Horror films were one of the most popular genres of the seventies and early eighties.1 Cycles of occult, demonic possession, slash and gash, psychotic killer, werewolf, and vampire films appeared, a phenomenon seemingly related to the prevalent temper of insecurity, distrust, and lack of confidence. The films indicate heightened levels of anxiety in the culture, particularly with regard to the family, children, political leadership, and sexuality. A central motif of many contemporary horror films is violence against women. Rather than merely condemn this violence, we shall argue that it needs to be situated within a broad cultural system that includes the representations and socialization patterns central to both the military and the capitalist economy. Such violence is in some respects merely an extension of the institutional violence that a male-dominated capitalist culture accepts and promotes as part of its “normal” operations. Thus, an analysis of violence against women in horror films points out the centrality of a seemingly marginal cultural phenomenon to the normal operations of a social system run on principles of aggressivity, competition, domination, and the survival of the fittest.
During times of social crisis, several sorts of cultural representations tend to emerge. Some idealize solutions or alternatives to the distressing actuality, some project the worst fears and anxieties induced by the critical situation into metaphors that allow those fears to be absolved or played out, and some evoke a nihilistic vision of a world without hope or remedy. If Dirty Harry is an idealized solution, the shark in Jaws is a metaphoric projection of fear, and the end of Chinatown is a realization of cultural pessimism. The process of idealization and projection is a way of reconstructing psychological identities dependent on social codes and cultural representations that have been disturbed or even destroyed. Idealization offers new, compensatory models to alleviate a sense of psychological loss, while metaphoric projections allow fear to be dissipated and a sense of security to be attained so that damaged subject constructions and the social codes that sustain them can be rebuilt. For example, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, during what is called the Romantic period, political and industrial revolutions destroyed old cultural orders of all kinds. The changes threatened to herald in an entirely new social world, and they also provoked a dual process of idealization and fear projection. Nature and feeling were idealized in relation to the ascendency of Enlightenment rationality, urban industrialization, commercial calculation, political modernization, and science. At the same time, the rapid changes in political and social life (the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period of anti-aristocratic reform) provoked fear projections in such metaphoric modes as the gothic and horror genres. If nature was a site of ideal feeling, it was also a site of extremes that sometimes took monstrous forms. This was when Frankenstein’s monster was created, and the era eventually included those continental writers (Hoffmann especially) whose work would inform the first great wave of horror films during the German Expressionist era of the 1920s. The nihilistic possibility is evident particularly during this later era. At the extreme edge of fear, hope is eclipsed altogether. But visions of a total destruction of social order can also be a way of refusing conservative principles of stability. The refusal of healing, especially of conservative healing, can be a progressive tactic.
The radical changes that occurred in American society from the sixties to the mid-seventies provoked a similar set of responses that seem part of a cultural process of reconstructing stabilizing representations of self and world that were broken down by those changes. Compensatory idealizations occur around romance and the family, as we saw in the last chapter, and also through representations of the male hero (see chapter 8) and military power (see chapter 7). There is even a sort of neoromantic revival of sorts during this period as in Spielberg fantasy films (see 9.3), that idealizes feeling and nature. It is in the horror genre that some of the crucial anxieties, tensions, and fears generated by these changes, especially by feminism, economic crisis, and political liberalism, are played out. Unlike the last great wave of horror films in the 1950s, the contemporary horror film articulates a greater level of social anxiety as well as, frequently, a higher degree of pessimism and even nihilism. The male sexual fears addressed by at least certain of these films are often such that they require a displaced and metaphoric representation. Indeed, the very need for such indirection is symptomatic of the sort of psychological disposition (anxious, insecure, intolerant of cultural liberalism, incapable of expressing itself directly about troublesome issues) that gives rise to such negative reactions. Not surprisingly, many of these films were targeted at low-income, less educated, and less articulate audiences in rural and urban underclass areas. And the nihilistic vision of hopelessness, while it has radical versions, is often also a way of eliciting calls for authority and strength as answers to the dissolution of order. Only the strong can endure the total loss of meaning.
But if the horror metaphor provides a medium for expressing fears the culture cannot deal with directly, it also provides a vehicle for social critiques too radical for mainstream Hollywood production. Some of the critical energies of the sixties did not so much go underground as under cover of metaphor during this period. It was a commonplace among film students of the era that some of the most radical statements in criticism of American society were to be found in the low-budget monster films that played the drive-in circuits. Indeed, one of the most important radical statements against American conservatism at this time is George Romero’s “Living Dead” trilogy.
Films featuring occult motifs frequently use demonic or supernatural figures to represent threats to social normality and the existing institutional order. Such use increases during periods of internal social disorder or when external threats to the society are especially feared. The great cycle of German Expressionist horror films appeared at a time of tremendous social crisis in the Weimar Republic, and the classical Hollywood monster films first appeared during the Depression. Horror films were revived during the fifties as metaphors for both the Red threat and for internal enemies (like teenagers). They reappear in the seventies during a time when the United States suffered a combined crisis of legitimacy in its dominant institutions and the economy.
At such times, the occult appears as an efficacious ideological mode which helps explain seemingly incomprehensible phenomena. It suggests that what seems meaningless has meaning. In a society run on irrational principles of unequal work and reward distribution, the need for such meaning structures will be augmented the more the system enters dysfunction—an unavoidable possibility and a recurrent reality of market capitalism, as this period proves. Thus, the occult should be read as a projection of fear, but it is also a way of attaining meaning of the sort denied in “real life” under capitalism. A sense of meaning provides security by describing the origin and function of seemingly irrational phenomena, like the breakdown of the economy. The occult provides a narrative that posits a subject of evil (the devil), as well as a logic that situates events within a predictable order. Thus, the occult has an extremely rational function—the restoration of the sense of security undermined by the dysfunctions of capitalism and the crises of political confidence that corrupt leadership in an underdeveloped democratic context provokes. It is less an irrational phenomenon than a way of dealing with the irrationality of the American social system.
Sixties romanticism and mysticism fostered an interest in the occult that went so far as to include the demonic. This was first evident in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but it reached the center stage of American culture with The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). The strain of occultism blended with the strain of religious fundamentalism that appeared in the seventies. If the former generated the Amityville Horror trilogy (of which the first was the fifth most popular film of 1979), the latter gave rise to a demonic occult cycle, the Omen trilogy (third most popular in 1976), which played to religious fantasies about the devil taking over the world.
Like religion in general, these films should be read as metaphoric representations that fulfill emotional needs whose satisfaction is not available anywhere else in the social system as it is constituted. They are also symptomatic of fear reactions to the tremendous social changes and crises of the period. One major negative impact of those transformations is the provocation of anxiety responses that appear as fantasies of evil in the world. Those whose feelings of self-worth and psychological identity depended on idealized representations of the nation, the country’s leaders, and a sense of one’s proper role in relation to others in the patriarchal family had those feelings undermined by loss of war, the dishonoring of a president, and the youth, sexual, and feminist revolutions. It is noteworthy that the Omen trilogy, the story of a young devil who uses corporate and military power to try to take over the world, begins a year after the “loss” of Vietnam, the public discrediting of national icons such as the CIA, and the triumph of liberation movements against U.S. interests abroad. A year prior Nixon had been unseated, and the year before that, the Arab oil embargo had brought the United States to its knees. During a time of seemingly permanent recession, uncontrollable inflation, and consistently rising unemployment, the sense of loss that resulted from the deprivation of identity-conferring cultural representations gave rise to paranoid projections, combinations of defensive aggression transposed into external nemeses and genuine fears of forces in the world that had dethroned the public cultural representations whose internalization had secured personal identity in the past.
The dislocations of social crisis can also provoke critical perceptions, and if the Omen trilogy plays to crisis-induced fears it also plays to resentment against those who remained unaffected by the inflation and unemployment ravaging the white middle class in the seventies—the upper class. The films resonate with a sense of fascination with the social unseen, the hidden brokers of economic and political power. It should not at all be surprising that those invisible powerful people should be associated in the popular imaginary with the devil, that other great unseen force of “evil.” At this time, moreover, secret wrongdoing on the part of those in economic and political power was very much in the air; the public had been made keenly aware that the powerful who hid behind closed doors did so for good reason. Even if the devil was not in the board room or the Oval Office, corruption was—as invisible as any spirit. Fittingly, then, the third film in the Omen trilogy (The Final Conflict, 1981) begins with a film clip about the economic crisis of the past decade, a “great recession” called “Armageddon” which seems due to demonic causes. The devil is an evil corporate chief and political broker who arranges coups and natural disasters for profit. In the second film, Damien (1978), the devil is associated with big business malfeasance (the artificial creation of famine in order to sell pesticides) and militarism. Thus, the occult motif is in some respects a magnet for popular resentment against the economically and politically powerful in the mid to late seventies. It is also an example of the populist imaginary at its most potentially critical extreme, a point where resentment, while veering into the traditional irrationalism of that outlook, also gives rise to searing insights into the nature of unjust power.
If the occultist films seem to transcode public anxieties, they also pick up on more private ones, especially around the family, sex roles, and generational relations. Amityville, for example, concerns the “horror” of a young man who murdered his parents, a horror that resides in a house, a familiar metaphor for family life. The localizing of fear projections in the family is understandable given the enormous changes in family roles during this period. The sexual revolution that liberated young people from traditional morality and the feminist revolution that allowed women to trade their traditional places for new roles also dislocated male identities dependent on other fixed points of reference for their map of self-meaning. This might help explain why children appear as demonically possessed in many occult films of the period (The Children, Patrick, The Godsend, etc.).
The cycle of demonic or evil children films is one of the most striking developments of the contemporary horror film. Previous representations of children in Hollywood film had, with few exceptions (like The Bad Seed), been positive; children were idealized as innocents. Contemporary monster children do rather nasty things to adults, however, and, not surprisingly, polls at the time suggested that parenting was becoming a less and less desirable occupation in a postindustrial culture of increased leisure and an expanding singles life.2 It was as if the kids were catching on to what the grown-ups were thinking. Moreover, the children of the rebellious subcultures of the sixties and early seventies, who rejected parental authority, must have seemed fairly monstrous to an older generation of more conservative Americans.
The intersection of public and private occult thematics is particularly evident in Stanley Kubrick’s major work of the era —The Shining (1980)—a critical horror film that maps a story of family violence onto an occult narrative. Kubrick uses the occult story as an instrument for analyzing the sort of breakdown that occurs when interpersonal structures like the family are forced to absorb the negative feelings of aggression and resentment generated by an economic system that unequally distributes success, gratification, and a sense of self-worth. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), an unemployed teacher and aspiring writer, is employed as caretaker of a mountain resort; as the winter progresses, he becomes psychotic, eventually attempting to kill his wife and son before he freezes to death outside. The son has psychic powers that permit him to see the murderous past that is still very much alive in the haunted hotel. Jack is absorbed into the occult world, and it is to preserve its secret under orders from the ghostly former caretaker who had murdered his own family that Jack attempts to kill his family, so they can all live there with the other ghosts “forever and ever and ever.” The occult motif brings together a number of social themes—male rage against wife and child resulting from economic failure, the emergence of violence from past guilt, and the more conservative idea of the inefficacy of civil institutions in the face of the evil in human nature.
Jack’s failure as a writer seems to inspire his madness, a theme highlighted in the Stephen King novel. Indeed, the line he types over and over—“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”—is a sardonic comment on the work ethic. The close relation between work and family violence is indicated by his wife’s account of his first act of violence against his son. He is angered because the boy disturbed his papers. Moreover, when he first attacks his wife in the hotel, he speaks of his “responsibilities” and his “contract,” things he claims she doesn’t understand. The hotel can thus be read in part as a metaphor for the isolation of the family in a cold and bleak economic landscape. It is a troubled garrison into which external market pressures of work and contract easily insinuate themselves, with violent results.
The hotel is also a metaphor for the psyche, both for the unconscious and for the repressed past that returns to haunt the present. Jack’s descent into madness is a descent into his own unconscious, a scene of guilt and repressed impulses. The previous caretaker’s murder of his family can be interpreted as a figure for Jack’s own past violent desires. And indeed, the historical past is represented as a kind of fate that determines the present just as personal history lies under present behavior. The unconscious also harbors Utopian desires for escape from repression, family responsibilities, and the constraints of polite behavior which induce the curtailment of urges. For example, in the haunted bar, Jack, who has promised to refrain from drinking and who clearly has money worries, is able to drink without paying. The double nature of the unconscious, as a site of both Utopian and fearful desires, is signaled in the green bathroom fantasy, when a beautiful, naked woman Jack embraces suddenly turns into an ulcerous old hag. Descent into the unconscious permits a liberation from restraint, but it also is represented as a potentially dangerous pathway that unleashes repressed horrors—in this case, the fear of woman’s sexuality.
Finally, the occult narrative figures the theme that beneath the platitudinous patina of liberal civility lurks a murderous and vile human nature. This theme was particularly evident in Kubrick’s other films of this era —2001, which argues that there is little difference between primitive life and humanity’s most advanced achievements, A Clockwork Orange, which depicts attempts to reform criminals as doomed, and Barry Lyndon, a film based on a novel by Thackeray, the nineteenth century English satirist, which depicts social life as a charade for predation and opportunism. The Shining is linked to these other films by the theme of fate and by its ironic style, which suggests that polite liberal society is little more than a decorous cover, a theater concealing more primordial violent impulses. The theme of primitive fate appears in The Shining as the occult past which determines Jack’s behavior, and the ironic style of presentation consists of contrasts between a civil world that is shown to be empty and a frightening, more powerful world of primitive aggressivity. Jack cites the platitudes of civilized family life—“Wendy, I’m home!”—as he breaks down the door with an axe. In the end, he is represented as a grunting neanderthalic hunting animal, a figure of the conservative vision of human life.
Kubrick codes these themes chromatically, so much so that few scenes fail to be inflected along the lines of a semiotics of color. The most prevalent color opposition is between red and blue. Blue is the color of civility, platitude, and polite behavior. It is associated with the empty chatter of television, scenes of decorous family life, stereotypical repetition (“all work . . .”), and Jack’s wife, Wendy, who is represented as something of a space cadet. Red is the color of horror and violence, everything from the blood that flows from elevators to the bright red walls of the bathroom in which Jack receives instructions to kill his family. Kubrick uses filters to make certain color tones dominant in certain scenes, and the device is especially noticeable in contrasting scenes, as when there is a cut from a dominant blue family/television scene to a dominant red scene in which Jack enters the occult world. In the end, when Jack breaks down the bedroom door with an axe, the alternation is between a blue exterior and the red interior, as if the external world of civility were being set off from an inner world of primitive blood violence. When Jack is in between the two worlds, still behaving civilly, not yet mad, he wears both red and blue; when his son, Danny, begins to enter the occult world, he is shot against a red carpet and he starts to wear a bright red sweater; and when Wendy finally passes over into the occult world, she too shifts from predominant blues to red. Moreover, intense yellow to gold coloring in the fantasy bar connotes a world of leisure and wealth, a world from which Jack is excluded in reality. The same color is associated with his work, the medium of his attempted rise on the class ladder.
The color coding instantiates the theme of the violence of human nature underlying the patina of civilization. It is significant that the film ends outside the house “in nature,” but nature appears metaphorically in the house in the form of the recurring bathroom motif. In one, Jack encounters the ulcerous woman; in another he receives his murderous instructions from the previous caretaker. There also Wendy hides from him when he begins his rampage. The bathroom suggests interiority, and it is comparable to the unconscious to which Jack descends and to the past into which he retreats. If the house is a metaphor for the psyche, then the bathroom comes to figure as a site of bodily guilt and disgust. It signifies gross materiality (the hag), the compulsive fated horror of the past (the previous caretaker), and the violence lurking beneath polite family life (the attack on Wendy). Its significance as the gross secret (excrement) that underlies polite civility is especially clear in the scene in which Jack and Wendy sit on the bed to one side of the frame. On the other side of the frame is the open bathroom door through which one sees the toilet and above it a bright shining light. Earlier, light is associated with civility, and here it is shown in contrast to the toilet, which underlies it quite literally within the frame. Jack, who is linked to “shining,” is parallel to the light, while Wendy is parallel to the toilet. The ulcerous woman was also found in a bathroom, and one senses that revulsion from feminine bodily functions (and from materiality in general) informs the horror theme. That, in fact, would explain the recurring images of blood pouring forth through elevator doors like an uncontrolled menstrual flow. Thus, the bathroom is the site of that “nature” of gross materiality which drags down all the pretensions of civil behavior. It is important, then, that the bathroom in which the horrible woman appears is a bright green, the color traditionally associated with nature.
The motif of “shining” or preverbal communication is a further elaboration of the opposition between civil and natural life. It suggests a truth that shines forth without the mediation of representation. The film is a visual rather than a verbal text. That is, it makes its point primarily through images and color coding, not through a discursive elaboration of its meaning. Language signifies civility, and at the level Jack comes to inhabit, language is no longer operative. Thus, “nature” seems to stand outside language and civilization altogether.
But the colors are themselves metaphors, civil institutions rather than natural substances. The nature of primitive desire can only be presented by civilized means, and it can only stand forth as the effect of a differential contrast, a juxtaposition with civility. Like the mountain mirrored symmetrically in the lake at the beginning of the film, or the maze which mirrors the straight civilized lines of the hotel, nature can only be posited from within civilization as its inversion—from platitude to murder. This is so because “nature” is itself a projection of a conservative worldview onto nature and a product of conservative socialization. It is a metaphor for conservative social institutions and values, which are in fact the inversion of liberal ideals. Where liberals see the possibility of rational arrangements, conservatives see an irrational and violent world that cannot be redeemed by ameliorative measures. But conservative “nature” can never shine forth as such, outside of representational mediations which foreground its origin in a particular sort of civil arrangement.
Kubrick’s film thus examines the sexual psychopathology of right-wing disciplinarianism and primitivism. The conservative social theme of the necessity of discipline to control an uncontrolled, disorderly, and violent nature is embodied in the film’s style, which is itself highly controlled. Such fastidiousness in form (rituals of behavior, extreme attention to detail) is associated in psychoanalytic theory with anxieties regarding uncontrolled impulses as well as a desire to control and retain what threatens to depart. Such desires connote a fixation on anality, and they are linked with sadism—hence, perhaps, the importance of the bathroom, where Jack encounters both a horrifying mother and a disciplinarian father. If mothers are associated with the horror of gross physical processes, then it is fitting that the paternal figure or superego should represent control over those processes, the power of the mind to supersede involuntary physicality. But the father (the previous caretaker) also is a figure for the violent separation from a female horror that threatens to engulf the “boy” Jack (as in the green bathroom sequence where Jack’s attraction to the woman/mother gives way to repulsion). Appropriately, the bartender tells Jack—“Women, you can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em.” These points help explain the disciplinarian, sadistic, and sexist orientation of conservative social thinking. It is based in a horror of materiality coupled with a desire for control over it, and in a fixation at an immature level of psychic development that is anal retentive and sadistic in orientation. They might also explain the conservative attachment to the past, that which cannot be let go and which must be clung to. Fittingly, Jack’s final descent is both into a figure of intestines (the maze) and into a frozen past (the photograph in which he appears magically in a 1920s setting). It is as well the historical world of the father-caretaker, and one senses that the conservative desire to retain, never to let go, is linked to a desire to restore the father, to lay claim to his disciplinary power (over the child and the mother). At the origin of the conservative model of “nature” seems to lie a certain authoritarian family form whose configuration provokes the sort of socialization we have been describing, one oriented above all toward restoring paternal discipline that is somehow a source of pleasure.
For, in the final photograph, Jack for the first time appears happy and free. The image of pleasure at escape from family responsibility and guilt stands in contrast to the painful means employed in its attainment. At a certain point in the conservative psychological scenario, sadism seems to ally with a masochism which turns pain into pleasure. The converse of the disciplinarian father is the obedient son, whose obedience is a means of waylaying pain, of converting parental punishment into pleasure. The internalized correlate of patriarchal discipline is self-control, pleasing through obedience and therefore avoiding pain. That, of course, is the key to the replication of the conservative psychopathology through family socialization. Its negative side is the reproduction of the desire to retain and control as a model for society. Such thinking easily legitimates retentive greed, a jungle survivalist psychology, and social discipline. Yet it contains a progressive dimension. For the need to convert the pain of conservative socialization into pleasure suggests that such social forms (discipline, obedience, etc.) survive only at the expense of their internal subversion. It is as if conservatism evidenced a desire ultimately to escape from conservatism.
Monster figures can be used to affirm the existing order in that they represent threats to normality which are purged. The release of narrative tension is often identified in the tradition with conservative institutions. But monsters can also be used critically and deconstructively if they draw attention to particularly monstrous aspects of normal society, as in monster tragedies like the “Creature” films of the fifties. The leftist use of the monster motif in the modern era is thus not altogether unprecedented. Indeed, an argument could be made that all monster figures are immanently critical of reigning social norms, since what cultures project as “monstrous” in relation to “normality” is frequently a metaphor for unrestrained aggression and unrepressed sexuality of the sort upon whose exclusion the maintenance of civility depends. The viewing experience of such films often also elicits feelings that a purged civil life cannot by definition afford, and this probably helps account for their popularity both with young people, whose sexuality is restrained in bourgeois society, and with underclass people who live under the gun of a class society that must for its survival keep their urges as controlled as possible. Even the classical monster films often elicited sympathy for the monster figure, though conservative social authority ultimately had to triumph. The plight of the spurned groom in The Bride of Frankenstein was more likely to appeal to lonelyhearts than to conservatives on the lookout for something to repress.
In classical monster films a reassuring social order is restored through the successful operations of conservative institutions and authority figures. In most contemporary monster films no reassuring vision of restored order is affirmed. And the monster is often a figure less of an external threat to an essentially good social order than of an exaggeration of the most normal features of that very order. While many fifties monster films rehearsed scenarios of ecological or nuclear disaster from a liberal point of view, few blamed corporate greed or uncontrolled militarism for the problem. The new critical monster films often do so, and this motif seems a direct result of the radical movements of the sixties and seventies. The culture became sensitized to the real possibility of such disasters as a result of the environmental and ecological movements. In addition, during this period the increased power of American corporations and conservative political forces led to an increase of arrogance regarding such issues as toxic waste, nuclear power, and pesticide poisoning. When the discovery of toxic poisoning at Love Canal and of nuclear industry malpractice at Three Mile Island brought that arrogance to public attention, one result was an increase in the level of public skepticism regarding the virtuous interests of such institutions. Those public attitudes are transcoded and addressed in numerous monster films of the period.
Among the most important socially critical monster films of the era are the three “Dead” movies made by George Romero: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1979), Day of the Dead (1985). By depicting normal people becoming monsters, Romero subverts the line demarcating normality from monstrosity and suggests that much of what passes for normal life is in fact quite unseemly. Romero established the lexicon for the contemporary monster film in Night of the Living Dead. Operating as an independent outside the Hollywood mainstream, he was able to explore themes (incest) using dramatic modes and representational strategies (cannibalism rendered literally) without restraint from the reigning Hollywood conventions. The premise of Night is that dead people walk around in a zombie-like stupor attacking and eating living people, who in turn become “living dead” that prey on others. A group of people hiding out in a farmhouse are besieged and overrun by the Dead. In this film the Dead can be read as externalizations of tensions and conflicts internal to the family and patriarchal social relations. Robin Wood writes: “The zombies represent the suppressed tensions and conflicts—the legacy of the past, of the patriarchal structuring of relationships, ‘dead’ yet automatically continuing—which that order creates and on which it precariously rests.”3 The farmhouse group is as much destroyed by internecine bickering and by the surfacing of suppressed desire and violence as by the zombies. It is important, therefore, that the horror that emerges to destroy the good middle-class family comes from the basement of the house (their own daughter, who becomes a zombie and kills her mother). If the house is the traditional symbol of family life, then the basement signifies the family’s hidden subconscious dimension of repressed desire and violence.
The film also evokes more political and social themes. A middle-class white who represents the capitalist values of survivalism is almost more threatening than the Dead, and one suspects that an equation is being made between his unethical anticommunal selfishness and the consuming threat outside the house. When he is shot by Ben, the black central figure, the audience is positioned to approve, an audacious gesture in a film of the period, since, as Tommy Lott points out to us, no filmmaker had dared allow a black to kill a white for justifiable reasons in the Hollywood tradition. Moreover, Ben’s death at the end of the film at the hands of the redneck posse is depicted as mindless and brutal, and another equation seems to be signaled between the white hunters (who are reminiscent of southern sheriffs as they appeared on television during the period as persecutors of black civil rights marchers) and the Living Dead. It is difficult to decide who is more dangerous (a point underscored more forcefully in the later films of the trilogy). Indeed, the stills at the end of the film, which portray the posse using meat hooks to hoist Ben’s body onto a bonfire, recall news photos of southern lynching parties. Finally, the posse is portrayed in a manner which points to the way U.S. soldiers were operating at the same time in Vietnam (they use helicopters and call their work a “search and destroy” operation).
Thus Romero criticizes a number of conservative values and institutions, from the police to the patriarchal family to white supremacism. And he suggests that conservative order is as monstrous as the Living Dead, who in fact are presented as victims of radiation. As in his later film, The Crazies (1973), the authorities are depicted as more interested in covering up the disaster than in acting for the social good.
Throughout the trilogy, cooperation (between races, sexes, family members) is privileged as an alternative to the mindless, self-indulgent greed of the Dead. The zombies gain a different inflection from their historical context in each film. During the Nixon era, the Dead suggest the “Silent Majority” who blindly follow conservative leaders. By Dawn of the Dead, the zombies have come to represent programmed compulsive consumption. A shopping mall now serves as a metaphor for an America of material goods. Without knowing why, the Dead come to the mall out of habit. Again they are represented as blindly violent and selfish, but in this film intergender and interracial cooperation saves some people. The Freudian night has given way to a more Marxist dawn, and a positive image of salvation or at least hope is offered in the end. A black policeman relinquishes his rifle to the Dead in order to escape with a white woman. Day of the Dead, made at the height of Reagan’s power, is a more specific political statement against militarism. The Dead have overwhelmed the living, and a few scientists work on ways to domesticate them. The scientists—the most important of whom, as in Dawn is a woman—represent civility and tolerance, but they are guarded by a group of intolerant, uncivil, racist, and sexist militarists. By this point, the Dead have come to appear more as victims than as victimizers. And they acquire the additional meaning of being a force of retribution and punishment of evil. In the end, the good values of the scientists are rewarded with escape, while all the militarists are served up for an afternoon snack.
Metaphors always harbor metonyms in ways that permit a deconstruction of the idealizations to which metaphors lend themselves in conservative ideology. In radically critical films like the Dead trilogy, a similar process is at work. The Dead are clearly metaphoric, and they also contain literal, material and metonymic connections to aspects of an unidealized social world. What is striking about this metaphor is its lack of distance from that reality and that materiality. Indeed, the metaphor of the Dead is almost directly metonymic, since it is a figure for mindless materialism, the crass, spiritless consumption of goods. It signifies a literal hunger that destroys and leads people, under consumer capitalism, to destroy others. But the metaphor is not singular in meaning, and to this extent as well it is metonymic. Rather than hypostatizing a single universal meaning, the figure shifts meaning according to context and time. In the early eighties it means something quite different than in the late sixties. From being a figure for the mindlessness of conservative culture, it shifts to a figure for the radical resistance to conservative power. In addition, like metonymy, the figure of the Dead materializes rather than idealizes; that is, it produces associations with material dimensions of social life, rather than exalting a single aspect of that life into a transcendental ideal. The figure is open-ended and future-oriented. No narrative conclusion offers redemption. The possibilities of permutation are open, and no ideological paradigm or ideal resolution commutes the sentence of material existence.
Romero’s films helped launch a strain of socially critical independent monster films depicting monstrous aspects of “normal” American life. They are usually referred to as “exploitation” films because they exploit topical events like sensational murders. In the early films of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper particularly, Americans are portrayed as monsters who are capable of engaging in fairly violent behavior. Hooper’s cult classic The Texas Chain-saw Massacre (1974) is probably the most notorious of these. In it a demented family murders a group of teenagers to process them for their barbecue business. Although the rural family is totally crazed, their behavior parodies “normal” capitalism and “normal” family relationships.
Displaced by mechanization which forced the closing of the slaughterhouse where they worked, the family turned to cannibalism as a mode of survival, substituting people for animals in their meat business. Their horrific behavior is thus a consequence of economic immiseration and the displacement of labor by mechanization, and their situation allegorizes the destructive psychological effects of forced unemployment. In Mary Mackey’s words: “The unemployed family, showing true American self-reliance, hasn’t gone on welfare. Instead the father has set up a small roadside barbecue stand, and the two sons and the grandfather have proceeded to provide the meat. The meat, in this case, is tourists—a class of people that, as far as the family is concerned, is no different than any other breed of cattle. In this film the poor in order to survive literally eat the rich.”4 In fact, the family members, and the father in particular, have internalized the ethos of capitalism, which puts profit above people, production above human life, and self above others. For instance, the father, while kidnapping a girl for slaughter, comments: “Gotta remember to turn off the lights. The cost of electricity is enough to drive a man out of business.” The film thus represents the very real contradictions between capitalist efficiency and social ethics.
If the Romero and Hooper strain of exploitation films suggests metaphorically that capitalism is monstrous, another series of “mutant monster” or “revenge of nature” films argues more literally that capitalism and science can have harmful effects on nature and humans. Many of these films—Night of the Lepus (1972), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), and Piranha (1980), for example—concern monsters that result from scientific or military experiments or industrial pollution. In some of these films, conservative figures and institutional practices are targeted as the cause and the direct object of the rampaging monsters. In others (Nightwing, Prophecy, Wolfen), corporate malfeasance and modernization are criticized for destroying Native American life.
Perhaps the most significant of these films (and certainly the most successful with popular audiences—number 4 in 1979) was Ridley Scott’s Alien, in which a monster invades a corporate space vessel. The spaceship world is characterized by sexual repression, hierarchial social relations, the exploitation of labor, and the sacrifice of life for corporate profit. The monster that encroaches from without seems in many ways merely a displaced and projected emanation of the negativity produced by the normal operations of that world. In a deconstructive vein, the film seems to say that capitalist normality is monstrous, and for this reason it is significant that the monster literally emerges at one point from inside one of the crew. The real nemesis is the corporation that programs the ship to investigate dangerous alien beings and to sacrifice the lives of the crew members if necessary in order to bring the findings back to earth. This critical thematic is instantiated in the form of the film, which attempts to create a more materialist or nonidealized atmosphere than usual by muddling dialog, leaving out romantic relationships, deflating heroism, and portraying flagrant bitchiness among crew members.
It is in comparison to the purist efficiency and pure self-interest of the corporation that the film’s cluttered style and anarchic society assume a radical significance. Indeed, the film is structured as a conflict between a mode of organization that is hierarchical and authoritarian and a mode that is communal and egalitarian, and this difference also takes the form of a difference in modes of representation. The two workers (one of whom is black) complain about wages and threaten (good-humoredly) to strike. They are positively portrayed and seem the only ones who have empathetic relations. They are also more material or humorously crude in comparison to the stuffy professionals, who bicker over command structures and the division of labor on ship. For much of the first section of the film, the narrative focus shifts back and forth between the workers and the managers, and this establishes a sense of equivalent importance. The camera rhetoric also communalizes and contextualizes, denying the sort of individualist privilege of conservative camera rhetoric. Initially the camera travels through the ship, establishing a sense of material context, setting, and environment; it shows a world defined not by an individual subject’s experience but by material place, social setting. The characters appropriately will be defined by their institutional roles-science officer, etc. At the circular mess table the camera moves around in a full circle drawing all the characters into the frame equally. In later framings three characters are placed in close-up, thus stressing the ties and tensions between them. It is a world of social subjects, the camera seems to suggest. But it is also a world of great material clutter, an aspect deliberately emphasized in contradistinction to the pure, clean, white, and eminently efficient corporate authority source—the master computer. It is as if, once again, a more mature radical attitude toward the world entails a representational logic that can encompass undecidability, indeterminacy, and complexity, a crossing of the clear boundaries that a fearful and defensive conservative representational structure requires. The character who represents corporate order on ship is Ash, the android officer who admires the “purity” of the alien. It is, he says, “a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” A good contemporary conservative, in other words. Ripley, the woman survivor, on the other hand, is associated with liberal values of care and empathy. “We have to stick together,” she urges the others. And she goes so far as to take the trouble to save a cat (although this has invited charges of sexual stereotyping, a charge reinforced by the small strip scene she must undergo—Scott’s movies are admittedly contradictory in regard to feminism). The film thus depicts corporate capitalism as a predatory, survivalist machine; self-interest takes precedence over community. The alien is a projection of the principles of the capitalist system. Against the alien, the film proposes a counterprinciple of community, which it draws out most noticeably in the camera style. The camera rhetoric is reconstructive; it emphasizes the materiality, hence the non-natural malleability, of the corporate world. Similarly, the crew continually devises machines for combating the alien. The tools of the enemy can be recoded. The system offers the means of its own deconstruction.
Alien struck a critical, anticapitalist chord with lower-income viewers, its primary audience. While only 38 of 153 in our sample had seen it, of those, 57% thought the critique of the corporation was accurate, and most of these were in the under $30,000 income bracket; the percentages declined as income rose. Again, however, personal meanings outdid structural ones; only 16% felt the primary meaning of the film was that corporations put profit before human life, while 52% chose the meaning “humans can triumph over impossible situations.”
The format of Alien recalls that of many “discovered alien” films of the fifties, including Hawks’s celebrated The Thing. Fittingly, at this time a number of classic monster films, including The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, were remade. Body Snatchers (1978) revives the pessimistic ending of the original (dropped by the producers), and The Thing remake (1982) likewise ends on a much darker, more pessimistic note appropriate to the contemporary era. Instead of banding together to watch the skies, the men have to watch each other, since anyone might be “it.”
If conservatives use the figure of the monster to demonstrate that in the jungle world of conservative psychopathology no one can be trusted, everyone potentially is a monster, left-liberals use the metaphor of the American-as-monster to criticize bourgeois normality and to suggest that American life harbors monstrous impulses that conservatives claim are moral and good. The werewolf and the vampire have traditionally represented the possibility that normal people might become monsters, and both are revived in this period, frequently in socially critical or camp parodic ways. Camp werewolf films like The Howling drew out the sexual meaning of the animal-human metaphor. Similarly, in numerous vampire films of the period (between 1970 and 1977 alone there were over two hundred new films)5 sexuality and power are often explicitly identified. One of the most critical, Romero’s Martin (1977), depicts a young vampire who sedates women, rapes them, and drinks their blood. Rarely has the fact that rape is an act of violence been made more explicit. Yet while Romero’s film critically examines the violence against women that is institutionalized in American culture, many other horror films of the era promote such violence.
We have suggested that metaphoric representational forms permit both radical critiques and conservative projections of the sort that might normally be too extreme for mainstream Hollywood to reach the screen. In Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People (1981), for example, a woman “animal” is tied to a bed with rope so that she won’t get out of control, and the audience is cued to think this is good for her. If the image had not been framed by a fantastic horror narrative of a woman who becomes a panther during sex and eats her partner, it might have evoked justifiable criticism as a gross exercise of male power that should, certain radical feminists would argue, have been censored. But even as a horror metaphor the image and the film can tell us something about what was literally going on in American culture during this time in regard to the new independence women had gained around sexuality. For one thing, female sexuality is represented in the film as a threat to men; in one segment, a man has his arm ripped off by the panther woman. (Get it?) Therefore, woman’s “animality” must be controlled. In the last chapter we studied the sorts of metaphoric violence this attitude can generate. Cat People and the films of De Palma tell us a bit more about why women were being punished. That punishment was not limited to metaphoric violence. It also took the form of overt violence, often executed with a sharp kitchen knife, as if to emphasize its domestic origins. The place where that literal, social violence against women was most easily exercised was the horror genre, with its covert metaphors. Shades of that violence emerge in social realist films earlier, for example in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977). But the ending of that film, in which a sexually independent woman is brutally murdered by a bisexual male already indicates the need for a metaphoric medium of representation for such violence. A flashing strobe light interrupts the realist style with a garish and naturalistic set of stills. It was as if conservative filmmakers realized that they could only get away with so much within the confines of realism. Otherwise it would appear that their representations indicated what they really thought should be done to women, instead of simply metaphorizing a male rage at insubordination, betrayal, and abandonment and indicating a possibility of punishment, a threat to restore order, like a knife to the throat or the point of an ice pick touching the iris of an eye.
The horror films that are most often associated with such violence are the slash and gash cycles and the work of Brian De Palma,6 in whose films women are generally represented as sexy dumbbells, slashable victims, or threatening witches.
Both stylistically and thematically De Palma’s films manifest a high level of anxiety about independent feminine sexuality and women in general. They display the sort of doubling we have noticed already, whereby women are represented either as threatening nemeses or as compliant and submissive ideals. If the splitting of an object on the level of representation is a symptom of fear regarding that object, then Sisters (1973), one of De Palma’s early horror films of the era, is a particularly good example of this. A liberal woman reporter, a figure of “feminism,” witnesses a murder; she “meddles” in the investigation, and as a result is herself driven half mad. It turns out that a doctor has separated siamese twin sisters, but the “bad” one returns to inhabit her good sister, emerging at inappropriate times to commit murder and, eventually, to castrate the doctor. If one sister is a figure of male fear, the other is a figure of male desire for a caring and submissive woman.
What is interesting about the terror that seems to motivate the narrative is that it also seems to give rise to a disorder of representation consisting of exaggerated lighting and editing effects, jarring camera angles, and fantasy dream segments shot in an entirely different color medium from the main narrative. Perhaps the most symptomatic device is the split-screen technique, which could be read as a literal rendering of psychological splitting as a result of anxiety over male sexual identity. Male sexual anxiety in particular seems due to a double attitude toward the primary caretaker, usually the mother. To attain a male sexual identity the boy must separate from the hitherto dominant sexual pattern of his life, which is a dependent “female” attachment to a powerful woman. If not entirely successful, that process can lead in later life to anxiety over sexual identity and violence against independent or strong women who are perceived as threats because they place the man once again in a dependent, passive, “castrated,” “feminine” position and to desires for compliant, weak women who make the man feel “male.” If the first attitude toward the mother is to fear her power, the second is to require her presence as a confirmation of maleness. Her withdrawal or absence can confuse the male child, make him feel passive and weak, not sufficiently powerful to retain her attention. If the father is perceived as the one who receives that attention, then a desire will set in to obtain the father’s power (his phallus). The double attitude therefore consists of a contradictory desire for separation and difference conjoined with a desire for fusion and presence.
The development of representations which internalize an image of maternal presence is the precondition of being able to live separately without having either to yearn for fusion or to repel oneself aggressively from relationships with others that threaten to engulf one. The failure to develop the capacity for such representation can result in such yearnings and fears. Thus, the disorder of representation in De Palma’s films can be read as a late version of an early failure to develop healthy modes of mental representation. The result is an inability to represent women as nonthreatening or independent and self-sufficient—different from the man.
Male anxiety can also arise around “feminization” in the form of homosexuality. In De Palma’s mid-seventies occult horror film The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), for example, a gay rock star is made the target of homophilic humor as well as of a fatal electrical charge. The story concerns an independent music composer whose music is stolen by a corporation run by a demonic figure who also steals a woman the man loves. Finally, the “phantom,” disfigured by a record press, destroys the corporation but is himself killed. The film contains scenes of voyeurism (already evident in the opening segment of Sisters) that will come to characterize De Palma’s films. Voyeurism is a form of objectification, an exercise of scopophilic power, although in Phantom it is associated with a weak male’s envy of a strong male’s (father’s) power. It constitutes an attempt to gain power over the woman in a way that reassures a man’s sense of being male. Phantom also establishes a link between sexual power and economic power, a theme fully realized in the later Scarface (1983), in which gaining power over the boss’s girl is coincident with the actual displacement of him from a position of economic superiority.
Of De Palma’s next two films, Carrie (1977) extends the occult concerns while Obsession (1976) reprises the theme of splitting. Obsession (co-scripted by Paul Schrader) concerns a man who falls in love with his own daughter, who looks exactly like his dead wife. He doesn’t realize it is his daughter until the end, when, instead of killing her, as the audience expects, he embraces her. Symbolically, the wife is killed off in favor of the daughter, someone more liable to control and devoted worship of the husband/father. Carrie is a fairy tale of an ugly duckling teenager who uses her telekinetic powers to intimidate her sexually repressed mother and those who harass her. The link between telekinesis and sexuality is established by Carrie’s discovery of her power when she is menstruating for the first time; later she is doused in blood as a practical joke at the prom and retaliates by destroying the gym and killing most of the people present. The Fury (1978) also associates telekinesis with youth sexuality, and it divides women into either evil whores or mothering helpers.
Indeed, De Palma’s scheme of punishment for sexually threatening women is repeated with obsession in his eighties films—Dressed to Kill, Blow-Out, and Body Double. Dressed to Kill (1980) is an oedipal fantasy in which an overly independent woman/mother is slashed to death for being a “cock-teaser.” The film understandably elicited great hostility within the feminist community. It begins with a woman’s fantasy of being raped in the shower; she surrenders to the attack. In the next scenes she fakes orgasm with her husband and makes a pass at her therapist. She then picks up a man at an art gallery, allows herself to be raped by him in a taxi, and goes to his apartment, where she discovers he has veneral disease. As she leaves, she is slashed to death on the elevator. The killer, it turns out, is the psychiatrist, who is a transsexual in conflict with himself over his sexual identity. With the help of a prostitute her son finds the killer, and ends up in bed with the prostitute because his father is “away.” In the structure of the fantasy an “independent” woman is traded in for a more pliant one, and the son takes the father’s place in relation to the woman in the house. Thus, male sexual identity is established through the acquisition of the father’s role in relation to the mother, and through the replacement of a mother who abandons by one who makes the male feel powerful. The wayward woman is punished, moreover, by a figure of male sexual uncertainty—someone who doesn’t want to be a woman—and the prostitute is tormented in the conclusion by a dream in which her throat is cut by the same killer, a symbol of the threat of punishment that situates her in a subservient position and keeps her there.
Thus, the film is about the proper positioning of sexual subjects. Uncertain males are represented negatively, as are inappropriately independent women. But the film also concerns the alleviation of male sexual anxiety and uncertainty. In the symbolic sexual scenario, the son is made to feel uncertain by his mother (who moves from a scene of sex with her husband to a sexually teasing scene with her son where she alludes to his masturbation). The mother is further positioned as someone who casts doubt on male sexual identity in the subsequent scene with her therapist, where she criticizes her husband’s sexual skill. She then seeks out an alternative, the man she picks up at a gallery, and her punishment for undermining male sexual identity begins immediately. That the son is the instrument of salvation who purges the figure of sexual deviancy and redeems the mother (by finding the killer and by finding a replacement for her) is indicative of the oedipal character of the symbolic scenario. It is important, therefore, that the resolution of the symbolic narrative consists of the son’s installation in the place of the father and of the restoration of a more confirming mother to the house.
It is also noteworthy that the instrument of the son’s power is a camera which he places outside the psychiatrist’s office, since visual power, the mental power to represent the world, is in part what is at stake in the film. Insecurity over sexual identity is associated with a failure of mental representation. When the transsexual psychiatrist is watching a TV show interview with a man who has undergone a sex change operation, the film image is split and divided. On the one side is the “feminized” psychiatrist and the TV screen, and on the other is the narcissistic prostitute and a mirror into which she looks while putting on makeup, signaling a relationship between his passivity and sexual confusion and her self-absorption (a figure for a mother who does not attend to the male child, thus provoking anxiety over her absence and over the male child’s sexual identity). Anxiety over sexual identity of the sort projected in such images is due in part to a failure to develop a capacity to represent the world as a coherent, objective, and differentiated phenomenal space. The anxiety has to do with feelings of passivity and helplessness, feeling like a “woman.” And the anxiety is overcome by the development of an extremely exaggerated power of private representation, cut off entirely from a threatening object world and withdrawn into narcissistically gratifying and reassuring fantasy images. For good reason, the male fear of “castration,” of being a “woman,” is associated with vision and its failure.
All of this seems to be played out in De Palma’s film. The son is abandoned symbolically by the mother, and the vehicle of vengeance is someone associated with anxiety over passive or “feminine” feelings as well as with a failure of representation, an inability to differentiate phenomenal elements. The means of overcoming both, by attaining a power of mental representation, is an instrument of visual or representational power, the camera. Yet something of the fear that motivates the film is still evident even as power is attained. The murderer and a woman detective in masquerade are confused at one point, and this lends the narrative a hysteric quality similar to that evident in films like Psycho. That confusion is at the moment of capture linked to a failure on the part of the boy to see properly. Thus a case of mistaken identity turns on a case of anxiety over sexual identity. And that anxiety emerges as narrative confusion, as the nondifferentiation of fantasy from realist segments at the beginning and end of the film when the audience is positioned to see dreams as real events, and as the visual theme of representational dysfunction and power.
De Palma’s films make clear the extent to which style is crucial to male sexual identity. And the style of many of these films is defined by baroque excess. One aspect of narcissistic unity with the mother is a sense of meaning in the world; a meaning-filled world is secure, predictable, nonthreatening, recognizable. Meaning affords a sense of well-being akin to that provided by the presence of the (m)other, a predictable supplier of needs. The baroque world, in contrast, is unpredictable; it is a world of anxiety projections, threats potentially coming from anywhere, because the secure presence of meaning has withdrawn from it. If signs of affection do not lead to a predictable and secure maternal presence, then signs in general cannot be trusted. Signs might mean anything or nothing. Indeed, that they might mean nothing is the worst sort of anxiety, since that implies the absence of a confirming presence, a comforting semantic plenitude. This, we would suggest, helps explain the occult motif in De Palma’s films. It represents an attempt to give meaning to the world by infusing it with hidden significance that is of the order of a private insight not available to others, a token of mental representational power. This also would account for the prevalence of the metaphor of telekinesis in his films, since it also connotes a private mental power, and for the young man’s use of his own visual technology in Dressed to Kill to catch the murderer.
The fantastic, exaggerated, baroque style is thus essential to the sexist vision of the films. That style constitutes a representational performance that indicates power over the world, an ability to manipulate it at will. If the child sees himself as not cared for, he will grow up not caring about the world, converting his resentment against his abandonment into a calculating, cynical, unempathetic manipulation of that world (evident particularly at the end of Blow-Out, when the recording of a murdered lover’s scream is inserted into a B horror film soundtrack). Moreover, if the world cannot be trusted, then security can only be gotten in a private, artificial world of one’s own making. The vulnerable male withdraws from a threatening world into a private world of mental representation where split screen collages take on meaning from their artificial arrangement within a fantastic plot that is already one removed from a confirming reality. The prevalence of segments in De Palma’s films in which dreams or fantasies are indistinguishable from and meant to be mistaken for realist segments (Body Double is based entirely on this premise) is therefore important; they recall the inability to differentiate self from other and subjective vision from objective reality that gives rise to an incapacity for complex, articulated, or differentiated objective representation. Only in the artificial realm of the baroque style, where the parts of the meaningless world can be juxtaposed and played with in split screen images, is his power realized as the ability to do what he will with the world, as he desires to do with women. This is Walter Benjamin’s baroque tyrant become a petit bourgeois family man.
We disagree, therefore, with the suggestion that De Palma is a progressive filmmaker whose work reflects critically on issues of morality. While his films are critical of aspects of American society, these critiques are limited to a traditional populist suspicion of big institutions (government in Blow-Out, corporations in Phantom). In his interviews, he does voice some sense of the reality of feminism, but his films speak more loudly (and perhaps more unconsciously) than his words, and they stand as symptomatic expressions of a misogyny so endemic to American culture that it passes as normal.7
Less baroque but equally obsessive male fantasies of violence against women are evident in the “slash and gash” or “slice and dice” film. In these films, which thrived in the late seventies and early eighties, women and teenagers are brutalized, generally for being sexually independent (although other narrative motivations come into play as the cycles develop). The films are characterized by a conservative moralism regarding sexuality and frequently feature occult elements. The cycles begin in 1978, the year that also witnessed a conservative turn in films dealing with blacks, the Vietnam War, male heroism, teen sexuality, and a number of other social issues.
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) launched the cycles. It turned a $300,000 budget into a multi-million-dollar profit and led to a rash of spinoffs, sequels, and imitations. The film establishes the template for the series: Young teens, especially girls, are shown engaging in “immoral” activities like sex and drugs. They are killed.
The style of slash and gash films is as exploitative as their themes. Perhaps the most striking device is the use of point of view shots from the killer’s perspective using the new steadicam cameras. In this way, the audience helps stalk the victims. More so than in other films, then, male scopophilic tendencies of the sort fostered in American culture in the age of visual advertising and mass pornography are directly addressed, and the relation between such voyeurism and an objectifying violence is made explicit. Moreover, particularly in Halloween, the musical accompaniment (characterized by a high level of repetition) works to cast the events in the realm of the fated and to give them the meaning of a supernatural moral retribution. The same scenario was repeated in Friday the 13th (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) and Prom Night. The template became so rote after a while that it was easily parodied in films like Student Bodies, The Slumber Party Massacre, and Pandemonium that frequently featured body counts flashed across the screen after each murder.
The slash and gash films invite calls for censorship, yet they also depict the questionable character of the censorial mentality at work in the films. That mentality seeks to repress because, perhaps, it arises from repression. Incapable of incorporating sexuality into its own life, it attempts to blot it out from the world. But it also betrays a fascination with what it opposes. For films that evidence such a high level of conservative moralism around sexuality, these films are surprisingly prurient. There is a contradiction between the explicitly erotic scenes and the puritanical messages of many of the movies. Perhaps they are simply symptoms of a culture which is fascinated with sex but which still thinks of it in terms of guilt and transgression. One senses, however, that if sexuality were incorporated into everyday life in healthier ways it would not provoke such perverse pornographic excresences or such moralizing hostility.
The slash and gash films can also be said to relate to the problems that the new culture of sexuality in post-sixties America brought with it. Birth control, liberalized abortion laws, and greater sexual permissiveness changed the character of male-female relations, giving women more power and independence while scuttling the old rules of male responsibility that mediated sexual interaction. Out of the intersection of aggressive independence and irresponsible predation hostility was probably certain to emerge. With increased sexual activity came increased guilt, tension, and confusion around such issues as commitment, a key word of the era. All of this was compounded by the discovery of the spread of traditional and new venereal diseases.
Although these films deal primarily with sexuality, they also have consequences for other social issues. As David Thompson suggests, their portrayal of psychopathic killers fosters intolerant attitudes toward the “mentally ill and the criminally deviant” while supporting the most reactionary theories of criminality and law enforcement.8 Moreover, they project the “mean world” syndrome which George Gerbner and his colleagues found to be a distinctive feature of U.S. television, and which they claim produces fears in the audience that could be manipulated by right-wing politicians.9 Indeed, the strategy of the conservative rhetoric of these films, like the projection of nihilism in certain horror films that seems to imply a call for a strong antidote of meaning and leadership, is to represent the world as a paranoid’s paradise of fear and distrust that is beyond rational redemption. What is most significant about this world is that violence seems unmotivated. It is faceless and without rational cause, as in Halloween. The world thus appears irrational, a jungle governed by no logic or law. It is only in such a context that the conservative view that the world cannot be redeemed makes sense. What is irrational cannot be dealt with rationally; instead, it should be controlled or repressed. Consequently, narrative illogicality serves the ends of a very conservative logic.
The conservative slash and gash cycle can therefore be said to accomplish two tasks. It carries out a metaphoric attack on feminism and on wayward youth, and it paints a world as in need of paternalist power. Read diagnostically, of course, these highly metaphoric films also therefore display what conservatism is literally all about—the projection of repressed aggression onto the world in a way that justifies the exercise of insufficiently sublimated aggression against the world. This broader possibility relates to the sexual theme of the films. The sanctification of aggression as a social principle (of the market, for example) in the conservative ethos is linked to violence against independent women because the counterpart of aggression (presumed to be a male trait in conservative thinking) is submission. Aggression as a social principle must at some point become domination; it presupposes someone else’s submission; otherwise, the social system would become permanently unstable. The locus of submission and domination that secures stability in the conservative framework is the family. One could say therefore that while the slash films evidence a direct reaction against independent women’s sexuality and against feminism in general, they also are part of an attempt to restabilize the patriarchal social system as a whole, by reasserting discipline over youth and by repositioning women as the submissive other of a primary, aggressive male subject. To a certain extent these films must be read as violent reactions to a violence feminism and the youth sexual revolution have done to traditional patriarchal prerogatives. As such the films enable a deconstruction of the opposition between the functional stasis through violent aggression that is assumed to be normal in U.S. society and the abnormal horror of these films. There is a certain documentary exactitude to these films that is revelatory of the attitudes and propensities fostered by a culture predicated on survivalist market principles of competition, aggression, and “devil take the hindmost.” In many horror films, the devil does indeed take the hindmost (usually women, blacks, or the least powerful of survivalist society), but his occultist mask should not prevent one from deciphering the grim face of a conservative businessman beneath.