International LiteratureNon-fictionThe Horror Show

Critic Darryl Jones on the history and appeal of a disreputable genre

Sleeping with the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror by Darryl Jones
“Horror is at its most powerful when it is at its most confrontational”

Great horror is disreputable. The best horror relishes transgressing taboos and disconcerting its recipients. In the afterword to his slim 2018 volume Sleeping with the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror, the Irish critic Darryl Jones argues “that horror is at its most powerful when it is at its most confrontational.” Jones makes this argument in the context of elucidating the ways in which 21st century horror has retreated from the aggressive, boundary pushing films of the 1970s – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, It’s Alive, The Hills Have Eyes, The Evil Dead – into a comfortable realm of pale imitations and reboots or bland, PG-13 rated young adult fare of the Twilight ilk. He uses the portmanteau term “unhorror” to describe millennial films and books that are depoliticized and loyal to a corporate agenda – “a type of horror which has no possibility of ever being horrifying.”

For Jones, films like Cloverfield, Twilight and the 2014 remake of Godzilla amount to what Catherine Spooner derides as “Happy Gothic,“ a category that replaces terror with comedy and romance. “Can it be that a ‘comic, romantic, celebratory, gleeful, whimsical … joyous’ cultural mode has replaced one which is obnoxious, rebarbative, confrontational, grotty, transgressive, nasty, and dangerous?” Jones asks. “If so, we have lost much.”

One acid test in this regard is the reception of the films themselves. Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most controversial American movies ever made – a status it retains to this very day. In Canada, Robert Fulford wrote a hugely disparaging piece for Saturday Night magazine decrying the government funding that went toward David Cronenberg’s feature debut, Shivers, a film that Fulford considered irredeemable trash. In the U.K., the so-called “video nasties” of the 1980s were banned and their makers excoriated. So horrified were Italian authorities by Ruggero Deodato’s mock “documentary” Cannibal Holocaust that the filmmaker was literally brought up on charges of having made a snuff film. These films and their makers were attacked, derided, censored, and prosecuted, all of which points to the huge cultural influence the material had and, in many cases, continues to exert.

Horror in the 21st century, by contrast, rarely makes the same impact. Whether it is called “unhorror” or “Happy Gothic” or any other derisive sobriquet, it fails to make much of a dent in our psyches let alone the arc of a culture. “Some of these 1970s films, in and around their original release, were viewed as genuinely dangerous cultural artifacts, drawing the horrified gaze of legislators, judges, censors, cultural commentators, and the media,” Jones writes. “Their post-millennial counterparts tend to come and go unnoticed, because they don’t matter.”

It’s difficult to argue with this assessment, especially coming, as it does, at the close of a brief but thoughtful overview of a genre that has been around as long as human civilization. Euripides, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton and others all incorporate elements of horror or the supernatural in their work; Jones points out that the cannibalism in Titus Andronicus is ensconced in the English canon of literature, whereas Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox was banned along with other video nasties of the 1980s. Here, Jones rightly locates a strain of classism and elite denigration: “The problem, the argument implicitly goes, is not us, it is them, those festering, semi-bestial proletarians whose extant propensity for violence (always simmering beneath the surface) can only be stoked by watching these films. That’s why no one seriously considers banning The Bacchae or Titus Andronicus – why any suggestion that we do so would be treated as an act of inexcusable philistinism. They are horror for the educated classes.”

Jones’s arguments are capacious enough to encompass everything from The Tempest and The Island of Dr. Moreau to the folk-horror classic The Wicker Man and the body horror of Cronenberg and Clive Barker; from Pier Paolo Passolini’s Medea to Takashi Miike’s Audition. “Horror is tentacular, spreading everywhere,” Jones writes. “It is Protean, taking many forms. It manifests multiple personalities and has been put to many uses, made to suggest or articulate a variety of positions, ideologies, arguments, and worldviews, not all of them consistent and some of them downright contradictory.” For anyone with a knowledge of the genre’s history and cultural penetration, this seems irrefutable, and highlights one way reductive arguments such as Stephen King’s in Danse Macabre – that horror is a prototypically conservative genre – seem at best insufficient, at worst infuriating.

Other critics have made the point that horror and pornography are the only two genres that attempt to elicit a somatic response: sexual excitement in the former case, horripilation in the latter. It is not surprising that both genres have been the targets of censorious prudes, nor that both are viewed as sordid and ignominious by supposedly high-minded critics, many of whom end up being exposed as consumers of one or the other. Indeed, the violence in horror has been conflated with pornography on more than one occasion, as have arguments that the genres have negative influences on those who partake in them. (Cronenberg has said that censors and psychotics have one thing in common: they both confuse fiction with reality.)

Jones rejects the Pavlovian reaction to horror as baseless even while admitting that the genre is an extreme art form that gains much of its power from testing its audience’s endurance. “Like all avant-garde art, I would suggest, its real purpose is to force its audiences to confront the limits of their own tolerance – including, emphatically, their own tolerance for what is or is not art.” His championing of excess is refreshing and his slim but informative book is the perfect thing to press on someone when, as a horror aficionado, one is asked the inevitable derogatory question: “What do you see in that stuff, anyway?”

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