Racism and America Unearthed
It’s frankly bizarre that nearly a year after the first America Unearthed broadcasts debuted on the H2 channel, it is still the case that whenever episodes of the show are rerun anywhere on the face of the earth, my reviews of those episodes light up with new comments from new viewers searching for information on the show. It happened again last night, and if I may offer some unsolicited advice to H2: You are missing a tremendous opportunity to sell merchandise to the credulous by having such a piss-poor web presence that searches for America Unearthed lead people directly to me rather than you.
Last night, however, I received an interesting comment that speaks to one of the underlying themes of America Unearthed rather than to its factual claims, and I think it’s worth discussion. The writer complained that my coverage of the program focused unnecessarily on the racial implications of advocating the superiority of pre-Columbian white visitors to America and their legal right to own the continent by carving a rock in the middle of territory already occupied by Native Americans:
The fact of the matter is that people like to hear about their own culture, even if it's made up. That doesn't make someone racist. Coming up with the stories against all evidence might, but tuning in and zonking out are another matter. People get tired of the same old stories about the amazing minorities. I guess some people consider that incipient racism, but that's pretty much par for the course as far as humanity is concerned, and is completely natural, and doesn't have to be dangerous or evil. A narrative that reinforces the idea that White people are oh-so-racist can, on the other hand, get to be dangerous. (This particular guy has so many problems that I wouldn't put much past him.)
I find it interesting that the writer seems to be identifying ethnocentrism as superior to racism in that it celebrates one’s own identity and culture, while racism focuses instead on dislike of the Other. This is, I suppose, true from the position of the motivations and moral development of the individual, but in a practical sense the applications are identical.
We also get the repeated claim—and I’ve received this one hundreds of times now—that these narratives are simply entertainment, and here the writer specifically implies that “white” viewers want to relax with tales of heroic white people in an environment free from “amazing minorities.” (And, really, given the dearth of programming featuring nonwhite people, where exactly are these “same old stories” of minorities?) If that doesn’t cut right to my frequent point that the underlying motif of the pre-Columbian white visitor trope is a sense of discomfort with the changing demographics of American society.
Buzzfeed has an interesting article on why gay people are drawn to horror movies, and as a horror critic I found its perspective interesting but ultimately flawed. The writer, Louis Peitzman, who is himself gay, declared that gay people love horror movies, though I am unaware of any studies that show a greater percentage of gay horror fans than straight or bisexual horror fans. He further argues that gay people are drawn to horror because they identify with the monster and read murders as a metaphor for anal sex. (Apparently lesbians don’t count in this analysis.) Also, Freddy Kruger is a drag queen, he says.
After confessing that as a child he associated same-sex sex with horror and death because he grew up during the AIDS crisis, he quotes Jawbreaker director Darren Stein: “Anal sex ultimately can be construed by a child as a very grotesque act. It’s invasive, much like a knife in the flesh.” As opposed to vaginal sex?
There is a lot to say about the way outsiders of all stripes—not just sexual minorities—are drawn to horror because horror uses metaphors and monsters to give shape to anxieties and fears about being on the outside of society, being oppressed, and being fearful. Petizman’s article, though, can’t get past the idea that knife = penis, a reductive Freudian reading that dates back even before Carol Clover’s explications of the slasher movie genre, Men, Women and Chainsaws (1993), in which she developed an elaborate theory that intimately tied horror to the concept and performance of gender.
Here’s where Peitzman fails: He limits “horror” to serial killer slasher movies: Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenth, Halloween, Scream, etc. This is a minority of films even within horror (especially since they bleed so easily into mainstream thrillers), and traditionally, gay audiences have been drawn much more to the Gothic mode of horror, if anecdotal evidence can be believed. James Whale, the director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, was gay and specifically coded the movies with gay subtext. (Just look at Dr. Pretorius in Bride, who was explicitly designed to be read as an arch gay male.) In 1997, Harry M. Benshoff published a book called Monsters in the Closet in which he argued that the Gothic mode of horror monster could be specifically related to changing social attitudes toward male homosexuality, which he followed up on in an article in Speaking of Monsters (where he reads the monster in the Jeepers Creepers films as a predatory homosexual); even the Victorians recognized that J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla was a lesbian vampire. Today, TV programs like True Blood and American Horror Story are created by gay men and explicitly play toward gay audiences alongside straight (largely female) audiences.
However, where I feel that the “queer theory” reading of horror fails is that it presumes that sexuality is a function of the genre; to my mind, sexuality, being an essential trait of human nature, is not a unique aspect of horror. Troublesome sexuality can be found in any genre, not least science fiction and comedy, where similar preoccupations with gender identity can be identified. I’ve read many papers on the way some 1930s female stars were “coded” as homosexual men.
In the “queer theory” reading, when a monster attacks a man, it’s gay panic. When a monster attacks a woman, it’s also (coded) gay panic. When the monster doesn’t attack, it’s still gay panic. Sometimes, as in the case of the Jeepers Creepers films, this is almost undoubtedly true; in other cases it applies much less. I would have a hard time reading The Horror of Party Beach as gay panic, and most modern zombie movies (excluding, of course, the White Zombie school) are far removed from sexuality, as is much in the survival-horror sub-genre. Ghost stories also tend to have a variety of themes and ideas that extend beyond mere horniness.
Is there some hypocrisy in claiming that we should read alternative history as a genre concerned with race but absolve horror of being the cinema of homosexuality? I don’t think so because I am not denying that the queer readings of horror exist, only that they are neither unique to horror, universal, or the defining element of horror as a genre. By contrast, alternative history exists almost entirely to provide semi-mythic narratives designed to justify or (in the case of Afrocentrism) challenge current social structures, which in the Western world continue to operate in the shadow of imagined racial and ethnic hierarchies. Alternative history—in both practitioners and subjects—is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly concerned with providing divine, supernatural, or legal justification for the continued dominance and control of the same.