All Horror Films Are Sick

True or False?

published in Cinema Papers No.62, Melbourne, 1997
Glen Or Glenda (1953); llsa — She Wolf Of The SS (1975)

Some of my areas of interest in film are horror and exploitation. I've argued on many occasions that there are multiple differences at work in these often maligned genres, only to be thwarted by the widely-held assumption that all horror films are the same. They are not. In these debates it has been said to me (sometimes as a putdown), that I am interested only in "genre studies", whereas the most responsible and more immediate concern in the censorship debate lies in "empirical sciences". Or, to put it more bluntly, I would be keen on explaining how the producers re-edited Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes — Part II, while those with a better sense of social responsibility would be gathering 'lobby-ammo' to relate the rise of street-violence to the increased popularity of psycho movies. The very concept of 'empiricism' and all its suspect conflations are evident even here, in that 'true' social responsibility is assumed to be that which most obviously declares itself as such. Empiricism is the fiction of facts, of constructing a 'factuality', of appearing factual.

But empiricism can be dangerous because it actually attempts to end debate, to eradicate the overlapping space of opposing views by scientifically 'proving' that there is only room for one space, one side, one option. Regardless of political orientation, empirical data can be highly flammable fuel in the volatile censorship debate. Networks like Illinois' National Coalition On Television Violence (since 1980) and Victoria's own Australian Children's Television Action Committee (since the mid-seventies) propagate through their newsletters an empiricism that thinly disguises their sometimes hysterical beliefs in the omnipotence of the electronic media and its encroachment on a literate, civilized society. (See the NCTV News Vol. 4 No. 3 May 1983 for its bibliography on research into TV/film violence and its effects on society: it lists over 600 studies — most of them psychologically oriented — published between 1933 and 1983. Note the rhetoric of the editorial heading: "Violence proven harmful worldwide — research evidence 'overwhelming' according to US".)

Throughout the past 30 years, the censorship debate has centred on appropriate signs of the times: the rise of juvenile delinquency in the fifties; the camera-reportage of student riots, Vietnam and political assassinations in the sixties; the increasing desensitization of a public addicted to network crime shows in the seventies; and the gross limits reached by the proliferation of hardcore gore movies and videos in the eighties (with sex, drugs and rock'n'roll being constants over those 30 years). Except for the occasional insight into the ideological complexities of these cultural currencies, the arguments dance around repetitive philosophical polarities as if performing some weird ritual. Both sides appear equally ridiculous, from the finality of cause-and-effect theories to the shallowness of individual-freedom testimonies. Worst of all, the cultural artefacts in the line of fire — be they films, videos, TV shows, cartoons, comics, magazines or rock records — suffer from a criminal generalization and reduction. One gets the impression that not only are all horror movies the same, but anything pointed to as the cause of social ill-effects is simply another corpuscle of the social disease.

The Sickness

Alone In The Dark (1981); A Clockwork Orange (1971)

The notion of sickness and disease is very interesting. Let's look at the multiple meanings of the word "sick". When used to describe a gory, perverted or pornographic film, it refers to the "sick mind" who produced such a work. Not surprisingly, many such films are looked on as the demented and uncontrolled markings of deviants, attracting and even nurturing deviant viewers. Priority is granted to empirical sciences over genre studies because, by calling a film "sick", its status as cinema is overruled; forget the damn movies — we've got a disease on our hands! But "sick" has a more revealing meaning when it is used by kids. It means corny, hammy, obvious, tedious, boring — all the adjectives that go with the drawn-out yawn and eyes rolling to the ceiling. Most of all, it signifies an overt awareness of the mechanisms of an intended effect. In this sense "sick" is the dumbness of an old punch-line; the dummy thrown off the skyscraper; the gallons of fake blood; the stupidity of the character who goes down into the basement; the cheapness of the spaceship's suspension wires; the tackiness of the monster's rubber suit; and even the predictability of the parents who miss the whole point.

This duality of "sickness" is not just an anthropological observation of a 'generation gap'; it exemplifies cinematic sensibilities in conflict. For every person offended by Maniac there is one left rolling around in laughter. For every person left shattered by A Nightmare On Elm Street there is one appalled by its corniness. Their difference is coded not by aesthetic or critical appraisal, but by modes of interpreting cinematic style and form. And it is this very duality that is often missed by research and case studies which try to examine the cause-and-effect relationships between the (sick) movie and the (sick) viewer.

Obviously, the analyst looks at gory films for different reasons from the genre fan. Each has their own use values, pleasure quotients and emotional gratification by which they mark the films; and just as the fan has no time for playing analyst, the analyst is unlikely to adopt the fan's manic yet transient consumption. Even if data sheets and surveys quote precise responses from fans, addicts, kids, dead-heads, etc, the effect is only one of contrived accuracy that still sidesteps the incredible multiplicity which the "sick" duality only hints at. A multiplicity of viewing habits, interpretative methods and awareness levels have created the gulf which surrounds the ivory tower inhabited by the social analyst.

Returning to the notion of the 'sick mind' which makes gory/etc films, a similar multiplicity exists. Incredibly few films are actual demented doodlings (to follow the psychological metaphor). Possibly Edward Wood Jr's Glen Or Glenda, Albert Zu g-smith's Confessions Of An Opium Eater, Jesse Franco's Succubus, Don Edmonds' llsa — She Wolf Of The SS or Jackson/Younkin's The Demon Lover could be characterised in this way. But even these unworldly films have a complex yet precise location within the dense and interweaving histories of horror, sex and exploitation in the cinema. A knowledge and appreciation of film culture helps to identify films as cultural products; otherwise one is insensitive to their differences and tonalities. Few social analysts appear to have this ability.

Many "sick" films play at being sick by deliberately provoking the wrath of conservatives and those ignorant of the conventions, or by plunging into that great chasm where only attuned sensibilities can illuminate the exact slant of the film. Self-consciousness, irony, shortcut, parody, assimilation, simulation and self-destruction all come into play — particularly in the contemporary horror film. (See my Tales Of Terror in Cinema Papers 49 Dec. 1984 and Horrality in Screen Vol. 27 No. 1 Jan./Feb. 1986.) This isn't an elite realm for the film buff, because gore-hounds, horror-heads, and sicko freaks (be they kids or adults) consume these textual and ontological complexities in huge gulps. They can, for example, differentiate the cute parodies (Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes, Morons From Outer Space, Igor & The Lunatics), from the self-effacing satires (Motel Hell, Mother's Day, Dead Time Stories), from the safe comedies (Re-Animator, Return Of The Living Dead, Friday The Thirteenth 3-D), from the fuller fusions of horror and humour (The Evil Dead, Blood Sucking Freaks, Alone In The Dark).

From their advertising campaigns to their production notes to their critical and 'fandom' reception to the films, their nature is clearly conveyed. This kind of cinema is well-documented (under the guises of cult/ underground/midnight/outlaw/turkey/etc films) but different problems arise when areas of mainstream cinema (ie. horror, gore and semi-porn films with a comparatively wider distribution via film and video) operate in a subcultural mode.

So-called 'cult films' are made safe by segregation and marginalisation, playing in repertory theatres and art houses where they can be the 'other' without posing any real threat. It is interesting to note, also, that very little offence can be found in these cultural spaces because they promote middle-class, progressive values similar to those that have instigated the general concern with the "sick" movies of the mainstream. (See the latest Valhalla calendar: a jigsaw of all variety of pseudo-radical/arty/cult/underground/hip films for those who seek something 'better’ than mainstream cinema.) As confusing as all this seems, I would sum it up thus: contemporary film production, distribution and exhibition is often likely to communicate culturally in ways contrary to its recognised social operation. Such operational barriers are very flimsy: is The Blues Brothers really a cult film? is Diva really an art film? is Beneath The Valley Of The Ultra-Vixens just another tacky porn movie? is Cronenberg's Videodrome (to quote David Stratton) "schlock"? isn't Meryl Streep as much a cult star as Michael Berryman? isn't Prizzi's Honour an example of the Smarmy Witty Bourgeois Comedy genre? Once again, one needs to look at the actual films in more detail instead of simply acknowledging their purported cultural slant and their advertised cinematic type.

The Films

The Exorcist (1973); World Wrestling Federation (1983)

Social analysts and concerned people would still discount all of the above by claiming that what is missing and needed is information about the viewers themselves — hence the need for their field surveys. These surveys will usually be based on a prior conviction that certain people should not be seeing certain films — hence the need for censorship. It is no surprise that pre-teenagers get to see all these films; but is this really a problem? I was 12 when the R-certificate was introduced and nearly everyone in my class saw A Clockwork Orange and The Exorcist at the cinema. Was this bad then? Is it bad now?

A public outcry against violence (A Clockwork Orange) and satanism (Exorcist) followed the release of those films, but to say that society was outraged by their contents is simplifying the matter. Both films were cultural clashes; A Clockwork Orange because a recognised auteur appeared to purvey gratuitous violence, and The Exorcist because it marked the introduction of big budget splatter to mainstream screens. Due to their cultural contextualisations, these films became social transgressions. It didn't take much for kids to recognize the breaking of social taboo when they saw it happen, and today kids get just as much of a kick from seeing all the stuff deemed unsuitable for them, which indicates that the appeal of a film is not restricted to a straightforward identification with its contents.

Kubrick and Friedkin are far from exploitation directors, and indeed they are recognised auteurs who benefit from a certain cultural approval. Remembering how closely the social and cultural values of 'fine art' and 'suitable films' are linked, it is unlikely that the artistic merit of a recognised director would come, under fire these days. Instead, the charges are laid more directly against the faceless, tasteless mass of titillating subject matter that fleshes out the bulk of all exploitative genres — a sprawling plain where specification is presumed to be unnecessary. However, it is quite possible that real exploitation pictures (ie. films that never pretend to have any artistic merit whatsoever!) are more open about their exploitative nature than big blockbusters which gloss their low-level appeal with high production values and the stamp of a known producer or director. It is also likely that most audiences recognize this difference.

Compare Rocky IV with the World Wrestling Federation TV coverage: the latter is total artifice and unabashed theatre while the former attempts (in true Stallone style) to make a point. Now there's the real danger! Volkai and the Sheik are pure plastic stimuli for the cynic inside most of us, inviting us to leer and jeer at the bloated spectacle which doesn't send up super-power struggles as much as it simulates them. Rocky glorifies, romanticises, idealises and dramatises the same struggles with a realism that suffocates its very absurdity. Once again we have a conflict in modes of cinematic form and style; a clash of symbolic codes. Rocky manipulates our emotional response (intentionally and in accordance with our desire) while the wrestling invites's to suspend our will not to be manipulated. This is the stuff of theatre, of mutual engagement, of a willingness to be played with by a film or whatever. It is also the most dangerous area to consider censoring because of its imposition of a power which does not take into account how the individual exercises control in such a cultural exchange.

The Audience

Hustler (1974); The Care Bears Movie (1985)

Horror and exploitation work along similar lines to the wrestling, in that the audiences which determine the genres' multiplication are conscious of the signifying nature working in these films; it is integral to their enjoyment of them. This means that they are — no matter what their age — interpreting the films' form and content in ways that are not shown clearly in survey sheets which detail things like audience intake, selection and rationale. To centre on such areas simply fulfils the prescribed needs of the survey: indicating that either a legal infringement is occurring (minors viewing AO material) or that adverse effects are being produced from excessive intakes (minors and/or adults viewing too much AO material). Both conclusions of course are intended to fulfil their own desire: to control the production and distribution of AO material.

There is something undeniably parental about all of this — and I mean that in the most insidious of ways. One can follow two major plots in the censorship scenario: (i) the parent desperately trying to regain its lost, egocentric control over the child; and (ii) a culture desperately trying to reinstate its control over nature. Reading the endless 'pro-control of anti-social matter’ views of the vox populi, the voice of the parent is often raised. It is a voice (it is said) I wouldn't understand because I don't have children — a form of closed logic that claims only parents are qualified to discuss the matter. But I was once a kid and I remember quite clearly how ludicrous most parental concerns were. As part of an audience then and now (covering 15 years of horror, terror, gore and porn) the standard of misinterpretation holds: just as parents presume that children don't have a voice, the 'pro-control' lobby presumes that the audience for exploitation is equally not qualified to discuss the matter, that its voice is about as irrelevant as that of the film critic and genre studies.

Most 'parental' rhetoric heavily derives from pulped understandings of psychology and sociology. Perhaps the most telling aspect here is the notion of 'being exposed' to sick movies/AO material/unsavoury matter/etc. It is unbelievably demeaning to treat a viewer as some dumb lump, who happens to get stuck in a theatre or in front of a TV and suffers a form of 'moral radiation' from the frightening power of some horrific images blasted onto the subject's retina. This begs for measures conceived primarily in behaviourist terms, and when legislature is backed up by behaviourist theories then we've really got something to worry about. As such, the call for censorship is then far more dangerous than the dreamt-up horrors of an illiterate, uncivilized society.

The nature of representation is central to the censorship debate. Consider how 'old style' horror is preferred because it leaves more up to the viewer's imagination whereas modern horror and gore is merely a blunt assault of visceral effects; and how 'erotica' is acceptable because it stimulates desires whereas pornography bludgeons our sexual sensibilities. This is not double standards (as some have argued) because it is in fact two separate modes of representation — that which seduces through invisible mechanisms, and that which overpowers through visible mechanisms. It is the difference between Hitchcock's montages and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ intestines; between Monroe's lips and Hustler's pink bits. It is the difference between symbol and sign; between metaphor and metonym.

The mechanisms of culture — how it communicates — are often disguised, hidden, transparent, fused, repressed. Nearly all representations are coded as acceptable so long as their markings are absent. Their exposure causes all sorts of problems — politically, ideologically, socially, artistically — and as we are continually made to focus on the contents of representations rather than their forms or natures, a sudden confrontation with the latter upsets the balance of things. To be more specific, hard-core horror and porn can constitute a basic social transgression because they confront one set of values with a conflicting set: not that people are offended by such imagery, but that such imagery gives an indication of what is already operating in softer, symbolic image codes. The desire for censorship in this sense can thus be seen as a refusal to face some of the basic social modes of image production and identification — those concerning sex, horror and violence. The ultimate desire, it appears, is to erase these elements from our cultural and personal psyche and have us inhabit a world that could only exist in a Care Bears movie.

More attention needs to be paid to how film communicates; to how a viewer interacts with a film; to how an audience identifies with films. One cannot possibly understand these spaces of engagement if one severs them from their source — the films themselves. Most importantly, one cannot even get near to discussing the core problematics (absent by design in this article) of sexual politics and ideological control if one first doesn't acknowledge the films (or TV shows or magazines, etc) as specific cultural artefacts. Forget the statistics for a moment: next time you're in a theatre and everyone hysterically laughs when the possessed zombie chews off her own hand — listen to the laughter.


Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.