Your Body is Not Your Body

What Truly Frightens Me About Horror Films (Part 1?)

I recently found myself in a Facebook discussion with my Senior English teacher about horror and what draws me to the genre. She has never been a horror fan, finding much of its offerings disturbing or difficult to watch – specifically the attitude many of the films in the genre take toward women. And although I wish it weren’t so, she has a point; Women are often the targets or victims in horror movies (especially slasher films – more on them later), and I chalk some of that up to laziness on the part of some filmmakers who don’t put sufficient thought into their movies. Since most horror movies involve some kind of monster or monstrous behavior, women often become shorthand for the most vulnerable among us, glomming onto our narrative need to protect them or allying us with a hero-figure who fulfills that role. But to me, that’s not what horror is about nor what has drawn me to watch these movies since I was a boy watching them late at night on HBO with the volume turned down so my parents wouldn’t know.

And for the record, we only have two genders from which to choose, so one of them is going to have the upper hand in any movie – I’m not saying she’s wrong, I’m just saying it’s not necessarily sexist.

Wendy, I'm home.

All Work and No Play…

Mrs. Schoene (I have the hardest time calling her by her first name) and I specifically discussed “The Shining,” a movie so unmistakably a horror movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick – one of the most respected filmmakers of all time, but one which ultimately focuses its attentions on the helplessness of the Wendy character (Shelley Duvall) and her young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). And although Mrs. Schoene agreed with me that the movie was not endorsing this antisocial behavior on the part of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), for her that concern lingers. And we’re talking “The Shining” here, the gold standard of horror films, where the case can be made that it’s not about violence toward women. If we had been talking about several other well-respected horror movies like, say, Argento’s “Suspiria” (or “Opera,” etc.), or Carpenter’s “Halloween,” or Dante’s “The Howling,” or Aja’s “Haute Tension” I know I could explain to her all day that the violence toward women was incidental to the story, but it would be harder to refute her point. I mean, it is there, it’s just a matter of how we interpret it, right?

Not that it matters, but most of the horror filmmakers I know are jovial provocateurs, not excited by watching anyone suffer outside of a fictional context and then only if it makes for a good movie. And as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, all dramatists are sadists anyway, as we strive to create lovable, believable characters only to torture them. Sometimes to death.

I really appreciate how Mrs. Schoene approaches this subject, with an open mind. And the conversations is forcing me to think a great deal about what drags me back to this genre, and why I’d rather watch a sequel to a rehashed horror flick over the best romantic comedy ever made any day.

Paralysis by Analysis

Analysis is the enemy of anything that hits us in a primal way, and I would argue that horror is the most primal genre we have. I can tell you a joke (“what’s worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm? The Holocaust!”), and you’ll either laugh or you won’t, but if we pop open the joke’s hood and poke around at its moving parts, it ceases to be funny. And horror, functioning on our most animal nature, is no different. I’m sure that looking for the hidden code lurking under the punchline has never stopped a serious comedian to noodle over it, so here we are. But as I rolled Mrs. Schoene’s presumed question (some version of “what makes you bent enough to seek these movies out?”) around in my head, if I boiled down the kind of horror that draws me to its least common denominator, it came down to this (as you have doubtlessly already figured out):

Your body isn’t your body, and your mind isn’t your mind.

And that concept intrigues me, and perhaps is the root of my love for this genre. Why?

Maybe I’m just a control freak and can think of nothing worse than my body and my mind being used for any purpose other than me living my own life. The unfortunate truth is that our minds and bodies ultimately aren’t our own to do with however we see fit forever – eventually time runs them both down and we all die, something we’re all terrified of as well. Horror just hangs a lantern on that unfortunate fact for us, and allows us to temporarily defeat the ravages of nature, walking out of the theater still under the assumption that our minds and bodies are still under our control. They do seem that way, don’t they?

But when I ignore the slasher subgenre (which Stephen King once said was an allegory for conservative/parental rage at liberal/adolescent behavior, the greatest threat being bodily death for moral weakness), I think that the real horror lies in the fear that one’s body and mind truly might not be their own. Here’s a quick list of some movies that explore this theme:

  • “Night of the Living Dead” – Your body is just food for the dead.
  • “John Carpenter’s The Thing” – Your body only LOOKS like your body, it’s actually an alien’s body.
  • “Videodrome” – Your mind is the plaything of someone else, and all of your perceptions are potentially false.
  • “Saw” – Your body and mind are your own trap, set by a crazy person, and you must destroy one to save the other. Which will it be?
  • I dunno what the hell's in there, but it's weird and pissed off.

  • “The Silence of the Lambs” – Your body is nothing more than Buffalo Bill’s costume. Of course he has to cut it off of you to make it. Oh, and Hannibal Lecter already has your mind.
  • “Ringu” – Watching this videotape, which you know you want to do, will grant someone the right to take your body from you in a matter of days.
  • “Dracula” – Both your mind and body are a bauble for an immortal (and immoral) monster to do with as he pleases.
  • “Alien” – Your body is nothing more than an incubator for a hungry alien. Oh, and food too.
  • “A Nightmare on Elm Street” – Your mind is no longer private or safe, but the place where a psychopath will find and kill you.
  • “An American Werewolf in London” – Your body and mind will become a different creature that does terrible things, and it’s out of your control. See also: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
  • “The Blair Witch Project” – You gave over both your body and mind the moment you stepped in the forest.
  • “The Shining” – Your mind is a switch that can be turned to “murder” at any time.

Now it puts the lotion in the basket...

To me, all of this is much more frightening and compelling than mere death in the narrative sense because it does more than take our life – it disrespects and destroys our nature. It challenges and corrupts what we take for granted about ourselves. Getting offed by a psychopath with a knife sounds awful and painful, but knowing that at the end the entire meaning of my existence was forever changed and distorted disturbs me far more.

The best and most frightening bogeymen hone their skill for finding a unique aspect of our mind or our body or both, something we all take for granted and that’s the thing they take. Or they always had us and we just didn’t know it (see anything by David Cronnenberg).

Now I’m not so reductive as to propose that this encompasses all of horror, it’s just the beginning of a pet theory at best. And there’s a second part that definitely draws me as well, a taboo-violating itch that gets scratched by watching these films when they’re truly transgressive. I’m talking about you, “Cannibal Holocaust,” “Nekromantik,” and “Antichrist.”

A Note on Transgression

Can your mind really be warped by watching "The Human Centipede?"

Every horror fan eventually tires of the criticism leveled at the beloved genre: That it’s debased, that there’s no redeeming social value in it. On the genreally-cool KPCC radio program “Film Week,” host Larry Mantle excoriated “The Human Centipede” without having seen it, and the critic who reviewed it spoiled the end in his review with a dismissive chuckle. The implication was that no respectable NPR-listener would sully their brain by watching the most debauched film ever made.

From this point of view, it’s as though the genre exists only for demented children or serial-killer wannabes. But like any microcosm, niche, or special interest group, horror fanboys and fangirls are more like fans of any genre of music or art, desiring to see aspects of the art pushed as far as possible. You can chart a straight line from Elvis to The Beatles to Pink Floyd to The Sex Pistols to GG Allin and movie fans are no different. And in the case of horror, we’re simply desensitized to what’s come before and we want something that will genuinely surprise, scare us. And when it really works, like when I saw “Let the Right One In” for the first time at Fantastic Fest in 2008, the power of a great or extreme story catches me offguard and makes me realize that I haven’t seen it all. Yet. Maybe it’s all brain chemistry, and genre fans are looking for the best way they know how to get a dopamine reaction mixed with a spike of adrenaline – by being genuinely scared and genuinely surprised at the same time. Check out Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good for You for more on this subject.

To those people who accuse horror fans of moral transgression, I would remind them that these are movies, made by consenting adults acting in fictional situations. I’m sure there are horror fans out there who sit in their dank basements next to their police scanner, eagerly awaiting the next crime scene they can crash – but I don’t know any of them. To like something in fiction is not the same as liking it in the real world.

Where to Draw the Line?

That’s a question everyone answers on their own. You don’t like “torture porn?” Don’t watch it, but it’s dangerous to assign one’s personal dislike as a blanket condemnation of the merit of an entire genre. We should always remember that most films fail to satisfy even the basic premise that drew us into the theater.  Personally I’m not the biggest fan of “slasher” films, not because they disturb or offend me, but because they too often telegraph their scares, and I can’t remember the last time I saw one that caught me offguard. Then again, I was fairly sick of serial killer films when a friend tricked me into seeing David Fincher’s “Se7en,” and that one really stuck.

To this day, the two most disturbing films I’ve ever seen are not considered horror films as such. They are Pasolini’s “Salo: 120 Days of Sodom,” which was an allegory for Italian Fascism set in the Italian countryside and “Titicut Follies,” Frederick Wiseman’s disturbing 1967 documentary film chronicling the goings-on in an asylum for the criminally insane in Massachusetts.

A delightful scene from Pasolini's "Salo," the most horrific movie I've ever seen

And for the record, “Salo” (the only film I’ve ever seen that made me feel physically ill) taught me that my body was nothing more than a vessel for pain and suffering that would entertain the depraved Italian upper-class, and “Titicut Follies” taught me that my mind was closer to the tipping point into a kind of insanity than I had ever thought possible. And that was just the guards at the asylum.

As for Mrs. Schoene, I made her a list of horror films that I think she might like, or at least that might give her an idea of what makes them great. “The Shining” was the first one she watched. Hopefully she liked it enough to continue this experiment.


12 comments on “Your Body is Not Your Body

    • Thanks for checking it out man!

      • Ben – great analysis of the genre and all of its complexity.(as I said before I am proud to have been one of your English teachers since you write so well) BTW – the first horror movie I watched from your list was Let the Right One In and I liked it. The absent or inattentive parents in the story contribute to the boy’s attraction to the vampire girl. I liked this twist and thought the film did a good job of exploring the boy’s state of mind. And there was a realism to the film that I thought was also effective – as if there really could be a vampire child who could be befriended by another child. I did like The Shining too and thought some of the effects were quite memorable – the boy riding in the cavernous hotel on his big wheel, the sense of isolation, the fact that Jack has only been writing All work and no play make Jack a dull boy – as one who has been trying to write a lot this summer, that little bit makes me laugh out loud. I agree with you that the genre has merit and it is unfair for critics to assume that the films only appeal to the degenerate among us. It’s just that for me, being scared to death is not an easy state of mind for me to experience. I don’t like roller coasters either – or other rides that drop from great heights at the speed of light. I know it’s all pretend, but I just don’t like the feeling. I do like good films, though, and so far have enjoyed the ones on your list, so I will continue to work through them. Have I mentioned that one of my favorite films produced in the last several years is Pan’s Labyrinth? I loved the mixture of history and fantasy and I was intensly moved by the story and the end. I also have seen Silence of the Lambs and thought it was very powerful.Thanks for an engaging discussion. I am enjoying it.

  1. […] This post was Twitted by ScottEWeinberg […]

  2. I really like your article, Ben. What a terrific topic you are exploring. I agree that horror is the most primal genre. I also think that the feminine, women, as victims in the horror genre is incidental and a vestige of bygone era attitudes toward women. I loved “Let the Right one In,” and found it to be a terribly beautiful love story with sublime visual imagery. I would add “The Matrix,” as well as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” to the list of films exploring the theme of “Your body isn’t your body, and your mind isn’t your mind.” Of couse, they aren’t horror films, but they are interesting examinations of that topic. Additionally, I think there is intrinsic value in exploring the shadow nature of humanity, including darker emotions and desires, such as psychosis, sociopathy, bloodletting and the like, in film or other art. Thomas Moore, I belive in his book on sadism (“Dark Eros: The Imagination of Sadism”), wrote that to literalize psychopathy or sociopathy shows a lack of imagination. In that book he also explored the positives of sadism and the works of the Marquis de Sade. Moore, whose lens for reality is the Soul, advocates imaginative expression of torture, violence, victimization and the like as a way to understand life on an imaginative level as well as a method of avoiding literalization. He also seems to think that understanding of the metaphor(s) contained within such art is a path to transformation. Art is really food for the Soul, don’t you think? Moore further writes (in his book “Dark Nights of the Soul”) that “It’s tempting to become the hero and savior, but getting life in apparent order is not the same as giving the soul what it needs. It may need more chaos, deeper impasse, and increased darkness.” He’s talking about a therapy client, doing depth psychology work, but I feel/think it applies equally, if not more so, to film/book audiences. I think the Soul of a great many people may require “more chaos, deeper impasse, and increased darkness” for whatever reason and that such entertainment may be offered up through horrific films and books, horror genre or otherwise. The fairy tale that interested me the most as a child, and completely terrifed me, was the french literary folktale “Bluebeard” by Charles Perrault. Bluebeard’s a ship captain who marries a young woman and leaves her in his castle, with all of his keys, and admonishes her not to go in one particular room. She goes in anyway, out of boredom and a desire to satisfy her curiosity, and discovers the floor running with blood. The blood is dripping from the bodies of his former wives who are all hanging there on hooks. The conclusion of the story is about how the wife is able to narrowly escape the same fate. Bruno Bettelheim, in his “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,” makes a case for the necessity of such myths in educating us about ourselves, and other people, and also facilitating emotional intelligence or development of consciousness. Supposedly Kubrick and his co-author, novelist Diane Johnson, read Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” and Bettelheim’s book to help them tap into the disturbing psychological and supernatural and as a way to explore the truly evil side of human nature in “The Shining.” Jung believed that the shadow was the source of our creativity. I feel that the human Soul, our unconscious and imagination, requires the otherworldly (whether dark or Light). The otherworldly is most readily available in film/literature. Here’s to creativity, imagination over literalization and food for the Soul.

  3. Great blog, Ben! First off, let me say that I agree with H. Raven Rose’s comment above–I like horror films (sci fi films, “genre” films, etc) because they possess a curiosity about the world and an imagination that you don’t find in ‘realistic’ dramas or romantic comedies. (What would happen if aliens were all around us and we didn’t know it? Could watching a video tape pass along a curse? Could what we dream about affect us enough to kill us in reality? etc)

    As to your point about women in horror movies–yes, they get degraded, debased, tortured and killed. But so does EVERYONE ELSE. Horror/sci fi films are one of the FEW genres where in addition to playing the put-upon victim, women are ALSO allowed to be the pro-active protagonist, without their problem relating directly back to a romantic entanglement with a man. The Ring, Alien, Aliens, Nightmare on Elm Street (the first one at least), Halloween, Hellraiser, and even The Shining all feature female protagonists who survive long enough to face down the bad guy at the end and triumph–at least until the sequel. In Carrie, Sissy Spacek gets to be BOTH the protagonist with a horrible home life, AND the brutal otherworldly killer. You’ll never see a character of that depth, power, and complexity in your typical Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy.

    Finally, I often walk out of (the few) rom-coms I’ve seen feeling depressed that my hair isn’t that perfect, my shoes aren’t as adorable, and my problems aren’t that cute. But when I walk out of a horror movie, I take a deep breath of fresh air and feel grateful to be alive- and not trapped in a nightmare with an alien exploding out of me.

    • Thanks for the response!

      One thing I failed to mention were films that took gender out of the equation entirely like “The Thing” in which there are no women, or “The Descent” where all of the characters are women.

      And I agree that a lot of romcoms put an unrealistic idea in our heads about what actual human relationships are all about. It’s easy to distance human/zombie relations, a little hard to separate ourselves from Reece Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds. I’ll take the gritty realism of [REC] over that crap any day.

  4. Great evaluation of the genre, Ben. I especially appreciated your inclusion of “that which is truly horrific” as a contrast to “horror”.

    There used to be a fantastic course at Louisiana State University, by an English/Women’s Studies professor, who specialized in feminist analysis of the treatment of women in horror literature and film. I’m sure she’d be interested in your blog!

    Sincerely, Michelle

  5. Seen plenty of ‘horror’ films in my time. Using in ” to indicate a general usage of the term. Anyhow, I quit watching horror films about four years ago, and most violently themed things on tv. I enjoy Family Guy, Simpsons, and Cleveland Show,among others that take many taboo subjects and ‘punk them’ for lack of a better term. Is FG funny because its a cartoon and the situations fictional? On the surface. Under the hood? Often not. An old homo-pedophile isn’t funny in the real world. Perhaps these situations fall under a broader umbrella, “ah, this is fun, because it can’t happen, and isn’t”. Why do some like the pretend rock world of Kiss, and not the brutal presentations behind groups like Slayer? Some like both. I dunno. For me, I get enough horrific stimulation from the nightly news and feeds from the internet. Most days I avoid the news, knowing, “this has happened”. The other part of me that allows a night of watching, knows “this has happened, but not to me”. Which is a goal of broadcast journalism. That same part also knows, “I have better shit to do than to mull over a half hour of negativity.” The world is a horrible place, and appalling. But I gotta keep focused on being the guaardian of my mind and body. It has been explained to me in short that the SBDM crowd do what they do because, “Its cheaper than therapy”. Whatever. Adults are permitted to be as f’d up as they’d like to be. I keep active with healthy art/music/lit projects as much as I can.(OCD vs. ADD). Point is, recently picking up skateboarding as a hobby has taught me that yes, nothing is truly our own in the physical and metaphysical existences if we allow or accidentally have a piece of it broken. Like our diet, what we fuel with it is what we get out of it. Do I condemn the horror genre? No. I recall Re-Animator still is funny as shit. I still love Godzilla. I love Iron Maiden. Perhaps as guardians of the mind/body existence, we only let in what we allow, and only allow so much we can handle only after a line, boundary somewhere has been crossed. For me and others, it may be a chasms of differing familiarity that draws us to these artforms. That is why freewill can be excercised by not going to see a certain film-romantic comedies make me puke-, or turning the radio off.
    Give the space between the ears a rest–no music, tv, turn off the cell phone, no internet,,,,virtually disappear. You may be glad you did and might invigorate the creative process.

  6. My brain was in this same neighborhood this week, because I was noodling around with ideas to pitch a producer who’s looking to make a micro-budget thriller. I found myself returning over and over again to two simple, interrelated concepts:

    1) Take something simple and/or innocent and change it into something dangerous.

    When they tell those stories about massive drop-offs in beach attendance in the summer of “Jaws”, or how “Psycho” made people fear showers, that’s great work. It’s just as insidious to turn it inward, and capitalize on our own urges (that primal stuff you talk about), or the things we take for granted. When Michelle Pfeiffer is paralyzed in the bathtub in “What Lies Beneath”, sees the water rising and can’t escape it, that’s fantastically disturbing – you’re plugged into her powerlessness. And one of the best hours of television in the last few years is the “Doctor Who” episode “Blink” – because it takes one of the most basic, autonomic functions of our body and makes us pay sudden, feverish, life-or-death attention to it.

    2) Permanently change someone’s mind.

    I think that INCEPTION, while not a horror film itself, actually dramatizes the effect of a truly great horror film – it that plants an idea in your subconscious that can never be purged, and alters your perception for the rest of your life. A lot of movies can make me jump in my chair, but the original “Night of the Living Dead” irrevocably altered my brain. It’s a very short list of movies that can do that. Your “body is not your body…” is a perfect example of one of those insidious ideas.

  7. I am intrigued by horror because the truly impactful films question our humanity at a very base level. Are human beings humane? Animalistic? Is there really a difference between good and evil?

    I don’t necessarily see the genre as sexist, though lazy (and exploitive) directors have been using that easy shorthand for decades. But so has mainstream Hollywood (or the entire advertising industry). On a purely visceral level, controlled fear can be very entertaining. And the best horror films are really allegories, anyway. See “Dawn of the Dead.”

  8. […] Raven Rose July 24, 2010 at 12:20 am Reply 1 […]

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