Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2003 / 9 Adar I, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Behind the Masks: What horror movies tell us about our culture | One snap description of character is, "Character is what you do when no one is looking." Anyone can do the right thing when that choice is publicly supported; it's much harder to do the right thing when it seems that there will be no consequences for failure, when we're not paying attention. Similarly, we can learn a lot about our culture by looking at what we do when we're not minding our manners. When our guard is down, what do we fear? What do we honor? What do we expect?

Those are some of the questions explored in David Skal's fascinating book "The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.. Skal uses horror movies (and the occasional magazine or TV show) to trace 20th-century America's hidden obsessions, from the physical mutilation caused by World War I to the economic uncertainties and all-encompassing media blitz of the century's last decades. Monster Show is a vivid look at our culture when the company has gone, the house is empty, and we start to wonder... what was that noise?

Skal does fall into some of the traps that often snare pop-cult critics. His prose can be more heavy-breathing than Michael Meyers in his Halloween mask, and he drops in far too many academic-Freudian turns of phrase. His left-wing bias is virtually absent in the book's first chapters, but it grows like the Blob, until by the Reagan years it has definitely skewed his analysis. Despite these problems, the book is packed with insights. Unlike most critics who slather their prose with Freudian jargon, Skal does not reduce all human actions to banal psychology and sex-obsession. He has an eye for the telling anecdote, as when he describes a familiar saying of the early days of horror movies: When people spotted a creepy-crawly, like a spider or a lizard, they would jokingly warn, "Don't step on it--it might be Lon Chaney." Skal even manages to wring a few really good lines from the endless punnery of lit-crit writing--hokey horror, for example, becomes "corn-on-the-macabre."

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Two sections of the book are especially fine: the early section on the horrors of war, and the 1970s section on "reproductive horror." The war section draws out submerged themes in many classic horror movies; Skal is also alive to those early films' weird, high-contrast, surreal aesthetic.

He perceptively traces the slew of films that pitted women against children and fetuses--"Rosemary's Baby," "The Omen," and we could certainly add the "Alien" movies to this list--to the Thalidomide tragedies of the late 1960s. He points out that one of the emotionally powerful early arguments for legalized abortion was made by a mother who had been prescribed Thalidomide during pregnancy, and who desired to abort her child rather than bear a baby with the characteristic severe birth defects the drug caused. Skal makes few political points in this section, although as far as I can tell he has little respect for the pro-life movement. But he doesn't need to say anything. The visceral horror of a world that pits mother against child speaks clearly enough. At a certain point, these films stopped merely reflecting cultural anxieties surrounding childbearing and began to reinforce those anxieties; the fetus-as-alien and fetus-as-parasite claims have popped up in feminist polemics, and it is hard to imagine that the "reproductive horror" movies did not contribute to the spread of those ideas.

Unfortunately, the book flags after the emotional intensity of the reproductive-horror chapter. In part, this is because Skal's leftist obsessions get in the way. He knows that Reagan had a castration fixation because Reagan liked to watch a movie in which he played a man whose legs get accidentally amputated. What on earth? Maybe Reagan just thought he did a good acting job in the movie! Maybe he thought it featured a pretty actress. Maybe it has nothing to do with castration--hard to believe, I know. Even more annoyingly, Skal makes economic and demographic claims (he claims that horror fans are more likely to be blue-collar or downwardly mobile; and that "there is little evidence that Americans are more likely than other peoples to transcend the castes into which they are born") with no footnoting or backup.

But the book also suffers because the men who made the earlier horror flicks were just stranger, and therefore more interesting to read about (and, perhaps, more insightful; horror is made for the insights that come from the alienated and the maladjusted). Skal himself notes that the men who spent their days creating Fangoria-style horror effects in the '80s and '90s were eminently well-adjusted, nice happy people. Stephen King certainly has some dark shadows, but they're not explored in Monster Show, so he too comes off as a slightly resentful (Skal writes, in the King section, as if only poor people ever feel alienated) but basically staid American Gothic type of guy. This is boring when compared to earlier sections on Tod Browning, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, or Maila Nurmi.

The movies also seem to get less complex and nuanced in the way they work out their central metaphors--yeah, Freddie Krueger kills kids, he mocks the idea of celebrity, we get it. The movies (or Skal's interpretation of them) begin to feel one-dimensional, as opposed to the earlier movies which admit of multiple interpretations, at times complementary, at times conflicting. One comes away from Skal's book with the impression that horror feeds on repression, and since we repress less, our horror loses its impact and vitality. Now, I don't actually endorse this view--I am unconvinced that we repress less than we did in 1930, though we repress different things.

If we repress different things, what are those things? How are those submerged obsessions rising to the surface in our horror movies--if that is still where they find expression? As the latest crop of B-grade horror flicks open, it's hard to imagine that "Darkness Falls" or "Final Destination 2" can tell us much about our hidden selves or our cultural anxieties. And because it takes time for us to assess the cultural impact of a film, it's too soon to tell which new movies will have a lasting influence on their viewers. Nonetheless, she who never predicts never risks, so I will eschew safety and make a few predictions. Here are four elements of American life that I expect will be explored in those horror movies whose appeal endures long after the popcorn has gone stale:

  • A distaste for media overload. You could already see this happening in the surprise success of "The Blair Witch Project," which used sophisticated marketing and narrative techniques to return us to the subtler, spookier, tenser horror of the early days. For my part, I wasn't much of a "Blair Witch" fan, but I do think its preference for the eerie over the gory will prove influential.

  • Invasion. In the 1980s, "Gremlins" made horror fun--but there was a subtext of fear of foreign infiltration, especially commercial infiltration from Asia. The all-American dad fell in love with the exotic Mogwai, buying the beastie from an old Chinese man with the money he'd earned hustling his own half-baked inventions, but the beloved pet turned out to have a few unsettling features.... I expect that today's invasions will be bloodier, less funny, and inspired more by anthrax and Al Qaeda than by the world economy.

  • Religion. The movies are starting to pick up on America's strong drive for mystery and transcendence. "Signs" was only the most obvious of this genre. For a long time, "religion" in horror movies meant "Catholicism"--from the sensual, camera-friendly candles and stained glass, costumery and holy water to the ancient, somewhat inscrutable history, from the Latin chants to the emphasis on absolute good and evil, the Catholic Church was made for the horror show. If the younger generations associate the Church more with peacenik bishops' pronouncements, priestly scandals, and the beloved, ailing Pope, filmmakers might turn to other sources, such as fundamentalist, isolated, anti-authoritarian Protestantism. An equally acute film might explore the darker side of the vague "spirituality" that promises a feeling of transcendence without rules and responsibilities--a mishmash of whatever ethnic symbolism and utilitarian morality appeals to momentary whims. What happens when the Goddess bites back, or when seemingly bland spiritual practices hide unexpected evil? The new religious-horror movies might take their cues from "Night of the Hunter" or from Michael Lerner's "politics of meaning"--and it would be a truly insightful movie that managed to draw on both.

  • Fatherhood, fatherlessness, and our uncertainty about masculinity. The mutual inscrutability of children and parents has always been a fertile field for drama, and especially for horror. "The Shining" is one of the more obvious models of this genre--the father as violent, untrustworthy demon, the woman and child as victims. But there is room for other pictures as well: the untrustworthy nature of many of the ersatz father/husband figures who have replaced actual married fathers in too many American families, for example. It is possible that this theme could be combined with explorations (or exploitations, depending on your perspective) of the newer reproductive technologies, in movies that combine horror and science fiction.

Only time will tell which of these themes will "haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights," as countless Americans lie in bed awake, heart racing, eyes darting back and forth, their deepest anxieties grabbed and shaken by another great horror flick.

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© 2002, Eve Tushnet