James:This leads me to the next point: the relationship between the female protagonist and the monster. The monster both represents the repression and is a doorway to allowing the female figure to escape the social boundaries placed upon her. I am thinking here of Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein. Madeline Khan’s character is the frigid girlfriend of the doctor who is transformed by her “relations” with the monster. It is an interesting exposure of the relationship trope. By making it humorous Brooks is actually revealing another aspect of the monster. By being “other” the monster also allows those possibly inclined to be different to join in being different. The monster is the gate way to deviance. And this is what I find fascinating because it makes the monster a transformative figure. Simply by being exposed to the monster one can gain access to monstrous attributes or become monsters. I think this is why the monster figure resonates with both queer and disability communities. It is the irrational fear that one will be transformed by interacting with a queer or disabled person. The idea that one’s difference is contagious. This is what the monster does. It acts upon the erotic nature of the other that destabilizes normalcy, be it physical or sexual. Like you said it unleashes the repressed.
Think about the alien monster in John W. Campbell, Jr’s Who Goes there? (1938) which is the source for John Carpenter’s well known film The Thing (1982) as well as two other films The Thing From Another World (1951) and Horror Express (1973). Here the monster itself is the transformer. It is an amorphous “thing” that replaces and consumes the human characters. Each molecule of the alien transforms and consumes. It is a literal metaphor for fear. The thing represents what each generation finds terrifying. It is a tabula rasa with which the viewer can project their fears onto. It operates as tool for them to confront or identify with whatever socio-cultural fears are present. In Carpenter’s film the thing is an amorphous blob that undulates and shifts constantly. It is in a state of transformation until it becomes something it can hide within. It plays upon the fear of the passing deviant. The Thing is the one that looks like us but isn’t. And once again, like with the vampire, it is the blood that tells. The blood is alive and sentient, it infects. And then there is the fact that the story is female free. So the film also comments on the mutability of identity in the face of single sex environments and the anxieties that that can provoke. This ultimately leads to testing the blood in order to identify who is human and therefore normal.
The same is true of that other great contagion movie, Aliens, which had been released a few years after Carpenter’s The Thing. One of the things I love about both these movies–and maybe it’s something that as a blind fan I am just particularly focused on–is the way the space these characters move through becomes an extension of their inner psyches. Carpenter takes the cold isolation of this snowbound military base and Cameron takes the inhuman darkness of the space station but both spaces end up being very gothic threatening spaces. The viewer isn’t just given a text or dialogue, but sound, motion, a sense of the process of moving through these intensely felt spaces. It’s something that a purely textual or psychoanalytical interpretation of these horror movies can’t really address–their sense of virtuality. This is where Deleuzian theory comes in and gives horror media such a radical spin: because horror media is often very focused on conveying that sense of the experience as a process, as something transformative in itself.
Yet that element of horror manifesting the inner space as external space is not limited to horror films. I watched Aliens with my husband, who is a game designer, a number of months back and he commented on how much that movie influenced the look of game interfaces. It’s not just the look though: it’s the sound, from the sound effects to the music to the use of voices. Horror media is still very much influenced by its roots in old radio shows, with a strong focus on creating a sense that the audience is actually occupying this other space with the monster. And I think that is one thing which, as this Wired article “Gore Is Less: Videogames Make Better Horror Than Hollywood” points out, links the horror film to video games.
Definitely. Space plays a large role in the construction of horror and science fiction cinema. One way to look at this is in terms of Deleuze’s theory of the any-space-whatever. For Delueze this moment arises in cinematic scenes where the viewer is destabilized and unsure of where he or she stands in space within the sphere of the film. The consistent use of close-up shots in the absence of expansive wide angle establishing shots serve to isolate the actor/character in the narrative creating a claustrophobic feeling in the viewer. Aliens is a perfect example of this. You can probably count on one hand the number of establishing shots that occur in this film and when they do they are noticeable in the way they pull you out of the taunt, tense feeling of the film. These shots are actually jarring in that they both establish a setting for the viewer and at the same time eliminate some of the effectiveness of the close-ups. To jump back to The Thing – the whiteness of the environment adds to the sense of the isolation of the camp. It is literally a blank space – indefinable. This works in concert with the anamorphic state of the thing. Neither of them is solid or identifiable. This destabilizes the viewer. They are in any space whatever.
And I think it is that sense of destabilization which draws so many horror fans. Horror as a genre is more about ambiguity rather than certainty, and that leaves a lot of room for fans to bring personal interpretations to bear in thinking of how such narratives relate to their own identity. In particular, horror seems to be fascinated with complicating subjectivity, and this seems to connect it not only with the monster-woman/queer alignment we mentioned before but with those virtual or Deleuzan spaces we were just talking about.
In her book Deleuze and Horror (Edinburgh University Press, 2005) Anna Powell discusses how the subject-object binary is blurred in horror films by using sensation and affect to subsume the subject and show it melding with the external world. Some of the most vivid horror–and here I am thinking of Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Moore’s graphic novel From Hell–show humans being penetrated by their technology and/or their technological spaces. This kind of surreal technogothic is an entire subgenre in itself, and I think one of the reasons it emerged as such a powerful theme late in the 20th century was that our technologies, which in the 1950s had been framed as such an uncomplicated salvation for the human race, called into question our traditional definitions of both technology and the body, and the questions which arose proved to be particularly relevant to disabled and queer individuals. Previously there was this assumption that the perfect body was one which was whole, completely self-reliant, free of technological prosthetics, and at the peak of its intellectual and physical abilities; in other words, a definition many would read as masculine. How many of us fit that description now? From contacts to prescription drugs to pacemakers, many of us are wearing technology beneath our skin, and we’re all a little nervous when we consider how it might change us both individually and as a species. It has already radicalized our definitions of what is an “able” body and what is a gendered body.
I believe that has also changed the face of contemporary horror. Much of today’s horror films are centered on the destruction of the body: Saw versions 1though 3, Hostel and the like. These are films that use the threat of physical destruction in numerous ways under the rubric of horror. Of course now these are considered their own genre within the horror genre; they are snuff horror films. So in light of the extreme technological evolution we see a return to fears about the body. The destabilization and dismemberment of the body has remerged as a means of striking fear in the audience. I say re-emerged because some of the horror films of the early seventies also played with this genre albeit not to the extent we see today.
We can trace those dismemberment stories back to the science fiction of Maurice Renard, who wrote the story The Hands of Orlac in 1920, which would become the basis for the 1926 film by the same name and also the 1935 remake Mad Love which starred Peter Lorre. Again, there is an entire subgenre of horror narratives involving dismembered/possessed body parts, but my favorite is Clive Barker’s The Body Politic (I think that was published in 1984), in which a man feels that his hands are somehow working against him, as if they aren’t sure they want to be part of him any longer, and this becomes a metaphor for how people are encouraged to think of themselves as body parts, with media images focusing on specific areas–breasts for women, muscles for men–as if the part can define the whole. Of course the surgeries which Renard focused on in his story have now become an entire technology for reshaping and redefining the human body and the technology of medical augmentation meets the technology of media until we all feel a bit disassociated from our own body parts, to a degree that shows like Nip/Tuck basically pick up the monster theme by promising us that ultimate monstrous wish: to swap one’s monster parts for somebody else’s.
But let me move to a more positive aspect of media technologies, one which brings us back to those definitions of genre with which we began this discussion, namely, how new media has opened up production and distribution channels for fans. Not only can artists distribute their own radical visions through the technologies of the Internet and new media, but fans can locate and access all sorts of media that not so long ago was completely out of reach. From classic movies to indie shorts, from new fiction to fan sites, female and queer artists are finding encouragement, inspiration, and their own fans.
As a closing thought, I just want to point out that this is in turn calling into question traditional methods for data collection, such as assuming that there are no female slasher fans because the researcher didn’t see many at a movie premiere. Female and queer fans are meeting up online, or at indie film festivals, or just waiting until the DVD comes out on Amazon, and I think this is another way in which new media appeals strongly to fans who previously may, like female and queer comics fans, have felt pushed out of the more public forms of media consumption and fan events.