Postmodern Horror

This is from a wiki entry I wrote this week for Professor Irvine’s class on Discourses of Cultural Theory. We’re covering postmodernism.

Postmodern Horror:

As you may be aware by now I spend most of my academic and personal time watching and thinking about horror movies. As far as I am concerned horror, as a genre and particularly in terms of film is an ideal location to investigate the movements of postmodernism. While horror films have always been a stable genre and have enjoyed popularity throughout their history in the period following World War II, in the dawn of postmodernism they have been shaped, reorganized, conceptualized, remade, remixed and reborn to express a myriad of postmodern desires and anxieties. The way horror movies have changed and how the ways they expressed our fears in the postmodern period is of extensive interest to me.

Both Lyotard and Jameson are very concerned with the way narrative operates as a part of culture and how postmodernism both destroys this narrative and refigures narrative in unexpected locations. In section 6, Lyotard states, “Narration is the quintessential form of customary knowledge, in more ways than one.” He enters into the idea that our society is deeply concerned the way language games and expression becomes connected with narrative. In this we see the way the postmodern is considered a newly fragmented state. I see film as a perfect representation of how we are using narrative and narration to express our culture. In the case of postmodern horror far from assigning the role of narrator or even “a pragmatic to popular narratives” (Lyotard 20) the story is told reflectively through the audience’s fears. The traditional narratives regarding power structures, science, and knowledge are dismantled and the individual is allowed to try (or allowed to think he is trying) to reform what is considered valuable. In this moment we see a shift from how the very narratives expressing popular concern is figured, this relates to the way the postmodern addresses the Other and in the case of horror, the Other as threat.

The primary elements of postmodernism I’d like to try and relate to horror as a film genre are the idea of artistic fragmentation and commodification – and then how these things are translating into the reimagined world of postmodernism and all the new concerns which come with it. As Jameson refers to postmodernism as a time with different concerns than those of classic Marxism, “Such theories have the obvious ideological mission of demonstrating, to their own relief, that the new social formation in question no longer obeys the laws of classical capitalism, namely, the primacy of industrial production and the omnipresence of class struggle.” (Jameson) postmodern horror is no longer concerned with the same pre-industrial, or pre-WWII issues. Being marked by its disruption of conventional conceptions of what is art, where it can occur, what it can represent and who can create it postmodernism creates tremendous space for popular forms, music, film and style are processed into new and innovative forms, perpetually shifting – I don’t think that film is any different. Furthermore, Jameson explores the way these new, popular, low culture forms are commodified and blended with “late capitalism” to establish a commodified consumer culture. As well as the way the postmodern individual expresses their relationship with the economy and commodification through entering into a complex relationship with the spaces they inhabit (both architecturally, globally and virtually).

Style Shifts:
In terms of postmodern and horror, I believe the changes in the genre in the postmodern period can be seen through two avenues. Firstly, the postmodern horror movie takes on a different visual style, secondly the material being negotiated in these movies changes.

Horror in the postmodern period makes a shift to a more fragmented visual style. Not unlike pop art such as Andy Warhol, the po-mo horror director disrupts the conventions of how films can be made (unprofessional actors), shot, edited and produced. Often they were small budget, low income films for small audiences – very different from the structures of big Hollywood. Significant emphasis is placed on disorienting the audience through fast paced editing, and unconventional cinematography. Furthermore, this schizophrenic style is emphasized by unusual use of color and sound creating a barrage of images. Horror movies mimic the way all media becomes saturated with products in the postmodern period. Like the frenetic shopping mall of the postmodern city, the horror movie offers a quick draw collection of images in every scene. Horror movies have never been readily considered as “artful” as other film genres may, however they do adopt the behaviors (if it could be classified) of the avant garde. The other significant visual shift is towards extreme gore and gratuitous destruction of bodies. The  Saw (2004) films are a perfect example of both these visual fundamentals. The films are constructed through a multi-layer reverse narrative, with a great deal more characters than have ever appeared in traditional horror. Furthermore, these narratives are constructed through intense editing, the actual story is told through patchwork, and each “trap scene” is built through fast cuts. I often tell people even if they hate the idea of Saw, the films are worth watching for the editing alone. Saw also lead the way in the “torture porn” trend of having films be based heavily on the amount of physical violence being enacted creatively. It transforms horror from working on the principal of what is imagined and what is seen. By expressing fears through actual, very realistic bodies postmodern horror is able to recreate this anxiety, metaphorically on the body of the audience. Postmodernism is marked as a very physical, bodily time and the films express that.

An example of the frenetic visual style that readily came to mind was Dario Argento’s supernatural films from the 1970’s and 80’s. Films like Suspiria (1977) rather than orienting the threat as a male character and setting the narrative in a dark and traditionally gothic environment see female monsters as well as brightly colored sets and vivid symbolic use of color. The aesthetics of horror significantly change in the postmodern period and these changes remain very present today. Frantic images, bright colors and eerie soundtrack in Suspiria marks a move toward horror being more visually fractured, and more expressive of the aesthetics of the period. Rob Zombie in House of a 1000 Corpses (2003) uses a similar effect. A film which, like Argento’s work draws its “scare factor” from a myriad of locations, the ironic funhouse, scary clowns, and dismembered dolls representing reappropriations of what can be frightening. Postmodernism sees a transition in horror, particularly supernatural horror from being based on the classic, Universal “monster movie” pattern, to directors like Argento, and later Romero and Carpenter refiguring and breaking up the narrative.

Narrative Shifts:
The second way postmodern horror is different is in the kind of anxieties it looks at. I actually wrote my undergraduate thesis on the way vampire and zombie movies from the mid 1980’s are very concerned with the way families are constructed and destroyed. The monsters become a symbol for the break down of the nuclear family and the new presence of unconventional and single parent families. I think this is a facet of the way a postmodern horror will address social fears beyond what would be previously experienced. The traditional horror, both literary and filmic would be concerned with sex, and how sex is dealt with in society and how “The Other” is dealt with. Postmodern horror takes this to a new level, transcending these fears and turning the anxiety inward. Allowing the audience to reflect through the medium (a sort of visual metanarrative). Furthermore the kind of questions being raised are far more likely to venture out of the boundaries of a “low culture” medium like horror to deal with concerns about politics, ideology, family and society, and disease.

Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), set famously in a shopping mall is clearly no small comment on the postmodern individual’s relationship with consumerism. Just as 28 Days Later (2002)is deeply concerned with themes of isolation despite social and urban development, and also the threat of biological warfare. Postmodernism allows space in low culture to open up and have the medium ask much more pervasive questions. Similarly, horror is taken out of its classic locations such as the mad scientist’s lab, the haunted castle and into the suburbs. Films such as Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Halloween (1978) and Friday The 13th (1980) are perhaps the most famous examples of horror moving into the suburbs. The other is no longer from far away or inhuman, he’s in teenager’s dreams, at their summer camp and ruining their babysitting jobs. These narratives bring into question the sanctity of the suburban space, the family structure and the community.

Perhaps an example of the post-postmodern in horror could be represented by the (semi) recent slew of films with technology located as part of the horrifying narrative. Often films adapted from Asian (often Japanese, but also Thai, Korean and Chinese) originals for American audiences make very present use of technology. For example, in Shutter (2008) the camera and photographs play a significant role, as does the television set, video and telephone in The Ring (2002). Does the inclusion of technology in the collection of locations for horror represent a new and very fundamental anxiety in the post-postmodern period?

Also, all the films I’ve mentioned this entry are either remakes, have remakes, sequels, or are part of series. I think there is something to be said about the way horror works with redoing things and retelling things, each story have the potential to be reimagined and done by other artists, which has also got potential to be an expression of postmodernism. All the trailers I’ve included are from originals, except The Ring and Shutter, these are the American remakes.

[This is the link to the original posting I did for the class, it has some pictures and links to all the film trailers!]


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