The state of New Hampshire erected a historical marker commemorating the alleged UFO abduction of Betty and Barney Hill in 1961. According to the Hills' niece, Kathleen Marden, the state agreed to put up the marker after Marden submitted a formal request along with "20 footnotes and 28 sources listed in its bibliography." I would love to know what those sources were, since the very premise of the plaque is quite wrong:
On the night of September 19-20, 1961, Portsmouth, NH couple Betty and Barney Hill experienced a close encounter with an unidentified flying object and two hours of “lost” time while driving south on Rte 3 near Lincoln. They filed an official Air Force Project Blue Book report of a brightly-lit cigar-shaped craft the next day, but were not public with their story until it was leaked in the Boston Traveler in 1965. This was the first widely-reported UFO abduction report in the United States.
First, stating definitively that the object was a UFO is wrong. There is no evidence that the object every existed, let alone flew. The plaque also leaves out essential details: The Hills claimed to have seen a UFO in their September 20, 1961 report to Project Blue Book but did not claim alien abduction until Betty Hill began having nightmares weeks later (not the next day, as the plaque implies). The Hills' recalled the event under a type of "recovered memory" hypnosis now recognized as almost entirely unreliable, and many of the details are identical to details in movies and TV shows the Hills had watched only days before their hypnosis session, including an episode of The Outer Limits ("The Bellaro Shield"). A fuller discussion is available on the Skeptoid web page for the Hill abduction.
The bigger issue at stake here is the fact that New Hampshire is giving the imprimatur of of the state to an issue that is demonstrably false. The wording of the plaque, though legalistically careful, leaves the undeniable impression that New Hampshire is affirmatively stating that UFOs exist. This is the same state that (in private hands, not through official channels) made a group of colonial root cellars and some boulders into America's Stonehenge and promoted the myth of Irish Celts visiting ancient America.
Acts like a plaque commemorating an alien abduction twist history, enshrine falsehoods as facts, and trivialize actual truth at the expense of self-promotion. What will the historian or the teacher say to the student who asks how UFOs can be fake if the government has endorsed them as real? Worse, how can we judge what is true when those entrusted with curating truth willfully surrender reality to those who would re-create reality to match their fantasies?
I read today that Universal Studios is planning to open an interactive maze based on the Hostel movies, with visitors able to relive their favorite torture scenes from the Eli Roth 2005 film and its sequels. The press release announcing the attraction recognizes that it is depicting "dehumanizing torture chambers" but Roth promises that guests will love "experiencing some exact moments" from the movies. The attraction is temporary and tied to the theme park's annual Halloween celebration of the horror genre. Previous movie-inspired mazes have been based on Saw and House of 1,000 Corpses.
I think that it's time to firmly separate this type of material from the horror genre as it was classically practiced. "Horror" is about fear and the exploration of the unknown, a form of art intended to (as Edmund Burke noted in the genre's founding document) approach the sublime through the experience of terror: "Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on anything as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous."
Hostel, Saw, and the bloody mess that passes for horror today is not horror. It does not approach the sublime; it rises not even to the level of terror. These types of film ask us not to experience terror but to feel pleasure, not to experience the transcendent sublime but to experience a visceral joy in the suffering of others. They are an inducement not to the contemplation of sublimity but to reveling in the vicious, savage ecstasy of causing others pain.
Burke, it is true, believed that pain was an essential element of the sublime; but this pain was in service of reaching the emotional state of experiencing pure terror and sublimity. It was our pain, not the pain of others, that produced this feeling. A good horror film invokes the sublime by inducing terror and pain in its viewers; a bad horror film asks us to enjoy the terror and pain of its characters while feeling no upset within ourselves. To take joy in the pain of others, merely for the sake of reveling in pain, is not the sublime. It is sadism. And that is not the horror genre at all.
So let us call Hostel and Saw and their ilk what they really are, not "horror" but "sadism." Let us recognize that this genre of films owns not Edmund Burke for its lord and master but his contemporary, the Marquis de Sade.
Recently, I disagreed with a series of essays Jason Zinoman presented in Slate magazine, and Zinoman took me to task for what he said were misinterpretations and mistakes in my critique. He and I engaged in a constructive dialogue last weekend, and I am happy to report that while we still disagree on several issues we have reached a better understanding of one another’s views.
In that spirit, I want to clarify some of the confusion that led to my blog posts. Slate said in its promotional copy that Zinoman was writing a “four part series on how to fix horror movies,” and Zinoman then wrote “every day this week I will offer a modest proposal to help build a better horror movie.” From this sentence, I erroneously assumed that the author meant each of his four points to be building blocks for a “better horror movie.” Zinoman clarified to me that instead he intended these to be four separate reflections on four issues in horror movies, not a unified program for reforming horror movies.
As a result, my conclusion that his four “issues”represented his ideal horror movie does not apply. As I told Zinoman, once this confusion was resolved, I had very little problem with what his views on horror films, especially since it appears that his views apply primarily to the slasher subgenre (or perhaps more accurately, the “10 Little Indians” type of horror film where characters are picked off one by one by a mysterious monster, slasher or otherwise). We still disagree on matters of interpretation, including the intentions and motivations of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, but on the more fundamental issues, I have very little complaint.
Zinoman’s new book, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror,is now available at most major retailers.
Jason Zinoman has responded to my blog posts about his series in Slate magazine, "How to Fix Horror." Zinoman has asked that his comments run in their entirety to correct what he believes are mistakes and misinterpretations in my comments. As per his request, I am posting the entirety of his response without comment. I will post separately later on to discuss Zinoman's response. Note: As his are very long, please click "Read More" for the complete discussion.
From Jason Zinoman:
I appreciate these responses to my Slate essays especially since one of the things I hoped to do was to spark some discussion. The problem is that I have trouble engaging with your arguments because you mischaracterize almost every point I make. So the only suitable response is to try and clarify on the level of facts. I hope you will not mind. I will go sentence by sentence.
In my previous blog post, I discussed the first two entries in Jason Zinoman's four-part Slate magazine series on ways to "fix" the horror genre. In this post, I will briefly follow up with a discussion of Zinoman's third and fourth parts.
In Part III, Zinoman advocates more remakes of well-known horror movies, provided that they become more "relevant" to contemporary audiences, generally by reflecting contemporary political and social controversies (his example is Carrie and post-Columbine paranoia):
"A remake that follows the script of the original while ratcheting up the body count offers few surprises. But one that brings back beloved old monsters while occasionally turning left when we're expecting a turn right has the potential to scare us in ways the original never did."
Somehow this seems wrong. If a monster is "beloved," it ceases to become frightening. This is one reason the Universal monsters of the 1930s grew progressively less frightening in the 1940s and then downright lovable thereafter. It is also why audiences cheer for Michael Myers, Freddie Kruger, and Jason Vorhees rather than cringe in fear. Even Scream's Ghostface and Saw's Jigsaw puppet have become familiar rather than frightening.
In Part IV, Zinoman advocates for more gore, for him the highest form of horror. He seriously misunderstands Stephen King's reflection in Danse Macabre that he seeks first to terrify, and if he cannot do that, to horrify, and if that is impossible to generate a "gross-out." This is not, as Zinoman thinks, King's squeamishness over gore; instead, it is King's recognition that there are levels of fear. The highest is terror (pure psychological fear), followed by horror (psychological fear mixed with fear for one's body), with "gross" things (purely physical disgust) at the bottom rung as the least effective form of horror. How Zinoman misunderstands that is beyond me, since King says as much in so many words.
Taken together, the four parts of Zinoman's series paint his ideal film as a plot-free, ultra-violent remake of something we've seen before. In other words, exactly what Hollywood is already doing.
Update: Zinoman has responded to this post here.
This week in Slate magazine, Jason Zinoman is attempting to “fix” the horror movie by making suggestions to “return” horror films to the pure, perfect state they achieved in the 1970s, roughly around the time of Zinoman’s youth or just before, when, in the time-honored tradition of cultural scolds, all things were better and purer and more wonderful.
Zinoman’s problem with contemporary horror movies resolves primarily to a single point: Horror movies, he believes, need to be nearly plot-free orgies of ultra-violence. In the first entry in his Slate series, Zinoman (who by miraculous coincidence has a new book out about the glories of 1960s and 1970s horror films) argues that horror today is not perverted, violent, and disgusting enough to satisfy Americans’ bloodlust:
“Horror can certainly be discreet and cerebral and deeply moral. But it's more at home being impolite and gross and borderline unethical. We needn't be embarrassed if we prefer the movies that favor splatter over politics or poetry. What matters—what keeps us coming back for more—is fear, a pleasure as old as the game of peek-a-boo. Maybe we like horror movies of questionable taste because we get a perverse thrill out of something debased.”
This view is so deeply, entirely, and completely wrong that it threatens to undermine everything the horror genre has stood for since its inception at the hands of Horace Walpole in 1768. Traditional horror has been extremely conservative, working to uphold the manners and mores of the day by dealing out punishment to those who transgress. It is only with the rise of postmodernism in the 1960s and 1970s that horror decoupled itself from traditional Western values and began its descent into mindless, barbaric violence. But, remembering that Zinoman believes 1968-1979 to be horror’s most perfect years, it is no wonder that he interprets the genre’s history as a lead up and reaction to that golden era.
In the second installment of his series, Zinoman argued that horror movies spend too much time on “back story” (or, rather, plot) at the expense of debased violence. For him, the “unknown killer” is infinitely more interesting than the killer explained.
But Zinoman has the gall to use H. P. Lovecraft’s famous quotation from Supernatural Horror in Literature about the power of the unknown to generate fear to defend his views. If ever there were a horror writer who was the antithesis of Zinoman’s violent ethos, it was Lovecraft. What, after all, is “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) except back story? The entirety of the story is told in flashbacks, back story to a very thin framing tale of a man shuffling papers at a desk.
So, to return to the problem of Zinoman’s understanding of horror: Zinoman has confused definitions and has muddied the waters of horror to include violence but exclude nearly all else. In Lovecraft’s day, horror was considered a subset of supernatural fiction, and Lovecraft took great pains in Supernatural Horror to distinguish between the supernatural horror of cosmic fear and the literature of mere violence:
“This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.”
Noel Carroll, the horror theorist, went still further and declared that any story with no supernatural element could not be, by definition, horror. Serial killers, therefore, were simply crime stories. In my book Knowing Fear (2008), I purposely carved a wider circle for horror, allowing non-supernatural tales of violence and morbidity so long as their object was an exploration of fear.
I therefore differ from Zinoman in an important way: While I recognize Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as horror movies, I do so not because they are violent (frankly, Halloween is almost bloodless in any but a psychological sense) but because they use fear to explore the unknown.
Zinoman would, in honor of the 1970s-1980s slasher film wave, have shocks and blood be the sine qua non of horror, but the genre’s greatest masterpieces have been almost free from the type of morbid, perverted violence Zinoman himself prefers and therefore wishes to make universal. “The Call of Cthulhu” is a horror story, but not a bloody one. Frankenstein (Shelley’s novel or Whale’s movie) is a horror story, but non one built on violence. The Haunting (either the original film version or Jackson’s novel) is frightening because of its psychological insight, not for any severed limbs or blood. Would The Turn of the Screw be improved with a few more disembowelings? Would M. R. James’ reputation rise with the inclusion of a “human centipede”?
The point is that horror is no one thing, and neither is fear. Violent, bloody fare has its place, and some of it (like two of my favorites, Halloween and the Texas Chain Saw Massacre) approaches greatness. But one thing horror should not be is the modern equivalent of the Roman Coliseum. If horror movies exist for no other reason than to torture and maim and kill, then they are less works of art than snuff films. The most debased violence, Zinoman is correct to note, belongs in horror movies; transgression is a part of horror’s soul. But he is wrong to say that there is no need to have a plot or story to justify such excesses. Filmed violence, absent any purpose other than depictions of the obscene, is not horror; it is pornography. No, wait, check that. Porn at least sometimes attempts plot.
Update: Zinoman has responded to this post here.
U.S. publishers refused to print a book skeptical of paranormal claims unless its British author rewrote the book to undercut his own thesis and leave open the possibility that ghosts and psychics were real, according to the book’s author. Richard Wiseman is the author of Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There, which according to him sold well in Great Britain and was picked up by publishers around the world … except in the United States.
“[T]he major American publishers were reluctant to support a skeptical book,” Wiseman wrote on his blog last week, “with some suggesting that I re-write it to suggest that ghosts were real and psychic powers actually existed! We didn’t get any serious offers and so it looked like the American public (around 75% of whom believe in the paranormal) wouldn’t get the opportunity to read about skepticism.”
Publishers, of course, are in the business of selling books first and foremost, so to a certain degree it is understandable that they would want to appeal to a broad audience. However, to ask an author to reverse his own position and argue the opposite of his convictions is outrageous and more than a little depressing. I cannot imagine a publisher asking a purveyor of supernatural and paranormal claims to include a chapter on scientific explanations, nor requesting the myriad of books on religion and spirituality to offer an atheist rebuttal.
Instead, what we seem to see is a pair of calculated moves from some publishers: First, books need to appeal to the largest audience, even at the expense of seriousness or truth, by playing to the perceived prejudices of the assumed audience (which, of course, becomes a downward feedback spiral as potential new readers are turned off and current audiences dwindle). Second, nonfiction, except for political polemics, must studiously avoid ideas or opinions lest they offend someone and therefore affect the size of the potential audience.
The second point is one that has tripped me up in the past, since I have been criticized repeatedly for taking positions on issues and writing history by making judgments about the past. How dare you, some have written to me, express opinions? Don’t you know nonfiction is supposed to be neutral and objective?
No less a luminary than Charles Darwin understood the folly of research without a hypothesis to confirm or refute. He was writing (in a letter to Henry Fawcett) of science, but the same applies to most nonfiction writing:
“About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” (18 Sept. 1861)
When I think back at the most interesting, compelling, and memorable nonfiction I’ve read, I am hard pressed to think of a single book lacking a clear thesis or point of view that retains any hold on my mind. Instead, it is those with clear views—even views I disagree with strenuously—and the will to defend them vigorously and rigorously (thus disqualifying polemics and most books by political pundits) that are the most interesting and stimulating.
It would be a terrible shame if opinions and ideas were restricted only to the academic press, with popular history and science writing little more than collections of facts, arranged chronologically. Isn’t that what Wikipedia is for?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.