On December 18, the Discovery Channel plans to air a documentary about the alleged zombie apocalypse, and they plan to profile a group of parents that are not only true believers in the coming plague of the risen dead but are training their children to hunt and kill zombies. Elsewhere, a 26-year-old man shot his girlfriend when she refused to believe The Walking Dead was a prophecy of a zombie uprising to come. This makes me indescribably sad. Of course it’s true that Victorian people hunted “vampires,” but Dracula didn’t make them do it; the vampires came first. Zombies, by contrast, are a Hollywood creation, and so-called “zombie culture” is directly responsible for a fictional creation being mistaken for reality.
This, of course, is hardly a new phenomenon. H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is responsible for the practitioners of “magick” who invoke Cthulhu, and early science fiction yielded all manner of beliefs about aliens, including ancient astronauts and alien abduction. Indeed, the question of the horror writer’s responsibility for his or her audience’s beliefs has been playing out for centuries. Matthew Lewis’s play The Castle Spectre (1797), for example, was criticized for showing a ghost on stage, which could have encouraged the peasantry to believe in ghosts. Lewis refuted them by stating that nobody in the eighteenth century seriously believed in ghosts anymore. That went well.
But I think that something a bit different is happening today, and that it’s tied to a change in the horror genre.
It’s been five years since I published Knowing Fear, and when I did I stated that it was difficult to fully assess the current state of horror because the period of 2000-2007 was then too recent to really put in perspective. It’s still recent, but I think I have a bit more of a handle on what’s been happening and how it breaks fundamentally from the past. And I think zombies are a big part of what has changed.
I think that the big difference is that the role of the audience has changed. In traditional horror, drawn from the Gothic tradition, the story is intended to induce terror in order to approach the Burkean sublime by having the audience identify with the victim of the horror. Modern horror has virtually no relationship to the sublime, and it asks the audience to identify with the monster and actively—and sadistically—root for that monster to engage in extreme violence.
Obviously, this didn’t happen overnight. The Universal horror series of the 1930s and ’40s clearly turned its monsters into bankable stars, so much so that the final films in the series were advertised as “monster on monster” action promising “cataclysmic destruction.” Any humans in the story were of very little concern. But these films had at least a partial relationship to the Gothic and the sublime from which they emerged, and Hays Code restrictions on gore prevented these films from descending into sadism.
Alfred Hitchcock probably did more than anyone to transform the idea of horror with Psycho. In adapting Robert Bloch’s novel, he made a key change that influenced the audience’s perception of the story. He replaced Bloch’s pudgy, creepy Norman Bates with the attractive Anthony Perkins, allowing the audience to transfer its loyalty from Marion Crane to Norman after Marion’s untimely death—though even here, it was possible to see the “good” Norman as separate from the “Mother” persona, keeping the audience from fully identifying with the monster.
Following in Psycho's footsteps, the success of Halloween led to the 1980s slasher films, which actively advertised the monsters as the stars and asked the audience to root for ever-more-grotesque murders. There was, though, a black-comic detachment in characters like Chucky or Freddie Krueger that signaled that such killings were ritual performances more than sadism. Similarly, the 1990s postmodern killers of Scream and the like also were cloaked behind knowing humor and the genuine appeal of their young casts of victims.
But none of that really applies to the most recent horror movies and books, and even television. Recent horror seems to revel in sadism, actively demanding the audience root for the monster or the serial killer. I suppose Thomas Harris could be to blame, with his Hannibal Lecter stories. Worse, the audience is supposed to derive enjoyment from rooting for violence, mutilation, and torture. Consider the devolution of the Final Destination series from an exemplar of the late 1990s (though actually from 2000) self-aware postmodern genre to outright torture porn where the entire purpose of the series became waiting for ever more elaborate and gruesome killings. When I think of the Walking Dead TV series, I can’t help but recall the frequent critical complaint that the first seasons spent too much time with boring, cardboard characters waiting around for the zombie attacks, the only reason to really watch the show. Many viewers simply watch because they love zombie attacks, which I have elsewhere described as utterly devoid of any relationship to traditional culture and values.
I suppose it’s simple to blame Hostel and Saw for this, but they are only symptoms of a broader trend. Our art reflects who we are, and right now we seem to be people who want to encourage the active infliction of violence for its own sake, to revel in sadism, and to cheer the powerful villain over the powerless hero. We see that even in such Gothic hybrids as Twilight, where becoming the monster is the ultimate assumption of power and invulnerability. It’s as though our society has lost the capacity for empathy and replaced it with blind identification with power.
I just can’t get past the spectacle of audiences whooping and screaming with delight when zombies rip out human guts, or when a serial killer springs an elaborate torture trap to maim and mutilate another victim. That feeling of exhilaration and pleasure at the sight of violence recalls the bloody spectacle of the Roman Coliseum, but it seems a far cry from the spine-chilling terror meant to conjure the sublime. Burke recognized that one does not encounter the sublime in a state of animalistic satiety but rather in the intense mental contemplation of terror (or beauty) unique to the highest reaches of humanity. If that were the measure of horror, much of what passes under the name today is not horror in any appreciable sense but rather reverse morality plays teaching the lesson that might makes right.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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