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.

How I Fell In Love With Horror

Jeff has asked me to yet again grace you all with my presence, in an effort to increase the quality, if not the quantity, of the writing on this blog.  For those again who don’t know me, I am Greg, and I write Open Letters to My Enemies.  After Jeff told me I couldn’t write an analysis of why Freddie Prinze Jr’s performance in I Know What You Did Last Summer was actually a continuation of his character in Summer Catch, I decided to write about how I fell in love with the horror genre.

Oddly enough, I was brought into both horror movies and horror books by my mother.  The woman who wouldn’t let me watch The Simpsons because it was crass, and who can’t even remember why I wasn’t allowed to watch the Goonies unwittingly opened the door to years of murder and mayhem entertainment.  It’s only fitting that it all started on a day when I was very truly sick.

While at the drug store picking up the cure for whatever monkey-born virus I had picked up that week, my mother decided to grab me a book to read.  Most likely, she felt that if I wasn’t at school, I may as well be reading something.   The book was Watchers by Dean Koontz, and I am fairly certain it was finished by the next day.  My next sick day she bought Koontz’s Tick Tock which remains one of my favorite books to this day.  I’ve read all of his books, and have a Kindle and bookshelves full of Jonathan Maberry, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Gary Braunbeck, and many more.  That’s the short story.  The movies, that’s more involved, and slightly less boring.

My mother found a VHS copy, sometime around when I was in the sixth grade, of Night of the Living Dead at a yard sale.  This was an automatic purchase at $0.50, and we watched it that night.  So, again, Goonies was no good, but I could watch a little girl eat her mother. This was justified by the fact that my great uncle and aunt were in the movie, playing zombies. They had contributed money, and were allowed to be in the movie.  Uncle Jack was prominently featured, as a zombie that comes into the house and is hit in the face by protagonist Ben, then later he climbs through the window again during the final assault on the house.  So, family pride overrode any caution.

NotLD1 NotLD2 NotLD3

Needless to say, the movie wet my whistle.  I started seeking out other horror movies on the television, like a fat kid looking for his next Snickers bar.  I quickly found out that every time the calendar hit Friday the 13th, USA network would have a marathon of Jason movies hosted by Rhonda Shear.  There were countless reasons why this was an awesome thing, and I made sure to look ahead to find out whenever the 13th fell on a Friday so I could be ready.  Around the same time I found Monstervision on TNT.  Joe Bob Briggs and his gleeful abandon at hosting schlocky and great horror movies lent no small part into my enjoyment of the horror genre.  I’ll save myself time writing, and just link you to a post from my site about that here:  http://openletterstomyenemies.blogspot.com/2012/11/dear-tnt-network.html

The final lynchpin in horror engulfing my middle school life was, of course, as a way of bonding with a girl.  We had a new girl come to school, and she saw that I had a copy of the book The Exorcist in my bookbag.  She loved the movie, and we started turning each other on to scary books and movies, then talking about them during homeroom.  It didn’t hurt that I thought she was cute, and wanted to impress her.  What did hurt was that, now, years later, she’s kind of a nut bar and scares me.  So, sometimes when a thirteen year old girl is borderline obsessed with The Exorcist, that might be an indicator to run away.

So, I open it to you, loyal readers of The Tiffed Learner, how did you get involved with the horror genre?