sociology of horror

The Unfortunate Issue of Reality

things that go bump in the night

I have run up against two uncomfortable situations within the last twenty four hours, both involving other Internet sites which will remain unnamed-and both involving the actual, historical reality of urban legends and mythologies.

I’m actually a fairly religious person-but it’s hard to separate the social science training that I have. I understand the mechanisms of religious thought, I just choose to gain the social benefits from the religious experience (stop me if I become too Durkheimian). However, being the Durkheimian I am, I can’t deny the historical reality that sits behind legends.

The first situation is one that Reddit has already commented on, and commented on better than I am. There is a certain very large, common, viral website that is running a ‘haunted houses’ segment for Halloween. One of the houses that gets mentioned is (supposedly) in Buffalo. Being that I write a Western New York paranormal column, and not recognizing the name, I did some digging and came up with nothing. Which is not surprising-since the haunting does not in fact exist. Does that really detract from the story? Well, it certainly complicates the issue. I’m all for fakelore-which interestingly connects this event to the next. However, being that there are plenty of atmospheric abandoned houses in Buffalo with an established paranormal legend attached to them, it begs the question why you wouldn’t just use one of them. Or just acknowledge that it’s an art project, and you just made up the story of [redacted].

The second situation was a site entitled something to the point of ‘the truth surrounding [redacted]’ and promised the ‘history’ of the, well, the gangly armed meme. While it touches on points that I think are probably actually valid-that the black suited image very well may be this era’s recycling of a  very old image, it completely disregards the fact that we KNOW that this meme was made up. We have the paper trail. THE SITE THAT IT COMES FROM IS STILL FUNCTIONING AND EXCEPTIONALLY POPULAR. This is not some sort of folkloric baddy from somewhere else. The reality of it is not what you just spent 10+ paragraphs rather breathlessly telling us. If you want to ride that train-go right ahead, but you should probably at least acknowledge the Something Awful connection.

If you’ve read this blog for awhile you’ll know that I’m actually pretty serious about historical reality, as best as can be determined-I don’t actually think it detracts from anything. But what do we do when we want to buy into the myth more than the history? It’s not as though I have an answer, and I think that the best I can come up with is, as long as you understand that these are ideas coming out of somewhere else and don’t let them control your social thought too deeply-do as you will as long as you harm none.

Damn. Sorry guys, I promised you I wouldn’t go too Durkheimian on you.

Shutter (2007)

I think that the reason that Americans take such an ambiguous stance with ghosts and hauntings is that we don’t have a long standing history with them.

There are many, many cultures in the world where people have been working with the dead in one form or another for thousands of years. Relatively speaking, American culture as most people would recognize it is completely new. We’re still working with other people’s scripts, so to speak. We have the memories of the cultures that we pull from but we still don’t really have anything to point at yet that’s ‘ours.’ The closest thing I can think of is the practice of the drive through funeral home. We’re getting there-and I would even argue that it’s getting stronger, but we’re still not there yet. There’s not much that we can point at and call purely American without it actually being Polish or Irish or Japanese. Maybe some day.

The point that I’m getting at is two fold: one, that our media doesn’t really know how to work with ghosts yet which is why a lot of American ghost films are not that effective because we’re still not terribly familiar with the tropes yet, and b, that foreign media seems to frighten American viewers as much as it does because it is both somehow more honest and more developed.

When you take a film like Shutter (the original Thai version, not the American remake) part of the reason that the film is effective for American audiences is admittedly the Western lens of the viewer. Our death culture looks nothing like this, so we see something that is both admittedly terrifying just because it’s scary as all hell, and terrifying because it’s so foreign to us. We’re looking at a completely different set of cultural understandings and we wonder what it is that we’re overlooking.

Note that what I’m not trying to get at is the audience exoticfying the material, though that’s certain a risk with foreign media of any form. It’s just that we’re dealing with such unfamiliar waters in a nation that has so completely sanitized death that most the closest most people are going to come to it is a 30 minute visit to the funeral home once or twice a year, if we’re lucky. Americans are notoriously bad with death and Shutter is a film that takes death and reminds us that it literally can follow us around. And we have to wonder if this is actually going on, but the language is so different from ours that we wouldn’t understand it if we had to.

We wonder as Americans what it is that we’re missing. And the interesting thing about it is, this is a function that occurs even within our own media. I really don’t know what mainstream pop culture would do with, say, Pagan death rites when it still doesn’t seem to know how to think about Catholic rites; the Catholic rite of exorcism and Mass are still exoticfied in American culture and arguably that’s a lot closer to home than Thai death practices.

Interestingly, there’s something about this film that has really struck a cord across cultures. The movie’s been remade multiple times, including in Thailand, and across a wide range of countries. The Americans, unsurprisingly, have gotten in on the act and while that version could be entertaining in its own right is a little too sanitized for my tastes.

Are You a Good Witch, or a Bad Witch?

Oh, the representation question.

I’ve talked about the Other and its role in horror already, so I don’t want to go into a full discourse again, other than to say that it is possible for a minority to be a villain in a horror piece and still come out looking okay.

When you look at a show like American Horror Story: Coven, it’s an obviously careful balance between suggesting that the root of the problem is the witchcraft, and suggesting that maybe the witchcraft is not the root of the problem at all-that people are nasty, period, and what they do is pretty universal regardless of expression. The thing with a show like Coven is that people are doing terrible things left and right. None of them are free of responsibility. The infamous bus scene, while being heavy handed and an obvious rash decision, is understandable because of what happened in the scene prior. Call it a balancing, call it cosmic justice, call it a blood reckoning…call it nothing at all, it makes sense because of what had just played out.

In other words, these are witches who are dealing with a universe that the producers have created wherein no one’s not going to have mud on their face once or twice. It’s a nasty world out there, and the motives are pretty apparent because of that. Therefore, whatever representation plays out is pretty understandable-and has been thoroughly researched. It’s actually pretty evenly handled, if not exactly Glenda the Good Witch.

But then you get to a show like Salem. Part of my issue with the show is that it’s just not a good show. In fact, it’s pretty bad. Not painfully bad but I can skip the rest of the show and not really care. I’ve said this in relation to the whole assault fiasco with Game of Thrones this season, but I don’t need every show to be feminist in order to be enjoyable, if the plot elements are actually driving the plot. Similarly, I don’t need every representation of everyone ever to be nice and supportive if it’s actually accomplishing something.

Let’s face facts, it doesn’t matter what group you’re talking about, there’s bad people in that group. Whether people like it or not, not everything that happens is nice and it’s all outsiders that don’t understand.

Here’s where Salem falls where Coven succeeded-these are just terrible people. The whole lot of them. There’s a lot of ‘throw stuff on the fall and see what sticks’. Where Coven had fully developed motives (i.e. the bus scene), even if we don’t understand the logic, there is an underlying one running the show-where Coven had that strength, Salem is just a free for all of not nice people doing not nice things because they could.

And that’s where the show commits the ultimate sin for me-it’s not even that you’re taking a group that actually exists, suggesting that they do horrible (and frankly ridiculous things, if you think a person is actually capable of doing these things, that’s a deeper issue than suggesting that they do them in the first place-snakes in the belly, really?) things-it’s that they’re so nasty that frankly I can’t care.

Salem is full of nothing but bullies with snakes. And I can’t bring myself to care.

Gender and Master Lists

If you follow the horror blogsphere, the newest master list that released recently has created something of a frenzy. The reason, when ‘master lists’-lists of the top genre directors-are released all the time without this much controversy, is that all 1o of these up and coming genre masters, are male.

It’s not like horror doesn’t have its female members (raises hand). In fact, it could be solidly argued that some of the major, definitive tropes in  the genre, center around the feminine. There are a lot of female voices on the review sites; many of the most respected commentators in the genre are female (and in a response that’s slightly more profane and slightly less sociological-thought not by much-than this one, see All Things Horror’s breakdown of the comments left regarding this issue. Fair warning, there’s a fair bit of ragey-ness and profanity-in other words, they wrote what the inside of my head actually sounds like on this subject). So why aren’t women making these lists?

What Does Horror Say About Gender?

So what is the relevance of gender in horror? What does the genre even have to say about women? A lot, actually-which is a topic that I’ve touched on before.  The feminine does very much tend to fall into the ‘Other’ category- all those things that are different, alien, and therefore dangerous. However, as it’s been show before, the act of othering can sometimes open up some interesting paths to discussion.

For example, what does it mean that in so many slasher films, the strongest lead character-and the one that makes it out alive in so many films- is female? What does this imply in a societal environment where women are supposed to shun violence, let alone engage in it to save her Self? What exactly would have happened had Jamie Lee Curtis had been male and Michael Meyers was chasing after his brother? I think it would have been a much weaker franchise, personally.

But the Gendering is Negative

Is it? Or I guess the better question is, is the gendering of characters in horror any less damaging than the gendering of characters in say, a rom-com? I’m not certain that the implication that your life cycle has to include ‘romance’ (which is such a turbulent topic that you could probably write an entire blog just on that idea alone), ‘marriage’ (again, which never looks like reality), and ‘family’ (….you get the point) is much better than fake blood and a chainsaw-wielding monstrosity ala The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Actually, Massacre is a good place to look at this concept. On both sides of the hero/villain divide we have characters acting out what are essentially the same gendered motives-the protection and the success of the family unit-and turning them on their head. I think if anything, horror is an environment wherein the exploration of the full range of gender is possible; when a character is pushed to their breaking point, what happens to the patterns that they’re ‘supposed’ to fall into? What happens, for example, when Rosemary discovers that her dream wasn’t a dream and who exactly fathered her child? In the world of say, the rom-com (you’ll notice I hate rom-coms for a number of reasons), the family unit would be perfect, healthy and beautiful.

How many perfect, healthy, beautiful rom-com style families do you actually know?

What Does Feminism Require?

So we’ve agreed (or I’ve agreed for you, I guess) that since horror is a valid local to start looking at gender and its expectations-what are the societal obligations for the idea of genre ‘masters’?

More specifically, in order to be a ‘feminist’ reader, viewer, or critic, what do you have to ‘do’? I suppose that you can argue that you ‘have’ to be equal in all things; your 10 item list better be more or less split between men and women. Otherwise, you’re ‘silencing’ women, right?

Keep in mind I consider myself a feminist theorist.

…But What If the Voices Aren’t There?

I’m not claiming that this is true, but for argument’s sake let’s say that the top 10 directors in genre really are male. Let’s just say that the best of the best truly are men.

What happens then? Does feminism require that we discredit their voices and gaze because, patriarchy?

Not so fast. It’s pretty well established and accepted in Third Wave theory that the destruction of the masculine does nothing but destroy men, not lift up women. Tearing down the things that men have done does not inherently make room for women.

There are female directors out there. Pet Semetary was directed by Mary Lambert. American Mary is making the rounds as one of the best new indie pieces and was directed by the Soska twins. (For some reason I got it in my head that Ridley Scott was female for like two days but we won’t go there…) And…

Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Where are the other female directors?

So Where Are They?

What happens when women just don’t want to director horror, or just haven’t been at it long enough to have reached ‘master’ status? It’s not enough to just be making horror, you have to actually be good at it. I’m not suggesting that women aren’t capable of directing it-that’s just not true.

But just as a thought experiment, is it any better to start pressuring women into the director’s chair because it’s a man’s game? It is possible that they just don’t want to take on the role? It is possible that we’re actually silencing the experience of women in horror by spending too much time criticizing what they’re not doing and not examining what they are doing.

(I need to point out All Thing Horror’s entry again here-there’s an entire paragraph full of female directors listed. However, I think that the point regarding the apparent invisibility of female directors is still valid.)

Again, Where are They?

Maybe part of the problem is that we’re looking at the wrong area of genre. If you’re looking only at Hollywood, you’re missing out on a huge amount of territory.

The Indie scene is massive right now with the rise of the crowdfunding movement, the Internet, blogging, and other unconventional techniques. And, a lot of that material is being generated by women. As stated above, the Soska twins are on fire right now. Perhaps, interestingly enough, our norms regarding the freak-out about gendered norming is actually keeping us from finding the areas of society where the norms are being torn down (oh say it ain’t so, the same problems that we always have with seeing change are at play here? You mean counterculture…runs counter to the main culture?)

Finally, keep in mind as well that there’s no reason that a- men can’t be feminist and b-just because they are the empowered actors men don’t have anything worthy to say about women. It’s been suggested that one of the best ways to read Alien is to see it as the masculine fear of childbirth. That can have some really interesting implications on the role of women in society; maybe it’s not entirely a positive implication, but it’s still worth examining what both genders think about themselves and each other.



I’ve referenced this film on here often enough, I might as well review it.

This is going to be a biased review, on a level that I think that most horror bloggers don’t reach with their content. See, the thing is, while this isn’t a film that changed my life in the sense that I started doing or not doing things because I watched this movie. This isn’t a movie that I walked away from thinking that everything that I thought was wrong.

What it made me do was start Noticing Things. It was one of the first films, regardless of genres, that make me stop and realize that a film can be about a man with a face full of Home Depot and a puzzle box can be about how we start to destroy ourselves from the inside out at the same time. And that was a pretty huge, mind-blowing thing-when five or six years after you see the movie for the first time you’re writing your Capstone paper on how horror is as much about describing ourselves as it is about describing our fears.

…You know, a Capstone in a science that’s entirely about Noticing Things. My path to sociology was paved with fiction- but the honor of pushing me down that rabbit hole went to Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange World, an examination of how weird we are by the one human who probably isn’t, since he’s the only one who has completely alien social structures. Literally.

But Hellraiser, which is on one level one of the most visually dynamic horror films produced in the last quarter of the 20th century, is also one of the most semiotically dense pieces put to film in that period as well. This is not a film for the faint of heart, for both its thematic material and the visual effects-but I think a mature mid to late teen would be fine, if in need of a conversation or two, and listen, there’s a beauty to physical effects that’s honestly lost in a lot of modern films.

What makes Hellraiser such a staple of my horror rotation is what Barker does with both this film and the novella it’s based off of  (The Hellbound Heart). Everything in this film is what it seems-and about a dozen other things. It’s fine to let yourself be destroyed by your desires-as long as you can twist apart the pieces of what those desires are and what you’re agreeing to give up.

And what was really my mind-shattering moment, as a late teen: make sure, make very, very sure, that you understand who the real monsters are.

Pick Your Brain

Psychological horror is a genre that it took me awhile to get into.

Even if the last few retrospectives on subgenre make it look like I’m one of those horror fans that like movies but not subgenres, there are areas of film that I’ve always liked. I’ve always had an interest in vampire films; exorcism and possession pieces will always have a soft place in my heart. For that matter, I’ve always had a thing for horror anime- I actually found anime through Vampire Hunter D.

But psychological horror wasn’t a love until I reached adulthood.


Psych horror is based around the mind-game.

There are several ways in which a psych horror piece can work. The first is to play off of a character’s pre-existing mental illness (such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) The second is to take a character and make that character believe that they have developed a mental illness (as with movies like Gothika). The third is to take a character’s reality, interjet their mental history, and create a reality wherein it is impossible to seperate what is reality from their mental problems. This can start to cross the line into meta-horror; franchises such as Silent Hill blur the line between the social and personal reality. Pyramid Head is a walking disorder. American Horror Story likes to work with similar tropes.

The other major area in which psychological horror differs from other subgenres is how the scares take place. Psychological horor is almost the counterpoint to body horror; if body horror uses the physical for the scares, then psychological horror relies on the immaterial. It is not so much that the physical reality isn’t relevant in the material, it’s just that here, the character’s actions and reactions to their environments are as important to the buildup and climax as the environment. Pyramind Head does exist; James does interact with him. However, it is James’s reaction to knowledge of how he is related to the monster that is as important as the monster himself.