Eastward Bound… Again

I’ve been a bad blogger again, I know. Lots of writing and editing and dissertating (about one chapter left!) and other tomfoolery have taken up most of my brainspace lately. Now it seems I’m heading back to Japan at the end of August, and this time I’ll be there for quite a while. I’ll be teaching English, and while there’s no definite time frame, odds are good I’ll be there for at least a year.

So anyway, stuff’s nuts, yo. But I’m still here, and I hope to post some stuff on this thing pretty soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d take a second to shamelessly promote a thing we did, a book sort of thing, which will be out later this year. The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World is due out November 1 from Utah State University Press. It’s about how pop culture uses folklore and creates new folklore, and other cool things. The different contributors explore topics like anime, comic books, British fairylore, and video games. (I wrote a chapter about video games… guess which ones.)

If you haven’t already, check me out over at HorrorTalk.com, where I’ve been somewhat more active because they give me movies to watch and deadlines and such, and like any good grad student I can’t actually get anything done unless somebody’s hovering over me waiting to critique my writing.

Cracked: Opinion and fact. And also horror.

Being a horror fan has its ups and its downs. Most obvious of the downs, perhaps, is the massive amount of crap we have to wade through to get to the good stuff (however we may define it). There’s also a certain fringe quality that characterizes the bulk of genre works. (Actually though, both of these points are true of all genres, not just horror.)

When genre fiction leaves the fringe and approaches the center—when it gets closer to the “mainstream”—things aren’t necessarily better or worse, though they’re certainly different. In science fiction we get things like the Terminator, Star Wars and Star Trek franchises; in the world of comics we get the stunning recent successes of both the Marvel and DC universes in film and television; in fantasy we get the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies and Game of Thrones. There’s a lot of slippage here—e.g., are fantasy and superhero comics separate from scifi?—and that, too, is a part of the move toward the center. (It also illustrates how fluid genres actually are). Again, this isn’t inherently bad or good, but it marks a noticeable change from the furthest recesses of genre fiction into the mainstream sensibilities of an increasingly global public.

Having said all that, it can be frustrating when, on their way toward the mainstream, filmmakers (or writers, or artists, or whoever) blatantly substitute lazy genre tropes for compelling storytelling. This is the theme of a recent article on popular comedy site Cracked.com. Writer David Christopher Bell offers up a list of what he considers to be the characteristics of good horror cinema. A couple of weeks ago I posted the link to his article and asked for comments on it, and you all graciously provided some very thoughtful ones.

I’m of two minds, myself, as I think most of the commenters were. On the one hand, I think Bell makes some good points: I agree, for instance, that jump-scares suck, and that self-indulgent winking irony often ruins what could otherwise be good films. On the other hand I think a lot of his claims miss the mark. This isn’t about right or wrong: everyone has opinions, and if there’s one good thing about the internet it’s that it gives us all a chance to air ours. (That’s also kind of the worst thing about the internet.) It’s ultimately a good thing that a writer on a major comedy site is bringing attention to what’s going on in the horror genre, because if nothing else it may help remind filmmakers that people are actually paying attention and won’t settle for recycled garbage. But at the same time, there’s a danger in overgeneralizing. In the comments on my previous post drhumpp made a very important point: “It just seems like he’s mistaking movies he likes for good movies.” I got the same sense from Bell’s article. It’s very easy to confuse opinion with fact, and as critics—which we all are, at the end of the day—we have to remember that our own opinions may not actually carry any weight outside of our own heads. (And the present rant is no exception.)

The bit about horror films needing adult protagonists, for example, seems to miss an important but subtle distinction: just because a movie’s protagonists are from a certain demographic does not mean that they are its target audience. Movies are a business, after all, and they’re often tailored to respond to what their creators think people want. A film like Unfriended, which features a bunch of shitty teenagers doing what out-of-touch Hollywood producers think teenagers actually do, is difficult for a 30+ viewer to relate to. But not every movie is a product of cynical marketing designed to make a quick buck, and movies such as A Tale of Two Sisters or Jug Face center on teenagers struggling with both human and supernatural conflicts that don’t (or shouldn’t) alienate older viewers, even though they explore issues relating to youth and young adulthood and the problems that go with them.

Elsewhere Bell argues, “Blair Witch Project was a cultural phenomenon that creeped the hell out of a generation, but have you ever tried to rewatch it since canceling your dial-up connection? It’s about as fun as … well, looking at some dudes walking in the woods for 80 minutes. In fact, with all the respect in the world: No found-footage movie will ever become a classic.” I wonder how he defines “classic,” because in every sense of the word with which I’m familiar, BWP absolutely is one. Whether you like the film or not, it’s a landmark in horror cinema that opened the found-footage floodgates. This isn’t a subjective claim about the movie’s intrinsic merit: it’s simply a fact of film history. As the final nail in this particular coffin, here’s a cool short documentary featuring the filmmakers discussing BWP and its legacy—produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, no less, an authoritative body when it comes to cinema history if ever there was one:

I suspect that Bell isn’t really a genre fan, a point suggested by his claim that “the best horror films are never made by ‘horror directors’.” This point is so wholly subjective that it’s not worth arguing, so I’ll limit myself to pointing out that self-identifying horror fans (myself included) are very likely to disagree. Again, his point is fine as far as it goes, but by using the words “best horror films” when what he really means is “my favorite horror films,” the author is falling into the authoritative internet fallacy—by which I mean the tendency of folks on the internet to position themselves as authorities without even necessarily realizing it, because seeing your own ideas on a computer screen sometimes blinds you to the fact that they’re your ideas.

I know it’s silly to argue with a comedy website, but I look at it as a thought exercise. Thinking about what makes the “best” horror movies helps me remember why I’m a fan, so while Cracked may be a bit of a straw man, it’s still a useful one.