Anatomy of Horror Films
By Siddhartha Biswas
The human fascination for the supernatural is as old as humanity itself. The earliest man had difficulty in comprehending death and along with other mystifying natural phenomena they imagined different scenarios in which powers that were above and beyond the human, as well as beyond the perceived natural, controlled the life of the world and of mankind. The human ego originated along with human time. Consciousness of the self concretised itself to such an extent that the world without that self became unimaginable and terrifying. Non-existence is something that human beings still cannot process. Therefore, that entire imaginative space of a post-death transformation was invented and further ratified by the ritualized and monetized structures of religion.
Even with major scientific progresses and dwindling faith in magic, it is extremely difficult for any individual to accept that the body that they have nurtured and used and flaunted and derived much pleasure and pain from, will simply disintegrate after death. Certain religious texts do assert that the body, after death, will be naturally integrating with the universe and it will be reshaped into other forms. Reincarnation is not a simple rebirth; it has a very complicated scientific perspective that most miss. Of course, other religious texts promise other kinds of transformations. But in theory these are all very well, but the self cannot come to terms with the fact that the corporeal body might be scattered as atoms and those atoms randomly unite with other atoms to create other objects, thereby completely destroying the selves that they had nurtured, used, flaunted and derived much pleasure and pain from: that ‘they’ will simply not exist. There is a popular ‘country’ song, “The Highwaymen” from the USA by Jimmy Webb that almost desperately asserts,
I fly a starship
Across the universe divide
And when I reach the other side
I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can
Perhaps I may become a highwayman again
Or I may be a simple drop of rain
But I will remain
And I’ll be back again
And again, and again, and again,
And again, and again
This “I” is the key factor behind much of human discourse, literary as well as religious. That is why beginning from the shape of god(s) the human body and soul/mind has always been celebrated and since the self cannot escape encasement within the body, the body has been fanatically and jealously held on to. That is why ghosts have some form of bodily representation, even when they are incorporeal the human shape does not disappear. Ambrose Bierce, in his wonderfully subversive The Devils Dictionary, defines ghosts as: “The outward and visible sign of an inward fear” (42). Even though Bierce was challenging many of the constructs, he was looking at the deep fear of non-existence all humans share.
The utter and sheer absence of the self is the biggest unknown to the human mind, and the fear of the unknown is the biggest fear that humanity knows. Therefore, the post-death scenario has found expression, supplementing the religious structures, in ghost stories. Ghosts are quite evidently supernatural. The realisation that the natural cannot ensure continued existence of the self and the body calls for the introduction of the supernatural. Religion also plays a large part in promising continuation. But in popular mind it is the ghost stories that have, along with scaring people, given the subliminal satisfaction of knowing that even after death some kind of existence is plausible. The classic ghost stories had represented this promise that persistence in different ways is natural; it is only in case of unnatural deaths that vengeful spirits or corpses terrorise the living. Immortality has also been one major contention, but immortality has been seen in terms of un-death. The vampire myths spoke of the unnatural as well as the supernatural. The ghost stories spoke of thirsty and dissatisfied souls as well as vulgarised dead bodies finding zombified animation. One set focused on the loss of the body but the continuation of the self. The other set focused on the continuation of the body but the loss of the self.
There are many instances in which stories and films have focused on the continuation of the self at the cost of the body. In fact, classic supernatural stories often focus on this particular angle. This is true of modern and contemporary stories as well. However, there is a large section of popular representation in which the body finds greater primacy as due to either supernatural influences or alien invasiveness the body continuous, but the self is either dissociated or completely erased. This has sometimes been the metaphorical representation of the fear of ideologies that apparently speak against individualism. Also, such stories have shown that zombie invasions can create mindlessness and hunger for flesh. Flesh here quite obviously stands for rest of the non-zombiefied humans and their integration within the other. This other is vilified and turned into the object of horror. In the case of vampire tropes, the similar pattern can be felt as the vampire alters the individual. This is a kind of corruption which can be considered as moral as well as cultural. Alien invasions and zombie stories belong often to the same category. The point of interest is that along with classical (considering the field of horror of course) films, their remakes adopt the same ideological strand, only updating it to recent political atmosphere. Almost all the examples given in this discussion have a number of such retellings, showing how the initial issue does not find solution; they only find evolution.
Although horror typically signifies the body and its degeneration and the human response to regeneration of a degenerated body or response to display of such degeneration through human or superhuman agency, quite often the terror element also creeps in. The degenerate state is a matter of disgust, and disgust is a part of horror, but the threat to the normative human body (often imagined in its prime) introduces terror in the mind of the people who may or may not become victims. This brings in the issue of perspective, the characters that people these stories are horrified at the elements and they are terrified that they would end up having a similar fate. The audience is horrified both at the degenerate and degenerated monstrosities and is further horrified at the possibility or eventuality that the non-degenerate will be victimised, assimilated, or utilised. Victimisation is seen in films like The Thing from Another World (1951, remade in 1982 and 2011 as The Thing) and Predator (1987 – prequels and sequels continuing) and such. Assimilation is seen in films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, remade in 1978 and as The Invasion in 2007) and Dracula (1931, constantly remade with different names). The Utilization factor is found in films like Alien (1979 – the so-called Alien saga still continuing) and Resident Evil (2002 – with sequels and a 2022 TV series). If they are analysed in a simplistic manner victimization often speaks of colonial issues, Assimilation speaks of fears of indoctrination and Utilization is the basic human fear of the body being used by greater powers or by the big picture or the big corporate bodies. These tropes often overlap and the individual stories actually present multiple fears.
All of these types of stories focus on how the self is removed from the body and the body, the physical manifestation of selfhood, is turned into either an abomination or into a plain and simple enemy. The body continues with or without life, but it no longer hosts the self it was identified with. The primary horror is not necessarily generated through the action or violence or violation, but through the possibility of this manner of loss of self.
The direct attack on the body happens in case of films which includes some kinds of invasion. It might be an out and out alien invasion, from classic stories like The War of the Worlds (1953, remade in 2005 and with many other representations) and the ultra-pop Independence Day (1996, followed up in 2016) films or stories such as Battlestar Galactica (1978, series remade in 2004). Of course, there is a reverse of this trope, that is the Star Trek (1966, new series arcs such as the 2017 Star Trek: Discovery and the 2022 Star Trek: Strange New Worlds along with multiple spin-offs) formula in which it is humanity, in the garb of a Federation of different species, that goes out on a search and conquer mission. The fear of invasion which might lead to either annihilation or colonisation is probably the most straightforward story that one can think of. Here the body is either enslaved or consumed in some manner. In fact, much glamorised resistance becomes the primary point of concern. The invasion might be of a futuristic dystopic nature as well. This would be a form in which humanity itself would victimise and marginalise certain sections.
Death, mutilation and even simple loss of territory and identity create the horror effect in the stories. Descriptions and representations which deliberately present mutilations and disfigurement is part and parcel of the different horror genres. Pure horror, as well as Sci-Fi horror, has all these elements in them. The terror of the victims finding such mutations and mutilations generates the sense of horror rather well in the audience. The instances in which it is a human agency that creates the violence leading to situations or results of horror, often represent the human fear of what lies within. The human capacity for harming other humans finds representation in sometimes exaggerated plots like that of Hostel (2005) or any typical Hollywood Hillbilly horror stories such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, remade in 2003 and also in a variety of forms in other names) or films like The Hitcher (1986, remade in 2007). But the element of disgust, and not sheer terror, are occasionally considered to be more impactful in super-natural or exo-natural stories.
Assimilation is the most common and most symbolically represented of the lot. If one looks at the classic science fiction horror story Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it is quite evident that the fear is of the perceived communist threat which speaks of equality and the counter propaganda is presenting it as leading to complete and total loss of individuality. The bodies will be taken over by alien organisms. The bodies will remain perfect and healthy, and they would apparently be contented and happy. But they would become a part of a larger ‘hive’ mind; therefore, individual minds would no longer have the capacity to make decisions and will not have the freedom of choice. This kind of representation is still rampant, symbolically speaking, against different kinds of indoctrinations that the dominant structure fears. Ages back Eugene Ionesco had spoken of people turning into rhinoceros, but here people superficially remain the same but their selves are removed and other identities are forcefully incorporated. Similar issues can we found in the vampire myths: the moment the vampire attacks, it turns its victim into another vampire. The turn is not only detrimental to the social fabric but goes directly against the static and established structure. This is quite different from the Kafkaesque metamorphosis which is psycho-philosophical in nature and allows the self to remain the same while the exterior changes. This may be interpreted as a kind of apprehension that certain sections would turn against the established order and bleed society dry. Of course, in case of the vampire myths the religious aspect is stronger than the political; and the fear is of the other that challenges what is constructed as sacred and sanctified. The overt erotic nature of the Dracula construct is also significant as Bram Stoker’s Victorian-turning-into-modern sensibility was clearly finding it difficult to align itself with either.
The third category of the ‘body being used’ trope is another regular nightmare for humanity. As in this particular format, the body is utilised while the self is still aware. Of course, if one thinks of zombiefied existence then the awareness of the self is not there but the body becomes a tool for experimentation and usage. The Resident Evil world with the Umbrella Corporation is a major example. If one thinks of another horror Sci-Fi phenomenon, The Matrix (1999 and continuing – though it is not always considered to be horror as such, but for the audience seeing human bodies used as power sources is definitely horrible to witness), one sees the bodies are mutilated in a certain way and the mind is put under a deep hallucination. Each mind is a part of a collective virtual existence which can be invaded by the machines – as well as the resistance and their modern messiah – but the point is that each individual is unaware of the preceding history and the dominant machine structure has successfully erased their very real existence from the mind of the individual. The self does not even realise that it is no longer an independent entity. It is happy in the illusion that it is living a fully capitalistic and commercial life. This is one of the most important critiques of consumer society within the pop cultural framework, showing how each individual is utilised and manipulated by the deep structure while they are made to think that they are living free and independent lives. The failure of the later films notwithstanding, the myth created is hugely significant. It is not as simplistic as the Alien myth that merely uses the body as host and destroys it with extreme violence. Not that humanity itself has shown such compassion to other lesser life forms and humanity has often used them with such inhumanity turning much of life around into resources to which they have an apparent god-given right. The horror that humanity has unleashed over the world is far greater than any horror that humanity can imagine for itself. Stories such as Get Out (2017) or Us (2019) or The Invisible Man (2020) or Tumbbad (2018) aim to symbolically present human inequality and/or corruption and utilise the horror genre for a different political purpose. In recent days, the metaphorical representative aspects have gained favour, and instead of a partially unconscious signification, we have subtle or quite overt discussions over a host of issues such as racism or greed or neo-colonialism.
Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary. New York: Dover Publications Inc. 1993.
Dr. Siddhartha Biswas is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of English, University of Calcutta. He has taught in the Department of English, St Paul’s Cathedral Mission College for 17 years before joining the University. His doctoral work was on the screenplays of Harold Pinter. He has written a number of articles in reputed journals in India and abroad. His books include Theatre Theory and Performance (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK), and Looking for Home: Journey and Boundary in Postmodern Texts (Atlantic), among others. He has also translated a number of works among which his translations of the Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night (Monfakira) may be mentioned. His areas of interest include Postmodern Theatre, Translation Studies, and Popular Culture.
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