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The Joys of Being a Vicarious Reactionary

June 1, 2012

David Barnett has an interesting article up on The Guardian website positing a link between the popularity of the horror genre and the popularity of right wing political parties. Here’s the money quote:

With recession, rumblings over the Falklands and rampant unemployment, it seems horror fans can rest assured of another golden age for a while to come. The rest of us, however, might not be so delighted …

The observation underlying this piece is that some degree of vitality seems to be creeping back into the British horror-writing scene after two decades in the doldrums. As with most broad cultural arguments of this kind, evidence is rather thin on the ground but Barnett’s observation certainly has the ‘feel’ of truth as far as I am concerned. Indeed, back in the early-to-mid 1980s, horror was one of the most visible and commercially successful publishing platforms in all of genre. In fact, the genre was so popular that standards began to slip and the market over-saturated with poorly written misogynistic trash that alienated readers and bookshops alike. Nearly three decades later and an influx of (mostly female) talent is detoxifying the genre and dripping fresh blood on the dried out husk of the vampiric body that was… well… you get the idea.

While I agree that things are finally looking up for literary horror (Black Static magazine is a great place to start looking into it) and that this up-tick has come at a time when right wing political parties are setting the agenda, I would not go so far as to suggest a causal relation in either direction. In other words, I do not think that horror is becoming more popular because people are becoming more right wing. Nor do I think that the rise of right wing political parties is in any way driving people into the arms of writers like Peter Straub or Caitlin R. Kiernan. People, as a rule, tend not to be so crassly transparent.

The link between political and popular cultures is about as complex as the link between our dreams and the anxieties that haunt our waking lives. For example, while one could argue that financial worries make us more likely to dream about losing our teeth, one could just as easily argue that our tendency to worry about money anyway makes us more likely to interpret things in terms of that worry. Thus, just as having a hammer makes us more likely to notice nails, having financial concerns makes us more likely to notice symbolic representations of lost money.

One tangible example of this tangled causal relationship is Don Siegel’s seminal red scare movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). One explanation for the film’s enormous success is that it vocalized fears about communist infiltration at a time when people were worried about precisely that possibility. Thus, by tapping into widespread fears, the film found an audience. Another explanation for the film’s success is that a pervasive fear of communist infiltration caused people to latch onto an innocent film and project their anxieties onto a set of ambiguous themes and images. Indeed, the American film producer Walter Mirisch wrote an autobiography entitled I thought We Were Making Movies, Not History (2008) in which he said of Bodysnatchers:

People began to read meanings into pictures that were never intended. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an example of that. I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor the original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple.

Clearly, the relationship between an individual work of art and the cultural climate that receives said work of art is complex. More complex than any simple theory could hope to account for. However, upon reading Barnett’s piece, I couldn’t help but feel that he had missed a trick. I do not think that people go to the cinema in order to experience fears that they already possess; I think they go to the cinema in order to safely experience a set of fear-responses that are entirely unfamiliar to them. In my mind, horror cinema operates very much like the SQUID recorders in Kathryn Bigelow’s sadly under-rated science fiction film Strange Days (1995).

SQUID recorders allow people to record and play back particular experiences ranging from the pleasurable (being a teenaged girl taking a shower) to the downright horrific (falling off a building or being raped and murdered). In the world of Strange Days, people trade illegally in these recordings because they know that, come the end of the experience, they can take off the headset and go back to their normal lives. Thus, when people go to see films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) or Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), it is in order to safely experience an echo of what it must feel like to be chased by a demented killer. By choosing to watch these films, we are willingly opening ourselves up to all kinds of negative emotions on the understanding that when the credits roll, the feelings get put back in their box.

This theory also explains the huge popularity of sexually regressive fantasies such as Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight novels. The point is not that teenaged girls yearn to be surrounded by domineering men dead-set on marriage. Rather, reading the novels allows independently minded women to step outside of their daily lives and experience some of the emotions associated with living in a sexually regressive patriarchal environment. In truth, I suspect the appeal of this type of escapism only snaps into focus once you experience what it is like to worry about going to university and having a career whilst surrounded by smelly teenaged boys who are constantly leering at you and begging for hand-jobs.

One way of explaining the link between right-wing politics and horror is to suggest that horror allows normal people to experience the intoxicating moral simplicity of a right wing mindset. For example, when audiences go to see hoody-based horror films like James Watkins’s Eden Lake (2008) or David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Ils (2006) they are allowing themselves to safely experience what it must be like to be a Daily Mail reader living in perpetual fear that the bestial lower orders will some day rise up and exact a terrible vengeance. Then, when the credits roll, audiences can resume empathizing with under-socialised and under-privileged kids, thereby placing their feelings of class-based anger back under lock and key. This approach to understanding the horror experience is particularly useful when considering works produced in another era.

Possibly the best example of works vocalizing what it must have been like to be a raving bigot is that found in the works of the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was a sickly child who was born into a moneyed New England family. As a result of his frail constitution and his family’s wealth, Lovecraft spent much of his childhood in seclusion with his head buried in a book. Later in life, Lovecraft experienced a good deal of economic hardship prompting him to move to New York City where his work began manifesting a decidedly racist tinge. Indeed, while all of Lovecraft’s fiction displays the haughty waspish xenophobia of a wealthy New Englander born in the late 19th Century, the fiction he produced while living in New York can only be described as the scarcely fictionalized ravings of a bigoted madman. The most potent example of this is his classic novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931).

Shadow Over Innsmouth is the story of an antiquarian who travels to a New England town in search of some architectural oddities left over from the town’s historical trade links with the South Seas. Even before the narrator arrives in the town, Lovecraft begins piling on the purple with talk of sinister cults and of peculiar-looking locals. By the time the narrator actually arrives in town, Lovecraft has so effectively primed the pumps that everything and everyone seems sinister from the odd-looking locals to the run-down storefronts. Soon, this hysteria begins leaching into the narrator and by the time he misses his last bus home, he is absolutely convinced that the locals are planning on gutting and eating him while he sleeps. Trembling in his motel bed, the narrator hears a noise in the corridor, assumes it is one of the locals and immediately throws himself out of a window. As the novella concludes and the narrator spirals off into paranoid psychosis, Lovecraft delivers his racist payload with devastating effect:

Was Obed Marsh my own great-great-grandfather? Who – or what – then, was my great-great-grandmother? But perhaps this was all madness. Those whitish-gold ornaments might easily have been bought from some Innsmouth sailor by the father of my great-grandmother, whoever he was. And that look in the staring-eyed faces of my grandmother and self-slain uncle might be sheer fancy on my part – sheer fancy, bolstered up by the Innsmouth shadow which had so darkly coloured my imagination. But why had my uncle killed himself after an ancestral quest in New England?

Why indeed? The true horror of Shadow Over Innsmouth lies not in the fact that there are New England towns where people practice non-western religions and marry outside their own race. It lies in the fact that even a respectable white man can turn out to have non-white great-great-grandparents! Upon learning that he was one-eighth Polynesian, the narrator’s uncle took the only course available to a New England gentleman: Suicide.

The beautiful thing about the novella is that at no point does any resident of Innsmouth show any sign of aggression towards the narrator. The narrator simply arrives in town and goes mad when he realizes that people look a bit different. What makes the novella so compelling is that Lovecraft drip-feeds us a steady supply of ‘facts’ that predispose us to interpreting the locals’ actions in a sinister light. This relentless flow of rumours and generalisations forces us to see the locals as sinister just as generations of ignorance and prejudice predispose people to bigoted views. What makes Lovecraft such a powerful writer is that every sentence he writes is filled with a sense of mad alienation and terror at a world completely unlike the library and sickbed where he spent the bulk of his childhood. To read Lovecraft is to see the world through the eyes of a bigoted madman… and then we stop reading, put the book away and go back to knowing full well that there is absolutely nothing wrong with coming from a multi-ethnic family or coming from a town with a large non-white population.

Of course, the wider question is why normal people should seek out and entertain the fantasies of bigots and Tories. One answer is that we all have these types of feelings anyway and that horror allows us to indulge them in a socially acceptable manner. Another answer is that there is some form of palliative joy to be had in experiencing worlds where moral and political choices are not just simple but gratifyingly easy to act upon. Take that hoody scum! Take that commie scum! Take that mixed-race great-great-grandmother! Oooooh BABY!

My preferred answer is simply that it is fun to experience the world from a different perspective, particularly when that perspective is radically different to my own. I watch the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul to know how a gay man from Thailand sees the world… I watch the films of Michael Bay because I want to know what it feels like to be an intellectually stunted and grotesquely privileged American teenager… I read the works of HP Lovecraft because I want to know what it felt like to be dragged from a quiet family library and be forced to seek work in a hopelessly overcrowded city filled with people who seemed to be making something of themselves despite the fact that they looked, behaved and spoke in a manner that was both utterly alien and faintly sinister. I want all of these experiences and this is why I seek out works of art that allow me to have them. One explanation as to why it is that people at the moment seem particularly drawn to right-wing fantasies is that the people who entertain these fantasies are currently setting the political agenda. How better to understand our political culture than to step safely into the mind of a right-wing lunatic? The power of horror is that it is the only artistic form that comes anywhere close to embodying the twisted sewer that is the mind of a Conservative politician.

2 Comments
  1. June 2, 2012 6:48 pm

    There’s a missing angle here, which is actually quite handily highlighted by Strange Days (I agree, very underrated, although the last 5 or 10 minutes is utterly cloying and liberal, and rather blows all the noir cred it built up before then). Bigelow was diverted into making bone-crunching action films from what looked like a reasonably promising career as a film theory academic. She was going through grad school at the tail-end of film theory’s high Lacanian period, and claims that seeing some film or another beat all the Lacan out of her. One look at Strange Days gives the lie to that notion – the whole film is about the voyeuristic, erotic underside of cinema as such.

    There is equally something neurotically (maybe psychotically) libidinal about far right scare stories – peculiarly clear in the case of the Daily Mail, where shrieking moral outrage comes on a website flooded with 1930s-grade schoolboy smut. Dacre has built a career on giving this market of enraged petty bourgeois exactly what they want; the concurrence of ‘ban internet filth’ campaigns with snaps of moderately underdressed celebrities is no accident. Horror is one way to fuse the two poles – the fascinated terror of an unknowable outside world finds expression through the violation of flesh. Making the libidinal charge of one’s fears obvious in some way or another is also a big part of the critical potential of horror as a genre.

    Anyway, that’s my view on it (another refugee from Lacanian film theory here, obviously).

  2. June 4, 2012 6:12 am

    Hi Harley :-)

    That’s fascinating about Bigelow. I actually didn’t know that she had a background as an academic though I have read of her in the context of a generation of filmmakers who produce films with Theory in mind so I guess I should have put two and two together.

    I didn’t link stuff back to Lacan because I’ve never been in a position of having to read him in order to pass a class or claim a degree and as a result, I’ve never actually finished reading anything by him. My relationship to Theory tends to be governed by the fact that my background is in analytical philosophy so I tend to automatically assume that if someone cannot articulate their ideas in a straight-forward fashion then those ideas were most likely hopelessly confused to begin with. Lacan has always struck me as being about as clear as mud (ditto Hegel, Plotinus and Clausewitz) and so I’ve never persevered with him.

    Really interesting comment though… many thanks!

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