Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House and #MeToo

Who should be believed? Who decides who is believable? Who decides how stories can be told in the first place? And what does the experience of not being believed do to people?

Among many other issues, Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, wrestles with this question. While the story is a “haunted house” tale, based on the classic novel from Shirley Jackson, Flanagan’s series inverts many of the expectations of the genre. While we spend some time in Hill House, very little of the time we spend there actually involves the hauntings. Instead, much of the series focuses on the experiences of the Crain children trying to cope with their surroundings, and follows them into adulthood as they grapple with the effects of their traumatic upbringing. While all of the children grow into damaged adults, the effects are felt acutely by Luke, who will spend most of his adult life struggling with drug addiction, and Nelle, who faces sleep paralysis, depression, and eventually takes her own life.

Not incidentally, these are also the two Crain siblings who are haunted most directly in their childhood. In the third episode, “Touch,” young Luke is playing around with the dumbwaiter and is trapped in the cellar, when a ghostly figure crawls out and attacks him, ripping his shirt. At first, the parents don’t believe the house even has a cellar, since it’s not on the house’s blueprints. Even after his sister Theodora is able to find the cellar’s hidden entrance, the parents continue to believe he is imagining the attack. Apparently, having unique knowledge of a hidden cellar in the house is not enough corroborating evidence. Luke’s childhood experience is poignantly interwoven with the story of the adult Theodora, now a therapist, who takes a child’s story of a monster rising from the floor seriously enough to uncover the abuse this child is suffering at the hands of her stepfather.

Young Luke continues to be upset that his parents do not believe his story. The fourth episode, “The Twin Thing,” opens with young Luke telling his “imaginary” friend, “He even ripped my shirt, and they still didn’t believe me. They never believe me.” When Luke produces a drawing of his assailant, his father responds with a dismissive smile. “It’s normal,” he says, “for kids to have imaginary friends, nightmares.” When Luke protests, Hugh says to him, “Go ahead, I’m listening.” But Hugh does not respond when his son tries to tell him that the house is “bad,” instead allowing his wife to interrupt the conversation. A “bad” house is not one of the realities that Hugh is willing to accept.

We see the same response to Nelle’s claim of a haunted visitor. After Nelle sees the “bent neck lady,” her father is quick to tell her that this is just a nightmare, and her mother suggests that perhaps it was Theodora playing a joke. Nelle’s visions persist for multiple nights. Her parents try to comfort her, with her mother going as far as to sleep in a different room with Nelle, but believing her is not a consideration. Nelle continues to be haunted by visions of the bent neck lady into adulthood, and she continues to struggle with her family not believing her experiences. As an adult, this mantle of the disbelieving patriarch is passed to her oldest brother, Steven. Steven has become a celebrity from his tell-all book about his experience growing up in a haunted house, but has never believed himself. Nelle confronts him at a public reading. “You tell our stories,” Nelle says, “my stories, the same stories you told me were just dreams, delusions.” As Nelle starts to cry, she says, “You were supposed to protect me. But you said the meanest things to me when I tried to tell you.”

There’s a long history in horror of people who are connected to the realm of the spiritual, usually understanding an imminent threat, and the people who don’t believe them. Most commonly, the people with an openness to the non-rational world of spirits are the socially marginalized – women, children, ethnic minorities. I was re-watching Kubrick’s The Shiningrecently, and was struck by an early scene in the kitchen, where these three categories are all represented by the three characters who are all wary of the Overlook Hotel’s power and intuitively understand its threat. And the people who don’t believe them are always the white men, the patriarchal voices of reason who tell them their fears are all in their mind. The only horror film I can think of where the while male is more in tune with the realm of the supernatural is Don’t Look Now, and even there he doesn’t listen to his own instincts until it’s too late. Sinister is another possible example, but in this case the family’s patriarch works to hide his encounters with supernatural forces from his family so he can continue the research into his true-crime book. (Can you think of any other examples?)

On one hand, this reflects the age-old dichotomy, where women and other marginalized groups are in tune with the spiritual and the emotional, while the European males are connected to the rational and the intellectual. But frequently, horror inverts this dichotomy; the rationality of the male is insufficient to handle the threat they are facing, and the protagonists’ only hope of salvation is through the insights offered by the non-dominant voices. The family patriarchs have created the rules of the game. But the horrific forces they are confronting are not beholden to these boundaries, and are determined to play a different game.

While this has been a plot point in horror for many years, it’s taken on an increasing amount of relevance in recent struggles over what, precisely, it means to listen to women and men who have been the victims of sexual violence. The dominant voice of patriarchal reason has told us, for years, that these experiences should be swept under the rug except in the most extreme cases. It’s not only that power means the ability to adjudicate an individual case. Power means the ability to determine what is or is not worthy of being heard in the first place.

The Supreme Court has the power to decide cases; they also have the power to refuse to hear an argument. And the party when a party is in control of the House of Representatives or the Senate, they not only round up the votes for bills, they determine which bills are brought to the floor for debate and voting at all. We saw this dynamic play out in the Kavanaugh hearings as well. The judiciary felt enough public pressure that they scheduled a hearing, but then circumscribed it so tightly as to preclude any actual evidence from emerging. (Everything about the hearing was set to achieve this outcome, from the arbitrary single-day time limit, to the 5-minute questioning format, to the refusal to call additional witnesses, to the scheduling of a vote for Kavanaugh before the hearing had even taken place.) The same is true of the FBI background check that followed this hearing. The White House determined in advanced who would and who would not be listened to by the FBI, in effect crafting the narrative they wanted to create. Kavanaugh’s history of alcohol abuse as a young adult, as described by a number of witnesses who were not allowed to speak to the FBI, was considered outside of the narrative. As such, the possible (likely) untruths that Kavanaugh told about his drinking as a young adult during his hearing were also determined to be out of bounds. The result is an investigation that supported the pre-determined narrative. When you know the results you want to find, it’s easy to set up the rules of the game so that you can achieve those results.

In The Haunting of Hill House, this job of referee is served first by family patriarch Hugh Crain. While his wife is certain there are ghostly presences in the house, Hugh will only consider that she is overly stressed, and needs some time away from the house. Similarly, the children who are experiencing terrifying supernatural visitors (primarily Luke and Nell) are dismissed as not knowing the boundaries between dreams and reality, as letting their anxieties run amuck. In short, they are accused of being unreliable witnesses. By establishing the rules in advance for what experiences are believable and what experiences are not, and determining to seriously consider only those experiences that were determined to be within these acceptable bounds, the Crain family was unable to hear the actual stories of trauma that were being experienced by their members. As a society, we’re wrestling with the same question; the rules we have established over what stories are acceptable are no longer working. (And actually never did, though our society pretended otherwise.) Horror has long understood the perils faced by the patriarch who refuses to listen; 21stcentury America is just now getting the same message.


Guest Post: The Mist on Horrorhomeroom.com

Writing guests posts is awesome! I get to write, without having to worry about driving traffic, and I don’t have to be embarrassed that I’m too lazy to figure out how to use anything but WordPress’s default templates as a web design. So here’s my guest post at horrorhomeroom.com on apocalyptic religions in The Mist:



Zombie Trumpcare? Time to Double-Tap

Trumpcare has been declared dead so many times, only to shamble onward in a slightly altered form, that I’m still skeptical over last week’s developments in the senate. For now, all of the GOP congresspeople (okay, mostly congressmen) are talking about moving on to other priorities. But we’ve also been here before. This bill has been declared dead so many times, only to re-animate after most of us had forgotten about it. This time, I’m not ready to take my eye off Trumpcare’s corpse.

After it came back to life in the House after being declared dead, pundits quickly bestowed the title ‘Zombie Trumpcare” on the efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, for the ways that these efforts seemed to keep returning after being declared dead. Ed Kilgore asked when we’ll know that zombie Trumpcare is finally dead, and couldn’t come up with any definitive answers. (“When Republicans in either the House or the White House finally choose a different strategy,” he suggested, but we’ve seen how often both entities lurch back and forth from one strategy to another.) Jay Willis, writing in GQ, referred to “Zombie Trumpcare” all the way back at the end of April, which is an eternity in the Trump administration. I can’t even count the number of times the repeal-and-replace dream has been brought back from the dead since then. And the Daily Beast’s Asawing Suebsaeng proclaimed that the senate was readying to give Zombie Trumpcare a “gory death” back in May, long before the John McCain, Lisa Murdowski, and Susan Collins finally gave the Senate bill a (seemingly fatal!) headshot.

In reality, it wasn’t these three senators who killed the Senate bill; it was massive protests across the country making it politically impossible for blue-state moderates, like Murkowski and Collins, to cast a vote in favor of the GOP’s revised process. That pressure meant McConnell only had one vote to lose, and a cranky senator who had been the victim of some vicious smears by the president was able to cast the deciding vote. It was the people who killed this bill.

In the deluge of zombie movies from the last decade or so, the Zom-Com Stakeland taught us one very important lesson: Always double-tap. No matter how certain you are that you’ve shot a zombie straight through the head and there’s no more re-animating in this corpse’s future, give it another bullet. Always, always double-tap.

And if we really want to take down Trumpcare, once and for all, now is the time to double-tap.

We forgot to double-tap after the House seemed to abandon its efforts. The bill seemed dead, Paul Ryan didn’t have the votes, and we all moved on. Except that for while we weren’t looking, the corpse rose back up and started walking again, when supposed “moderate” Tom McArthur hatched up a plan with Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows to make a few tweaks to the bill. This could happen because all of the activists stopped paying attention to the Affordable Care Act, assuming that it had been killed and we could move on. We didn’t double-tap, and as soon as we turned our backs the corpse rose up again.

Let’s not make the same mistake this time. Double-tap by continuing to call your senators, and your congress people in the House – after all, there’s nothing to stop the House from being the ones to start the re-animation process. Double-tap by showing up to town hall meetings and continuing to make noise about health care. If you happen to live in a district with Democratic representation, double-tap by pushing your congress people to become advocates for Medicare for all. But whatever you do, don’t turn your back on the corpse of the Senate bill. If we don’t take this chance to double-tap, we might find ourselves up against a walking, flesh-rending zombie before we know what’s happened. The time to double-tap is now.

Single Moms in Horror: Progressive and Conservative Ideologies Beneath the Surface

Film critic Robin Wood wrote that the basic structure of every horror movie is simple: “Normalcy is threatened by the monster.” This seems so basic as to be almost unhelpful, until we reflect on how ambiguous two of the words are in this construction: “Normalcy” and “monster.” How a horror film defines these two ideas tells us a great deal about the film’s world view and where it stands on the political spectrum.

Prevenge and The Monster both feature single moms as protagonists, but offer very different takes on what it means to be a single mother. In both of these films, the single mom is unhappy with her lot, and falls spectacularly short of being a good-enough mother for her daughter. The difference lies in how much sympathy each film has for the mother, and where the films place the blame for their protagonists’ dissatisfaction. In both cases, the mother is monstrous, but the films reveal extreme ideological differences in how they understand this monstrousness, and in how they understand what it means to be a “normal” mother. In interesting ways, each of these films speak to one side of our current political debate over society’s responsibilities toward mothers.

Prevenge is the brainchild of writer-director-actor Alice Lowe, who starred in this film during her real-life pregnancy. While it’s a British film, it’s take on issues of motherhood and gender are just as relevant to this side of the pond. The film tells the story of widowed Ruth, who believes her unborn baby is encouraging her to kill the people responsible for her partner’s accidental death. The film veers back and forth between outright horror and pitch-black comedy, but with enough gore to keep away those without strong stomachs (including a bloody castration scene). But the social commentary is sharp. Early in the film, Ruth targets a middle-aged DJ living with his mom. As is often the case with female killers in horror films, Ruth uses her powers of seduction to get the DJ alone; she promises that she’s not interested in anything more than “having some fun,” and the DJ happily goes along until he discovers she’s pregnant. In the world of this DJ, and many men like him, a woman who is pregnant cannot be a sex object, and women who are not sex objects have no value. Ruth is also ignored by the corporate world, as she obtains a job interview with a female business executive, only to be told that her pregnancy makes her unhirable. Again, Ruth is without value to the larger world, and spends most of her time in the film alone.

So when Ruth brutally kills her victims, the audience understands, even if stopping far short of condoning. And while the stated reason for these deaths is the role that these people played in her husband’s death, the reality is that each of the victims inhabit a social role that perpetuates Ruth’s marginalization. Because of her pregnancy, Ruth has been excluded from the realms of sexuality and work. Even when Ruth is shown kindness by one of her soon-to-be-victims, the voice of her baby tells her that it’s all a trick: he’s only pretending to be nice. When the whole world ignores you, it’s easy to feel suspicious of even genuine kindness. While Ruth is both protagonist and monster, she’s a monster that the audience can relate to. And in the worldview of the film, “normal” is a society that pushes women to the margins when there are no longer useful, after their sexuality has expired.

Writer-director Bryan Bertino’s The Monster presents another kind of protagonist entirely, and a completely different worldview for what constitutes “normalcy” in the realm of motherhood. Single, alcoholic Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is driving daughter Lizzy (played beautifully by fifteen year-old Ella Ballentine) to see Lizzy’s father. Their car breaks down late at night on a deserted road, but while they’re waiting for help to arrive they begin to suspect the presence of a hungry something-or-other in the woods. It’s a setup straight out of Cujo, but the film draws a lot of tension out of the simple plot structure. But the film isn’t satisfied with being nothing more than a suspenseful 90 minutes. The film’s at least as interested in the broken relationship between Kathy and Lizzy as it is in the titular monster.

From the beginning, Lizzy is portrayed as a young girl who’s had to grow up too fast. In the film’s opening scenes, her mom is still asleep while Lizzy picks up bottles and empties ashtrays from last night’s party. Throughout the film, Kathy is presented as a woman who has never grown up, forcing Lizzy into the role of maternal protector. It’s only at the film’s climax, when Kathy sacrifices herself for her daughter, that Kathy is able to redeem herself.

In The Monster, there is no question of societal responsibility for the plight of this single mother; Kathy’s problems are simply immaturity and poor choices. She finally grows up in the end by sacrificing herself for her child, but the responsibilities for her failures clearly lie on her and her alone. It’s an isolated view of the world in which there is little connection between government policy, societal responsibility, and the individual.

One of the major questions of our current political landscape revolves around societal responsibilities for children and expectant parents. Not only is there a heated discussion around continued funding for Planned Parenthood (with many on the right seeming to believe that the organization is little more than an abortion provider), but there’s also an ongoing debate about whether health insurance plans should be required to provide maternity care, or whether these services should be something that people can choose to add-on to their policy as some sort of optional rider. (The AHCA, passed by the House just yesterday, allows the states to define “Essential Health Benefits” on their own, such that insurance policies may or may not cover things like maternity care if this bill becomes law.) Of course, in this view the only people who would be paying for maternity care are those who might be in direct need of maternity care at some time, i.e., women. The photo that went viral a short while ago, of a roomful of middle-aged white men in suits debating the question of essential benefits, spoke volumes about the problems with the current state of the debate in Washington. (Not to imply that there wasn’t a lot of diversity represented in this photo – there were bald white men, white men with glasses, and even one white man who apparently couldn’t afford to buy a suit jacket.) In this environment, “benefits,” like maternity care, are seen as optional, the responsibility of the individual expecting a child, not the responsibility of the collective.

When seen through this framework, The Monster represents a conservative view of motherhood, in which poor choices are the result of individual failures. Prevenge, on the other hand, presents a holistic worldview, in which the challenges of motherhood are the result of a society that doesn’t value mothers (and, it seems clear, women as a whole). One of the very view helpful people Ruth meets throughout Prevenge is the government health-worker assigned to her; this caseworker approaches Ruth with at least some degree of empathy and compassion. But her help is clearly not enough, and she is unable to realize the depths of Ruth’s troubles. Maternity care is a necessary first step, but not enough – Prevenge presents a society that needs to change how it values women, that needs to rethink how it understands not only motherhood but the personhood of all women.

Trends in Horror and Culture, pt. 3: The Slashers

We’ve explored how horror films of the ‘60s and ‘70s often served as a critique of the dominant culture, exploring issues of racism, patriarchy, and colonialism. As American culture started to take a sharp rightward turn, leading to the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, horror films reflected this cultural shift. Leading the charge was John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween, which set a template that would be followed for the better part of the next decade.

Instead of offering a critique of American society, Halloween offered a vision of a world overrun by youth and excess, where traditional lines of authority had broken down, and in which the barely submerged wish is for a return to the patriarchal past. The main characters of Halloween are teenaged babysitter Laurie and her friends, all of whom are primarily interested in sex, booze, and drugs. They operate outside of parental authority – parents are present briefly in the film’s beginning, but are absent for most of the action. The only person to keep them in line is sadistic killer Michael Myers, who seems to be drawn to debauchery. The film starts with young Michael creeping upstairs to find his sister in the wake of a sexual encounter; throughout the slasher cycle of the ‘80s, the killers’ history begins with some traumatic experience involving either sex or humiliation. For the bulk of the film, the killer sets about to dispatching as many young victims as he can find, usually as they are pursuing some transgressive behavior.

Halloween itself had sequel after sequel, but also spawned series like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, and many lesser-known entries such as the Sleepaway Camp films. All of these films followed the same formula. Producers quickly figured out that this was a formula audiences responded to, and one that could be replicated on a relatively minimal budget with a good chance of earning huge profits. But what was it about these simple, formulaic narratives that audiences responded to?

One of the elements that many critics have noted is the “stalker-cam,” in which the audience is shown the point-of-view of the killer as he stalks his victims. This was famously introduced in Halloween, where the film starts from the point-of-view of young Michael Myers. By allowing the audience to experience the events from the killer’s point-of-view, the audience identifies with the killer.

But things aren’t quite that simple – the perspective keeps shifting back-and-forth, from the killer to the victims to the heroine (dubbed “the Final Girl” by Carol Clover). So the audience’s sympathies keep shifting as well. This has some important implications for how we experience these films.

First of all, it allows us to experience the vicarious pleasures of debaucherous behavior. We get to see attractive young people behaving badly, and enjoy being a part of it. But we feel guilty for enjoying this spectacle, so the film shifts our identification to the killer – then the audience is on the side of the punishing agent, and we don’t have to feel guilty for vicariously enjoying the booze, drugs, and sex. But we also feel guilty that we’re enjoying the violence of the killer, perhaps a little too much. So by the end of the film we’re rooting for the Final Girl as she does away with the killer (at least until the sequel).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is what this shift in identification says about the slasher film’s relationship with structures of authority. The slasher film presents a world where youth are run amok, where “traditional” values don’t hold anymore. The slasher serves as an enforcer of these boundaries, using violence and fear to put the rambunctious teens back in line. But audiences also understand that this violence is not sustainable, and that once order has been restored, the conventional authorities need to return to rebuild society. So it’s the psychologist Dr. Loomis who has to shoot Michael Myers in the end, as the police arrive on the scene. The audience can’t identify too closely, for too long, with these killers – at the end, the audience is on the side of law and order.

But it’s these killers who are really the heroes of slasher films. Think of the spin-off series of “Freddy’s Nightmares,” and the Halloween costumes of Freddy and Jason. While few of us remember who the Final Girl was for any of these movies, we all remember the killers. When society seems out of control, and anxiety rises too high, it’s the slashers we look to as the ones who can scare everyone back into line.

Further Reading:
Clover, Carol.  Men, Women, and Chain-Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
Dika, Vera. Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle. (Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990).

Trends in Horror and Culture, Pt. 2: The 1960s and 70s

In an earlier post, I looked at some of the themes prevalent in horror films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, showing how they matched up with cultural anxieties of the times, such as xenophobia and Cold-war era fears of communism. This post will briefly sketch developments in the next several decades, decades that were tumultuous for both American society and the horror film.

Many critics view late 60s as the period in which the modern horror film begins; some see the beginning of this new movement in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), or even it’s thematic precursor Peeping Tom (1958), while other critics look at a later film such as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) or Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Aside from the cultural forces at work, these films are also evidence of changing rules of censorship – the explicit violence of Night and sexuality of Rosemary would have been unthinkable in relatively mainstream films only a few years prior to their release.

But even more important than the graphic nature of these films is the nature of the anxieties they reveal. In the films from the 1930s to the 1950s, the monster comes from outside of what is considered “normative” society – the foreign Dracula, the alien, the monstrous product of nuclear radiation. But many of the films of the 1960s mark a major shift, in that the threat begins to emanate from within the family itself. No longer is the family an innocent victim of outside forces. Instead, it is the family itself which is to blame. Norman Bates, while seemingly normal on the outside, is a tightly wound ball of psychoses which all seem rooted in his mother. Night of the Living Dead imagines a paranoid world where no one trusts anyone, terrified that any of their friends or family could turn into a zombie at any moment. And Rosemary’s Baby presents a story in which a pregnant woman is the victim of a vast conspiracy organized by her husband, in which her fertility has been used as a bargaining chip for his career. In all of these cases (and many others!) it is the family itself which is to blame.

This shift brings with it the potential for strong critique of the patriarchal family unit, and, hence, American culture itself. A powerful example of this critique can be found in Wes Craven’s nasty The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The seemingly All-American family of this film runs into trouble when their mobile home breaks down in the New Mexico desert; soon, they will be victimized by a shadowy family living in the hills, and forced to fight to defend themselves. Whereas Hollywood cinema often presents righteous violence as a response to lawlessness, and offers the audience cathartic release through this righteous violence, The Hills Have Eyes instead suggests that the violence of both families is appalling. Both families are presented as structures of domination, in which the patriarch rules over subordinate family members. And the violence becomes so extreme on both sides that it is hard to have sympathy for anyone. Rather than cheering as the All-American family defends themselves, we watch in horror as the barely contained violence that has been simmering in their relationships since the film’s beginning explodes to the surface. No one in this film is a hero, and what becomes subject to critique is the very structures that allow for this violence.

For most of the 60s and 70s, horror would serve as a space for this type of critique of American culture; it was with John Carpenter’s landmark film of 1978, Halloween, that the ideology of horror took a sharp turn to the right.

Further reading:
Robin Wood’s “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s” is the earliest essay to attempt to read this period of horror from the perspective of culture and politics, and still hugely important. It’s been reprinted in many anthologies, but is easily available in Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond (New York: Columbia, 2003).
On the family in horror: Tony Williams, Hearths of Darkness, Updated ed. (Jackson: U of Mississippi Press, 2014).
On violence in The Hills Have Eyes: D. N. Roderick, “The Enemy Within: The Economy of Violence in The Hills Have Eyes,” pages 321-330 in Planks of Reason (ed. Barry Keith Grant; Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1984).

What is Monster Theory?

It’s been awhile since my last post – I returned home from a vacation to a looming article deadline that demanded a lot of time and focus. It’s an article for a biblical studies journal, which will hopefully be appearing soon. (“Soon” in academic publishing language translates to less than two years.) I was writing on recent articles and books in the field of Hebrew Bible which make use of the discipline known as “monster theory.”

At its heart, monster theory is a way to read and understand monsters, whether they’re in books, movies, or culture. While different scholarly approaches have developed over the recent decades, they all share a common assumption: the monsters a culture creates tell us about the particular fears and anxieties of the culture, and perhaps give insight into universal fears and anxieties that are shared across all cultures.

Scholars like Noël Carroll have noted that monsters aren’t just threatening, they’re also disgusting. Carroll uses insights from the field of anthropology to explain why this might be. While there’s a wide range of monstrous bodies and behaviors, Carroll argues that they all share the common feature of crossing categories and blurring boundaries that we like to think of as firm: for example, the zombie is both dead and alive, the werewolf is both human and animal, the witch is both human and demonic. By blurring these boundaries, monsters don’t just threaten our physical well-being: they threaten how we understand the world to be organized.

And scholars like Jeffrey Jerome Cohen have noted that monsters are in some ways radically “other” from us, as different from us as could possibly be, yet they’re also paradoxically like us. In the tale of Beowulf, the monster Grendel comes from outside of the camp, but traces his lineage back to the descendants of Cain – just one branch over from our family tree. And while we are scared of the monster, we also admire the monster for its freedom. Dracula is a terrifying figure, yet he’s also an idealized vision of powerful sexuality. And Jason, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger all became celebrities, with the heroes of those franchises mostly forgotten.

Obviously, this is just a small piece of monster theory. But thinking about monsters in these ways gives us some powerful tools for reading the effect monsters have on culture, and why we seem to be continually drawn to them.

Further Reading:
Asma, Stephen T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. New York: Oxford, 2009.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” pages 3-25 in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1996.
Gilmore, David D. Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2003.

Moving to the Wilderness in “The Witch”

One of the most critically acclaimed horror films of recent years (and one of my favorites, as well) is director Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Set in Puritan New England, the movie tells the tale of patriarch William, who begins the film on trial for an unspecified heresy. William is asked by the court to recant and refuses, opting to leave the colony with his wife and children instead of compromise his beliefs. Setting up their own homestead in the wilderness, the family quickly runs into trouble as their newborn infant disappears. From there, the family descends into paranoid infighting, certain that a witch has set her designs upon members of the family. If you’ve seen many horror films at all, you can probably guess that things don’t end well for the family.


It’s not always the case, but very often horror films leave an impression on audiences and critics because the underlying fears that they explore are particularly relevant to their time. So while the original subtitle of the film was “a New England folktale,” it strikes me that The Witch speaks to the fears underlying our current political environment.


We’re still unraveling everything that happened over the course of this election season; there’s still data to be parsed, theories to be explored, and movements to be diagnosed. But one thing seems clear: a huge part of the country was hungry for major change, as evidenced both by the support for Trump and for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. Both of these candidates ran as Washington outsiders, ready to come in and shake up a stagnant system that had stopped responding to the demands of the people. And while Clinton was able to withstand the Sanders challenge during the primary, her message of competence and experience didn’t sway enough voters in the general election. (Yes, she won the popular vote. But she didn’t sway enough voters in several key states to become president.)


By the end of the election season, it was clear a large population of voters was willing to take a chance on an unknown promise of change, versus incremental improvement within the framework of more of the same. This is the situation William found himself in at the beginning of The Witch. He was offered the chance to renounce his heretical ideas, but instead held fast to his beliefs, at the cost of his place in Puritan society. Rather than compromise, William left society, along with his family, for the wilderness.


Many Americans asked for change this election, and were rewarded with President Trump. As a nation, we packed up our belongings and moved from the safety of our current (imperfect, no doubt) political system, into an unknown wilderness. The hopes of many is that this move into the unknown will produce new possibilities, including economic growth and freedoms that were not possible within the confines of our established politics. The fear is that we might have left a comfortable society for the wilderness, and there’s a witch living in the woods.


Trends in Horror and Culture, pt. 1

One of the presuppositions of this blog, and of my work on horror in general, is that horror reflects the particular fears and anxieties of the time and culture that created it. Of course, many fears are common human experience – fear of death, for example – but even these shared fears are given different expressions in different periods of history, in different cultural contexts. In this post, I’m offering a brief reading of some of the historical trends in the horror film, which will show how these trends match up with the anxieties of the culture in specific ways.  After moving through some of the historical trends, I’ll bring us up to the recent past and present of the horror film, where we can talk about the intersection of horror and today’s society.

Horror in the 1930s

While the horror film was birthed almost simultaneously with film itself – Edison Studios made a 16-minute version of Frankenstein in 1910 – the genre didn’t achieve much popularity until the 1930s. In 1931, Universal Studios released an adaptation of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, which became a huge success and launched a cycle of horror films from the studio, most sharing similar structures and themes. Universal would dominate the horror market over the rest of the 1930s, with continued installments in the Dracula series, along with a handful of other franchises: Frankenstein, the Wolf-Man, and the Mummy among them. Many of these films created images that are still iconic today: the Hungarian accent of Dracula, the bolts jutting out of the square forehead of Frankenstein’s monster, and the creature from the black lagoon carrying a young woman off into his watery domain.  They’ve moved from horror films to children’s cartoons and breakfast cereals, but the images are still foundational.

As a whole, these films focused on the monster as Other: the monster came from outside of society. The daily lives of “normal” people were threatened by the appearance of this outside force. It isn’t too hard to see what constitutes normal in these films: “normal” is the American middle-class, white family unit. The monster, on the other hand, is usually marked as in some way foreign: Dracula is a clear example, as his Eastern European roots are emphasized strongly by the Universal films. The mummy is another example, as he serves as a representation of middle-eastern mysticism that threatens the rationality of European culture. Sometimes, the cultural coding is more difficult to detect, but we can also put monsters such as Frankenstein’s monster (and even King Kong) into this pattern by observing the ways they are depicted as a racial Other. In James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, the monster might receive the audience’s sympathy throughout the film, but it still ends with a lynching.

Often, the central conflict of these films centers around the monster’s attempts to stop a heterosexual marriage from taking place. Victor Frankenstein is engaged to be married, and the monster breaks down his bedroom window and attempts to abduct his bride on the eve of their wedding. Similarly, Todd Browning’s Dracula features the Count attempting to steal John Harker’s fiancé, Mina, away from him, and the film reaches it’s happy resolution when Dracula’s vampiric influence is finally dispelled from Mina, leading to a happy marriage. At their heart, the horror of these films arises from xenophobia, and specifically the fear that the foreign (or racial) Other will take our women.

Over the course of a decade, these films descended into self-parody, eventually resulting in titles such as 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. After this cul-de-sac, it took a new conception of the monster to instill new life into the horror film. Or perhaps, it was a new cultural anxiety that found its shape in a new conception of the monster. There was plenty of anxiety to go around in the wake of World War II, when the fear of the foreign Other grew into a more particular kind of fear: the fear of communism.

Horror in the 1950s

The Red Scare is a clear subtext for the dominant trend of the monster films in the 1950’s, when horror gave way to science fiction. We see movies such as The Thing From Another World (1951), where a shape-shifting alien lands near a remote arctic research station, causing confusion and paranoia as the researchers have no way of knowing who among them is still human. Similarly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) depicts a world in which our neighbors could be turned into “pod people” at any moment. While the threat still comes from without, as with the Universal horror films of the 1930s, it’s a much more insidious threat; the threat is less that of foreign invasion and domination, and more of subversion. This is a horror that the entire country lived through during the Joseph McCarthy trials.

As with the Universal horror films, these movies would recycle the same themes and structures repeatedly, eventually winding down by the end of the decade. It took the Master of Suspense to breathe new life into the horror genre, and start the next great period: Alfred Hitchcock, with his 1960 film Psycho. We’ll look at horror of the 1960s and 1970s in the next post and see that, once again, the trends in horror films mirror the trends in culture, and reveal the shared anxiety of a society.

Further Reading:

Not an exhaustive bibliography by any means! Just a few suggestions with each blog post for a place to get started if you want to delve deeper into these time periods or theories.

The Universal Horror films: David Skal, The Monster Show (revised edition). New York: Norton, 2001.

Science Fiction of the 1950s: Michael Bliss, Invasions USA: The Essential Science Fiction Films of the 1950s. Lanham, Md.: Rowan & Littlefield, 2014.

These Are Monstrous Times

I’ve long been interested in what the genre of the horror film has to say to us about our culture and about ourselves. It’s one of the things that led me to write my dissertation on Numbers 25, one of the most horrifying of all stories in the Old Testament, and approach it from the lens of horror theory.

And in the wake of this election, I’ve been struck by how much this framework has to offer our country right now.  These are most certainly times of horror, times where monsters seem to be lurking everywhere.

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture at Chicago Theological Seminary entitled “The Monstrous and the Sacred: Horror in the Hebrew Bible.”  In the Q&A section at the end, one of the attendees asked a very important question. “This is fascinating stuff – but how can it help us move forward? What good does it do to spend so much time thinking about all of these dark things?” My answer was something like this:

One of our greatest challenges is to understand ourselves. We have so many fears and anxieties. And when we don’t understand them, they come out in ugly ways, leading us to do ugly things. Analyzing horror, and connecting it with current movements in culture, is all about naming our fears. Once we name our fears, we pull them out of the shadows, hold them up to the light, and we can find a productive way to address them. But as long as they stay unnamed, they continue to grow and we mistake them for something else.

So in this blog, over the coming weeks and months (who knows how long?), I’ll work to look at horror movies, modern and classic, and how they connect with culture, and how they help us to see who we are. I hope you’ll join in this conversation with me – share posts that you find interesting or helpful, comment on things you’d like to discuss more, or just read and follow. I hope these thoughts can help us make some sense out of these monstrous times.