Gothumentary: Horror Cinema, Desire, and Sensation

Kristopher Woofter

Kristopher Woofter

I argued that as Hollywood filmmakers of the 1940s turn to tropes and themes of collective trauma, amnesia and investigation, they create films that scholars resist reading as horror (Kaplan, 2005; Toles, 2009; Bould, 2005: 67). This resistance occurs especially in light of horror scholarship that overwhelmingly frames the Universal Studios’ 1930s supernatural monster cycle as a classical period or prototype for horror cinema.

Because of their derivation from Gothic literary sources and their stage adaptations (see Worland, 2007), expressionistic monster films like Universal Studios ‘Dracula’ (1931, Tod Browning) and ‘Frankenstein’ (1931, James Whale) become synonymous with “Gothic” in scholarly discourse, and this misconception forgets the Gothic’s manifestation as a critical mode of interrogation into positivistic or empirical representations of reality.

In the 1940s, horror filmmakers in Hollywood look to other ways of evoking the real through an aesthetics that reaches back to the Gothic tradition’s emphasis on textual reflexivity, excessive spectacle, and heightened emotions. Thematically, a turn to the interior, to the psychological, meshes with narratives of investigation in 1940s horror to create what Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney call “metaphysical detection” (1999), a mode that has its origins in Edgar Allan Poe’s extended explorations of extreme psychological states and narratives of ratiocination.

Horror cinema in the 1940s privileges a number of such Gothic-horror psychological states (paranoia, obsession, longing, dread, distress, hauntedness) and representational strategies (uncanniness, inconclusiveness, indeterminacy, an aesthetics of absence, hypermediation).

Some scholars categorize these films less within the general category of a horror film than with more specific styles or subgenres — the main ones being film noir and the paranoid woman’s film. Whether labelled as styles, subgenres, or cycles, these two particular horror-inflected forms are primarily characterized by their interest in exploring psychological rather than supernatural monsters.

Forties films like ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘The Locket’, ‘Bluebeard’ and ‘The Red House’ — none of which figures strongly in horror scholarship — suggest a darker, more inscrutable aspect of reality that resists representational strategies, and suggest that the evocation of such a reality requires a realism of troubling affect rather than positivistic closure.

These films flirt with high-Gothic notions of atavism, monomania and madness to unsettle rural and urban North America during and after wartime, marking it as an uncanny and broodily melancholy space of collective longing and loss. They combine such themes of pervasive psychological disease (murderous and/or obsessive men, manipulative and/or paranoid women) with moments of stylistic flourish and allegory to gesture towards a spectral reality that simultaneously compels and resists comprehensive representation. Ultimately, they suggest that something beyond the gritty social realism of films like ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’ (Mervin LeRoy, 1932) was required to capture the 1940s experience.

The Gothic-realist turn in 1940s horror cinema, with its recourse to investigation and imminent discovery as a source of both pleasure and dread, finds the horror genre manifesting most clearly as a mode that highlights key epistemological paradigms and aesthetic questions shared by horror and documentary cinema. These shared concerns revolve around the ways subjects come into knowledge and understanding of their world, not just through rational understanding, but also through feeling and sensation; they also revolve around the degree to which poetic expressiveness and appeals to spectatorial desire should figure in generating these effects.

Tom Gunning suggests that an “aesthetics of attraction,” whether in fictional or documentary cinema, emphasizes “exhibitionist confrontation rather than diegetic absorption” (1986: 384); in other words, an attractions-based aesthetic eschews narrative and diegetic aims to emphasize the “direct stimulation” (1986: 384) of the spectator’s “visual curiosity” (1986: 384).

Attractions-based cinema performs for the spectator with the aim of making the world newly visible to spectators through emotional as well as aesthetic appreciation. Yet to what degree should (or does) documentary involve such methods? How much can we access knowledge via appeals to logic and analysis, versus appeals to the affective and aesthetic engagement of the spectator? More specifically, to what extent does documentary hermeneutics engage the same emotional and aesthetic responses found in the cinema of attractions, involving astonishment and uncanny effects? These are questions that theorists like Michael Renov (1993), John Corner (2006), and Elizabeth Cowie (2011) have highlighted in their work on documentary expressiveness.

The films in this article carry forward the 1940s horror film’s aesthetics of attraction to both explore and interrogate the fully sensorial and expressive possibilities of the documentary form.

In discussing his framing of documentary’s discursive “modalities of desire” (1993: 21) which include “preservation, persuasion, analysis, and expressivity” (1993: 35), Michael Renov writes that attempts at a poetics of documentary have been troubled by the truth-versus-beauty dichotomy of Western thought since the eighteenth-century (1993: 24). The key for Michael Renov and others is to acknowledge the role of epistemological desire and pleasure in a documentary, especially through a reflexive lens of analysis.

For Michael Renov, artistic goals that unite a quest for knowledge with spectatorial pleasure need not be a taboo subject for documentary theory: “As desire is put into play,” he writes, “documentary discourse may realize historical discursivity through and against pleasurable surface, may engage in self-reflection in the service of moral suasion” (1993: 25). Elizabeth Cowie also has addressed extensively the role of pleasure and spectacle in documentary viewing, an integral factor often opposed to the goals of a serious documentary.

In “The Spectacle of Actuality,” she asks of the documentary, “should we look for knowledge or for pleasure?” (1999: 26), and in her later work, identifies “mise-en-scenes of desire and of imagining that enable identification” (2011: 86) in documentary similar to those of fiction. In Elizabeth Cowie’s terms, the documentary gaze carries echoes of the revelatory and the uncanny parallel to the gaze of cinematic horror, as “[i]n curiosity, the desire to see is allied with the desire [to] know through seeing what cannot normally be seen, that is, what is normally veiled or hidden from sight” (2011: 13). In Elizabeth Cowie’s framing, the documentary spectator confronts knowledge through a combination of desire and dread.

James Marsh’s poetic documentary, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ (1999), takes questions of documentary desire and “pleasurable surface” as its central conceit, and undercuts them with a disturbing sense of repressed historical trauma.

James Marsh’s film, an adaptation of a 1976 book by historian Michael Lesy, compiles an uncanny amount of evidence of collective mania and violence in an area of turn-of-the-century Wisconsin. It derives its material entirely from two types of documentary evidence: photographs — mostly by Charles van Schaick — and journalistic accounts from regional newspaper writers.

The book includes no further comment on these materials, other than Lesy’s suggestive arrangement of them. Michael Lesy’s method is associational — occurring through repetition and through a juxtaposition of journalistic blurbs with other blurbs, blurbs with photographs, and photographs with other photographs.

James Marsh’s film takes significantly more liberties with the book’s presentation of exclusively salvaged evidence, adding evocative black-and-white reenactments of the book’s journalistic reports and institutional records, some of which are rendered in whispered voice-over by actor Ian Holm Cuthbert (especially those relating to accounts of subjects institutionalized in the Mendota Mental Health Institute).

Against these dramatic reenactments, the film juxtaposes colour footage of the present, underscored by radio broadcasts telling of violence, house fires, and other unsavoury events that reflect back upon the almost epidemic violence and madness in the area’s abandoned history.

In paralleling the two time periods, the film suggests a present disturbingly undergirded by a past that may now be recoverable for the present only as a kind of phantasmal echo. There is the sense of creeping dread in the film’s parallel juxtapositions of past and present, a cultural malaise that itself may be the source of impending crisis.

Discussing the expressive-associative aesthetic of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’, John Corner writes: “The production of an historical imaginary is a consequence both of the beguilingly unknowable nature of past specificity and of its attractions both as an object world (a site for historical knowledge but also the resources for historical fetishism) and as subjective space (the site for the reconstruction of historical experience and feeling and for the play of historical fantasy).” (2006: 294)

For John Corner, questions around documentary desire come as well through a need to re-present the historical world cinematically in ways that highlight subjectivity, interpretation, and the limitations of the medium — that is, documentary “images as ones to be looked at as well as through” (John Corner, 2006: 293). The performance of rhetorical strategies — and their limitations — itself becomes an attraction.

‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ offers a wealth of anecdotal evidence in its voice-over readings of actual accounts of murderous mania, violence, hysteria, mental disease, drug use, and, in one case, maniacal civil disobedience. But the film subverts any claim to expository mastery through a formal structure that is more like collage than narrative.

The film’s four sections (Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall), along with its chapters announced in intertitles, heighten the film’s relationship to texts, and encourage an associative reading by the spectator who must confront the many uncanny repetitions in the film to be receptive to its sense of history. Even in its playful liberties with voice-over, and occasional darkly comical presentation of characters like the window-smashing Susan Elizabeth Sweeney — who “tours” the state hopped up on cocaine and rage — the film is deeply engaged with the ways we understand the past.

News stories, photographs and beautifully shot reenactments accumulate into evidence of a sort of infectious social and psychic collapse — in John Corner’s terms, a “pathology of place” (2006: 293).

The expected documentary information comes embedded in the film’s pervasive sense of dread that opens up a space of sensation and contemplation for the spectator.

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