Has Horror Been Eclipsed?
There’s a man sitting opposite me reading ‘Twilight’. He’s about forty, and is wearing three-quarter length camouflage trousers and a sleeveless top. This, I realise, is the core market my publisher wants me to chase.
Those of us who have spent a long time in love with horror in all its forms have been feeling a bit trapped of late. Torture porn films and novels weren’t the problem; that’s cyclical. We had the giallos of the seventies, the slashers and shock-novels of the eighties, we were due for more. I enjoyed quite a few of them, usually for the wrong reasons – the ‘Saw’ films, for example, are a great exercise in tortuous plotting on behalf of producers who never saw the sequels coming.
The real problem began when horror was co-opted as a teen demographic, and a Christian one at that. The idea of the unattainable male worshipped by girls fitted right in with a conservative agenda, and suddenly the supernatural romance was born in all its grisly forms, from loved-up vampires to moping ghosts and absurdly butch werewolves. The idea that man is an animal is hardly new. The idea that he’s an animal which can be conveniently tamed is.
Because it turns out that horror isn’t being re-invented this time – it’s being defanged and infantilised, turned into a kiddie-friendly commodity. Horror covers a multitude of ideas, of course, and one is certainly the cold-as-the-grave Gothic romance; that’s where horror’s roots lie. But it has always moved on, absorbing its surrounding cultures. When George A Romero began his Living Dead films, he wisely used the concept of zombies to reflect our obsession with consumerism, suggesting that we would finally consume ourselves. Then he proceeded to beat audiences to death with it for the rest of his life.
Now the world has turned once more and a new set of terrors lie in wait, opening up subjects that can best be tackled through the horror genre. The new fears should reflect our world – fear of alienation and losing your identity, fear of manipulation, cruelty, xenophobia, class divides, racism, fear of difference, fear of failure, of simply going unnoticed and unloved. There are a handful of writers tackling these subjects with brilliance, but the problem lies with publishers – if it’s not vampires, zombies and werewolves, they seem to think that it’s not horror, and the stories fall through the cracks.
I loved Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’, which owes a lot to ‘Shock Corridor’ and feels like a beloved old pulp paperback being rediscovered in a junk shop, but it’s definitely a horror film, not a mainstream thriller. The film ‘Orphan’, with its jaw-dropping twist, also played like a novel from the 1970s that you’d find in a secondhand store, and this was also sold as a mainstream thriller – but it’s not, it’s horror through and through.
Aren’t we just talking about cataloguing here? Do we need to be worried about the difference? Yes, because horror is being squeezed into a box labeled ‘Teen Stupid’. I enjoyed the Final Destination movies because, at the outset at least, they were tackling something rarely explored, the topic of predestination. ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and ‘Psychoville’ combined Monty Python – men as Victorian grotesques, women as drag gorgons – with Amicus and came up with something fresh. (I wonder where they got the idea for that latter title – could it have been when they were filming in my house? Near my bookcase?)
Right now, though, I’m looking at that guy ploughing through ‘Twilight’ and guessing he also read ‘Harry Potter’. Nothing wrong with that except they’re – to quote ‘The Hudsucker Proxy – ‘you know, for kids.’