The Slasher: Evolution

by KJ Ross-Wilcox

From the Greek tales of the minotaur and the cyclops to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the horror genre has a rich history. For a century, one of the most common ways that horror has manifested itself is on film. Horror movies have been around practically as long as film has existed, with early examples such as Le Manoir du Diable (1896) and The Man Who Laughs (1928). Arguably horror’s most famous subgenre to date, the slasher film has only been around since 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock created the horror classic Psycho, which is considered to be the “immediate ancestor of the slasher films” (Clover 192). The formula Hitchcock created for the slasher genre was a psychotic killer who is the product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually attractive woman; the location is not-home, at a Terrible Place; the weapon is something other than a gun; the attack is registered from the victim’s point of view and comes with shocking suddenness. (Clover 192)

One could say that the genre peaked between the early 70s and late 80s, which is evident in the virtually constant reboots, retellings, and recreations of the monsters created at that time, but this genre remains one of horror’s cornerstones and is arguably the most commercial to date. Two of the most dynamic slasher movie villains are polar opposites, spawned in two very different times, and one could argue that the change from Michael Myers to Ghostface showcases the change in what and who American society feared during both periods in time.

The archetypal slasher is a near-superhuman, male, masked killer preying on the young and weak (Wee). The classic 70s and 80s slasher film pins an innocent, sexually attractive female lead against a knife-wielding serial killer terrorizing her and her peers and includes dramatic, unrelenting, unexpected violence and brutality (Wee). Another convention of the slasher film is the indestructible and psychotic masked serial killer, whose ability to survive deadly attacks borders on the supernatural and paranormal (Wee). The Halloween franchise depends heavily on this device, as serial slasher Michael Myers repeatedly rises from blows that would stop or kill a lesser man or any normal human being (Wee).

This supernatural monster in human form was a representation of its time, embodying many societal fears of those living during the Cold War. These types of monsters embodied society’s anxieties about the unknown and the uncontrollable, including America’s fear of its own people: fears of the loss of moral fiber, of drugs, of not being able to trust friends and family, of tensions between races, of sexuality, and of nuclear war all rose during this period.

In these movies, there were rules for surviving, and, if a person broke them, the “boogeyman” came for them. If an individual had sex, used bad language, abused substances, was overly sexual,  poor, or of a race other than white, they were seen as the monster’s prey. These rules were based on the societal fears listed above with a focus on a fear of hypersexuality (specifically in women), the war on drugs (which spiked after the recent wars America faced), the fear that the US was losing its Christian values, and society’s fear of other races, despite the recent civil rights movement (May 55). The innocent, virgin, white female was seen as the virtuous saving grace of these movies, and she usually was the only one to make it out alive. This is clear in the first Halloween movie, in which Jamie Lee Curtis plays the white virgin heroine who survives the horrors of her monstrous brother, Michael Myers. As she nearly escapes the embodiment of death in the form of her older brother, he stalks, terrorizes, and slays the citizens of the town who get in his way, most of whom fit into one or more of the categories of societal fears listed above. The teens (and adults) who were seen as amoral, grotesque, outsiders, or just plan rebellious would all become victims at the hands of Michael Myers by the end of the movie.

These standards in the Slasher films genre created the fear of the guy down the street who was a stranger, a loner, and different from the audience, but, in the 1990s, horror movie director and icon, Wes Craven, turned that fear on its head and made the audience afraid of the boy next door and the class president.

In response to the Gainesville Ripper (a man whose passion and love for Michael Myers and horror movies inspired him to kill five students in real life), a new terror struck the homes and hearts of America: fear for the safety of children in school (Hutchinson). This didn’t help when the numbers of school shooting and deaths in America were over a hundred and increasing between 1986 and 1996, the highest it had ever been in US history (“History of School Shootings in the United States”). The fear that a kid who appeared normal on the outside could harbor a killer inside led them to come to school and shoot their teachers and classmates, paired with a man’s deranged love for horror movies “pushing” him to murder, led director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson to evolve the slasher genre further by creating Scream. The Scream franchise took the soulless, silent, disconnected monster with a hideous face hidden behind a mask and changed him into the high school heartthrob who has everything he wants, someone viewers would never expect to be a killer.

University of Singapore Professor Valerie Wee argues that the Scream films offer a reconsideration and reimagining of the slasher villain in order to fit the demographic the franchise is trying reach while breaking with the common portrayal of the villains and reinterpreting the homicidal maniac. Typical villains in this genre are misfits and outsiders, large in size, have some motivation for killing, and may have supernatural powers (Wee). Scream continues the trend of the seemingly invincible and indestructible psychopath, but the villains contradict the normal archetypes that appear in other slasher films (Wee). These villains are the popular, attractive, normal kids, rather than the outsiders and misfits. These characters are the boyfriends and friends who seem to be in just as much danger as anyone else, but, in reality, they are the monsters behind the mask.

The Scream films challenge the common device of the supernatural person as the killer, and the killer is turned into an ordinary, “average-Joe” human who is personally troubled and usually a member of the heroine’s close circle of friends. The killer’s in the Scream franchise have demeanors that are completely different from that of Michael Myers, as these Scream slashers talk and taunt their victims mentally, verbally, and physically, whereas Michael Myers never utters a word; his presence was enough to send shivers down a victim’s spine and put fear in their heart. The Scream villain, Ghostface, is smarter than the typical slasher villain; he actually runs after his victims and is willing to kill someone in a room, house, or building full of other people, where the typical villain would single their victims out and wait until they were alone. This contradicted the fear of being alone, creating the feeling of nowhere being safe.

As time progresses, so do values, art, and even fear. When something in society, like a war or a tragic event, causes a major change that shifts the dynamics of the world around it, monsters await in the shadows to take their first steps into the a new world. With life imitating art, a new slasher will be born every time.

Works Cited

Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations, no. 20, 1987, pp. 187–228. www.jstor.org/stable/2928507. Accessed 17 Sept. 2016.

“History of School Shootings in the United States.” K12 Academic. http://www.k12academics.com/school-shootings/history-school-shootings-united-states#.WEOaNGQrIb0. Accessed 17 Sept. 2016.

Hutchinson, Sean. “15 Things You May Not Have Known About ‘Scream.” Mental Floss. 3 Feb. 2016. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58039/15-things-you-may-not-have-known-about-scream.  Accessed 27 Sept. 2016.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. Basic Books, 2008.  

Wee, Valerie. “Resurrecting And Updating The Teen Slasher.” Journal Of Popular Film & Television, vol. 34, no. 2, 2006 pp. 50-61. Academic Search Premier. Accessed 19 Oct. 2016.

It’s “Doctor” Frankenstein, Okay?

By Troi Watts

Frankenstein. We hear the name and what do we think of? The monster: a thing constructed from the bodies of various corpses and brought to life by a mad scientist. We do not think of the mad scientist himself, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s horror novel is the namesake of this man, not the creature that so many people choose to associate with the name. But why do people make this mistake? This could be interpreted as an effort to displace the monstrous qualities of Dr. Victor Frankenstein onto the Creature. Society does not always want to accept the fact that humans can be monsters because humans have morals, values, and rules that are supposed to prevent them from doing anything monstrous. However, when examining Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s monster theory, Dr. Frankenstein’s actions, and the actions of the Creature, it becomes clear that the true monster of Mary Shelley’s novel is actually the main human character, Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

But wait, why is the thing that looks like a monster not actually the monster? It is easy to associate the word “monster” with the disfigured, frightful looking Creature, but when looking at the Creature’s actions, “monster” is not the right label. Cohen’s fourth thesis, “The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference,” explains that monsters are “difference made flesh” (Cohen 7). Yes, the Creature’s appearance is absolutely different from that of a regular human, but let us look beneath the surface. The Creature’s experiences are very similar to that of an unwanted child. It is brought into this world forcibly, without having asked to be created. Its “father” (Dr. Frankenstein) rejects and abandons it, despite its helplessness. It must then find a way to live and learn all by itself. The Creature may look different, but its personality and upbringing are not monstrously different from that of an unwanted child. Unwanted children survive in society and are not labeled as “monstrous.” So why should we treat the Creature this way?

With this information in mind, what makes Dr. Victor Frankenstein the true monster of this story? Connecting to Jeffrey Cohen’s first thesis, “The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body,” Dr. Frankenstein is the embodiment of both the fear of what will become of our bodies after death and the unspoken desire to become something superior to human, to have more power. Dr. Frankenstein’s process of creating the Creature involved grave robbing and the mutilation of corpses. Considering that respect for the dead is a common trait among societies, people could assume their corpses to be safe in the ground, cremated, etcetera because it is difficult for them to comprehend anyone breaking these social mores about the dead. Dr. Frankenstein’s actions speak for themselves, refuting these beliefs that corpses will rest in peace. He is proof that there are people in our society that have no respect for the dead and will violate corpses. In Dr. Frankenstein’s own words, “a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life” (Shelley 51). A receptacle. There is no hint of respect or consideration of what he has done in that objective word. Therefore, the fear that people’s helpless corpses could be pulled out of the peaceful ground and played with by anyone is instilled in readers of this novel.

On the other hand, in his explanation of what makes a monster’s body cultural, Cohen states that the monster’s body could also represent a cultural desire (Cohen 4). When interpreting Cohen, this desire is not a pleasant or acceptable thing (based on the fact that he is discussing monsters). Dr. Frankenstein is embodying the desire to gain power through his prideful attempt to create life, an ability exclusively associated with a deity.

When faced with the evidence of Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrosity, it seems odd that people continue to ignore the scientist and displace the monstrosity onto the Creature. In Dr. Frankenstein’s defense, he is a human, just like anyone reading Shelley’s novel. He was once a child, went to school, made friends, and had normal feelings (happiness, sadness, anger) just like a regular human would. He is too relatable for people to accept that he is a monster. But people do not want to relate to a monster because of the fear of what it means to be a monster.

As Cohen’s third thesis, “The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis,” explains that monsters do not easily fit into any category. Humans enjoy order and classification, usually in a binary system: good and bad, black and white, true and false. Throw in a shady, gray-area third option, and things get uncomfortable for humans.

Another thing that makes humans uncomfortable is difference, and, as Cohen states, “The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference.” Xenophobia and fear of the yet-to-be understood has been a serious problem of societies, even today. It connects back to the category crisis. By not being able to classify a monster, humans do not know how to handle or cope with it.

By refusing to consider Dr. Frankenstein to be “the monster” of Mary Shelley’s novel, readers are ignoring the idea that a human could be a monster. Dr. Frankenstein is a relatable character due to the fact that he is a human with real emotions and a personal life. Readers do not want to relate to a character that contains monstrous aspects because they do not want to associate those monstrous traits with themselves. They do not want to be monsters! Therefore, they give the title of monster to the Creature, whose appearance allows people to consider him something other than human, something they cannot relate to.

Frankenstein. When we think of the name now, what do we think? We should think of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the man who tried to play God, the man with no respect for the dead, not the Creature who was forced into being. After all, the creature is simply “a man’s [Dr. Frankenstein’s] invention brought to life” (Skalošová 18). In other words, a man’s monstrosity brought to life.

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”. Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. Oxford University Press, 1969.

Skalošová. Žaneta. “Monster and Monstrosity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Masaryk University Information Systems., Dissertation, Masaryk University, 2015.Accessed 13 Feb. 2017. http://is.muni.cz/th/431198/pedf_m/Diplomka_Zaneta.pdf.  

 

“The Monster Is Not in My Face, But in My Soul” An Analysis of Dorian Gray in Penny Dreadful

by Alexis Lawhorn

The concept of immortality both seduces and frightens humankind. Most people are drawn to the idea of being able to live forever because of the endless options it would provide; Dorian Gray was one such man. A character from the novel A Picture of Dorian Gray, he is reimagined in the television show Penny Dreadful, which adds suspenseful twists and new characterization to traditional monstrous tales. The show takes place in the Victorian Era and involves iconic characters such as Jack the Ripper, Victor Frankenstein, and Dorian Gray. Dorian is immortal due to the fact that his soul is trapped in a painting, and all his dastardly deeds are reflected through the ever-altering portrait. Dorian embodies one reoccurring theme within the show: pushing social boundaries due to an insatiable appetite for the perverse. As a monster, Dorian Gray defies categorization and pushes the boundaries of Victorian society through his desire to seek pleasure in unorthodox ways.

The first thing the audience may notice when being introduced to Dorian Gray is that he does not care for the boundaries of Victorian society. He makes his debut in the episode “Séance” when he enlists a local woman, Brona Croft, to pose for pornographic pictures. As the session goes on, he discovers that she is ill with consumption; this only intrigues and arouses him more, and the two fornicate while the photographer snaps pictures. Thus, from his introduction, Dorian Gray is unorthodox. But, according to the theories of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Dorian’s desire also makes him monstrous. In “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” Cohen discusses what characteristics create and define monsters. As Cohen states, “by refusing an easy compartmentalization of their monstrous contents, they [monsters] demand a radical rethinking of boundary and normality” (6). As monsters defy societal norms and push boundaries, Brona and Dorian become increasingly monstrous the more they diverge from the behavior that is expected of them. This scene contrasts the image of a gentleman that Dorian presents later in the episode while at a ball. Dorian defies Victorian norms and pushes the boundaries of society in order to achieve tantalizing entertainment for himself and his peers.

As Dorian has no concern for the consequences that his actions will have on his soulor, rather, the appearance of his soulhe is able to push beyond the bounds that confine other humans. He is also pushing the boundaries of society through his subtle encouragement of unorthodox behavior in others. Since Dorian appears as a normal man, it is increasingly uncanny when he reveals that he is anything but. Even modern viewers, who may embrace a variety of sexualities, might nevertheless view Gray’s behaviors as obscene. As such, this leads viewers to question their own sense of boundaries: how far is too far?

As Penny Dreadful progresses, Dorian Gray embodies the darker nature of desire. Dorian has a reputation for throwing gallant balls, during which he allows people to seek out their darkest desires. Though he hides behind the mask of a young, rich, high-society Englishman, this mask only allows him to push the boundaries more forcefully. In “Predators Far and Near,” Dorian and Lily Frankenstein (who have banded together in their immortality and lust for power) begin to recruit girls who have been sex slaves in order to create an army, which will allow them to gain more power. Dorian and Lily go to watch an event in which a young sex slave, Justine, is to be brutally murdered, but, instead, they murder all of the witnesses and “rescue” the girl. After saving her, they hold one of her abusers captive, so that Justine can slit his throat and obtain revenge. The scene becomes even more unnerving when the three of them bathe in the man’s blood and copulate. It is in this scene that Dorian begins to encourage others to embrace their dark desires, thus enhancing and spreading his monstrous nature. This is one of the many scenes in which Dorian displays desires that are outside of normal societal expectations. As Cohen states, “The monster awakens one to the pleasures of the body, to the simple and fleeting joys of being frightened, or frightening – to the experience of mortality and corporeality” (17). Through the arousal of bloodshed and revenge, Dorian is arousing Lily and the young girl to the powerful aphrodisiac of instilling fear and a sense of mortality in those around them.

The most prominent theme within Dorian’s character is an insatiable appetite for perverse pleasure, which then places him in a position of power. In “Momento Mori,” Dorian inquires, “Don’t we all want to paint ourselves into something better than we are?” His despicable actions illustrate the irony of this quote. He is attempting to portray himself as better than he is, not through the literal painting of his soul, but through his embodiment of the human desire for pleasure. Dorian attempts to use pleasurable activities to appear more amicable to the people around him. Employing this pleasing mask, he eradicates the knowledge of his true, wicked behavior so that he can continue to do what he enjoys; he remains unpredictable and aloof through his barrier of immortality, which aids him in avoiding consequences. He pushes societal bounds, defies individual categorization, and encourages a lust for power and pleasure within others. Ironically, it is because of these characteristics that he is held in esteem within society – he allows high-class individuals to come out from behind the masks they wear to conform to societal norms, and to turn instead to vile actions for pleasure. Each of Dorian’s acts, from pornography to murder, displays how his soulless, immortal nature leads him to act, through a desire created from an insatiable appetite for pleasure, in a venture for power. As the audience witnesses Dorian’s descent into monstrosity, the viewers realize their own dissonance between who they truly are and how they present themselves to society, through the use of their own hypocritical masks.

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses). Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.

“Momento Mori.” Penny Dreadful, season 2, episode 8, Showtime, 21 June 2015. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80045622?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C7%2C925370c1-bf08-496f-b5f9-13c360411bce-156263911

“Predators Far and Near.” Penny Dreadful, season 3, episode 2, Showtime, 8 May 2016. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80085098?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C1%2C437c7be6-4cfd-4c10-a341-cadbf8009b4e-109371250.

“Séance.” Penny Dreadful, season 1, episode 2, Showtime, 18 May 2014. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80013255?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C1%2C437c7be6-4cfd-4c10-a341-cadbf8009b4e-109371250.

Survival Horror: How the Sublime in Resident Evil Shapes Immersion

by Keith Jackson

Imagine a cool and breezy autumn night. The bare branches of trees tap against the window, playing with your senses and making you feel like someone is watching. You and your friend sit nervously in a dark room, alone and bored. Your friend suggests playing the game you rented from the local Family Video, but you’re hesitant. The game that you chose is Resident Evil, a video game filled with such grotesque and persistent horror that you may fear leaving the volume on. Your friend, not offering to helm the controller, is your only source of courage. The game boots, and the infamous title Welcome to the world of survival horror, in bloody red, flashes. Your heart drops. The game loads and the eerie music, consisting of random thuds on a piano and ambient noise nothing shy of uncanny, pours into the dark living room.

You’ve just entered the world of survival horror.

Resident Evil came out in 1996 but has since been re-released in special editions and remasters. I revisited Resident Evil recently, not just to look at the game a source of entertainment – though much was had – but rather to analyze the game for its merits and how it stacks up against Edmund Burke’s ideas on the sublime.  Burke defines the sublime as “a state of astonishment with some degree of horror” (53). Video games offer a new way of experiencing fright and, through immersion, can potentially create an even greater sense of fear than movies and television do. What Resident Evil does very well is create a sense of both internal and external obscurity, characteristics that are necessary to the sublime (54).  

 In Resident Evil, you do not quite know what awaits you in the next room. Will it be more zombies limping around, groaning and absorbing every bullet? Be sure to burn their bodies, purging them of the virus, or they’ll rise again stronger and faster. Maybe zombie dogs lie in wait? Mutated frogs and nearly God-like super beings, mutilated by biochemistry to kill all uninfected – these are what you hope isn’t beyond the next door. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke says that obscurity comes in two forms – one that is internal, or the imagination, and one that is external (54). Both add to the experience of the game and both add to the terror.

Externally, the player can’t see what is happening onscreen. As Burke explains, “when we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of apprehension vanishes” (54). In the case of this game, the apprehension is never lifted. Burke considers how night adds to our dread but, even in the light, Resident Evil is able to make the player feel like they are always kept in the dark. The level design – which is the environment the developers have chosen for the game – makes the player feel claustrophobic. The tight hallways, littered with bodies and various artifacts, the dim lighting, and obscure camera angles (which were  always a nuisance until the release of Resident Evil 4) keep the player from fully understanding what they are seeing or will see in the steps they take towards completing the game. What you may hear coming through your speakers may not reveal itself on screen until the camera angle shifts. You may begin to imagine things yourself.  

This brings us to internal obscurity. In certain situations, the player is forced to resort to their imagination, especially on their first play-through, when noises and level design are fresh and new. Through internal obscurity, Burke claims, “the passions are even stronger and more intense” (55). With external obscurity, the player seeks clarity within the game, but when this obscurity is internal, the player becomes traumatized by their own thoughts, a prisoner in their own mind. It is within the mind that the player may fall prey to their own insecurities, making the wrong move or being too cautious while entering a room. Making one mistake in the game can result in quick and relentless punishment or death. It is often internal obscurity that causes a player to die and restart from their last save.

Because the game does so well with both internal and external obscurity, Resident Evil can be an experience some don’t wish to have ever again. Balancing the need to survive (ammo, health, etc.) with external and internal obscurity causes the player to question themselves and the moves they make on screen. All three together are what make Resident Evil a pioneer for the genre, and these elements are emulated in almost every horror game since its release. Through horror games, we get to live what George A. Romero, Wes Craven, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King have captured in movies and in stories. The sublime inches closer and closer to our brains through levels of immersion unrivaled in other mediums. But, at the end of the day, what anyone really cares about, what really matters, is getting scared half to death while your friend giggles under a blanket on the couch.

 

Works Cited

Burk, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.       Oxford Up, 1990.

Halloween: A History

by Madeline M.H. Grosh

Halloween is a holiday widely celebrated across the United States and Western Europe. Caught up in the excitement of the holiday, many do not understand the mysteries and the fears that make up the original reason for its creation. Halloween is renowned for being the one day when you are able to wear a costume, stay up late, and ask neighbors for candy. The holiday may provide an adrenaline rush once a year in today’s society, but hundreds of years ago it was the ultimate test of evil versus good.

The Halloween tradition can be traced back to the Celtic Samhain festival of the autumn harvest. This festival took place during the time the Celts believed to be the end of summer, what we now consider to be late October or early November, and just prior to winter because the first frost had not yet set. The Celts believed that, along with winter, evil spirits also arrived. This festival was meant to bless the Celts, who protected themselves from the evil spirits by wearing costumes, chanting, and holding sacrifices. Around this time of the year, as Cindy Dell Clark states, the Celts would also celebrate death, life, and the art of moving between the two worlds. They believed priests could see into the future during this season.

As Europeans made the pilgrimage to America, many religious holidays were brought to the New World. As the beliefs of pilgrims and American Indians intertwined, Halloween continued as an annual harvest festival to celebrate ghosts and spirits, as well as the lost and loved. When the Irish traveled to America after the potato famine of 1846, the poor would wander from house to house begging for food and money (Clark). Typically, the household would request the beggar to perform a “trick” in order to receive the food/moneythe “treat,” hence the term “trick-or-treating” (“History”).

The celebration of Halloween thus became a fixture in the American society and holiday system. Not only did the holiday continue to develop and grow in America, but many other countries, including Germany, accepted Halloween as one of their own. Since the 1990’s, Halloween has become more celebrated and known throughout Germany, particularly in areas heavily influenced by America during the Cold War, i.e. the Dahlem neighborhood of Berlin. Trick-or-treating has become a fad for children, while costume parties have become common among adults. Many of the elderly German generationtypically grandparents of the current generationsimply see Halloween as causing vandalism and problems for children (Connolly and Neate).

While Halloween began as a festival to protect the locals and keep the evil spirits away, it grew and adapted. Now, it is a national holiday that celebrates the dark side and the physicality of the unknown. Rather than completing a trick and receiving a treat, trick-or-treaters now simply expect a treat with a costume of varying identity. With the evolution of a festival came the excitement of a holiday, but one should never forget the roots and reasonings behind an eventespecially one so grand in nature.

 

Works Cited

Clark, Cindy Dell. “Tricks of Festival: Children, Enculturation, and American Halloween.” Ethos, vol. 33, no. 2, 2005, pp. 180–205. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3651928.

Connolly, Nicholas, and Rupert Neate. “Holiday Backlash: Germans Cringe at Rise of Halloween.” Der Spiegel. 31 Oct. 2013: n. pg. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

“History of Trick-or-Treating.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, Oct. 2011. Web. 23 Nov.

2016.

Monstrosity: No Clowning Matter

by Emily Barsic

His face peers into yours with a bright red painted smile, but only he knows his real emotions hiding behind the mask. Despite his fake smile, he begs you to laugh at his painted face and squeaky nose and quirky actions. As he comes nearer, uncanny fears arise. You know that the person you fear standing before you is only a person … and yet he is a clown, which makes your mind define him as monstrous.

Clowns have a long history. They have been around since 2500 BCE when Pygmy clowns served Egyptian pharaohs as entertainment. Clowns not only served ancient Egyptians but were also a pivotal part of entertaining royalty in ancient China. In ancient Rome, they were fools known as “the stupidus.” Hopi Native American societies included clown-like characters “who interrupted serious rituals with ludicrous antics” (McRobbie). Medieval European court jesters provided a way for people to poke fun at the feudal system and the royalty in charge. What connects all of these historical clowns is that their profession allowed people to make fun of serious issues and certain morals. Clowns have provided a way to enjoy rule-breaking throughout history, as “academics note that their comedy was often derived from their voracious appetites for food, sex, and drink, and their manic behavior” (McRobbie). However, although clowns have been seen as quirky and satirical throughout the ages, the idea that clowns are monstrous to those who fear them is a relatively new concept.

So, what exactly is it that makes clowns terrifying in our day and age? Andrew Stott, who is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo, finds that “clowns have always been considered socially marginal, always on the edge of society” (qtd. in Waxman). Although clowns have not always been seen as monstrous, clowns have always had a unique ability to comment upon society in a satirical way. Their jokes have not been seen as serious comments; they were regarded as entertainment. Therefore, clowns have had a peculiar way of living on the margins of the world; they did not fit into normal societies, as they were given special permission to criticize those with social power. Being “on the edge of society” is one reason why clowns may be viewed as monstrous by those who fear them today.

Clowns are also seen as monstrous due to the conflict between their outer physical appearances and their identities, as their faces may not truly reflect the inner emotions that they feel. Not only may their faces not truly reflect their emotions, but their actions and behavior may contradict their actual personal identity. This deconstruction of the psychological border between inner motives and outside appearance incites a common cultural fear: the fear that a person may not be who he or she portrays himself or herself to be.

In “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen offers a further reason why the physical appearance of clowns can be disturbing: a monster is “defeaturing, self-deconstructive, always in danger of exposing the sutures that bind its disparate elements into a single, unnatural body” (9). Clowns have the capability of being seen as monstrous because of their painted faces, which give the clowns a  “defeaturing” or disfigured appearance. The clown becomes “self-deconstructive” in the eyes of people who look at clowns, as they do not know how to classify the clown’s emotions within the available categories, such as happiness or sadness. Lastly, this breakdown reflects the “danger of exposing the sutures that bind its disparate elements into a single, unnatural body.” As those who view clowns realize their unusualness, the “single, unnatural body” of the clown begins to break down.

Cohen also writes that “The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible,” which confirms that “deconstructiveness” is a large aspect of determining monstrosity. The monster’s “‘deconstructiveness’. . . threatens to reveal that difference originates in the process, rather than in fact” (Cohen 14-15). If we look at the “fact” behind clowns, we realize that clowns are people who have emotions just like us, despite their “always happy” painted-on face. This revelation is not scary or monstrous; it is just “fact.” Therefore, the monstrous fear of clowns “originates in the process” of categorizing clowns within the social margins.

Although these psychological aspects of clowns certainly explain why clowns can be seen as monstrous, this reasoning does not explicitly help us understand why clowns are feared today but were not in the past. One reason that clowns are more feared today is due to the media’s reports about killer clowns in the past few decades.  For example:

John Wayne Gacy was charged with the murders of 33 people, mostly adolescents, committed over the course of the previous decade. Gacy worked as a clown for charity – so there was a lot of preexisting fear around this image of a dangerous clown. And for the next 25 years, appearances kept happening . . . East Chicago in 1991, Washington D.C. in 1994, South Brunswick in 1997. When you think about what first made people afraid of clowns, it’s tempting to pin it to Gacy or movies like It, Poltergeist, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space [sic]. (“America’s creepy clown craze”)

Images of the clown as a monstrous killer were replicated in the film industry alongside the news media, provoking fear not only in imagination but also in real life. John Wayne Gacy displays the manic, murderous, uncanny, and unpredictable behavior that fosters fear. This categorization of Gacy as monstrous for the terrible behavior he indulged in as a clown makes it easy for the media to profit from the fear that clowns are killers.

So the next time you see a scary clown movie, watch for the signs that prove clowns embody the cultural fear that everyone may not be who they present themselves to be.

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Cultureedited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 7–16.

McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. “The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian, 31 Jul. 2013, smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-and-psychology-of-clowns-being-scary-20394516/.

“America’s creepy clown craze, explained – Vox.” YouTubeuploaded by Vox, 11 Oct. 2016. Accessed 18 Nov. 2016.

Waxman, Olivia B. “The Surprising History Behind the Scary Clown Phenomenon.” Time.comTime Inc., 6 Oct. 2016, time.com/4520149/clown-attack-sighting-craze-history/.

The Uncanniness of Regression in Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls

by Aidan McBride

In his 1924 story “The Rats in the Walls,” horror writer H. P. Lovecraft breaks his usual mold, moving away from typical science fiction stories and taking a decidedly more Gothic approach.  The story diverts from cosmic horror to give us a much more human villain and creates horror not through cosmic indifference but through the parallel it draws between humanity and our animalistic nature. The story constructs this parallel through the device of the rats in the walls, the sound of which only the protagonist can hear and which are revealed at the end of the story to be a reflection of the fact that his ancestors were ritualistic cannibals. Throughout The Rats in the Walls, the uncanny is clearly seen through the direct comparison between humanity and a primal inhuman state that is prevalent throughout the story. A connection may be seen both between the protagonist and the deadly swarm of rats and between the protagonist and the human-cattle species discovered beneath the protagonist’s ancestral home. By exposing of the repressed ancestral urges of the narrator, the story gives us the chilling message of the inevitability of the regression to the primitive stages of man.

It should first be noted that the uncanny monster is something different from a strictly cultural or personal monster. The uncanny, as described by Sigmund Freud, is related to things repressed coming back to light. Freud’s central argument is that the fear of the uncanny is not caused by any manner of grotesqueness or categorical crisis but instead comes from something repressed. That is to say, something known in some capacity but which one is unable or unwilling to actively think about. Freud would argue, for instance, that one is not afraid of a zombie because of its disgusting form, but because it brings up the fact that death is not something we can understand, and we do not want to face that ambiguity (Freud).

The Rats in the Walls is narrated by an unnamed member of the Delapore family, who discovers a property that has been in his family for over 17 centuries but was mysteriously abandoned when the narrator’s ancestor murdered every other member of his family for undocumented reasons. The narrator vows to fix up the estate, Exham Priory, much to the horror of the surrounding neighbors, and he is eventually made aware of the various stories and myths surrounding the Priory. The most disturbing of these details is that, briefly after its abandonment, an army of rats “swept all before it and devoured fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before its fury was spent” (Lovecraft 244). The narrator largely dismisses these stories, but he finds that he is haunted by horrid nightmares of a swarm of rats descending upon a group of “beasts and man alike” (244). The narrator is also disturbed by the distinct sound of rats scurrying in the walls, a sound which none of his servants can make out.

The narrator sets out to find the source of the noise and, in the process, uncovers a massive cavern underneath his newly restored property, which houses an ancient city. Upon further investigation, the narrator finds skeletal remains of human and creatures that he describes as sub-human, quadrupedal-humanoid beings, who were raised, it is implied, to be cattle for the Delapore family. The narrator describes these creatures as having “skulls which were slightly more human than a gorilla’s” and mentions that the image of them “denoted nothing short of utter idiocy, cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom” (252). This immediately creates a sense of the uncanny in two regards. First, Delapore is forced to come face-to-face with beings of his ancestral past, bringing to life that which he has repressed, and, second, the appearance of these beings is almost human, but not quite. The story concludes when Delapore, driven to madness by this horrific discovery and compelled by some ancestral yearning, devours one of his compatriots and is sent to an asylum, the whole time maintaining his innocence as he claims that it was the rats who had eaten the man.

The uncanny is most easily viewed in this piece through the semi-human skeletons found beneath the house. The narrator and the men who accompany him, all of whom are described as men of exemplary character and strength of will, are genuinely horrified when they stumble upon these uncanny remains: “Of seven cultivated men, only Sir William Brinton retained his composure; a thing more to his credit because he led the party and must have seen the sight first” (252). These skeletons are meant to terrify, and the reason is clear enough. Humans, especially in the time period immediately following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, like to think of themselves as better than animals, something in a wholly different category than the other living creatures because our capacity to think and our bipedal nature largely set us apart in that regard.

These skeletal beings are stripped of everything that makes them “human” by these standards. However, they are also indisputably genetically human. Being raised as cattle, their living conditions are abhorrent: “The quadruped things—with their occasional recruits from the biped class—had been kept in stone pens. . .” (253). Their capacity to think has been stripped, as has their very bipedal nature, making them into something the narrator describes as sub-human. This is uncanny because it clashes clearly with the notion that humans are a different class of being than animals. In every way, these beings act as animals. However, they are genetically indisputably human, and this is what scares us.

The other uncanny connection comes from the narrator and rats in the walls. The creatures are constantly described as savage beings, consuming everything in their path with horrific ease, and Delapore is the only one who can hear them. On top of that, Delapore frequently dreams of a swarm of rats devouring everything in their path, including humans. Their savage nature is contrasted, however, with Delapore himself, who is a well-to-do man from a wealthy family that had fallen on hard times in the previous few generations. He is proper, normal, and acts as any upper-class member of society should act.

However, the uncanny again shines through when the narrator eventually gives in to his primal instincts and devours his friend, which fully connects him to the all-consuming rats. His entire life, he has been repressing the truth of his family’s past, scoffing at the stories of the rats and ignoring the pleas of the neighbors, who insisted that the Priory is an evil place. He alone could hear the rats because he alone had the urging of the Delapore’s, the desire of the rats to devour human flesh. He hides this truth from even himself; on a conscious level, it is possible he does not even know. But somewhere deep down within himself, the sounds of the rats beckon him to go lower and lower into the Priory, towards the monument to his ancestor’s gluttony.

With this story, Lovecraft makes a case that the uncanny is not only for things which an individual has repressed about him or herself. Instead, uncanniness can be familial or cultural, living on through family ties, through ancestral history, and even through evolution. The uncanny exists everywhere there exist artificial borders, slowly beckoning into the present to remind us of what we used to be and what we still could be.

 

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Penguin,

  1. 123-162.

Lovecraft, H.P. “The Rats in the Walls.” H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, edited by S. T.

Joshi, Barnes and Noble, 2011,  pp. 240-255.