Preface to the Abnormality Chronicles, a Companion to Horror

Harry M. Benshoff

Harry M. Benshoff

As Adam Charles Hart’s chapter in this chronicle will demonstrate, today monsters are at the very heart of Hollywood blockbuster action films and CGI spectacles, in franchises such as ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, films that few critics or scholars would likely classify as horror films per se.

Monsters are also ubiquitous in animated kids films [‘ParaNorman’ (2012), ‘Frankenweenie’ (2012)], television programming, video games, pornography (“dinosaur porn,” anyone?), advertising, music, and cultural happenings such as “zombie runs” and “Thriller” flash mobs. This reflects, I think, the fact that monsters are and always have been potent metaphors for just about any and all aspects of human experience.

In the twenty-first-century alone, they have been used — so far — to speak of teenage romance (the ‘Twilight’ franchise), extreme rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques (torture porn), our ever-increasing surveillance culture (found footage horror films), and survival itself in a world whose infrastructure is crumbling — or at least appears to be (the proliferation of zombie apocalypse texts across all aspects of the media landscape).

In its current form, the horror film itself may still be somewhat ghettoized in popular culture as a critic-proof, low-class, low-budget exploitation genre aimed at thrill-seeking teenagers, but the monsters the genre contains continue to fascinate. Putting it another way, monsters are not just for horror films anymore.

It goes without saying that the contributors to this volume understand horror films to be definitely more than low-class, low-budget exploitation flicks aimed at “impressionable” young people and/or moral degenerates. That had been (and may still be) the view of the genre held by many critics and other social reformers supposedly concerned with the genre’s allegedly negative effects on public health.

As the articles in this chronicle by Matt Hills, Kevin Heffernan, and Julian Petley will explore, horror films have often been the instigator of “moral panics,” primarily as each new generation of filmmakers seeks to outdo their predecessors concerning gore, shock, provocation, and politically incorrect titillation. However, those factors are themselves the building blocks of the genre, the blood-soaked façade that allows horror films to tackle social issues in ways no other genre can.

A mainstream Oscar-winning film such as ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ (1989) may take on racism in its own soft-pedalled, golden-hour kind of way, but the blood, guts, and smarts of a film such as ‘Tales from the Hood’ (1995) arguably explores the topic in far more complex and nuanced ways. Horror films can say what other socially sanctioned genres often cannot.

My own personal history with the horror film began when I was a child, fascinated with their images of “Otherness”, images that I found both frightening and alluring. Many of the authors represented in this volume speak of similar attractions to the genre. Indeed, the genre is designed to arouse intense personal responses in its audiences, and people are known to be passionate about horror, loving it as life-long fans, or hating it just as much.

Moreover, while much criticism has been heaped on the genre for its alleged appeal to audiences’ sadistic impulses, that argument has also been countered by others that assert that the genre affords primarily masochistic pleasures. I do not think one simple explanatory paradigm can fully explain anything in popular culture, and as such, remind my readers that whether one loves or hates the genre (or is simply neutral toward it), it probably means different things to different people.

Readers familiar with my work will discern that my predominant interests lie more in gothic horror than in slasher or gore-hound horror, but I try not to privilege one form over the other (though it is sometimes hard not to) given the status of all horror as low or disreputable culture.

As is probably obvious by now, my interests in the horror film today relate to what has been broadly called the reflective nature of film genres, and especially the horror film. That is to say, film genres do not arise or exist de novo: they are made by and consumed by people within specific historical and sociocultural contexts, and as such they “speak” to those same people about the issues of the day.

The insights offered by Robin Wood (1979) (among others) in the 1970s — on how the genre functions as a sort of collective nightmare, figuring any given culture’s repressed and oppressed Others as monstrous — still permeate much horror film scholarship today, including in this chronicle. But even if we discount psychoanalysis — as some contemporary cultural critics would have us do — we may still invoke Stuart Hall’s (1980) “Encoding and Decoding” model: contemporary cultural studies approaches to film genre emphasize the semiotic and discursive relationship between texts, those who produce and consume them, and the larger spheres of culture and ideology. Cultural texts such as horror films tell us facts about the cultures in which they reside: details about gender, about sex, about race and class, about the body, about death, about pain, about being human, ultimately. Whether or not they speak to our repressed desires (and I think they do, whatever we understand repression to be), horror films nonetheless comment on and/or negotiate with multifarious cultural anxieties and fears, whatever they may be.

This chronicle will contain thirty articles on various aspects of the horror film, many written by some of the most well-known and well-respected scholars on the subject. It was designed to provide an introduction to (or overview of) various concepts in horror film scholarship, as well as explore older and newer films within different theoretical paradigms and/or socio historical contexts, drawing on primary resources and offering original scholarship on the subject.

Although some of the articles will tend to gravitate toward one pole over the other, it was my consistent aim that all of these articles be helpful and informative to novices, fans, and scholars alike. Thus, some articles may read a bit like a primer, while others more closely resemble content in scholarly journals.

All readers will hopefully encounter familiar faces, figures, and subgenres, as well as — to borrow the title of one infamous horror movie musical from 1964 — an ever-expanding genre universe filled with “incredibly strange creatures who stopped living and became mixed up zombies.”

A full chapter-by chapter-breakdown of the _ follows, but a brief sampling of its somewhat unusual contents would have to include chainsaws mutating out of Japanese schoolgirls’ butts, the rarely seen American Sign Language horror film ‘Deafula’ (1975), Ken Russell’s foray into the nunsploitation genre, “hopping vampire” action movies from Hong Kong, the cult fandom surrounding the so-bad-it’s-brilliant ‘Troll 2’ (1990), the potential camp appeal of ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), and extreme niche horror films such as ‘Slaughtered Vomit Dolls’ (2006).

For the traditionalist, the volume also contains thoughtful explorations of ‘Dracula’ (1931), ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957), ‘Peeping Tom’ (1960), ‘The Haunting’ (1963), and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968), among many others. In short, this volume demonstrates one of the most exciting things about the horror film genre: it is an ever-changing and ever-expanding repertoire of the perverse and the abject. If one has the guts for it (if I can be pardoned the pun), I think it has much to tell us about the human condition.

Part I: explores some of the more important ways the horror film has been studied by scholars. It begins with a article by Aaron Smuts; it explores some of the cognitive and philosophical issues that the horror film raises, such as “Why do we like to be frightened?” Are the fears felt in horror films “real,” as compared to the fears felt in relation to events such as global warming, disease and death, or terrorist attacks? Perhaps unexpectedly, Smuts notes the difficulty in answering many of these sorts of questions, even as they continue to inspire thought and scholarship within those contexts.

The next several articles (by Chris Dumas, Daniel Humphrey, Christopher Sharrett, and Travis Sutton) explore in greater detail various psychoanalytic approaches to the genre, and comment on how it is used — following Robin Wood — to shape and delimit such “real life” discourses as gender, sexuality, race, class, and dis/ability.

The final three articles in this section turn to the contexts of horror film reception (Matt Hills), distribution and exhibition (Kevin Heffernan), and censorship (Julian Petley). These articles are meant to ground and reply to (if not actually answer) some of the questions explored in previous chapters: just how do actual audiences interact with horror films? What pleasures do audiences find within them? How might their popularity be dependent on the historical and industrial processes of distribution and exhibition, rather than (or in addition to) what they might be saying in some coded psychoanalytic way?

Julian Petley’s chapter surveys a century of British and American censorship related to the horror film, noting how various waves of “moral panics” have contributed to the horror film’s status as a “bad object.” (I. Q. Hunter’s chapter in Part V, ‘Trash Horror and the Cult of the Bad Film,’ engages with many of these same issues and can be productively read in conjunction with the final three chapters of Part I).

Part II: features three chapters that explore the stylistic dimensions of cinematic horror. Robert Spadoni’s article, which surveys decades of critical reaction to the genre, attempts to explore what we really mean by mood and/or atmosphere, especially in relation to horror film-narrative and mise-en-scene.

In his discussion, Spadoni also draws on recent cognitive and philosophical work on emotions such as fear and dread, teasing out their implications for viewing audiences. Next, William Whittington’s chapter on sound design in horror films draws on his similar work on science fiction sound; the chapter is both theoretical and grounded in the industrial practices and discourses of those who actually create sound for horror films. Invoking a basic distinction between “raw” and “refined” sounds, Whittington explores the many different ways that sound design can be used to startle, terrify, unsettle, and/or create related experiences of cognitive dissonance.

Part II concludes with ‘Mellifluous Terror: The Discourse of Music and Horror Films’ by Joe Tompkins. Engaging with some of the same ideas explored by Whittington in the preceding chapter, Tompkins surveys the history of horror film music and the different ways it can be used; he also considers how the musical avant-garde has been incorporated into the sound of horror.

Part III: sketches out the various twists and turns of the English-language horror film. Despite this, and as many of the chapters in this volume note, the Western horror film has always been international in its development, reach, and influence. It has roots in Eastern European folklore, gothic literature, and German expressionist cinema; by the twenty-first-century, one strand of the English-language horror film seems devoted solely to remaking horror film hits from Spain, Japan, and Korea (among other nations).

My own chapter begins this section by exploring some of those roots just mentioned, as well as the films of Lon Chaney and the “old dark house” melodramas of stage and screen that predate the release of ‘Dracula’ (1931), the film that most scholars agree “created” this thing we now speak of as “the horror film.”

John Edgar Browning then offers an overview of the rise and fall of classical Hollywood horror films, exploring how ‘Dracula’ (the film) was drawn from ‘Dracula’ (the play), and some of the ways that era’s cultural critics tried to make sense of this new and disturbing phenomenon in their midst.

Mark Jancovich’s chapter on horror in the 1940s argues (as much of his recent work does) that 1940s horror was understood by its audiences and critics in much broader terms than it is today. The term horror was used to describe (what other critics have subsequently classified as) mysteries, thrillers, films noir, women’s pictures, and even social problem films. Jancovich rightly shows there is far more to 1940s horror than Val Lewton’s moody RKO films and Universal’s “omnibus” monster rallies such as ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman’ (1943). Next, Steffen Hantke explores the postwar context that gave rise to the science fiction horror film hybrids of the 1950s, seeing in their evolution an increasing self-reflexivity that finds its apex in horror movies such as ‘The Blob’ (1958) and ‘The Tingler’ (1959).

Part III continues with Rick Worland’s chapter on what he terms ‘The Gothic Revival’ (1957–1974). His chapter, like the one following it by Peter Hutchings, emphasizes the increasingly global nature of the genre, and traces the gothic revival from the United States [‘The Black Sleep’ (1956)] to the United Kingdom [Hammer’s ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957)], to Italy [with films such as ‘The Horrible Dr. Hichcock’ (1962)], and back again to America via American International Pictures and Roger Corman’s much vaunted Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price.

Similarly, Hutchings examines the somewhat opposing critical constructions of 1970s horror, and in so doing explores both the “modern” or “realist” American horror of the era (associated with leftist horror auteurs such as Wes Craven, George Romeo, Tobe Hooper, et al.who were praised by Robin Wood), and the rise of what has been subsequently labeled “Dollarshorror” or “Dollarscult” horror (associated with filmmakers such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Jess Franco, and Jean Rollin).

Then, James Kendrick explores how new technologies in make-up design and special effects changed the look of 1980s horror; Kendrick then focuses on a genealogy of that era’s most prolific horror subgenre, the slasher film. Adam Charles Hart had the unenviable task of trying to encapsulate the last twenty years or so of the English-language horror film, a genre that Hart sees as more international than ever before, as well as more diffuse and diverse due to the innovations of new media technologies and distribution systems.

Finally, Part III concludes with Isabel C. Pinedo’s consideration of several of the films that were (in)famously described as “torture porn” in the mid-2000s, creating yet another media panic over the cultural status of the genre.

Part IV: can only begin to hint at the rich and diverse traditions that delineate horror cinemas outside of English-speaking contexts. Ian Olney offers a fairly comprehensive look at Spanish horror cinema, while Xavier Mendik offers a more specific analysis of what he calls the Mezzogiorno Giallo film, and how it draws upon and expresses discourses related to assumptions about Italy’s rural south versus its more industrialised north.

James McCoy, a scholar well-known for his work on Japanese horror cinema, offers an overview of several recent trends in that tradition, including the outrageous postmodern body horror of films such as ‘Tokyo Gore Police’ (2008), ‘Vampire Girl versus Frankenstein Girl’ (2009), and ‘Mutant Girl Squad’ (2010).

Next, Daniel Martin examines Korean horror cinema and how it relates to the family melodrama, or more specifically, that culture’s shinpa film — narratives of exaggerated emotion, tragic romance, and female suffering.

Andrew Hock Soon Ng’s chapter closes this part of the __, and traces how a similar folkloric character type — the spirit or ghost of a woman who has died during childbirth — has been adapted in different ways according to the national cultures of three Southeast Asian nations: Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The chapter explores how the specific parameters of religion, gender, and politics (in each of the three cultures) inflect and delineate this centuries-old archetype in distinctly national ways.

Dale Hudson’s chapter on how the archetype of the vampire has been adapted across the globe could easily have ended Part IV, but herein it leads off Part V: ‘Selected Archetypes, Hybrids, and Crossovers’. Hudson’s chapter explores how the vampire is today and always has been a transnational figure who raises issues about foreigners and borders, but the vampire as protean character type has also allowed for some of the most fascinating cross-cultural pollinations, appearing in Indian masala films and Hong Kong action-comedy films.

Next, I. Q. Hunter explores how “bad,” “trashy,” and now “extreme” horror films have, in recent decades, become cult objects, adored by fans of what Jeffrey Sconce (2010) has dubbed “paracinema.” Joan Hawkins’s entry examines the films of Ken Russell — and particularly ‘The Devils’ (1971) — in relation to discourses of art cinema and horror. [Ian Olney’s chapter on Spanish Horror Cinema (in Part IV) provides a similar interrogation of Spanish-language art-horror filmmakers including Luis Bunuel, Pedro Almodovar, and Guillermo del Toro.]

Next, Adam Lowenstein explores horror in relationship to what anthropologist James Clifford (1988) has called ethnographic surrealism, using Jerzy Skolimowski’s ‘The Shout’ (1978) as a case study. Part V concludes with a study by Caroline Joan S. Picart, who argues that Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) and ‘Munich’ (2005), which purport to be objective docu-dramas, nonetheless contain stylistic traces associated with the horror film genre.

No single volume, not even one of this length, can hope to cover the entire scope of this fascinating and ever-morphing genre. One glaring omission could be a chapter on the ultra-violent films of the “New French Extremity” — films such as ‘Haute Tension’ (2003), ‘Inside’ (2007), and ‘Martyrs’ (2008). (In truth, I did contract such a chapter although it failed to materialise at the last moment.) That said, I would like to close this brief introduction by thanking my horror film colleagues who contributed to this volume (and even those who did not).

While this project has been a massive undertaking (with concomitantly massive frustrations, at times) it has also been a pleasure to work in this capacity with some of the most renowned horror scholars from around the globe. I have learned much from them in compiling this volume, as I hope its readers will. I also hope it will serve as a reference to and a beacon for horror film scholarship for many years to come.

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