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.
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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