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Friday, September 28, 2007

 

Horror and sexual Puritanism

Here's another angle on the pontifications of the last post, in which I basically argued that you traditionally get a virginal 'final girl' in slasher films more because they're introvert-revenge films than because they're sexually Puritanical.

But, again thinking of Hostel, and comparing it with traditionals like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, I wonder if sexual Puritanism was ever quite the answer. Because here's the thing: for my money, of those three movies, Hostel is by far the most Puritanical of the bunch.

Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance, may have an unpleasant end in store for anyone who has noisy sex or makes remarks like 'Morality sucks', and our survivior does repulse the advances of her handsome boyfriend early on with the logic that, as they're keeping a friend company in case of nightmares, they're 'here for [her], not for ourselves', which is pretty self-sacrificing of her, really. It seems clear. But then, think about the lascivious presence of Freddy Kruger himself. While not the tongue-lassoo prankster of the sequels, he remains a twisted, visceral embodiment of lust, gloating and glistening in the shadows, chuckling with lecherous anticipation, getting off on everything he's doing to our poor heroes. Let's not forget that his backstory is that he's a murderous paedophile, a sex pest who won't let go, even if you kill him. He's a nightmare personification, but the nightmare is that of an incubus, not just a monster. In terms of invading your personal space, he's a cross between a demon and an obscene phone caller who just won't stop ringing you.

Similarly in Halloween. Laurie Strode is sexually behind her peers, shy at confessing which boy in school she has a crush on while all her friends are throwing themselves merrily into the sexual maelstrom - but then there's Michael, our masked killer. Considering that we almost never see his face, he's still extremely physical: notably, we hear his heavy breathing as he grapples his victims. Even the way it begins, with a Michael-eye view of his nubile sister, conveys a sense of sexual fascination. He expresses this fascination with his knife rather than with more traditional penetration, but from his voyeuristic stalking to his breathy arousal, Michael clearly is a sexual being.

Both monsters, in their ways, are a good embodiment of the dark sexuality you see in some boys whose sexual development is ahead of their social skills. (Obviously not all introverts are like this, she says, posting the basic disclaimer.) This is the boy who stares at girls who call him creepy, who stands under windows hoping for a glimpse because he can't get up the courage to knock on the door, who desperately wants girls but, unable to approach them, becomes more and more frantic in his frustration, until he either grows out of it or twists into resentful misogyny, lusting to punish the girls he can't have. In this logic, the killing of sexually active girls first isn't Puritanical at all. The punishment is not for breaking the rules of society, it's for being tempting yet unavailable. Your classic stalker-slasher, in fact, doesn't kill the girls he disapproves of: he kills the girls he fancies. Think of the psychologist in Psycho: 'He was touched by her, aroused by her, he wanted her...' - and so out comes the knife. The virgin, the kind of girl a shy boy might actually be able to have a relationship with, survives because she doesn't push him past the point of self-control; her attractiveness is less obvious and thus somehow safer, less threatening. The bikini girls provoke such conflicted emotions that the killer lashes out, but the good girl's prettiness doesn't mock him, so it doesn't catch his murderous eye in the same way. Michael presents his lust as a peeping Tom, quietly edging around hoping for a glimpse, while Freddy is Tourettish in his obscenities, blurting out shamelessly all the lust and greed and hunger for attention a shy boy is forced to hide if he wants to be a gentleman, but both of them clearly want the bodies of their victims.

The camera, following such killers around, is, in short, lustful. It acknowledges the enjoyment of bare flesh, the desire to grab, the connection between desire and anger. There's plenty of sexuality in your traditional slasher; it's just that it's behind the camera.

Not to impute anything to John Carpenter and Wes Craven, who I'm sure are delightful men and good partners, but there's something about the sexuality here that's definitely introverted. It takes an introvert to brood, and that's the atmosphere of those movies.

Naming no names, you all know who you are, it's been my experience that the real perverts tend to be introverted. Doubtless there are exceptions aplenty, but as a rough rule of thumb, I'd say it's a fair guess that extroverts get more variety in the number of partners they sleep with, and introverts in the kind of things they do with the partners they have. Rather than support this with examples, which probably would mean none of my friends would ever speak to me again, I'll confine myself to inviting you to consider the people you know. Isn't it generally the case that, if you want weird fantasies, probably you want to watch the quiet ones?

Which brings us to something very strange in Hostel, best expressed by a simple observation: in the torture chamber, the victims get to keep their underpants on.

When you think about it, that's pretty surprising. I mean, they're being tortured; clearly their comfort and dignity is not top of their hosts' priority list. But even more simply, just in terms of access, if you want to hurt somebody, then surely their genitals would be a prime spot. Why is nobody in the hostel getting castrated? Why, in all the rooms we peek into, is nobody getting raped? This is a capitalist venture: it needs clients. If you only cater to asexual psychopaths, that's a pretty small percentage of the population, especially considering that of that one per cent - or less, as most psychopaths are sexually active in an exploitative sort of way - not all of them would be able to afford your services. A lot of them would be in jail, and lots of others would be making their own arrangements. That's too small a client-base to justify the risks. Just imagine trying to present that to the Dragon's Den investors: 'Well, worst-case scenario, you, we and all our employees go to prison for life. But here's the good news: the market could be as many as seven hundred people!' If, however, you add sexual sadism into the mix, then you massively increase your market. There are far more perverts than pure sadists out there; arousal, for most people, is probably the only emotion strong enough to override empathy that successfully.

So, despite the apparent lustfulness of the first half of the film, which plays itself out in some perfectly nice but fairly unremarkable T and A, once we get down to it, the hostel is a surprisingly chaste place. It's as if we were meeting Harvey Keitel's pimp in Taxi Driver, and instead of saying 'You can do anything with her. You can come on her, fuck her in the mouth ... fuck her in the ass, come on her face, man ... But no rough stuff. All right?', he says, 'You can do whatever you like, man. You can drill their bodies, you can cut out their eyes ... but no dirty business, okay?' You can do anything to your victims except, apparently, take off their undercrackers.

As an ethos, this rather reminds me of a story someone told me, where a university lecturer asked the students what people in ancient Rome used slaves for. Some wags suggested 'making them do work'; people mentioned housework, cooking, heavy lifting ... and eventually the lecturer cut in and said, 'Why is nobody mentioning sex?' Because that was a primary use of slaves. You can do anything to someone? Probably you'll fuck 'em. After all, look at the internet: its biggest use is pornography. Whence this sexless sadism?

I gather that the mutilation has shifted to nubile women in more recent movies such as Hostel 2 and Captivity, so maybe it's only a matter of time, but something does occur to me. If you're looking for a non-introspective audience, you're looking for people who watch horror as a social activity. A typical member of that demographic doesn't go to the movies on his own or sit quietly in front of the TV; he gets together with a group of like-minded friends, and, ideally, watches it in a place where they can all comment on the action. Now, in order to comment to full effect, you need something that you can say, preferably with enthusiasm and energy. Naomi remarked in the last thread that recent slashers felt 'as if they're catering to the audience's bloodlust rather than trying to scare you'; personally I wouldn't say it was exactly a lust to see blood, but more a desire to bond with fellow audience members. Everyone yelling 'Ugh!' at the same time is an audience in harmony.

And, to get that harmony, you need nasty scenes. You don't need your audience to be genuinely, profoundly freaked out - in fact, it's probably better if they're not, as that would distract them from each other - but you do need stuff that's definitely, unquestionably icky. I have the sense that gorno fans want the films to provide what I've seen usefully described as social currency: something that you can exchange in conversations, pass on and swap and use to grease the wheels of social interaction. Gornos feel less like films to see than films to go to, to talk about, to share the experience of having seen. This is particularly bonding as they're transgressive: by the act of liking something that reviewers are all hailing as the End of Civilisation, you and your friends have something very strong that unites you. Watching it is a dance on the edge of the acceptable, and you can all get down together.

But the thing is, when you're dancing on the edge of the acceptable, no one wants to be the first person to fall off. And if you have overly sexual sadism in a film, that's genuinely uncomfortable. Even if I liked beer more than I do, I think I'd have trouble heckling Hellraiser, for instance: its atmosphere is too insidious, too contaminating, and it's one of those movies that ends up making you feel kind of sullied. (I say this as a tribute, not a criticism: it takes a really good film to get under your skin that successfully.) It's a film that, whether you like it or not, implicates you in its disturbing ethos. Similarly, if some guy with a knife is ripping up beautiful young women, then I wonder if, at the back of everyone's mind, is a worrying question: am I enjoying this a little too much? Am I enjoying it more than everyone else? Am I, in fact, the only pervert surrounded by a group of normal people who may be just about to turn around and notice me?

It rather reminds me of something Ali Davis comments in the Porn Clerk Stories:

[Porn Trance] is the odd, timeless zone that people go into when studying the boxes. Lone porn renters go into it immediately and resent being pulled out. Group renters never intend to go into the Porn Trance. They start out laughing together, pointing at the boxes and reading particularly ludicrous copy out loud. They are far too hip to really be interes... and then they see an orifice that really strikes them and one by one they get sucked in and the porn section is quiet again.

That's all very well - but there's always the risk that your friend may turn around and see that the box in your hand is labelled, in effect, 'Gross And Disturbing Tastes In The Really Not Cool Sense Of The Word Three!' When it comes to watching a movie that isn't supposed to be pornographic, you want to stay out of the Porn Trance. Because the standard heckles are not going to be confessional remarks like, 'You know, I find that girl's look of fear strangely titillating.' What you want, basically, is either 'Hey! Naked girl!' - that is, a cry of universally acceptable tastes - or 'Dude, that is the sickest thing ever!' - which is a disavowal, though a happy one, of what's happening on the screen. You want to keep enthusiasm and revulsion separate, so that it's clear which bits you're supposed to like and which bits are supposed to gross you out. You want, in fact, a movie like Hostel, where the naughty nudie bits are comfortably removed from the torture scenes, and the torture scenes are safely insulated from the sexuality.

So when it comes to sexual morality, we may be looking at two strains in films: the secretly transgressive, and the for-public-consumption. Films in the latter category, I'd say, are likely to have a sexuality that's more explicit but less consistent, because if you're mixing pretty bosoms with bloody kitchenware, the least embarrassing thing to watch with your mates is something nicely compartmentalised.

That's my theory, anyway. Anyone got any others?

Comments:
I agree with you, so my theory is more of an addition than an alternative.

There's the voyuerism aspect of horror films to consider - the notion that we can safely watch these nubile young things being tortured, mutilated and murdered in the safety of our homes, knowing we'll never go through the same thing. I suppose it's akin to seeing a lion at the zoo. It's thrilling to see such a dangerous creature up close, but the danger is muted by the bars of the cage. In the same way, a viewer might enjoy testing their revulsion threshold (for want of a better term...) whilst knowing they'll never actually experience dismemberment and violent death (unless they're particularly unlucky).

Does that make sense? Watching violent films is a way of examining our own morality without putting ourselves in danger.
 
By choice, I am extremely unfamiliar with this genre, so all I can do is read your analysis going "Wow, brilliant, and yet disturbing and terrifying!"
 
Nice post. Don't have much to add, except I came across a throwaway reference at one point that the intended audience for these films is women, not men.

I probably would have ignored this if it weren't at Variety, a place that is not exactly a bastion of thinking-person's criticism but at least knows its stuff about market data.

Does that change your read on it at all?

If you'll pardon the self-link, my own inconclusive write-up on this question is here (scroll down a bit).
 
This is a really interesting analysis and I agree with nearly all of it, from the positioning of the monster/camera as voyeuristic in the older horror films to the explanation of why people now switch between sex and violence (in horror films that is.)

But the thing about introversion is a bit off the mark I think. For a start I guess that neither Wes Craven or John Carpenter are introverts and their films clearly express aspects of their sexuality.

I'll confine myself to inviting you to consider the people you know. Isn't it generally the case that, if you want weird fantasies, probably you want to watch the quiet ones?

I'd have to say no. Thats the thing, some of my quiet friends have such fantasies and some of my extroverted friends do. There's no hard fast rule to sexuality, and I don't think its linked in the way you express it.

This doesn't mean that I don't think there is something there in this. Certainly boys who can't socially interact with girls when they are sexually interested for whatever reason often become misogynistic and turn their rejection or inaction into aggression.

But many introverted people do not do this and often extroverted boys can feel the same rejection etcetera. You hint at this with Freddie Kruger. He was probably never shy, always a loud mouth etc... but he couldn't connect with girls the right way. Many of the biggest and nastiest misogynists I have ever met have been very very extroverted about it.

But apart from that area where I think you are just off the mark this is a very very interesting and thought provoking post. I really enjoyed it. Thanks.
 
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