Psychological Horror, and Body Horror

Bryan Stone
Bryan Stone

Perhaps the most frightening of all horror films are those where there are no monsters and no demons other than the psychological states of the characters.

As early as ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1919) or ‘West of Zanzibar’ (1928), horror had been associated with psychosis, inner compulsions, or insanity. Unlike the “mad scientist” of early horror films, however, the “madman” of later psychological horror was not a knowledge-seeking compulsive but a raging psychotic — the victim, says Tudor, of monsters brought forth by the sleep of reason, not by its attraction.

In fact, it was precisely as the mad scientist was becoming less prominent in the 1960s that the tortured minds in ‘Psycho’ (1960), ‘Peeping Tom’ (1960), and ‘Repulsion’ (1965) were becoming more prominent — what has been described as “the trend from secure horror to paranoid horror.”

This shift would accelerate in the 1970s and 80s, inevitably bringing forth the “mad slashers” of ‘Halloween’ (1978) and ‘Friday the 13th’ (1980).

This turn to psychological horror reflects and perhaps also contributes to significant alterations in religious meaning in North American culture during that same period.

Not only is the sacred no longer “somewhere out there” but rather “somewhere in here” (and thus the psyche is to be divined as a sacred text), so also evil is no longer “out there” but “in here.” The monstrous dwells within the dark corners of the mind, repressed urges, and divided personality.

One of religion’s primary functions in establishing meaning and assigning value had been its ability to stake out the boundaries of good and evil, sacred and profane, saint and sinner (often by literally “staking” that which it deemed monstrous — the witch, the communist, the homosexual).

Western religions traditionally did this in cosmological and, of course, theological terms with the net result that morality was imposed onto the human from outside.

Thus, science had its divinely sanctioned limits, and the sacredness of certain “places” (the church, the home, the body, the family, etc.) was established by reference to the transcendent. But now with the turn from soul to ego, from priest to psychiatrist, from religious discourse to psychoanalysis, all religious bets are compromised.

In an earlier time, evil was absolute and threatened us from distant Transylvanian castles, haunted graveyards, or remote laboratories.

Monsters could (a) be defeated through (b) group effort guided by (c) moral men equipped with (d) rationality, science, and knowledge that could (e) be put to use in predictable ways.

As Jonathan Lake Crane says, “the majority of monsters were enemies who helped men gain confidence in their ability to control and understand the world”. Religion provided the “sacred canopy” under which precisely this rational and moral exercise of human freedom could be counted on to defeat evil.

But the turn to the psyche as the site of the sacred required that evil be reoriented to new and more familiar contexts (schools, families, the suburbs). Horror had come home.

Neither the supernatural, nor ghosts, nor demons were anywhere to be found. Now horror films taught us that our next-door neighbour might be the monster.

All the rules begin to change: (a) this monster cannot be defeated; (b) all collective action aimed at doing so is bound to fail; (c) moral uprightness will get you nowhere (as Crane says, “Altruism of any sort is no longer rewarded in the horror film. Most slasher and gore films kill off even the most heroic and self-sacrificing protagonists”; (d) rationality, science, and expertise mean nothing; and (e) evil is completely unpredictable.

By the 1980s, as the modern notion of the psyche itself began to lose its credibility, it was the body that was made to pay the price. As Badley says, “The haunted house was the human body itself — threatened at every turn, covered with tubes, cannibalized for cells, fluids, tissues, and parts, tortured and reconstructed on the procrustean bed of biotechnology. Haunted houses are always mazes and pilgrimages. Ours went from womb to tomb and contained spaces representing equal states of abjection: the patient and the corpse were choreographed identically; the living were undead, the dead wouldn’t or couldn’t lie down; the grim reaper and the resurrectionist wielded the same instrument, a saw/scythe”.

It is not as though the human body had never been disfigured before in earlier horror films, of course. But while these disfigurations could be created by mutations or by an inappropriate splicing of the human soul with alienated nature (‘The Fly’, ‘The Alligator People’), more often than not these disfigurations emphasized the human spirit and were in reality disfigurations of the soul that made their way out onto the human form (‘Cat People’, ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’), thus providing the imaginative foil for a morality tale.

One of the most interesting films in this regard is Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’, released in 1932, which requires that we identify not with those who are beautiful and otherwise “normal”-looking, but whose souls are clearly bent and misshapen. Rather we are directed to identify with Browning’s real-life collection of bearded ladies, human worms, Siamese twins, midgets, and pinheads who, though disfigured outwardly, point us toward the beauty and truth of the human spirit.

Gothic horror constructed also its understanding of death within this wider humanistic vision and the Judeo-Christian coordinates from which that vision arose.

As with the classic medieval morality play which taught the Christian that the avoidance of sin and the living of an upright life would inevitably lead to final acceptance by God and the peace of heaven, so with Gothic tales of death, “to die in irredeemable sin…, to be unable to die and find peace and the possibility of heaven for the suffering spirit is the great danger…” Every defeat of a monster, every time evil was stopped in its tracks or a soul was released from the power of an ancient curse or a voodoo spell, peace was made on a cosmic or metaphysical scale. In one sense, death could even be embraced, and the rituals and myths by which it was embraced were public and communal.

In North America, in the twentieth-century, however, death changed hands. The symbols, the myths, and, indeed, the institutions that guided us in coping with and understanding death were transformed before our eyes.

Death, once the special province of religion, now became the province of science, and especially medicine.

As Badley says, “once intimately connected with the life of the community, death became separated from life by medical technology, which confined it to the hospital and the funeral home.”

Horror in the last century parallels this repression and eroticisation of, and inevitable fascination with, death.

The assaults on the human body heralded by George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) and, later, ‘Halloween’ (1978) provide the new body language, the iconography, the communal rituals, if you will, for disposing of bodies that had been quietly kept out of sight, removed hygienically from the public eye, whose decaying flesh had been covered with leftover sacred deodorants but never buried.

Romero brings home the corpses from Vietnam and deposits them on screen in front of us long before Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon’ or Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’.

He calls his zombies “the blue collar monster” — “they’re us,” says one of his characters. And their bodies —our bodies! — become “the central marker upon which we articulate the spectacular degradation of everyday life.”

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