his analysis – along with establishing a franchise that somewhat keeps its inner demons at bay, commenting on PTSD and trauma survival, however haphazardly or briefly, and the dangers of feeding into the stereotypes and narratives established by genre itself.
Horror has been shifting again, undoubtedly, and has touched on some topical, contemporary monstering of issues that concern us directly. Zombies, as Jack Brindelli wrote for Norwich Radical, are ‘crude agents of social commentary‘, as we see them in The Walking Dead (2010-), 28 Days Later… (2002) or Shaun of the Dead (2004). The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2014), and films of their ilk have an almost direct link to the personal, human factor behind the supernatural dress-up, be it emotional abuse or sexual experiences. In Hannibal, human horrors like Dr Lecter are repurposed for a contemporary audience and representative cast, with Bryan Fuller directly confronting the ‘rape epidemic‘ in TV shows and steering clear of it.
Even the weirdly visceral Ginger Snaps (2000) and the tepidly received Jennifer’s Body (2009) had some interesting points to make about teenage experiences, sexual politics and objectification. Organisations such as TakeBackHalloween strive for a more diverse range of women’s costumes, while recognising that some people will enjoy – without judgement – the more sexualised versions. In the literary world, there is an active lurch towards recognising the contribution of women to the genre, from authors (e.g. the recent Shirley Jackson push, or the terrifically successful Susan Hill) to characters (e.g. the Slasher Girls and Monster Boys anthology or M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts (2014), and its forthcoming film adaptation She Who Brings Gifts). ParaNorman (2012) was an excellent example of horror for a younger audience, which included a critique of social expectations and constructs, and the first openly gay character in a mainstream animated feature – and whose sexuality has no impact on the plot whatsoever.
This new strand of horror, killing off the old gods, and mutating to adapt itself to more progressive types of media, audience and communities, still maintains the terrifying nature of the genre. In fact, some of the output is even scarier than its predecessors or more mainstream counterparts. With Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015; released this week) positively responding to the long-standing demands for fairer representation, in both characters and scope – or even the high points of a series such as American Horror Story (2011-), frustratingly unnecessary rape narratives aside – nothing appears to be removed from the scare factor. It is perhaps time, then, for the rest of mainstream horror industry to be dragged, clawing, kicking and screaming, out of its stubborn vacuum, and start picking some brains for fresh ideas.