4. What comprises the nightmare of today…and tomorrow?
In addition to the various influences of postmodernity and generic legacy noted above, the rapid explosion of consumer technology during the 1990s, exemplified by the spread of the Internet and other global media/communication sources, has provided the horror genre with considerable material. Fear of electronic media and the interaction of bodies with technology is not a wholly new source of horror, but it has become a much more pervasive social anxiety during the last decade with so much widespread unease about the state of safety, privacy, security, and morality in the Information Age. Movies like Ringu, Pulse, White Noise (Geoffrey Sax, 2005), Fear Dot Com (William Malone, 2002), and Stay Alive (William Brent Bell, 2006) reflect this sort of fear; as several of those examples suggest, similar concerns are currently present within Japanese horror films (which have spawned American remakes), perhaps because Japanese society is also very preoccupied with technological advances. Moving the other direction, narratives originating from within these new media are also inspiring the genre, as in video game plots being translated into horror movies: Resident Evil (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002), Silent Hill (Christophe Gans, 2006), Alone in the Dark (Uwe Boll, 2005), and Castlevania (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2007).
Alongside this fearful preoccupation with mass media, new technologies have also inspired voyeurism on a mass scale (as the success of reality TV clearly attests), feeding back into horror’s exploitative axis. One of the more notable (and culturally familiar) specters haunting this media obsession in the horror genre is that of the “snuff film.” With the Internet providing new, anonymous sources of video from around the world (e.g., websites that offer footage of actual death, of the sort previously found in mondo movies like Sheldon Renan’s 1981 The Killing of America), the urban legend of the snuff film has resurfaced in various horror films like Ringu, Fear Dot Com, and The Last Horror Movie (Julian Richards, 2003). 
The best example of this voyeuristic media obsession in horror came with The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999), which allegedly became the most financially successful independent film ever made (wrestling that honor from John Carpenter’s Halloween). Though it shamelessly borrowed its premise from Ruggero Deodato’s 1979 shocker Cannibal Holocaust (not to mention from The Last Broadcast, a virtually identical horror film made a year earlier by Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler), Blair Witch used the new and inexpensive digital video format to create a “mockumentary” about three young filmmakers who vanished while trying to explore the legend of the eponymous witch. Made on a shoestring budget, the film brought horror back to the tradition of low-budget accessibility, making explicit the appeal of the pseudo-_vérité_ look that helped make older films (many shot on 16mm stock) like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the simulated footage in Cannibal Holocaust so gritty and unforgiving. However, Blair Witch is very different from those films because it uses suggestion alone to achieve its scares—not once is the witch ever captured on camera—and therein lies the significance of the film: its power of suggestion (and, more broadly, its financial success) was due in large part to the advance promotion of the film online. The apparent veracity of the film’s footage was claimed through its website, accompanied by a detailed mythology of the Blair Witch legend and a supplementary documentary (Curse of the Blair Witch, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999). The film’s phenomenal success was largely due to its extratextual interplay with online media and rumor mills, causing the “truth” of the film’s constructedness to be continually debated (or downright lost) within the online realm. Arguably the first great success of a film effectively launched via the Internet, The Blair Witch Project seems to perfectly fit Wells’ (2000) discussion of the urban legend in postmodern horror: the monster of the urban legend may be grounded in some real event, but in the Information Age, there are no more hidden secrets underlying the dangers of that legend, only a “relentless proliferation of open secrets which serve to mask any one dominant paradigm of significance, stability, and security. Everything appears to be a lie, and the truth seemingly unknowable” (p. 86-87).
The horror film has always had to contend with the problem of how to present fantastic events within the context of diegetic verisimilitude, but The Blair Witch Project’s use of documentary form sidesteps this issue, supposedly locating its horrors within the real, extra-diegetic world. In films like Blair Witch and The Last Horror Movie, the documentary’s traditional ties to external reality are simulated, moving beyond the narrative boundaries of the traditional horror film; if the simulation of reality is effective enough, viewers will no longer be able to separate themselves from the narrative by saying “It’s only a movie.” If snuff films represent the ultimate validation of the horror film’s crossover into real life, these hyperreal horror mockumentaries (which are, in effect, simulated snuff films) embody one of the creative limits of the horror film. As The Last Horror Movie suggests, the only place for the genre to go from here is into the actual snuff territory of real murder.
The Last Horror Movie
Although these mockumentaries are primarily low-budget affairs (often applauded by horror fans for their place in the low-budget horror tradition), hyperreal effects have increasingly changed the treatment of more horror films on the opposite end of the economic spectrum. As CGI effects allow for greater simulated bodily destruction than ever before, the body has become a far less “real” site of violence in horror films. The contested authenticity of gore has led many purists to pride traditional makeup effects and appliances over digitally composed imagery. The body as referent of the Real becomes lost in this new technology, violating the genre’s traditional low-budget aesthetic. As a “low” cultural form, horror films are continually linked to (and consumed by) lower economic classes—and hence the reaction against these new CGI effects represents not just a man/machine opposition, but an economic opposition between low-budget human ingenuity (artisanal work) and high-budget computer trickery (mass production).  This contestation also feeds back into the potential generation gap between older and younger horror fans; for example, Rob Zombie reportedly wanted his neo-exploitation film The Devil’s Rejects to utilize only the sort of makeup gore effects available during the 1970s, but time constraints forced him to turn to CGI instead; while Alexandre Aja hired Giannetto De Rossi (who designed many of the most memorable gore effects for Lucio Fulci) for High Tension.
Of course, gore has been harnessed for exploitation of a very different variety in America’s current neoconservative political climate, as a film like The Passion of the Christ (which one particularly astute critic dubbed “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre”) proves once and for all. Blood-drenched violence is all relative, it seems, and only the horror genre is still worthy of causing a genuine moral panic. But what does it mean for the horror film in a post-9/11 America so paralyzed by a climate of fear? How do Americans respond to these images of destruction and terror? With several Hollywood films about the events of 9/11 now appearing in 2006, there are fears that a national trauma will be portrayed exploitatively—but what of a genre like horror that is already so allied with exploitation? The buffer of fantasy seems to protect viewers from the real horrors of terrorism and war, but several horror films have challenged that buffer. Various critics have remarked upon Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2003) as the first example of post-9/11 horror. Its story of college friends turning against one another in a remote mountain cabin after a flesh-eating virus contaminates their water supply (with wider society and the forces of law and order either too fearful or inept to respond appropriately) seemed to echo widespread paranoia about chemical and biological warfare (e.g., anthrax).  Roth’s next film, Hostel (2005), plays upon post-9/11 fears about the dangers for Americans traveling in “hostile” countries as international relations with the United States break down. Recalling reports of American secret prisons for torture in Eastern Europe and the torture of suspected terrorists at other American prisons, it centers on young American backpackers seduced by the lure of a hedonistic Europe, then kidnapped and sold for rich businessmen to brutalize and kill. Clover’s (1992) discussion of the revenge of impoverished and disempowered rural residents upon bourgeois city folk in films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (p. 124-36) bears consideration here, with the still-impoverished citizens of Eastern Europe revenging against forces of American globalization that have introduced capitalism (albeit taking the form of a black market in murder) to the former Eastern Bloc, but have also left them to their own devices. Just as the American (male) tourists treat Europe and its (female) denizens as so much tantalizing meat, they are themselves reduced to the level of fleshy commodity.
As Williams (2005) says, George Romero’s Land of the Dead “resurrects key elements of the ‘70s political horror genre for a new era, by revealing the relevance of a past tradition disavowed by trivial, postmodernist horror films such as Scream.” Filled with subtle references to George W. Bush’s disastrous “War on Terror,” Romero’s film is a complex and biting allegory for a contemporary America still stratified by race and class differences between the masses and those in power. Key differences between the living and the walking dead are all but erased in this entry. Recalling their employment as symbols of Vietnam War victims in Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero’s zombies are no longer reduced to the bumbling symbols of mindless consumerism that they were in Dawn of the Dead, but are now an organized revolutionary force out to topple the highest reaches of economic and governmental power. Fiercely embodying Wood’s (1986) concept of the progressive horror text (and quite unlike the monsters of recent Hollywood horror, such as the zombies of the remade Dawn of the Dead), the (anti)heroes of this film are the zombies themselves, suggesting both a cultural and political mobilization against the forces of dominant American society, violating the popular overvaluation of bourgeois affluence, patriotic rhetoric, and even religious zealotry (given that these supposedly “evil” creatures cross metaphysical boundaries). 
With the accumulation of post-9/11 rhetoric about “evil empires,” nuclear propagation, and war against an invisible global enemy, paranoid fears about “the enemy within” have begun to reappear in the horror genre. With a new Cold War emerging (the phrase “communist” now replaced with “terrorist”), it may come as no surprise to soon see social anxieties about paranoia, war, weaponry, and racial tension translate themselves into horror films in ways similar to 1950s horror narratives. Meanwhile, cycles of retro-fashion may continue to make glossy remakes and postmodern revisions of earlier horror films a popular trend. But as younger audiences are reintroduced to films from the 1980s and 1990s, where will the cycle end? It is hard to imagine self-reflexive postmodernist films like Scream, New Nightmare, or The Blair Witch Project being remade several decades from now. Will remakes of films from the 1930s-1960s ensue in large number? Will “classic” monsters come back into style? Despite the current appearance of sequels to 1970s remakes, there are already signs that perhaps mainstream audiences will grow just as apathetic toward the current 1970s-1980s remake cycle as they did toward the endless sequels of 1980s horror franchises. What kinds of fresh horrors will become popular with new, younger generations of moviegoers? Indeed, can the genre really break out of its cyclical repetition and move anywhere new and progressive from here?
The following ideas are several suggestions for the future of American horror. Following Hollywood’s current overuse of shock cuts, a move toward non-narrative horror could preserve the attraction of exploitative moments of violence and sex, interrupt suspenseful sequences with non-signifying visual and aural shock cuts, and employ violent camera movement to produce an altogether Artaudean effect upon the spectator. For example, a graphic scene of nudity and gore could be followed by a dizzying series of pans, then a stalking sequence in which the ambient noise is suddenly interrupted by a bright flash of red and a shrieking metallic sound, none of which directly motivate or even refer to the film’s plot. This type of strategy would move the source of horror away from narrative and toward the sensory bombardment made possible by the apparatus itself. Of course, this would be a surrealistic sort of horror film that defies traditional conventions and formulas, so it may be too avant-garde for mass audiences and too close to bodily affect for high-minded critics. Another potential source of (non-fantastic) horror could follow in the steps of films like The Blair Witch Project and The Last Horror Movie, only by simulating documentary footage based around a real historical event. If the events could be verified by unbiased media accounts, this would help shore up the supposed authenticity of the footage—plus it could provide an opportunity for critiques of the sociopolitical forces that enabled such historical events to occur in the first place. For example, a horrific mockumentary about government-sanctioned murder could be effective—but without fantastic elements and obvious horror conventions, it would run the risk of being seen as agitprop. Nevertheless, the mockumentary presents a form whose full parameters have not yet fully been explored within the horror genre.
Other options for reinvigorating the genre include more progressive treatments of minority protagonists, as in the case of 1990s “race horror” or the opportunity for more challenging examples of “queer horror.” Presenting horror films in “real time” is also a yet neglected strategy that could make for very grueling and claustrophobic horror; for example, two hours of diegetic time in a slasher or zombie plot could be presented in full during a film’s 2-hour duration, documenting the repeatedly thwarted efforts of the survivors to find shelter or escape. Finally, the filmmaking strategy that seems most obviously absent in horror films is a continual use of the protagonist’s I-camera POV. Framing a film entirely through the vision of a single protagonist, without cutaways to other action, would complicate the traditional killer’s I-camera so often used to sadistic effect in horror films. It would also place the spectator in a completely powerless and claustrophobic position, forced to see and know only that which the protagonist perceives—a powerfully masochistic and suspenseful viewing position of identification which would fly in the face of so much theorizing of the horror film’s sadistic pleasures. This position could be further linked to a progressive subject position if the protagonist with whom the viewer is forced to identify belongs to a minority group.
No matter which way the horror film moves in coming years, there is a sense that change is coming. American horror’s renaissance in the 1970s remains a largely romanticized period now and the short-lived resurgence of postmodern energy in the 1990s seems quite past. With a reversion to countless remakes and tired formulas, conservatism seems to have established itself in the genre in recent years. Though it is a consistent moneymaker, the horror film’s creative pulse seems to rise and fall periodically from one decade to the next, and it appears to be in a trough at the moment. Meanwhile, a generation gap between film-savvy purists and a more inexperienced youth audience widens—but the recent films of directors like Romero and Roth remind us of the progressive potential that is still very possible beneath so much gore and exploitative mayhem in popular films consumed by people on all sides of the divide. In a time when officially propagated fears bring Americans together in politically disempowering ways in everyday life, at least in the darkened theatre can fantasies of horror promise a pleasure that liberates fear from its ideological uses and perhaps even point to a better world where cinematic terror is the only thing that brings the masses together in trembling.
A few points of interest to develop or add to some of Church’s observations:
1) It is interesting to note that the shock cuts which Church rightly points to as a source of annoyance for horror purists when overused (‘cheap shocks’) at the expense of atmosphere, was in fact pioneered by producer Val Lewton in his 1942 Jacques Tourneur directed The Cat People. Ironic since Lewton’s 9 horror films are now canonized for their subtlety and atmosphere.
2) The ‘snuff film’ aesthetics Church points to which attempts to short circuit the spectator’s ability to hide behind the “It’s only a movie” defense is featured in many of the underground ‘survivalist’ horror films and directly addressed in the documentary S&Man. For a discussion of this read the Documenting the Horror Genre essay in this issue.
3) With respect to the direction of the post-9/11 horror movie, there is one recent film which, as its title bluntly suggests, is a clear cut product of post 9/11 paranoia, the tense thriller Right at Your Door. Released in 2006 and directed and written by former art director Chris Gorak, Right at Your Door is in the tradition of the ‘virus’ horror film: The Crazies, Outbreak, Virus, Infection. A dirty bomb attack in Los Angeles sets the city in chaos and traps a man and his neighbor inside a house; meanwhile the man’s wife, who left for work before the attack and has been exposed to the bomb, returns home and pleads with her husband to let her inside. The majority of the film plays off the emotional tension of this situation, as the husband must decide whether to risk contamination by letting his wife into the house.
4) It may be either evidence of prophecy or coincidence, but Church’s first suggestion for a possible direction for future horror filmmakers –“a move toward non-narrative horror… with non-signifying visual and aural shock cuts, and employ[ing] violent camera movement to produce an altogether Artaudean effect upon the spectator”– is already in evidence in the striking 2006 French film Ils, directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud. For an excellent discussion of this film within the form-over-story/style for style’s sake discourse I recommend Randolph Jordan’s essay from last month’s issue, Fantasia 2006: A Strange Circus Indeed.
5) One of Church’s other ideas —presenting horror films in “real time”— was used by director Maurice Deveraux in the Canadian ‘reality horror’ film Slashers, made in 2001. For a brief discussion of the film search for the title in the accompanying essay Documenting the Horror Genre. A variation on Church’s other idea of “framing a film entirely through the vision of a single protagonist,” is played out in the excellent Eric Nicholas film Alone With Her, also discussed in “Documenting the Horror Genre.” [ed. Donato Totaro]
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David Church is a Ph.D. student at Indiana University, and the editor of Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009). He has also contributed to Disability Studies Quarterly, Senses of Cinema and several other publications.