I don’t remember how many horror movies I’d seen when Scream first came out in theaters, but I’d probably watched at least Kubrick’s The Shining and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the first two horror movies I recall seeing – in the tiny t.v. room of my family’s old house on East Gore Road before settling down in the theater to see Wes Craven’s post-modern masterpiece. The original Scream came out in 1996, when I was twelve years old. I don’t remember the “build-up” to the film the way I remember the anticipation preceding, say, the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project (and my concomitant let-down when I was less than scared by the film), but I definitely remember the general reaction to the shockingly grotesque introduction that the film provides.
I am writing about the unsettling new Guillermo Del Toro film at 5:22 a.m. on Christmas morning because after an eight-month hiatus, it’s the only time I’ve been able to set aside for any reasonable amount of “extra” writing or “pleasure” writing. I haven’t slept all night, because for the first time in a long time, I’m setting the day aside (Christmas) to do whatever I’d like to do, among and between zoom calls and visits with people and things of that nature. It is a fitting reflection of my life, I think, that I plan on writing about deceit, manipulation, murder, and our innate fascination with “difference,” vaguely signified, at 5:30 a.m. on Christmas morning. Indeed, if I had a definable brand, I think this post would reflect it quite clearly.
One thing I love about studying monsters is that stories have quite literally always contained them. There is arguably something universal, or near-universal, about imagining these unique, often antagonistic beings and situating them among their non-monstrous counterparts. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, is the first story we know of that was written down instead of transmitted orally. Etched first in a language called Akkadian (and then in other languages), on stones that have become faded and smooth so that some parts of the story are now indecipherable, the tale of Gilgamesh (technically a poem) tells us about a warrior, Gilgamesh, and the difficulty he experiences when losing his friend Enkidu and facing the reality of his own mortality – a difficulty that at some point in our lives, we’ve probably all been able to understand. After all, the thought of dying is scary.
On Gilgamesh’s initial journey with his bestie, Enkidu, one of his goals is to slay the forest monster Humbaba – a task that is framed in different lights, depending on which version of the story you read. I find it fascinating that both the monster and the monster hunter exist in the world’s earliest written story, and this complicated binary persists through the ages, up to both early and contemporary horror films. It is interesting, I think, to consider what we can learn from monsters, monster hunters, and the relationship between the two beings. Various monster theorists take up the subject of the monster and the monster hunter, but the topic is not central to most Monster Theory. To be honest, it’s not a relationship that’s proven central to my work so far – part of the reason why I want to give it some attention tonight. I argue in this piece that the role between the monster and the monster hunter is rarely simple, and that we have much to learn from their relationship, and how it transforms through space and time.
Not all monsters are evil, to be sure. But we often assume they are. My dissertation, and thus my primary work of scholarship right now, focuses on monstrosity, but monstrosity and evil often correlate in pop culture representations. Shortly after I started my blog, when I was a neophyte blogger and had not yet entered a PhD program, I had a profound interest in cultural manifestations of evil: who do we call evil, who gets to make that decision, what are the consequences of the word “evil,” and how do we navigate the fine line between excusing evil and seeking to understand it? Nurse Jude, played by Jessica Lange, says with her usual self-assurance in Season Two of American Horror Story, “All monsters are human.” At the same time, writer Stephen T. Asma, in his book On Monsters, highlights the precarious nature of assuming a correlation between monstrosity and innate evil with his concept of “accidental monstrosity,” a phrase he uses to describe those who, after a slip and a slide in the wrong direction, become monsters without meaning to. Monstrosity and evil, in any case, have one thing in common: both are massive umbrella terms that encompass multiple gradations and examples within their denotations.
One thing worth noting about the horror genre is that it produces images that resist quick mental erasure. From the statuesque model who turns into a decrepit, decaying old woman in the infamous shower scene of The Shining to the bloody womb hanging limply outside the skin of Nola Carveth in The Brood, horror does nothing if not supply us with grotesque images of often monstrous women. Psycho’s Norma Bates, then, is no exception. In Hitchcock’s original film, Psycho, we see Norma not as a mommy so much as a stereotypical mummy; all that is left of her is a skeletal, eyeless frame and some tousled hair pulled back in a bun. We hear her character, and therefore understand her character, only through Marion Crane’s ears as the delusional Norman voices her from afar in the antiquated Victorian house on the hill outside Bates Motel. But Norma is a famous mummy, and a famous mommy, to be sure, one who lingers in the mind of the viewer long after the theater lights go on, and one who has lingered in the cultural imagination now for sixty-one years and counting. Significantly, Norma Bates didn’t get to speak for herself until 2013, when the hit TV show Bates Motel rescued and re-invented her character through Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of her as Norman’s mildly cooky but vivacious and loving mom. As a woman who navigates an excruciating past, a corrupt, drug-infested city, and a psychotic son with surprising sangfroid, Norma Bates in Bates Motel is who I choose to feature this year for the annual Fiction’s Fearless Females blogathon.
I live diagonally across the street from a cemetery. On my more or less daily quarantine walks (note: I started writing this piece in mid-March 2020) I circle the suburb across the street from me, and I consider, often, walking into that sprawling, silent space of the graveyard, navigating the maze of granite and marble while I both recognize the (ephemeral, fleeting) moment and admit, to myself, that a headstone that will stand in for all the components of my life is my irrevocable fate. I’ve dreamt about graveyards multiple times; in my dreams they represent the bleak and macabre, but also the unavoidable. As a child I used to bemoan not just my inevitable death but eternity; the prospect of endlessness was too frightening to fully accept. I believe, now, that time is a construct that makes life more comprehensible to finite beings; to that end, eternity is less the condemnation of disastrous endlessness and more a contrived concept that we use to try to understand the workings of a universal consciousness that is always beyond our complete grasp. Of course, I hadn’t considered all that around age seven or eight, when my mind was reeling with a problem that resisted a solution: an eternity of anything sounded awful, but there was no alternative to eternity. Even if humanity disappeared (a terrifying thought), time would still go on – and there was at least some possibility, I reasoned, that my soul would have to experience eternal time. If not, eternal nothingness sounded even scarier.
It is, I think, a marker of my own white privilege that I’ve not yet posted about recent incidents of racism in America on this blog. The time lapse that it took to reflect and act on my reflections, to realize that I’m not doing enough to count myself among those who are actively advocating for Black lives and situating themselves on the right side of history, amounts to an idle chunk of time that I fear I wouldn’t have wasted if I were Black – if I faced the prospect of being murdered in the streets at random, and especially by officers of the law. This blog is, of course, a horror blog, and a small, personal one at that, but it’s one of the only “platforms” I have, and its articles receive enough hits that I thought it important to join, openly, the voices that condemn the United States’ current violence and injustice toward Black individuals by turning this site’s topic of interest, at times, to real life horrors instead of what Noel Carroll calls “art-horror,” and by stating clearly and explicitly where I stand on many of the “debates” that have arisen because of recent racist events in this country. Continue reading “Just Dread-full believes that Black Lives Matter and Supports the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.”→
Before I started studying horror as a path toward getting a doctorate, I’d never heard of Tod Browning’s Freaks. In fact, I’d only vaguely heard of Tod Browning. I’d seen his 1931 rendition of Dracula, featuring Bela Lugosi, one fall night quite a few years ago, when Tinseltown was doing a double feature of Browning’s Dracula, followed by the far superior Spanish version of the film shot the same year (on the same set, but at night, with a different director). I suppose back then I thought of myself as a bit of a horror connoisseur, but perhaps I was basking in my own ego – and that ego was eclipsing all my knowledge of what I didn’t know. Because what I’ve learned since I started reading about horror is that Tod Browning is considered a central auteur in the horror field. In terms of horror cinema, he’s easily one of the genre’s founders, and with good (varying) reasons. Continue reading “My First Viewing of Freaks (1932)”→
Note: Though this post was generated from a re-viewing of episodes one and two of The Haunting of Hill House, the analysis entails a broader knowledge of the show’s trajectory. So, if you still haven’t seen this excellent show and don’t want spoilers, it might be beneficial to avoid reading this piece until you’ve watched the show!Continue reading “Re-Watching The Haunting of Hill House: Episodes One and Two”→
Warning: Because of the film I’ve decided to talk about, the following subject matter will be unavoidably uncomfortable and dismal. Second Warning: If you’ve not yet seen Midsommar and you want to see it, well, first of all, get to it 🙂 (it’s free on Amazon Prime), and second, you may encounter some spoilers. Okay, you’ve been warned, onward: Continue reading “Dani from Midsommar — Fiction’s Fearless Females”→