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 Do horror films reflect the anxieties of Western society, or do they take advantage of its loss of ability to deal with the horrors that occur in it in reality?

By: By Sheila K. Dwan, New York Times
The idea that horror films reflect society's anxieties, or even moderate them, is not new. The movie "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was seen more than once as a criticism of the McCarthy era, "King Kong" is considered a metaphor for the Great Depression, or the black man's threat to the conventions of white society. And Godzilla? The Japanese response to the Holocaust caused by the atomic bomb. And the wave of vampire movies of recent years? An expression of the human response to the AIDS epidemic.

In the XNUMXs and XNUMXs, horror films received interpretations that dealt mainly with family dynamics or the dark side of the soul, but when critics and researchers began to examine them more carefully, the emphasis shifted to the history of the period. Horror films began to be seen as worthy of social research, as expressing how people process the horrors that occur in real life.

In highly successful films such as "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) and "Night of the Masks" (1978), the monsters of the films of the previous decade gave way to the violence of man against his friend. The living dead roam the country chewing on human corpses, girls murder their mothers and crazy men carry chainsaws and butcher knives. These differences stemmed more from what happened outside the studios than inside them. Indeed, the public was then daily exposed to descriptions of horrors and images of the victims of napalm bombs, the horror of street riots or police violence. The films were fed by the images seen in the newsreels, which were essentially the daily real horror film.

George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" (completed only a few days before Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated) featured police officers scanning the fields with dogs, images identical to those that showed Southern sheriffs looking for human rights activists. Ben, the black hero of the film, is mistakenly identified as a zombie, dies alive, and is shot to death in the head, a shot after which the comment is made: "Another one to throw into the fire."

In a new documentary about independent horror films made between 1968 and 1978, "The American Nightmare", shown on the American Independent Film Channel, key directors of the genre spoke for the first time about their work: Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Tobe Hopper .

"The American audience received in their living room images that no one would allow to be shown in the cinema without a severe warning from the censors and a classification for adults only, and therefore some barriers were broken", says Adam Simon, the director of the documentary. "These were the pictures from Vietnam, but also pictures of beaten protesters, pictures of children thrown to the concrete and covered in blood."

Tom Sabini was known for his innovative make-up work, which presented the battles of characters in films, and for the special effects he created in the films "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) and "Friday the 13th" (1980). He served in Vietnam in 1969 and photographed corpses for the US Army. As a young man who was addicted to Frankenstein and fake scars, he constantly lived in fear. To steady his unsettled nerves he tried to analyze the massacre he saw in the terms of a film man, he said in the film. "You have to turn off your emotions when you see things like this. Once I almost stepped on an arm, but for me, through the camera, it was just a special cinematic effect."

The new ability to show explicit things in films was not limited to depictions of violence. Simon shows scenes from Masters and Johnson's sex experiments from the early 1975s; In these he combines scenes from "Shiver", David Cronenberg's XNUMX film, in which a parasite turns humans into sex addicts, and an interview with Cronenberg talking about the sexual revolution.

Another interviewee in the film is Adam Lowenstein, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who is writing a book about post-Holocaust horror films. In a telephone interview, he said: "Horror films are the ones that managed to deal with traumatic history and confront the viewers with what happened. This is possible, because horror films are pre-equipped with tools designed to stun us, undermine our peace and shake us. Most people don't think of such films as a place where history is presented, and precisely because of this it is possible to refer to historical events through them."

Lowenstein is careful with his words when he is asked to talk about today's horror films and contemporary culture, but in the end he is apt to say: "Scream movies, and all the imitations that followed, present an isolated world of young people with their obsessions with horror films and unrestrained journalists who have obsessions related to young people such These films seem to be strongly related to events such as the school massacres that took place across the United States. To the extent that the 'Blair Witch Project' and the feeling of a home documentary that accompanies it will be more easily understood if we see them as a product of the information culture, where the longing for the real thing is just as strong as the impossibility of finding it."

These analyzes correspond to the approach of the German critic Siegfried Krakauer, who already in his 1974 book, "From Caligary to Hitler", made a connection between horror films and history. The Expressionists of silent German cinema expressed not only the uncertainty of life in the Weimar Republic, he argues, but also the Germans' fondness for authoritarianism, and therefore actually predicted the rise of Hitler. "Cinema tries to turn the shocked witness into a conscious viewer," Krakauer wrote later.

And yet, some critics question these constants about horror films. Jeffrey Hartman, director of the Fortunoff Archive of Video Recorded Testimonies of Holocaust Survivors at Yale University, recently wrote that visual images produced by today's culture make critical thinking difficult, not easier. "Is it possible that we are in a new phase where violence is a necessary commodity without which we do not move and our feelings do not arise?" he asks. In other words, does the violence in horror movies serve as a real outlet for us, or is it just manipulation?

Eric Poner, a historian from Columbia University in the US, says more blunt things: "I always doubt filmmakers who overemphasize their social role." According to him, horror films are more about financial profits and less about trying to wonder about the meaning of wars.

There is no doubt that financial profits serve as a driving force here, but there are researchers and filmmakers who say that horror films serve another purpose: they penetrate through the protective walls of the most jaded viewers in a way that historical dramas, even the best ones, fail to do.
"In a strange way, not only do these traumas serve as a motive for the creation of the films, but we understand our traumas through the films," says Tom Gunning, a film historian at the University of Chicago. The direct presentation of a historical event almost always calms the viewers instead of leading them to the abyss, he says and adds: "I can't stand 'Schindler's List', because it is a reassuring and reassuring film about the Holocaust. And the pictures that annoy me the most are the ones where everyone is seen in the shower, and there's really water coming out of there. Because it never happened. It's as if it fixes the trauma for us."

The films that showed shocking details were a common commodity during the Vietnam War, claims Simon, and they did not testify to decadence, but to a revolutionary readiness to face the threats of the time. In contrast, he says, the moral panic that occasionally arises due to horror films, such as the one that gripped Hollywood after it became clear that studios showed children extremely violent films as an experiment, actually indicates that our culture has lost the ability to sense and deal with the horrors that occur in it in reality. Referring to the neighborhood in Los Angeles, where the police indicted a hundred suspects for no wrongdoing and police officers suspected of shooting and wounding dozens more, Simon says: "The real question is not why parents in Los Angeles are shocked by horror films that their children may see, but why they are not convinced At a time when they hear about such real events, which are much more shocking than all the police scandals I remember from my youth?"
{Appeared in Haaretz newspaper, 3/11/2000}

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