It’s Halloween. The best holiday of the year. So I’d like to wax autobiographical for a minute here, and talk about my own personal relationship with the horror genre. If you’ve spent any time peeking around Pussy Goes Grrr, you know that Ashley and I are horror junkies. We crave all the neurochemical releases that accompany a good scary movie; few experiences thrill us more than discovering an new, bold horror masterpiece that scares our socks off. But, you may ask, where did this cinematic bloodlust come from? What childhood disease did we acquire that made us seek out things that scare us? If Andreas is so terrified of insects (it’s true!), why the hell would he intentionally watch any iteration of The Fly?
The answers, of course, are long and complex. I don’t even know all of them. Where do any artistic preferences come from? How do you account for any taste? But I would like to talk about a few childhood experiences that probably contributed to my critical idiosyncrasies. You see, a lot of my cinephilia stems from the kind of family I grew up in. When I was in elementary school, a common family activity was indulging in a VHS of some Universal horror, or a 1950s Vincent Price vehicle, or something bad like Plan 9. (My childhood arrived at the tail end of the VHS-and-video-store era, so despite being born in 1990, I still get to be nostalgic for their distinctively analog delights.)
As you can probably tell, my family’s viewing choices hewed to older fare, so I was inculcated into a very specific kind of old-fashioned horror fandom. John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and even George Romero didn’t mean much to me until after I started college; instead, as I grew to really appreciate scary movies, it was all about Tod Browning, James Whale, Roger Corman, and other such pioneers. But before my understanding of film became that sophisticated or auteur-centric, it was all about the images. That’s what I’m really here to address. Iconic horror movie images became displaced in time, space, and authorship. They become universal possessions of the collective unconscious. It’s a beautiful, mysterious process.
So: when I was little, we had all these books about horror movies sitting around. My father had accumulated them over the years, maybe from bookstores or thrift stores or book sales or forever. I still have the cover of John Stanley’s Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide burnt somewhere inside my brain. The books’ titles consisted of every possible permutation of the words “scary,” “horror,” “movie,” and “guide.” Maybe, on occasion, “flicks” or “encyclopedia” would worm their ways into the titling algorithm. For the most part, they were generic compilations of short reviews, cast listings, and black-and-white stills. These stills were really the selling points: they were one-frame money shots, showing off the most hypnotic, gruesome artistry the movie had to offer.
They were also one of my first exposures to horror’s perverse, forbidden, slightly erotic pleasures. Horror movies showed me deformed faces, exaggerated bodies, and every other conceivable mutilation of the human form – all with a strangely sexualized twist. Even though all of pre-1968 cinema was supposed to be clean and safe for kids’ enjoyment, it actually contained festering, potent traces of sensual yearning and sinful desire. And, in its own illicit way, this unspoken aspect of horror was also very educational. I’m an outspoken advocate for the (usually) secret-but-pervasive sexual side of horror, and it’s partially because as I reflect on my childhood, I realize how profoundly it influenced me as a person.
Here are a few of those images. They’ve all taken on curious, shadowy lives of their own in the mind of pop culture. They’ve all acquired a set of meanings and associations in the years since they were created. And they all have strange and powerful significances to me as an individual.
There is so much I could say about Bela Lugosi in Dracula. It’s the role that defined his career, and the film set the stage for every horror talkie that followed it. It also codified the image of an aristocratic, caped vampire. It has enormous resonance for me – in fact, resonance above and beyond almost all other horror movies. I can’t help it. It’s not because of how well it’s made; that’s a nonissue with Tod Browning films, and there have been far better adaptations of the source novel. (Like, say, both versions of Nosferatu.) Maybe it’s some combination of the dilapidated castle, the Karl Freund camerawork, and Lugosi’s body language that drilled this movie into my brain. Despite his classical training, Lugosi always looked like such an outsider in American movies. Maybe the inherent pathos and tragedy of the Lugosi persona struck me through this movie. I couldn’t say.
This remains, I think, one of the most inexplicably compelling, mystifying, and disgusting images in all of film. Even going beyond Freaks‘ moralizing showmanship, just trying to look at it rationally… all logic fails when applied to this image. It appeals to something deeper than logic. This might be what draws me so forcefully to Tod Browning: even though his films are often nonsensical, amateurish, and tawdry, they nonetheless get to something in the bestial recesses of the human mind. Cleopatra’s incomprehensible, dehumanizing fate is so psychosexually loaded, because a “beautiful” woman has been forcibly and maliciously transformed into a voiceless, ambiguous being. It’s all intensified by the real question: how did the freaks do this?
I saw Janet Leigh’s screaming face years before I ever saw Psycho. Like the image of Freaks, it depicts a woman’s body being mutilated; it’s explicitly sexualized violence. But it’s also laden with intertwining threads of meaning. It’s not just an expression of unadulterated misogyny. (Those who pelt the horror genre with tired accusations of unadulterated misogyny are really underestimating the depth of these films. Although, of course, some horror movies are full of straightforward misogyny.) Consider part of Carol Clover’s argument in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: in a slasher film, the viewer is constantly shifted in identification between the attacker and the victim. It’s not just that we see ourselves in Mrs. Bates as she hacks into Marion, because we also see ourselves in the dying, shrieking Marion. It’s about fear and vulnerability. It’s about gender anxieties and sexual curiosity.
This is just a little hint of why I love horror so much, but the main reason is that I love to be scared. Yes, it’s perverse (in the truest sense of the word) and yes, it’s very counterintuitive. But fear is important and it can be useful. By watching something that scares you, you can learn more about yourself and your relationship to the world around you. I believe that for several reasons – industrial, aesthetic, and otherwise – horror is also sometimes capable of saying more than other genres. In short, I love horror movies. Happy Halloween.