Category Archives: Fear

Interview with Horror Director John Carpenter

It seems that the summer is almost over and I haven’t written much of anything new. Here’s some more cribbing until I get around to finishing the multiple writing projects I’ve started.

Here’s an interesting interview with John Carpenter, director of horror movies such as Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing.

Also posted in Film, Horror, Video

The Abject Spiraling Grotesque: A Primer on Bakhtin’s Unmeaning

I have been obsessed with David Attenborough lately. I know, weird, but hear me out; this will all come full circle. During moments when he’s recounting past expeditions, he’ll summarize events that transpire using mundane, scientific terms, which seems fairly appropriate to me. However, in the episode “The Lost Gods of Easter Island” he reads the diary of one of the explorers on Captain Cook’s boat after they leave Easter island. The man, Johan something, notes that they escaped under the danger of life and limb, or something to that effect; however, the native Fijian with them who had just successfully bartered for a number of wooden figurines debarks with no such impediment. (I know I’m not getting the quote right, but the BBC website doesn’t offer transcripts, so I can’t claim exactitude, and I’ve already returned the DVD.)

My point in bringing this up is to highlight the hyperbolic statement by Cook’s journalist and the contrasting facts as exemplified by Cook’s Fijian crew member’s successful bartering. Why would the journalist sensationalize an event that posed no more danger than the rest of the expedition’s trans-world

journey? Using this logic, wouldn’t the phrase “escaped under life and limb” be littered all over the man’s journals considering the whole expedition was a daily gamble of life and death? And now I finally get to my bigger and overarching reason for using this scene. The hyperbolic phrasing, I would argue, arises from the explorer’s view of the impoverished islander’s pitiable condition. The Europeans see them as crazed and starving isolationists on an island two-thousand miles from any other island or civilization. Therefore, to the Europeans, escape at all costs becomes a matter of “life and limb,” especially considering the island provides them with no supplies or potential wealth, and they fear that the islanders themselves may do something rash as a result of their “eminent” starvation and consequential insanity. The Europeans see the islanders and their “situation” as what Bakhtin labels as grotesque, and it is this notion that biases the journalist’s description.

I know that was a long illustration to get at my greater goal of describing the grotesque, but I felt I needed to provide a “real” world, non-literary example before delving into the theoretical

explanations. But the effect of how Cook’s journalist characterizes their escape from the island and islanders is humor. It’s absurdly funny. Within normal social settings people maintain the notion of choosing words they mean so as to communicate effectively, for if they slip from our grasp, words no longer are under our control; they mean something other than what we intended.

The effect, then, in some circumstances, is humor. Yet, the etymology of the word humor predates it’s presumed primary definition: comedy. Instead, in the the 14th century humor was used to describe the cardinal humors of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. And so, using the method of showing correlations, related and un-, as many jokes do, the etymological origin of the word humor itself has grotesque origins. More powerfully though, Bakhtin makes the connection between humor’s natural inclination to examine and be critical of mores, people, and behavior.

Enter art. Art can use humor to link together the high and the low of our world, whatever they may be within a given context to show the malleability of such stratifications, all the while inducing the audience to laugh.

The grotesque, similar to humor–and having similar results–, is a means to analyse ourselves and our world. However, the grotesque becomes the most beneficial to its audience, not when it comforts the audience, but when it disconcerts. To picture this scenario, recall the scenario I introduce at the beginning. We find the grotesque in the explorer’s lie; the islanders posed no harm to Cook’s party and were trading with them at the moment the escape “for life and limb” transpired. The journalist paints a picture of savagery, but the history books confirm that the islanders didn’t have the means to attempt to kill the Europeans.

The grotesque can apply to more than just the heterogeneous qualities of purported social interactions. It can manifest within a closed system as well. Life and death can be viewed as binaries within which the grotesque operates. People live, grow old, then die, showing a negation, a binary opposition, yet essential opposition to the life-cycle. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin notes “The essence of the grotesque is precisely to present a contradictory and double-faced fullness of life. Negation and destruction (death of the old) are included as an essential phase, inseparable from affirmation, from the birth of something new and better… This principle is victorious for the final result is always abundance, increase” (62). Just as these last words seem contradictory, that the ending of life breeds abundance, so does the grotesque point at, then implode contradictions, resulting in the creation of new meaning.

Bakhtin, as he stresses about other elements in his body of work, argues that the grotesque is an unfinalizable body. It constantly unfolds. He states that, “the grotesque body…is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world” (317). What does this mean? To Cook’s men, saying that they escaped with their lives might have been a true statement for them, but it certainly was not for their Tahitian shipmate, and for modern audiences the notion seems even more ridiculous. For viewers in the future, such a statement may have a different effect; the grotesque may rear its head not in the statement, but in some other aspect of the exchange.

How we identify depends on many social factors. Language itself becomes a courier for the ever changing grotesque. Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary we notice that the adjective describing the grotesque, “becoming” first entered the English language in 1565. However, the word’s definition describing the grotesque (“a coming to be, a passing into state”) didn’t exist until 1853. Language itself might be seen as a grotesque aspect of our lives as it is constantly being created and swallowed by the world, paraphrasing Bakhtin.

Many argue that language mediates how we perceive the world (and vice-versus), and knowing that language constantly changes puts us in a “reality” that is becoming and unbecoming–a grotesque reality.

The relation to all this “rampant” grotesque-ness is the abject. Abjection, as Julia Kristeva writes in Powers of Horror, “is radically excluded and,” as Kristeva explains, “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.” Residing in liminal, boundary-less spaces, the abject poses as the threat of unmeaning that we as cyphers for the grotesque cannot manage to reorder. The result, for example, is an inadequate description of Easter islanders. The break down, our inability to re-make meaning causes us to place the grotesque into the position of known, and so we label it as abject. ” Describing their departure as “fleeing for their” lives, therefore, was the journalist’s method of responding to a scene of horror, a grotesque scene of starving men and women trading their valuables away to Europeans for trinkets, a scene that confuses and scares the journalist to incomprehension.

Also posted in Bakhtin, Comedy, Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Horror, Humor, Kristeva

On Children and the Incitement of Horror

Children, holding with the Victorian norm, more often cute and benign, meant to be seen and not heard, so easily transform and creep into our movie theaters wielding handguns, sharp knives, and even the powers of Satan himself to unsettle us from our bourgeoisie, soporific state. Why? Why do such movies scare us so much, what’s their draw, and what’s their significance as a cultural artifact? Big questions, I know, but important ones, none-the-less.
We can understand a great deal of why the little characters in these movies incite us to throw our popcorn into the air by considering Freud’s theories of the uncanny. True, this theme has been mined quite heavily in the last, oh, forty years, but there’s something to be said for reprisals. When thinking about the horror that devil children incite, we might revisit some of Freud’s theories. First, Freud defines those things that are uncanny quite simply: those things that are unfamiliar to us. He then complicates this definition by adding the element of hospitable (warm beds, sunny days, cheerful friends) to show the contrast between that which is congenial and that which falls outside of our everyday experiences. Fearful things, ghouls, horrible dreams, frightening car accidents, and etc, fit within the inhospitable. The uncanny, therefore, as Freud describes it, is that which spans the two precipices between familiar, pleasant things and the things that unsettle us, giving way to our inability to classify or rationalize anomalies in our reasonably constructed world.

But one needs another means to explain why horror movies incite such horror in their viewers. Sure, they mix the familiar and pleasant that comes with images of children and childhood with the inhospitable and irrational that confuses and unsettles us. But there’s more. Enter Kristeva’s work on horror and the abject.

Over the course of much of her writing on horror, Kristeva refers to the notion of how children build and acquire the semiotics of their world in the Oedipal stage, which later augments how they explain the basis for their feelings of abjection, disgust, and (the obverse) jouissance as adults. But when one considers the result of children’s sign (semiotic) acquisition, which tell them that something is to be made abject, one must wonder how someone might be unbiased about what compels one towards feelings of horror. But more importantly, going back to the topic of children inciting fear in horror movies, we view something, as Kristeva refers to it in Powers of Horror, as “birth trauma.” Fear personifies itself growing from mother to child, as she describes it. This birth trauma may show itself when a child cannot make him or herself understood, whether because of the inability to speak, the prevention of speech by some outside force, or lack of effective speech communication. Good mothering and proper “uterine transfer,” as Kristeva describes it, would have prevented the lack of speech, and its breakdown creates an upset of the “bio-drive balance.”

Kristeva also recaps on Freud’s uncanny, then elaborates on his theories when she talks about how abjection differs from uncanniness. The “natural” order would stipulate that a child receive all the gifts, objects, and food, showing the child’s “failure to recognize its kin.” And this point in her theory, Kristeva gets at the prospect of lack of desire, which, for her, means that humans shed a defining attribute: desire. Those without desire become objects themselves abject to the “clean” and upright world. A child who shuns, then goes on to persecute its parents, brothers, strangers, and the world on the whole, then becomes inherently and categorically abject.

In sum, children represent the innocent, the malleable, the genesis of what we are to become, and when viewers are given the opposite, a child who rejects mother, father, the clean, the viewer receives a mimetic personification of the abject, the antithesis of norm. Sadistic, murderous, sycophant children, therefore, represent all that can tear us apart.

In no way can I list all the movies that have come out in the last 75 years that illustrate this phenomenon, but here’s a few that I always get a kick out of that also exemplify what I mention above.

Also posted in Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Film, Freud, Gender, Kristeva

Lars Von Trier’s "Antichrist": Gender and Nature as Horrorific and Instructive

Watching Lars Von Trier’s movie “Antichrist” roughly six weeks ago has left me in awe, still. I was able to witness a movie displaying many of my favorite things, namely allegorical use of theology, psycho-analytic theory, horror, the hyperbolic rise of chaos (namely, Bakhtin’s notion of carnival), subtle elements of pantheism, and gender issues. Quite obviously this movie may be too esoteric for the casual movie-goer masses. I considered this as I watched it with a friend as we guffawed and oh-my-god-ed while giving each other sideways, smirking glances over and over. I knew, though, that the movie had more to offer than the shock value that it initially displays. It was illuminating and vivid, obscure and grotesque, as well as thought-provoking and dense. Its risible aspects lessen as the viewer realizes that the story means business.

I’ve never seen a Von Trier movie, but this guy definitely knows what he’s doing, especially as he architects the brilliant cinematography to propel his story. The opening scene is both shocking and surreal, as it shows the man (Willem DeFoe) and woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) having sex (literally and in the audience’s full view), as it snows outside. The viewer gets an amazingly choreographed and beautiful scene shot in slow motion that mixes ecstasy and death as the couples small child walks out the window from two stories up into a heavenly snow scene to his death below.

After their child falls out the window and dies, He (a psychologist/therapist) wishes to help Her (getting her Masters degree in some subject having to do with medieval feminist studies, which figures heavily into the plot) get over her grieving, so he takes her to the place that she says scares her the most: Eden, their vacation home in the woods of rural Washington state.

It is when they arrive at Eden that things begin to really fall apart. The contextual order she enjoyed from her hospital room and a slow funeral procession wrought with grief and self-flagellation give way to the surreal terror the forest has to offer her. Once the couple enters Eden (an obvious analogue for the location of original sin propagated by Eve) He begins to lose his logocentric control over his wife. His science cannot aid him to unravel his wife’s, and what seems like at the forest’s behest, descent into illogical and irrational behavior. During one of their first nights at Eden the Oak trees begin to drop their acorns on the cabin’s tin roof, which thoroughly disconcerts He. Soon the noise rises to an unnatural crescendo. During this scene it seems that He is at odds with nature as it jars him literally from his dreams. He repels and is distrustful of nature, unlike his wife, who is first fearful, then embraces it completely. Quite interestingly, Her initiation seems to mirror Jack Torrance’s character in Stephen King’s The Shining, who slowly welcomes invitations to permanently join the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel. Only, She seems to be fulfilling another role, not that of the middle-class alcoholic man trying to break out of his seemingly class-bound position by writing a novel, but the role of one who wishes to unconsciously overturn her husband’s world of logic, science, and order. And this occurs, slightly.

Enter the three kings, I mean beggars. (The biblical references are overwhelming in this film.) The three beggars, as the movie subtitles call them, are denizens of the forest: a deer who represents grief (we first see the doe giving birth to a stillborn faun), a fox who represents pain (we first see this little guy disemboweled saying ‘chaos reigns’ when the couple first enter “Eden”) and a crow who represents despair (the crow’s role becomes a pivotal one at the film’s end). Considering the film’s themes of building chaos, fear of nature, grief and the supposed solution to these, science, the introduction of the three beggars seems to be a mystifying red herring. But then on the other hand the metaphors seem too easy. Could the three animals signify the biblical three kings who brought baby Jesus gifts on his birthday, solidifying his being the savior of (man)kind? In this scenario the three baggers become analogues to the female version of this mythos. I don’t know. I don’t find much conclusive evidence to support this theory, nor to disprove it, but the metaphor is there for you to do with it what you will.

I don’t want to give away the movie’s–to say the least–harrowing closing events, but they play the most influential role in regard to understanding what Von Trier may be trying to say. Many critics writing about the movie label him as a misogynist. Von Trier portrays She as a homicidal, sex crazed, grief-stricken, illogical woman, and He as a methodical and logical scientist. But what I think the element the nay-saying critics are missing is that this is a work of art, not reality. Von Trier is not lobbying to reduce women’s rights, nor is he making a statement on the culture of “women” or femininity. He’s fabricating a paradigm that the last twenty years of third wave feminist theory has been explaining, explicating, and championing, and many of these same feminist theorists would say that the themes and tropes this film furthers fit to a T the unknowingly acculturated notions that most men and women uphold; men are strong, silent methodical, and scientific as they use rationalism to solve any problem coming their way, while women are emotional, capricious, and potentially dangerous when they give themselves fully to their (gasp) emotions. These theorists would comment on the clichéd gender roles floating around in this movie, but they would also take note of the man’s position at the film’s end: alienated and in awe of the feminine nature, which becomes Von Trier’s final comment.

The friend with whom I watched the movie surmised that it was about men having to watch themselves around women, and that they had to maintain control (” you gotta keep a bitch in check!”). My take on the film, which I feel would also be the take of many gender theorists, would be that the movie serves (first) as a primer for gender divides and fears, then (second) shows the effect–in the extreme–of what occurs when these presumed gender divisions are upheld with certainty. He is left alone, alienated, having to procure sustenance from nature, but also having been purged from it by the very thing he fears: lusty non-science and il-logic.

Nature, is not what She calls it: “Satan’s church.” Although it becomes Satan’s church when one fears and reveres it as the characters do in this film. I’m not sure that this movie is even feminist, but rather destructivist of ossified gender role presumptions; it wants to highlight the points of contact we encounter in our daily lives, show the liminality of these “maxims,” instruct the audience on their fallacies, then destroy them to show that gender roles and how people interact with nature are not as concrete as most think. Really, chaos does reign, in all forms of life, which is quite the constant. Audiences may find, regardless of what horror or disgust the film induces, that the film is misogynistic at its most superficial level. The film provokes a deeply buried beast in the audience though. Freud drips from this film, and the character unspoken for at the film’s conclusion is the boy (who took the front gainer out the window because of his parents’ sexual indulgence).

Also posted in Carnival, Critical Theory, Essay, Film, Film Review, Freud, Gender, Horror, Pop Culture Issues

Animated Version of Poe’s "The Tell Tale Heart"

I stumbled upon this and enjoyed it!

Also posted in Edgar Allan Poe, Horror, Literature, Video