On Fear: A Response to Lisa Schwarzbaum

I was clicking around on the BBC’s website when I happened upon an opinion piece by one Lisa Schwarzbaum. The piece, entitled “After The Walking Dead, what is left to scare us?”, is a broad look at the history and future of horror, apparently prompted by the impending Walking Dead season finale.

Schwarzbaum asks,

Has the zombie genre become routine? And if so, are we now in need of the Next Great Scare? What is out there to frighten us silly? Because whatever scares us as a form of entertainment is never just the thing itself – the vampire, the axe murderer, the mutant lizard, extraterrestrial or stalker in the house with the unsuspecting nubile nanny – but also a manifestation of zeitgeist anxiety, a clue inside our society’s deepest fears at a particular moment.

Pictured: I don't know, probably, like, a metaphor for Obamacare.

Pictured: I don’t know, probably, like, a metaphor for Obamacare.

For Schwarzbaum, the fear that cinema elicits is entirely a function of larger, often unspoken, perhaps even unconscious anxieties, outgrowths of historical trends and events which are translated, literally or metaphorically, onto the screen. She goes on to discuss films like 2001 and more contemporary fare like Her which she sees as portraying societal fears of uncontrollably expanding, all-permeating technology.

While some of the macro-scale interpretations that Schwarzbaum offers are undoubtedly accurate, as far as they go, several aspects of her consideration of fear in film sound a slightly discordant note with me. The thing that stands out most, by its absence, is the entire horror genre.

Now, this isn’t about nitpicking generic definitions. I’m the last person to care about that kind of thing, with only a few very minor exceptions. Nevertheless, her list happens not to include any films that are conventionally counted as horror, aside from throwaway mentions of Rosemary’s Baby and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This seems like an oversight in a piece that purports to be about films and television shows that inspire fear.

The real issue here is not about genre at all, but about the assumption that only certain kinds of themes can inspire fear. We’re afraid of zombies because they represent mindless consumerism (or, conversely, Communism), the story goes. But personally, if I met a zombie, the last thing that would occur to me would be the metaphorical parallels between this shambling corpse and the hordes of people surging into Wal-Mart on Black Friday. The events on-screen have a literal diegetic existence first. By this I mean that, regardless of interpretations after the fact, in this movie there is a pack of werewolves disemboweling a guy, or whatever. On that level, I think the fears that horror evokes and invokes are quite different from the sociopolitical woes that Schwarzbaum identifies. It is possible to have a fear of flesh-eating ghouls that relates less to political orientation or social norms than to the more practical fear of having one’s flesh, um, eaten.

"We are here to call into question your reliance on pharmaceutical companies and the superficial nature of your social network-based relationships!"  "Your friends are judging your stupid hair!"  "Your favorite sports team eats babies!"

“We are here to call into question your reliance on pharmaceutical companies and the superficial nature of your social network-based relationships!” “Also your friends are judging your stupid hair!” “Also your favorite sports team eats babies probably!”

Ultimately the question is, who gets to speak for me? Who is this we who are supposedly more concerned with political-economic models than with flesh-eating ghouls? It’s possible to confuse authorial intent with audience reception, and some of that seems to be going on here. Not every scenario is intended to be read metaphorically, and not every audience member will interpret cinema conventions in the same way.

I have no doubt that Schwarzbaum is correct in asserting that contemporary events and pervasive social and political anxieties have influenced the films she cites in the ways she describes. I could add numerous others to the list, as could anyone who’s seen a movie in their lifetime. But in this quest to identify pressing social concerns, I think the smaller, experience-nearer fears (to borrow a venerable term from anthropologist Clifford Geertz) sometimes get lost. This is most evident, again, in the fact that Schwarzbaum’s list barely touches on the horror genre as it’s generally understood.

Sure, the piece is ostensibly about The Walking Dead. But that very fact begs the question: do any viewers actually find The Walking Dead scary? I certainly don’t, and I’d honestly be surprised if anyone said that they did. I can’t speak for the show’s producers, and I haven’t read the comics, but I doubt that it’s intended to be frightening in the way self-consciously horror-y stories generally are. Having a visceral reaction to a bloody dismemberment scene isn’t the same as leaping out of your chair when the phone rings after your first viewing of The Ring.

(Certainly The Ring references contemporary fears about pervasive technology; but rather than being the ultimate source of fear, I’d argue that technology, in The Ring, is simply a convenient vehicle for a supernatural evil. That the film has the power to undermine the seeming incompatibility between modernity and scary supernatural belief just underscores the frightful power of the latter. Sadako/Samara is the source of the fear. She just happens to know how to use a phone. And a VCR.)

Schwarzbaum ends her piece with a set of predictions about emerging fears that she believes will appear on screen.

But rather than that being a sign of Hollywood running out of ideas, our recurring zeitgeist fears reveal the immense capacity of the human race to repeat itself. Indeed, I predict many more horror movie and television plots based on technological anxieties – regarding fears of surveillance, control and conformity, and biological disruptions that result in mutant monsters.

I’m just not convinced by this. Not because it’s wrong, but because it’s too broad, too obvious, and simultaneously too limiting. Too broad because “surveillance, control and conformity, and biological disruptions” are simply gigantic categories which have always been explored by filmmakers. You’ve got your spy/conspiracy thrillers (your Bonds and your Bournes and your X-Files); your cyberpunk/dystopian future whatsits (The Matrix, Equilibrium, V for Vendetta); and literally every conceivable monster movie/body horror/scifi creature feature ever, respectively. Naming these categories is akin to proclaiming, “People are likely to keep making the same movies that they have always made, as long as people continue paying to view them.” And you don’t need a degree or a column to make that observation.

These predictions are too obvious because of course popular culture is influenced by (and has tremendous influence on) technological developments. This is true, perhaps, of all fiction genres. Twenty years ago, Mulder and Scully were chasing aliens with the help of giant ’90s cell phones with those flimsy little pull-out antennae, and waiting to access encrypted databases of crazy world-shattering alien secrets to the merry sounds of dialup modems and dot-matrix printers. iPhone-like technology existed only in the form of Federation tricorders, and honestly I doubt those things had Angry Birds. Historical contexts change, and those changes are often reflected in fiction. “Predicting” more films and television shows that capitalize on changing social contexts and new technologies is like “predicting” that this summer will be warmer than last winter. Not 100% certain, but still a pretty safe assumption.

And they’re too limiting because they arbitrarily assign a set of values to the horror genre (despite not having discussed any of the many ways in which that genre is understood by popular audiences, or even really being about horror at all). The idea that the only scary film is a film which explicitly addresses real-life current events and social anxieties is problematic because it ignores the realm of fantasy, those new, untested scenarios that fiction is capable of generating (though to be sure it does not always do so successfully). More simply, it ignores frightening films and television that simply don’t do that, or at least not for all audiences. It’s possible, for instance, to read (or view) The Exorcist as a commentary on the decline of religious values in the US in the late 20th century; but there is also a core narrative here about a little girl who is literally possessed by an evil spirit. The fact of the real narrative underpinning the fictional events of Blatty’s novel (regardless of one’s stance on supernatural belief) hammers home the notion that there is more at stake here than superficial, ephemeral cultural criticism.

Schwarzbaum’s piece is useful for reminding us of the very real influence that changing technologies and social anxieties can exert over popular media. It would have benefitted from a more nuanced exploration of the various causes and meanings of fear. And it would have been nice to work some real horror in there somewhere.


Works Cited

Schwarzbaum, Lisa. “After The Walking Dead, What Is Left to Scare Us?” BBC Culture. Accessed March 29, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140327-what-is-left-to-scare-us.
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3 thoughts on “On Fear: A Response to Lisa Schwarzbaum

  1. I love it when you get all scholarly.

    Seriously, this made me say, “Yes!” out loud: I’d argue that technology, in The Ring, is simply a convenient vehicle for a supernatural evil.

    I still believe that horror is personal, most of the time. Yes, it’s possible to tap into the zeitgeist, but different triggers work cathartically for different people.

  2. Thanks! Yeah, I’m with you. I think good filmmakers (or authors, or whatever) need to know about general anxieties to the extent that such a thing is possible; but to assume that it’s scary just because it’s -timely- is, I think, a mistake.

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