Thursday, October 22, 2009

Theory, Audiences, and Horror

Greetings, blogorium readers! Tonight I thought I'd share with you the large-ish paper I've been working on. Since last night's ran so long, I won't drop all fourteen pages on you, but since we're one week away from the Field Trip, there is a pertinent section of the article to share.

The paper is on movie-going as a ritual activity, which in and of itself was fun researching, but a healthy section is devoted to Horror films and the role they play in group catharsis, so I'll drop that knowledge on you, followed by a section devoted to the question: "Why do horror fans like $1.50 movie theatres?", in which I think you'll find the Cap'n comes to a reasonable conclusion.

Just a tiny forewaring: this is from a first draft, so if anything reads as dodgy or the sentences are awkward, I'll be adjusting them in ensuing drafts.

Horror Films
“Each of us experiences a film individually, and our different tastes in films demonstrate how unique our individual reactions are. Yet, what are we to make of those films that seem to have tapped in the collective fears of an entire generation?” (Phillips, 3)
Horror films repulse and terrify us, yet they remain financially, if not critically, successful. Noel Carroll poses the question “But – and this is the question of ‘Why horror?’ in its primary form – if horror necessarily has something repulsive about it, how can audiences be attracted to it?” (33) The answer may be that the genre presents us with escapist variations of real life anxieties. The genre of horror taps into our deepest primal fears, and coupled with the venue (total darkness), collectively audiences must overcome individual terrors.
Consider the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, which tapped into mounting tensions about race relations and the Vietnam War through the lens of a zombie film. Kendall Phillips describes the reaction to Night thusly, “for many contemporary critics, the film was ‘cathartic for us, who forget about the horrors around us that aren’t, alas, movies’” (93). Similarly, films like The Exorcist or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre tapped into apocalyptic concerns of the mid-1970s, though less literally than atomic holocaust films. “Apocalyptic visions… need not express a literal end of the world but may entail a sense of the inevitable decay and demise of broad social structures and order” (Phillips, 111).
Horror manages to, in the words of critic Robin Wood, “respond to interpretation as at once the personal dreams of their makers and the collective dreams of their audiences, the fusion made possible by the shared structures of a common ideology” (30). Its role as a societal release is a more extreme version of cathartic theatre, one designed to explicitly face our fears in dark spaces, with the comfort of being able to safely walk away when we choose to. Linda Williams, in learning to scream, identifies a similar mechanism in horror films designed to help audiences gasp and scream together:
Anyone who has gone to the movies in the last 20 years cannot help but notice how entrenched this rollercoaster sensibility of repeated tension and release, assault and escape has become. While narrative is not abandoned, it often takes second place to a succession of visual and auditory shocks and thrills.” (163)
Despite its role in tapping into our collective experience, the horror film is not highly regarded by critics. Robin Wood describes the phenomenon:
The horror film has consistently been one of the most popular and, at the same time, the most disreputable of Hollywood genres. The popularity itself has a peculiar characteristic that sets it apart from other genres: it is restricted to aficionados and complemented by total rejection, people tending to go to horror films either obsessively or not at all. They are dismissed with contempt by the majority of reviewer-critics, or simply ignored. (30)
Horror is regarded as a “lesser” form of cinema, one that is frequently associated with “low culture” and is beneath contempt for cultural critics. Audiences, however, flock to this ritual of being scared half to death and walking out at the end. The ways that horror films function as a dual ritual of “movie-going” and “date” are also related to cultural norms. In her discussion of horror marketing during the “classic” monster-movie era, Rhona Berenstein notes the ways that male / female reactions during this ritual are performative:
Just as social mandates invited women in the 1930s to cling to men while screening horror movies, thus encouraging them to display conventionally feminine behavior as a means of garnering male attention, so, too, did the male viewer… use female fear, as well as his own traditional display of bravery, to disguise his terror behind a socially prescribed behavior. (137)
In fact, women were frequently the target audience during the “classic” monster movie era, for reasons that solidified gender roles in American society. Berenstein continues, “women were classic horror’s central stunt participants because they were thought to personify the genre’s favored artifact: fear. The upshot was that if women could survive the viewing or a horror film, and moreover, if they could respond bravely, then other patrons, meaning men could do the same” (143).
The horror film provides a number of valuable roles in maintaining the movie-going ritual: in addition to reinforcing cultural norms, it taps into collective fears and faces taboos, even at the chagrin of most critics. At the end of a horror film, no matter how traumatic or cathartic the experience, the collective returns to the daylight, capable of functioning as members of society. As we will see, the horror film provides for a different kind of engagement in the movie-going ritual based on what theatre an individual chooses to visit.
For many critics, the reputation of Horror as a “low culture” genre comes from these second run houses. Conversely, many Horror aficionados will also attend the Sedgefield of Blue Ridge Road theatres because they replicate the “Grindhouse” experience, based on one-screen cinemas in large cities, most of which no longer exist. The Grindhouse theaters were permissive of rowdier behavior, much of which is considered by aficionados as “augmenting” an otherwise marginal film. The most famous example of a Grindhouse film or “Midnight Movie” turned ritual experience is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
As you can probably guess, the next section is on the history of The Rocky Horror Picture Show's midnight success and ritual aspects, but I'll save it for another night.

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