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Source: Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 48, No. 1/2 (Spring-Summer 1996), pp. 17-31
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of the University Film & Video Association
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The universe of the contemporary horror

film is an uncertain one inwhich good and
evil, normality and abnormality, reality
and illusion are virtually indistinguishable.
Together with thepresentation of violence
as a constituent of everyday life, the inef
ficacy of human action, and the refusal of
narrative closure, the result is an unstable,
paranoid universe inwhich familiar cate
gories collapse. The iconography of the
human body figures as the site of this

The boundaries of any genre are slippery,

but this isparticularly trueof thepostmod
ern horror film, since one of the defining
features of postmodernism is the blurring
of boundaries. How do we distinguish
horror from other film genres and the
postmodern horror filmfromother catego
ries of horror films?
In this article, I shall argue that contem
porary horror films?that is, those pro
duced since 1968?can be characterized
as postmodern. I will formulate a working
definition of the postmodern horror genre
based on generalizations drawn from
the study of films thatby cultural consen
sus are defined as horror, although not
necessarily as postmodern. In the course
is an assistant professor of com
at Hunter College,
and cultural studies. Her
on the relation
book, The Pleasures
of Horror,
horror film and post
between the contemporary
and female spectators hip, is forth
coming from SUNY
Isabel Pinedo

she teaches



1996by I. Pinedo



of delineating the postmodern elements

of the contemporary horror genre, I will
differentiate it from its prior classical

The Question of Postmodernism

InMonsters and Mad Scientists: A Cul
tural History of the Horror Movie,
Andrew Tudor charts the development
of the Anglo-American horror film. The
primary distinction he draws is between
films of the "pre-sixties" (1931-60) and
"post-sixties" (1960-84), terms thatcorre
spond tomy use of "classical" and "post

This brings us to a thorny issue: what is

postmodernism? Social theorists repre
sent it as a widespread and elusive phe
nomenon, as yet unclearly defined.
Andreas Huyssen portrays it as both a
historical condition and a style, "part of a
slowly emerging cultural transformation
inWestern societies, a change in sensibil
ity" (234). Todd Gitlin associates post
modernism with the erosion of universal
categories, the collapse of faith in the
inevitability of progress, and the break
down of moral clarities (353). Jean
entailing profound
of faith inmaster narratives and a disen
chantment with the teleology of progress
(7). Craig Owens identifies it with "a
crisis of cultural authority" (57).
The postmodern world is thus an unstable
one in which traditional (dichotomous)

48.1-2 (Spring-Summer 1996)


categories break down, boundaries blur,

institutions fall into question, master nar
ratives collapse,
the inevitability of
progress crumbles, and themaster status
of the universal (read: male, white, mon
ied, heterosexual) subject deteriorates.
Mastery is lost, universalizing grand the
ory is discredited, and the stable, unified,
coherent self acquires the status of a
Clearly, the term postmodernism ac
knowledges a shiftfrommodernism, yet it
was not ushered in by an apocalyptic
ending or even by a clean break. And
insofar as we can conceptualize this cul
tural transformationas a break, itmight be
more fruitful to speak of it as a stress
break, not the result of an originary trau
matic event but the cumulative outcome of
repetitive historical stresses, including the
Holocaust, the bombing ofHiroshima, the
Cold War, thewar inVietnam, the antiwar
movement, and the various liberation
movements associated with the 1960s. In
deed, the impetus to situate postmodern
ism as a 1960s or post-1960s phenomenon
lies in the celebrated (or scorned) associ
ation of that period with the cultural con
tradictions and resistance to authority that
figure so prominently indiscussions of the
postmodern today.

Relationship of Postmodernism to
Popular Culture
Contemporary horror is sometimes criti
modernist terms?for being
aligned with the degraded form of plea
sure-inducing mass culture. Critics such
as James Twitchell relegate contemporary
horror to the ranks of affirmativeculture
and excoriate or laud it for promoting the
status quo through its reinforcement of
such classical binary oppositions as nor
mal/abnormal sexuality. Indeed, Twitchell
portrays the horror film as a morality tale
thatdemonstrates the dangers of sexuality
outside the heteromonogamous nuclear


The relationship of the contemporary hor

ror film to postmodernism, though rarely
articulated, is a vexed one. When the
contemporary genre is aligned with post
modernism, it is often to discredit one or
both. Kim Newman brieflydiscusses "the
postmodern horror film," by which he
means those 1980s horror films character
ized by camp. For Newman, the genre's
comic turn signals a degeneration, a dying
out of the genre's ability to depict "the
horrors and neuroses of the age," a func
tion he claims has been displaced and
dispersed across other genres that are
themselves increasingly hybrid in form
(211-15). He speaks as a disappointed
horror fan. By contrast, Tania Modleski,
no fan of the genre, aligns contemporary
horror filmswith postmodernism in order
to discredit the latter.This position bears
closer inspection.
Although in principle postmodernism
erodes binary oppositions, the defining
feature of postmodernism, according to
Huyssen, is its challenge to modernism's
distinction between high (art world) cul
ture and low (mass) culture. Ironically, as
both Huyssen (241) and Modleski




consciously reproduce the high-culture/

low-culture opposition in its Frankfurt
School form in theirown work. They say,
in effect, thatmass culture produces plea
sure, which, unlike jouissance, inscribes
the consumer into the dominant ideology.
In contrast, the decentered text produces
jouissance and takes an adversarial stance
against bourgeois society. Modleski aligns
the contemporary horror film with the

Modleski identifies the following as post

modern elements of the contemporary
horror film: open-ended narratives, mini
mal plot and character development, and,
relatedly, the difficultyof audience identi
fication with undeveloped and unlikable
characters. Modleski argues that the de
centered, disordered horror film, like the
avant-garde, changes textual codes to dis



(Spring-Summer 1996)

rupt narrative pleasure and as such is a

form of oppositional culture. But she
makes this argument in order to question
the wisdom of renouncing pleasure for
women, given the lengths towhich women
historically have been denied pleasure,
and consequently to question the limitsof
postmodernism for feminism.2
Although I agree with the importance of
the questions Modleski raises, her depic
tion of how the contemporary horror film
is postmodern is flawed and she fails to
grasp the ways in which contemporary
horror is pleasurable. Although postmod
ernism is not necessarily critical or radi
cal, itdoes, as Huyssen suggests, "harbor
productive contradictions, perhaps even a
critical and oppositional potential" (252).
Genre theory seeks to elucidate the prees
tablished rules that bound the classical
genres and thus provide unity and coher
ence to a group of films. In contrast, a
postmodern work breaks down bound




is charac

terized by incoherence. The postmodern

horror film transgresses the rules of the
classically oriented horror film,but it also
retains features of the latter,which form
the backdrop against which violations of
the rules are intelligible as such. In prac
tice, there is overlap between the post
modern horror film and earlier forms of
the genre. Analytically, it is fruitful to
draw this distinction.

Classical and Postmodern Paradigms of

theHorror Genre
The classical horror film is exemplified in
such works as Dracula
(1931), Franken
stein (1931) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
(1931). The film opens with the violent
disruption of the normative order by a
monster, which can take the form of a
supernatural or alien invader, a mad sci
entist, or a deviant transformation from
within. The narrative revolves around the
monster's rampage and people's ineffec




tuai attempts to resist it. In the end, male

military or scientific experts successfully
employ violence and/or knowledge to de
feat themonster and restore the normative
order (Tudor 81-105). The boundaries be
tween good and evil, normal and abnor
mal, human and alien are as firmlydrawn
as the imperative that good must conquer
evil, thus producing a secure Manichean
world view in which the threats to the
social order are primarily external and
human agency prevails, largely in the fig
ure of themasterful male subject.
The films of the 1930s distanced their
monsters from everyday life by locating
them inan exotic timeor place (Wood 85).
By contrast, the films of the 1950s gener
ally located the monster in a contempo
rary American city, sometimes a small
town, thus drawing the danger closer to
home, while retaining the exotic in the
monster's prehistoric/outer space origins
(Lucanio 36-37). Gothic monsters receded
into the background and what emerged
was an amalgam of science fiction and
horror, known as the creature feature,
typifiedby The Thing (1951), Invasion of
theBody Snatchers (1956), and The Blob
(1958). This hybrid combined science fic
tion's focus on the logically plausible (es
with horror's
emphasis on fear, loathing, and violence.
The postmodern horror film is exemplified
by suchworks as Night of theLiving Dead
(1968), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(1974), Halloween
(1978), The Thing
(1982), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984),
and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
(1990). Like its classical predecessors, the
postmodern horror film revolves around
ordinary people's ineffectual attempts to
resist a violentmonster?a supernatural or
alien invader, a deviant transformation
fromwithin, a psychotic, or a combination
of these forms. In the end, the inefficacyof
human action and the repudiation of nar
rative closure combine to produce various
forms of the open ending: the monster
triumphs (Henry); themonster is defeated

48.1-2 (Spring-Summer 1996)


but only temporarily (Halloween), or the

outcome is uncertain (Night of theLiving
Texas Chainsaw Massacre,
Thing, Nightmare on Elm Street).
The boundaries between living and dead,
normal and abnormal, human and alien,
and good and evil are blurred and some
times indistinguishable. And, in contrast
to the classical horror film, the postmod
ern film locates the horror in the con
temporary everyday world, where the
efficaciousmale expert is supplanted by an
ordinary victim who is subjected to high
levels of explicit, sexualized violence, es
pecially if the victim is female. Women
play a more prominent role as both victims
and heroes. The postmodern genre pro
motes a paranoid world view in which
inexplicable and increasingly internal
threats to the social order prevail.
Key elements in the transition from
classical to postmodern paradigms are
played out in the self-reflexive film Tar
gets (1968), about a clean-cut, normal
seeming, suburban young man, Bobby
Thompson, who inexplicably kills his
wife and mother, then snipes at freeway
motorists from a water tower. (Thomp
son's character is based on Charles
Whitman, who went on a murder spree in
Texas in 1966.) A parallel plot features
Boris Karloflf as an aging star of horror
films who decides
to retire because
longer terrified by his
films. Why should they be, when the
headlines of everyday life are more
The two narrative lines in Targets inter
sect when Thompson snipes from behind
the screen of a drive-in theater at an
audience watching The Terror, a 1963
Gothic horror film featuringBoris Karloflf.
The juxtaposition of these two figures dra
matizes how the psychotic killer's inexpli
cable violent rampage has supplanted the
traditionalmonster of castles and closed


Characteristics of thePostmodern
Horror Genre
Despite the enormous breadth of films that
fall under the rubric of horror, there are
identifiable elements that define horror in
general, classical horror, and postmodern
horror. I locate five characteristics that
operate together to constitute the post
modern horror film: (1) there is a violent
disruption of the everyday world; (2) there
is a transgression and violation of bound
aries; (3) the validity of rationality is
thrown into question; (4) there is no nar
rative closure; and (5) the filmproduces a
bounded experience of fear.
The firstfour traitsrefer to theworkings of
the film text; the fifthrelates largely to the
dynamic between the film and the audi
ence. The first three apply to both classi
cal and postmodern paradigms but operate
differently in each. The fourth trait is
particular to the postmodern paradigm.
The fifth applies to horror in general,
though I will discuss how it applies to
postmodern horror specifically. Each
characteristic operates in the context of
the others; none is constitutive of the
genre in and of itself.

Contrary to popular opinion, violence in
the horror film is not a gratuitous but a
constituent element. The horror narrative
is propelled by violence, manifested in
both the monster's violence and the at
tempts to destroy themonster. Horror is
produced by the violation of what are
tellinglycalled natural laws, by the disrup
tion of our presuppositions about the in
character of
tegrity and predictable
objects, places, animals, and people. Vio
lence disrupts theworld of everyday life;
itexplodes our assumptions about normal
ity. The impermeability of death is vio
lated when corpses come back to life
(Dracula; Night of theLiving Dead). The
integrityof self is breached when the body



(Spring-Summer 1996)

undergoes a radical transformation (Dr.

Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Thing [1982].
Horror violates our assumption that we
live in a predictable, routinized world by
demonstrating thatwe live in a minefield.
The postmodern paradigm is character
ized by the forceful importance of what
Philip Brophy calls the "act of showing"
the spectacle of the ruined body (8). In
contrast, the classical paradigm focuses
on themore circumspect "act of telling."
This difference in the approach to violence
is one of the primary distinctions between
the classical and the postmodern para
digms. The latter's fascination with the
spectacle of themutilated body, the cre
ative death, necessitates its high level of
explicit violence and privileging of the act
of showing.
Pete Boss, following Brophy, claims that
theprimacy of "body horror" is central to
the contemporary horror genre, which
Boss characterizes as postmodern. Char
acteristically, everything else, including
narrative and character development, is
subordinated to "the demands of present
ing the viewer with the uncompromised or
privileged detail of human carnage,"
shown in an emotionally detached manner
so thatwhat fascinates is not primarily the
sufferingof the victim but her or his bodily
ruination (Boss 15-16). The postmodern
genre is intenton imaging the fragilityof
the body by transgressing its boundaries
and revealing it inside out.

Violation of Boundaries
Although violence is a salient feature of
the horror genre, itmust be situated in the
context of monstrosity, culturally defined
as an unnatural force. Stephen Neale re





"natural" order. The anomaly manifests

itselfas themonster: an unnatural, deviant
force. The monster violates the bound
aries of the body through the use of vio
lence against other bodies and through the
disruptive qualities of its own body. The
monster's body dissolves binary differ
ences. It disrupts the social order by dis
solving the basis of its signifying system,
its network of differences: me/not me,
human/nonhuman, life/death.
According toNoel Carroll, monsters can
take the form of either fusion or fission
figures (43, 46). A fusion figure combines
contradictory elements inan unambiguous
identity. For example, composite figures
of self and other include the scientist-flyin
The Fly (1958) and the demonically pos
sessed girl in The Exorcist (1973). In con
trast, a fission
figure combines
contradictory elements in two identities
that become connected over time in the
same body, for example, the combination
of human and alien found in Invasion of
the Body Snatchers
(1956) and The
The fusion and fission figures of postmod
ern horror assume overtly sexual propor
tions. The woman who bears The Brood
(1979) produces an external reproductive
organ in the form of a birth sac that
hangs from her abdomen. The male pro
(1983) de
tagonist in Videodrome
velops a vaginal slit in his abdomen
that is forcibly penetrated with a video


defines the specificity of [the

horror] genre is not the violence as
such, but its conjunction with images
and definitions of the monstrous.


What defines its specificitywith re

spect to the instances of order and
disorder is their articulation across
termsprovided by categories and def
initions of "the human" and "the
natural" (21) .



The monster signifieswhat Julia Kristeva

calls the "abject," that which does not




place where meaning collapses"

48.1-2 (Spring-Summer 1996)


(4, 2).3

Danger is born of this confusion because it

violates cultural categories. This is why
the destruction of themonster is impera
tive; it is only when themonster is truly
dead and subject to decay that itceases to
threaten the social order.
Although both classical and postmodern
paradigms of the genre share the foregoing
characteristics, they differ in two impor
tant respects: the nature of their moral
universe and the resolution of conflict.
The classical paradigm draws relatively
clear boundaries between the contending
camps of good and evil, normal and abnor
mal, and the outcome of the struggle al
most invariably entails the destruction of
themonster. Good triumphsover evil; the
social order is restored. In contrast, the
postmodern paradigm blurs the bound
aries between good and evil, normal and
abnormal, and the outcome of the struggle
is at best ambiguous. Danger to the social
order is endemic.
Nothing iswhat it seems to be inpostmod
ern horror. One example isA Nightmare
on Elm Street, inwhich the protagonist,
Nancy, has a nightmare in which she
wakes up to find herself propelled into
yet another
terrifying dreamscape.
In this postmodern scene, the referent
or "reality" is gone and she is caught
within a closed system fromwhich there
is no exit. Thus, the postmodern horror
on the principle of
genre operates
This principle is extended from the narra
tive level to the cinematographic level.
The postmodern horror film repeatedly
blurs the boundaries between subjective
and objective representation by violating
the conventional cinematic codes (light
ing, focus, color, music) that distinguish
them.This is one reason thedream-coded
as-reality occupies a privileged position
within the postmodern horror genre. An
other is its close association with the un
conscious and the irrational.



Horror exposes the limits of rationality

and compels us to confront the irrational.
The realm of rationality represents the
ordered, intelligible universe that can be
controlled and predicted. In contrast, the
irrational represents the disordered, inef
fable, chaotic, and unpredictable uni
verse, which constitutes the underside of
life. In horror, irrationalforces disrupt the
social order. The trajectoryof the classical
narrative is to deploy science and force to
restore the rational, normative order,
whereas the postmodern narrative is gen
erally unable to overcome the irrational,
chaotic forces of disruption.
Horror filmsassert thatnot everything can
or should be dealt with in rational terms.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street, teenagers
who dream about Freddy Krueger can be
killed by him in their sleep. In the end,
Nancy survives because she rejects the
rational belief thatdreams are not real and
instead puts her faith in the irrational
premise that collapses dream and reality.
Despite Nancy's repeated warnings, her
boyfriend lulls himself into a false sense of
security and falls asleep?with fatal con

Characters who insistupon rational expla

nations in the face of evidence that does
not lend itselfto rationality are destined to
become victims of themonster. The ratio
nal skeptic, usually male, is punished or
killed for his epistemological
trance. The ones who escape suspend
their rational presuppositions and trust
theirgut instincts.
In horror, unlike the fairy tale, the mon
ster is impervious to the request to sit
down and reason together.4 It is, however,
susceptible to violence. Characters who
survive must come to terms not only with
the irrationalityof the situation but with
their ability to be as single-mindedly de
structive as themonster.
In horror, the narrative is propelled not
only by themonster's violence but by the




(Spring-Summer 1996)

protagonist's. To be efficacious, the pro

tagonist must objectify the monster and
subject it to a controlling gaze. Paradoxi
cally, characters who survive in horror
films eschew critical tenets of rationality
(for instance, that the attacker cannot be
dead already). At the same time, they
must utilize instrumental rationality to fa
cilitate theirown exercise of violence.
Postmodern horror compels its heroes,
many of whom are women, both to exer
cise instrumentalrationality and to rely on
intuition. As such, postmodern horror
defies theCartesian construction of reason
that reduces it to instrumental rationality
and pits it against emotion and intuition.
According to theCartesian construction of
reason, rationality is masculine, associ
ated with mastery, and requires the do
mestication of irrationality, which is
feminine and associated with the bodily
and disorder (Di Stefano 68). This limited
conception of reason disparages the femi

Despite the postmodern horror film's in

sistence on the use of force, cops and
psychiatrists are largely absent or ineffec
tual. The nihilistic universe of postmodern
horror cannot rely on the efficacy of sci
ence or authority figures.
The postmodern horror film throws into
question two basic principles underpin
ningWestern society: temporal order and
causal logic. In A Nightmare on Elm
Street, there is a glaring discrepancy be
tween the explicit focus on time?the ra
dio announces it, characters set deadlines
by the clock, and the alarm clock goes off
at previously discussed times?and the
implied duration of the narrative events
taking place in those time frames. Be
tween 12:10 and 12:20, Nancy sets up
elaborate booby traps?including install
ing a bolt lock on a door, rigging up a
hammer to fallwhen the door is opened,
still has time to
setting a tripwire?and
have a heartfelt talk with her mother.
Time is unhinged, and this adds to the
dreamlike texture of the film.





Causal logic collapses in the postmodern

horror film.Thus, there is no explanation
for the murders, cannibalism, and dis
memberment that take place in The Texas
Chains aw Massacre.
Despite the docu
prologue, not only
does thefilmfail to provide an explanation
for events but even language collapses in
the final 30 minutes of the film. The
lengthy sequence in which Sally is pur
sued, captured, tortured, and escapes is
dominated by the sound of a chainsaw; her
relentless screams, groans, and pleas; the
killers' taunts, bickering, laughter, and
mutterings; and an ominous soundtrack.
The few lines of dialogue serve not to
anchor us in the rational but to demon
strate how demented the killers are.
The postmodern horror film constructs a
nihilistic universe inwhich the threat of
violence is unremitting.Night of theLiv
ingDead opens with Barbra and Johnny
on a mundane trip to a rural cemetery.
This prosaic event takes a horrific turn
when Barbra is attacked by a zombie.5
Her brother fights to save her but is
quickly overcome. She finds shelter and
other people in a nearby farmhouse. The
small group is besieged by an unrelenting
and ever-growing mob of zombies who
brutally kill and cannibalize the living.The
newly dead corpses thenproceed tometa
morphose into zombies and join in the
onslaught. Thus, toward the end, the dead
daughter savagely kills and consumes the
mother who tended her wounds.
In postmodern horror, causal logic col
lapses even when the narrative entertains
a logical explanation for the chaos. Thus,
a newscaster speculates that a Venus
probe that carried high-level radiation
back to Earth may be responsible for the
dead rising from their graves. What lo
cates this "scientific" account in the
realm of horror rather than science fiction
is the insignificantrole rational discourse
plays in thefilmand the largerfocus that is
placed on the irrationaland themutilation
of the body.

48.1-2 (Spring-Summer 1996)


In the quintessential postmodern horror filmNight of the Living Dead,

unremittingas corpses come back to life.
The running rational argument inNight of
theLiving Dead concerns whether to for
tify the main body of the house, which
provides multiple escape (or invasion)
sites, or to take cover in the barricaded





convinces most of the others of?the wis

dom of the first option, whereas Harry,
the unlikable character who vies with him
for leadership, favors the second. In the
end, Ben, whose perspective the film sup
ports, is proven wrong; he survives by
taking refuge in the cellar after the others
have been killed.
At the conclusion of the film, the small
group is dead (Ben is shot by the sheriffs
posse) and the onslaught continues. Even
the forces of law and order take on the
function of marauders. Killing indiscrimi
nately, theyare virtually indistinguishable
from the zombies. The fate of humanity
hangs in the balance. Postmodern horror
confronts us with the necessity for an
epistemology of uncertainty: we only
know thatwe do not know.

the violence is

Lack ofNarrative Closure

The classical horror film constructs a se
cure universe characterized by narrative
closure, one in which (hu)man agency
prevails and the normative order is re
stored.6 In contrast, violating narrative
closure has become de rigueur for the
postmodern genre. The filmmay end, but
it is an open ending.
Although the postmodern genre typically



there are


ceptions, including the 1988 filmThe Lady

in White. A look back at the classical
horror film, The Lady inWhite is a ghost
story set in 1962 about a nine-year-old
named Franki? who embarks on a twofold
search to uncover the identity of a psy
chotic who is molesting and killing chil
dren (and who nearly kills him) and to
reunite the first victim with the ghost of
hermother, the lady inwhite. As befits the
postmodern paradigm, the film blurs the
boundaries between normal and abnor
mal, so that the killer is revealed to be a


48.1-2 (Spring-Summer 19%)

likable family member whom the boy

trusts.Moreover, it is ordinary people?
Franki? and his brother?who investigate
and fightthe psychotic. But in a departure
from the postmodern genre, the film is set
in the past, persistently shuns body hor
ror, and ties up all the loose ends: Franki?
is saved, the ghosts of mother and daugh
ter are reunited, and the killer dies in an
act of expiation. The film is indeed a
nostalgic look at what JohnMcCarty calls
"the kinder, gentler days of horror,"
B.C. (Before Carnage) (TheModern Hor
rorFilm 228).7
The Lady inWhite is a good illustrationof
how the features under discussion apply to
themajority of contemporary horror films,
though not necessarily to all. Narrative
closure is a dominant feature of the clas
sical horror film but a residual feature of
the postmodern variety. Similarly, open
ended narratives are dominant in thepost
modern horror film but emergent in
classical horror, as I will show in my
discussion of Invaders from Mars.
In the postmodern horror film, either the
monster triumphsor, more likely, the out
come isuncertain. Highly ambiguous open
endings in which danger and disruption
are endemic prevail. Narratives are apt to
end apocalyptically with the defeat of the
protagonists or with incipient signs of a
new unleashing. The apparent triumph
over the monster is temporary at best.
This rule applies even to Alien (1979),
which ostensibly provides narrative clo
sure, since the creature is catapulted into
the void of space; however, the film ends
with all but one of the original eggs intact
on the planet surface. Thus, even within
the parameters of the closed narrative, the
potential for a continuation of the threat is
Just as some postmodern horror films re
tain some characteristics of the classical
genre, so, too, some classical films, such
as Invaders from Mars
(1953), in their
pessimism and undecidability, were fore





runners of the postmodern horror film.

Early in Invaders from Mars, 12-year-old
David is awakened by a violent electrical
storm.When he gets up to close thewin
dow, he sees a flying saucer landing in the
adjoining sand pit. David's parents reas
sure him that it is just a dream, but his
father, a scientist, decides to investigate.
He disappears in the sand pit and returnsa
changed man, hostile and bearing a scar
on the back of his neck. David's attempts
to warn people about the Martians are
dismissed as the products of an overactive
imagination. Unable to marshal the com
munity, David turns to Professor Kelston,
an astronomer, who calls inColonel Field
ing,a benevolent militaryman who knows
how to defeat theMartians. It is David's
hope that when the Martians are de
stroyed, his parents will revert to their
former loving selves.
Had the film ended here, itwould have
been a typical horror film of the classical
era. Heroic scientificand military experts
would have conquered the monster, and
the benevolent normative order would
have been reinstated. But itdoes not end
here. As theMartian spacecraft explodes,
David awakens from a nightmare. Mo
ments later, thunder booms and he leaps
to the window to see the saucer land in
the sand pit. We are leftwith this open
ending, unable to determine where the
nightmare begins or (if it) ends. What
makes it tolerable for themonster to per
sist in the open-ended narrative is the
genre's construction of recreational

Bounded Experience of Fear

Horror is an exercise in recreational ter
ror, a simulation of danger not unlike a
roller coaster ride. In both, the conviction
that there is nothing to fear turns stress/
arousal into a pleasurable experience.
Fear and pleasure commingle.
Indeed, the horror film is an exquisite
exercise in coping with the terrors of ev

48.1-2 (Spring-Summer 19%)


eryday life.Earlier I argued that the hor

ror filmviolates everyday life.This is true
on the narrative level, but on the level of

it is more



rate to say that horror exposes the terror

implicit in everyday life: the pain of loss,
the enigma of death, the unpredictability
of events, the inadequacy of intentions. It
seems odd to talk about everyday life in
terms of terrorprecisely because terror is
a routinely repressed aspect of everyday
life. According to Henri Lefebvre, the
repression of terroroperates "at all levels,
at all times and in every sphere of experi
ence" (145). Ironically, repression is ef
fective because
everyday life seems





exempt from repression.

denaturalizes the repressed by
transmuting the "natural" elements of ev
eryday life into the unnatural form of a
monster. This transmutation renders the
terrors of the everyday world at least
emotionally accessible. By monstrifying
quotidian terrors, horror unearths the re
pressed. This process is similar to the
dream work described by Freud. Much as






thoughts and feelings, so horror films in

troduce monstrous elements to disguise






unconscious attempts to express conflicts

and resolve tensions, so horror films allow
the audience to express, and thus to some
extent master, feelings too threatening to


The horror film is the equivalent of the

cultural nightmare, processing material
that is simultaneously attractive and
repellent. Just as Freud regards dreams,
even distressing ones, as wish-fulfill
ments of repressed desires, so I regard the
horror film as an amalgam of fascination






material so that the dreamer does not

wake up, recreational terrormust produce
a bounded experience thatwill not gener


ate so much distress that the seasoned

horror audience member will walk out. To
terror, the re
creation of terrormust be only partial. As
Mick Taussig defines it, terror is the threat
to the body and the concomitant sense
that harm could happen to you. Taussig
likens the reign of terror in Colombia to
a "Hobbesian world, nasty, brutish, and

in which


trust anyone'



world in which paranoia prevails
and "dream and reality commingle," in
other words, a world much like the
fictional universe of postmodern horror
In terror, there is no insulation and no
recreation because the re-creation of dan
ger is complete, whereas in recreational
terror, the violation and death of the body
is experienced as partial. In recreational
terror,we fear the threat of physical dan
ger, but the danger fails to materialize.
Targets narrativizes the violation of this
parameter when the psychotic killer
snipes at the audience watching The Ter
ror, thus converting the fantasized threat
of physical danger into reality. More re
cent films (Demons
[1985], Popcorn
[1991]) also employ the twistof having the
audience of a horror film attacked in the
theater. Having successfully undergone
the ordeal, we experience a sense of relief
and mastery, proportionate to the inten
sity of the situation.

Horror Film as an Exercise

Much as the horror film is an exercise in
terror, it is simultaneously an exercise in
mastery, inwhich controlled loss substi
tutes for loss of control. It allows us to
give free rein to culturally repressed feel
ings, such as terrorand rage. This bounded
experience of terror is constructed through
the temporallyand spatially finitenature of
film, the semi-public settingof film exhibi
tion, the acquisition of insider knowledge,
and the use of comedy.




(Spring-Summer 1996)

Temporally and Spatially Finite

Nature of Film
A film promises a contained experience.
Regardless of how open a film's ending
may be, the film ends and in this there is a
modicum of closure.
A film is not only a time-bound experi
ence, it is also an imaginary one. The
screen constitutes the spatial frame on
which a film is projected. It marks off a
bounded reality, one that need not con
form strictlyto lived experience. The bor
ders of the screen establish parameters
that free the viewer to engage in fantasy.

Semi-Public Setting of Film Exhibition

A movie theater is a semi-public setting,
both communal and solitary. It is accessi
ble to the public, but it is also a darkened
solitary setting. It is a setting in which
people tacitly agree to ignore each other.
At the same time, the juxtaposition of
public and private dimensions generates a
space for legitimate social interaction
among audience members. The degree of
legitimate public response varies by the
audience. For instance, the experience of
watching Aliens (1986) in a Times Square
theater with a boisterous audience was
very differentand farmore pleasurable for
me than seeing it inEast Hampton, where
the audience was subdued, to say the

These two contemporaneous movie the

ater audiences parallel what historian
Lawrence Levine describes as the rau
cous, interactive audience and the pas
sive, mute audience. Levine chronicles
the process by which the unruly audience
of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
was disciplined into the docile audience of
today.Within this context, Levine notes,
the behavior of audiences for popular en
tertainment changed significantlybut not
completely. He names sports and religious
audiences as exceptions to the docile




norm. I would include most, though not

all, horror audiences, as my experience
with Aliens demonstrates.
Watching a horror film is, like riding a
roller coaster, a collective experience.
Horror expressly plays on the physical
and emotional responses of the audience.






laughter.Horror elicits audience rebukes

and warnings addressed to narrative char
acters ("Don't go in there"), or about




on"). A Gary Larson cartoon captures

this dynamic: An audience of deer is
watching a film inwhich a deer character
approaches a door over which hangs a
mounted deer trophy. The audience
cringes and one member cries out, "Don't
go in there!"
Such remarks serve several functions: (1)
On the simplest level, they evoke the
tension-breaking laughter that steers us
away frombeing terrorized. (2) They con
stitute attempts tomaster the situation by
takingan authoritative stance; the speaker
indicates that she or he would never be so
foolish as to do whatever is taking place.
(3) The competent audience member
knows that thewarning is futile but nev
ertheless issues it to express her or his
own ambivalence about the dangers of
risk-taking (Tudor 112). This entails a
splittingof the ambivalence, whereby the
narrative character performs the danger
ous activity while the audience member,
remaining secure, performs the danger vi
cariously. (4) The collective response







alone," "it's only a movie," and thus

serves to reanchor the viewer near the
shores of reality. (5) These remarks serve
as forms of interactionwith other mem
bers of the audience, who monitor each
other's responses. Thus, the collective
response facilitates the construction of the
audience. The audience shares not only
the experience of themoment but also a
past; it is an audience with a history of

48.1-2 (Spring-Summer 1996)


Acquisition of Insider Knowledge

Repeated exposure to horror fiction con
stitutes a process of socialization that sea
the audience
competent filmgoer acquires knowledge
that conditions expectations about the
genre. The genre, in turn,arouses, disap
points, and redirects these expectations.
Innovations within the genre ensure that
the seasoning process is never complete.
The seasoned audience member is familiar
with narrative motifs and character types
and with camera work and musical codes
thatwarn of impending violence. Narra
tive pleasure derives from the intelligibil
ityof the genre and from innovations that
violate audience expectations.
Insider knowledge is especially high in
serial films, such as Halloween, Friday the
13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The
serial audience shares the pleasure of priv
ileged information about Michael, Jason,
and Freddy, the respective killers in these
films. As members of a competent audi
ence, we can bask in the knowledge that
we would not act as foolishly as the kill


Insider knowledge provides a measure of

security. Ifwe have some idea of what to
expect, itbecomes less menacing and we
can brave it.When the search party in
Aliens nears the nest, those in the audi
ence who have seen Alien know the sol
diers are perilously close, but they are
unaware of the danger. Even Ripley, the
narrative linkbetween the two films, does
not know of the risk, since she was not a
member of the search party in the original
film.This is the privileged position of the
sequel audience.

Use of Comedy
Comedy serves a double, paradoxical
function in horror films: it creates both
distance and proximity. Most notably, it


produces the proverbial comic relief,

therebyproviding the requisite distance to

off terror.

The comic turn is expressed in horror film

titles, such as Chopping Mall (1986) and /
Dismember Mama (1974), and by charac
ters. Freddy Krueger flaunts his razor wit
inA Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream
Warriors (1987) when he derides a mute
boy by calling him tongue-tied, then sus
pends him over a pit, his wrists and ankles
tiedwith tongues.
Humor frequently involves self-reflexive
references to other horror films. An en
dangered character inFriday the 13thPart
VP. Jason Lives (1986) exclaims, 'Tve
seen enough horror films to know this
means trouble." Playing on older audi
ence members' knowledge about horror
films, characters in The Howling (1981), a
film about New Age werewolves, watch
The Wolf Man (1941).
Playing on more contemporary audience
members' knowledge, Hello Mary Lou:
Prom Night IPs intertextual references
cannibalize Carrie (1976) and The Exor
cist. Mary Lou is about to be crowned
prom queen when a nasty prank by her
jilted boyfriend turnsdeadly and she burns
to death (? la Carrie). Thirty years later,
her spiritpossesses Vicki, a candidate for
prom queen whose mother is obsessed
with religion. In a direct reference to The
Exorcist, Vicki's personality change is de
scribed as "Linda Blairs ville," thewords
"help me" appear on a malevolent black
board, and a priest attempts an exorcism.
Fredric Jameson refers to the cannibaliza
tion of past productions as pastiche, an
ironic self-awareness that calls attention
to its own constructedness. Pastiche, the
art of plagiarism, is the postmodern code
that supplants modernism's unique mark
of style (16).
I am disturbed by the characterization of
as an exclusively postmodern






(Spring-Summer 1996)

phenomenon. When itcomes to the horror

film, pastiche is a longstanding practice.
The film cycles of the 1930s and 1940s
abound in countless remakes and sequels.
Pastiche is not a new theme, although
there has been an intensification in the


The primary difference between contem

porary pastiche and thatof earlier decades
is the prominence of graphic violence to
produce gory humor, what JohnMcCarty
(1984) calls "splatstick," a cross between
splatter and slapstick. An example of a
film inwhich the comic turnovertakes the
horror is Evil Dead II (1987). When the
hero, Ash, is bitten on the hand by a
zombie, the hand becomes possessed and
proceeds to assault him. In self-defense,
Ash amputates the malevolent member,
which continues to be animate. Ash's in
spired though ineffectual solution is to
confine the hand in a container weighted
down by a stack of books on top of which
sitsA Farewell toArms.
Comedy also produces incongruous, con
tradictory, illogical effects that create
proximity to the terrorat hand. Since both
comedy and horror depend on what David
Bordwell and Kristin Thompson call "the
radical cheating of expectations" (31), one
can be used to produce the other. The
horror genremust keep comedy and terror
in tension. If comedy produces an excess
of distance, the result is parody.8 If terror
produces an excess of proximity, the re
sult is terrorism. Brophy describes this

It is humour that remains one of the

major features of the contemporary
Horror film, especially ifused as the
undercutting agent to counter-balance
its more horrificmoments. The hu
mour is not usually well-crafted but
mostly perverse and/or tasteless, so
much so that often the humour might
be horrificwhile the horror might be
humorous (13).



This delicate balance is struck in The

Texas Chainsaw Massacre,
inwhich the
decaying yetmarginally animate corpse of
Grandpa not only incorporates horrific
and humorous effects but utilizes one to
exacerbate the other. The humor is born
of the absurdity of Grandpa's mummified
corpse. The "boys" revive him by letting
him suck the blood from Sally's lacerated
finger. Grandpa is simultaneously the
ancient patriarch of the family and a bald,
wrinkled, infantiledependent whose limbs
quiver like a baby's when he suck(le)s
blood. The horror is born of the torment
of the young woman subjected to impris
onment and abuse amid decaying human
matter (she is tied to the "arm chair").
She is caught in a bedlam where the
madmen are free and the others are de
stroyed or driven to insanity.
be wilderment, we cringe at the gallows
humor and laugh at the terror.

The postmodern horror genre constructs
an unstable, open-ended universe inwhich
categories collapse, violence constitutes
everyday life, and the irrational prevails.
The proliferation of apocalyptic, graphi
cally violent films that dot the post-1960s
landscape attest to the social need to ex
press rage and terror in themidst of post
modern upheaval. The genre constructs
the occasion for recreational terror, in
which controlled loss substitutes for loss
of control. The experience is as much an
exercise inmastery as it is an exercise in
terror.We are not, after all, overcome by
the monster. If the image becomes too
much to bear, we can avert our eyes. It is
a test of our mettle that we survive the
ordeal, and yet the ordeal itself is not
without its pleasures. It is a welcome
release from the fiction that life is ordered
and safe. Horror affords us the opportu
nity to express our fear of living in a
minefield or, perhaps more accurately, the
opportunity, to borrow Annette Kolod
ny's phrase, to dance through it.

48.1-2 (Spring-Summer 1996)




theorists disagree on when, or even

if, postmodernism
began. Hal Foster
the postmodern
break in the late 1950s to early

1960s (xiii); Todd Gitlin does so 4'afterthe


(353); and Andreas
that the term assumed widespread
currency in

theearly tomid-1970s (237).

2For a detailed discussion of female/feminist

fUm, see Pinedo.



3See Creed fora fuller

developmentof how


horror film.







to the


Targets,Night of theLivingDead uses


racism. Police
by virulent
the school's
black janitor as, one cop
a scapegoat
whom people
more than ready to condemn during this period
of struggle over school desegregation.

8Critics of horror
generallyregard the turn




ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on

Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend,
Wash.: Bay, 1983.
Gitlin, Todd. "Postmodernism: Roots and
Politics." Cultural Politics in Contem
porary America. Ed. Ian Angus and Sut
Jhally. New York: Routledge,


and camp humor as por

tending its deterioration.See Hardy (46) and

sees the self

(211). Similarly, Altman
reflexive turn as an almost inevitable stage for
all genres, a point at which the genre confronts
its own shortcomings


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Brophy, Philip. "Horrality: The Textual

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Hardy, Phil, ed. The Encyclopedia ofHor

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Kolodny, Annette. "Dancing through the
Minefield: Some Observations on the
Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Fem

Ironically,thekinder,gentlerdays of horror

toward cannibalization



Boris Karloflf as a signifier of the anachronistic

In the cemetery, Johnny notices that
is frightened and taunts her in an imita
tion of KarlofFs
to get you Bar-bra."
is a Karloflf look-alike.
6 In the classical
this thrust toward closure.


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48.1-2 (Spring-Summer 19%)