Oh the horror
The genre of horror is culturally significant, and should no longer be seen as a political football for left or rightwing viewsComments (…) Mark Jancovich guardian.co.uk, Monday 26 November 2007 08.30 GMT
When I began to study horror movies, I was motivated partly by my enjoyment of these films, but also by their cultural significance. In the 1980s, when I was a young research student, a series of groups on both the left and the right of the political spectrum were engaged in an attack on both horror and pornography, genres that were said to have dangerous effects on their viewers. These claims were often vague and contradictory, but there was a general sense that these genres were supposed to justify or cause violence against women. In other words, horror and porn movies and the people who watched them were dangerous and needed to be policed.
So the study of horror became a way for myself and others to question these claims and the politics on which they were based, and to begin to understand the strange alliance between sections of both the right and the left on these questions. On the one hand, academics such as Carol Clover showed that slasher films, which were often taken to be the epitome of misogynist horror, actually bore little relation to their characterisation by those who would censor them. If these films often featured a male homicidal maniac, these monstrous figures were hardly presented as the heroes of the piece. On the contrary, the movies were usually distinguished by the presence of a female rather than a male hero, a final girl who dispatched the killer and saved the day.
If Clover and others therefore focused on claims about the films themselves, other academics started to think about the audiences for these films, and demonstrated that they were anything but the mindless zombies often implied. Rather than being unquestioningly controlled by these films, the audiences for horror were often shown to be highly sophisticated and discerning viewers, whose responses were quite different from those often attributed to them.
However, as the study of horror became less disreputable, I also started to become concerned about it. As the field grew, academics started to feel less defensive (which is good) but also began to talk among themselves (which is bad). In the mid-1990s, I therefore found myself at a conference where I had the uncomfortable realisation that my work was no longer contentious. It seemed that most academics felt that there were now so many academics working in the field that we had somehow "won the battle".
But what was the battle? If I have jokingly said that my mission in the late 1980s was to get John Carpenter's Halloween onto a university syllabus, it was certainly far more concerned to oppose those who would censor and control what we could watch and discuss. Unfortunately, it seemed that, for many academics, the fact that we had got horror onto the syllabus proved that we had made it: they seemed to have forgotten that this might not mean that we had convinced anyone in the outside world.
Since then, the study of horror has taken several different directions. First, some academics simply study horror in much the same ways as English departments used to study the Gothic novel: they regard it as an important form of historical significance and aesthetic interest. I have no particular problem with this: I don't think it is scandalous to study horror films seriously, and many are more rewarding than many of the more respectable "classics". However, I also feel that this work ignores some pressing issues.
Second, there are the academics that celebrate the shocking extremes of horror, and suggest that shocking middle-class taste is a goal in itself. The argument seems to go that, if something shocks people, then it must be challenging. This approach I find more irritating. It often simply confirms the superiority of the academic and reverses the values of the censors. In other words, sometimes we might be right to be shocked and appalled by things, and simply ridiculing others for being "uptight" seems to have little real significance.
Furthermore, this kind of work rarely demonstrates any real engagement with the cultural politics of shocking images. If I was originally motivated by the campaigns against horror and pornography in the 1980s, there are now new campaigns against sexual and violent imagery. The government has introduced truly dangerous new legislation (see Section 6 of the proposed bill on the criminalisation of the possession of extreme pornography (pdf)), while a bubbling liberal consensus emerges around the new forms of horror represented by film series such as Saw and Hostel. In short, simply celebrating the shocking hardly engages with the logic of government legislation or more general cultural attitudes developing around horror.
However, there are also two key trends to which I am more sympathetic. The first is best represented by Martin Barker, whose work around audiences and censorship makes a real contribution to policy issues (see his study for the British Board of Film Classification, Audiences and Receptions of Sexual Violence in Contemporary Cinema (pdf)). The second trend is the historical studies of horror such as that of Kevin Heffernan, who has gone beyond a simple history of the films to analyse the ways in which 1950s horror films were crucial to a series of changes within the production, distribution and consumption of cinema in the period.
An understanding of history can enable us to show that campaigns against horror are anything but new, and that they have a rather worrying and unsavoury history. While those who condemn horror and pornography today may feel themselves to be on the side of the angels, an examination of the past quickly dispels any such certainty and may even suggest the opposite.