“They are our collective nightmares”: Robin Wood on the 20th century American horror film

In the summer of 1978, critic Robin Wood published and article in Film Comment magazine examining the state of the American horror film. Titled “Return of the Repressed,” the piece (also included in the exemplary 2018 anthology Robin Wood on the Horror Film: Collected Essays and Reviews) has become an influential work of exegesis where contemporary horror cinema is concerned. A committed Freudian, Wood posits that the horror film is a manifestation of repressed desires – frequently sexual in nature – asserting themselves through the metaphoric presentation of the monster. The horror film’s appeal to the unconscious, Wood argues, provides a radical ground for the exploration of material usually subsumed in dreams – or nightmares. “The old tendency to dismiss the Hollywood cinema as escapist always defined escape merely as escape from, but escape logically must also be escape to,” Wood writes. “Dreams are also escapes, from the unresolved tensions of our lives into fantasies.”

Wood suggests that popular films tap into the individual dreams of their makers and also the collective dreams of their audiences, providing a shared experience that resembles the Jungian collective unconscious. Wood goes on to stipulate a viable definition of horror films under this rubric and from this psychological vantage: “they are our collective nightmares.”

Wood lists recurrent motifs in horror films of the 1960s and ’70s – cannibalism, Satanism, a focus on the family as a nexus of order (The Omen) or chaos (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) or, in at least one case (The Hills Have Eyes), both. He argues that while classic Universal horror of the golden age located the monster in foreign or exotic locales, the Cold War period in American horror cinema brought the monster home; the Vietnam War would arguably provide the apogee of this translocation, most especially in Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Some of Wood’s analysis is undeniably dated. His opening complaint that most horror films, though enormously popular with audiences, are “dismissed with contempt by the majority of reviewer-critics” no longer reads as accurate, thanks in no small part to Wood’s own efforts at treating horror cinema as a legitimate source of critical investigation and commentary. Films that he examines in his essay – including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Night of the Living Dead, and Rosemary’s Baby – have been included in the American Film Institute’s library, the Criterion Collection, and elsewhere, and have become the subject of serious academic and critical examination.

The rigour with which academics such as Carol J. Clover, Barbara Creed, Barry Keith Grant, Robin R. Means Coleman, and others have treated the genre also somewhat undercuts Wood’s claim to disreputability; the films continue to be popular, but even the bargain-basement slashers of the 1980s have been subject to critical re-evaluation in recent years.

Despite this dated aspect, much of Wood’s essay remains relevant today, most particularly his critique of the capitalist structures that horror cinema challenges (it was the town slaughterhouse, a commercial endeavour, that gave rise to the family of antisocial psychos in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), along with its incursion into the realm of the domestic. “The family [in Texas Chain Saw], after all, only carry to its logical conclusion the basic (though unstated) tenet of capitalism, that people have the right to live off other people.” Cannibalism, for Wood, is the “logical conclusion” of the capitalist ethos, at least in the realm of horror films. “Cannibalism represents the ultimate in possessiveness, hence the logical end of human relations under capitalism.”

Wood was writing in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, a time at which American society was riven by cultural faultlines that exposed animus along racial, gender, and nationalist streams. It was a time, in other words, that closely mirrored our own. It is understandable, then, to find a sharp contemporary resonance in Wood’s key observation: “If we see the evolution of the horror film in terms of an inexorable ‘return of the repressed,’ we will not be surprised by this final emergence of the genre’s real significance – together with a sense that it is currently the most important of all American genres and perhaps the most progressive, even in its overt nihilism – in a period of extreme cultural crisis and disintegration, which alone offers the possibility of radical change and rebuilding.”

We can thank Wood for treating the horror film seriously, and for giving us a framework to understand many of our current cultural impasses, all within the enduring aesthetic package of dread and the repressed unconscious.

“They are our collective nightmares”: Robin Wood on the 20th century American horror film
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