HORROR NEEDS NO DEFENDERS: An end to CINE-WEEN

CINE-WEEN has been in the least annoying sense of the word a “blessing” to be a part of and to host, in that it has been an unexpected gift for which I feel like I have no right. I did not earn this, and yet here it is: awesome folks taking the month to share some of their selves through the spooky and the scary and the silly yet seasonally appropriate. Yet, as amazing as this experience has been, it has also carried a certain emotional burden to it as well. Seeing so many folks share both their brilliant and their hilarious insights, and in some cases both, has been a reminder of what a struggle it has been to write for me as of late. Not only in general, that weird “block” that so many like myself find where words come with pulling and prodding and when they do come it all feels malformed and wrong. Too often writing for me sounds right in my head, but what pours out is awkward, and editing comes at huge cost to me emotionally and mentally. I write this as if it is unique to me, or as if thousands upon millions before me have not experienced the same difficulties and yet worked through it to produce amazing work. I know. However, I am also specifically describing THIS moment, writing something salient and interesting about horror itself. That task, for reasons I am not sure I fully understand, has been a struggle for me.

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Horror is a genre that is somehow both obvious and illusive, often playing its themes and ideas right on the nose, but then at the same time eluding a certain level of analysis. I could be wrong, maybe I am alone in finding Horror, as a subject of reflection and analysis, to be as slippery as it is alluring. I want to understand it, or at least be able to reflect on myself and it coherently. I may not figure it out, but I want to have some sort of handle on it. I have some barriers though. The most obvious, for my writing, is the issue of essentializing a genre which is diverse. Horror has a variety of factors, elements, influences, and motivations and I fear paring it down into something easily digestible and describable. I am not interesting in delineating the borders of the genre. I am not sure I even mean just the genre though. Any genre of writing or of film will have trends or textures that allow you to describe it, and, as modern individuals, I hope we understand that any genre is more than those markers. Horror is not only the tropes by which we have come to know it, and to even describe this is so obvious that I feel ridiculous typing it. Instead, when I am worried about essentialism, I am not thinking of genre alone but of event in the most philosophical sense. Horror, as a genre, happens TO the audience often times in a way which is unique. I mean that in the immediate experience of the film, the fear or anxiety or revulsion or attraction one feels to what is being depicted. I mean also, historically, the ways that the Horror film industry and specific Horror films explode into our imaginations, and thus form our consciousness. It is not that Horror does this while other films do not, but there is something unique about the ways Horror has impacted people, has left its mark upon so many aspects of the way they are.

It is this experience of Horror that I am worried about essentializing, as well as the genre itself, as well as the industry which is filled with as many shiesters as it is visionaries. That is, Horror is as multivalent as other genres, and, yet, due to many factors, has some of the least reducible characteristics of any genre. It is perhaps, then, only unique on the extremity by which it exemplifies the odd aspects of so many genres like it. This uniqueness of potency is not to be belittled. It is just this aspect which bleeds into my other concerns the impossibility of explaining why I like it so much. There is the first hurdle that all explanation follows: aesthetics. It seems to me, aesthetics are as chimeric as any other aspect of human experience, and is difficult to relate. This is not it though. Often there are universal aspects of art, even if their universality is an illusion of sorts, they are agreed upon enough to allow some entre, so foothold. Yet with Horror, often folks are either clued in, or they are not. How do I explain when something fails because it fails to be scary and when something works because it knows it is not scary and never tries to be? How do I explain the sense of dread that some films conjure up inside of me? Yes, dread is often about what we fear and do not see, while horror is the revealed other, the monster in our midst. What I cannot explain is how some movies play with dread as if it were just one more tool in their cinematic tool kit, while others are just boring. There is a technical aspect here, a sense of pacing and of atmosphere. But surely there is also an alchemy, or a lightning in a bottle, or a confluence of unpredictable factors that somehow work. Thus, much like other things I love, often a combination of things which are not particularly valuable or even good on their own somehow combined (often for bad reasons) and something magical came about anyway.

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I am rambling too much here, wandering all over the place to get at something. Yes, I started with how difficult it can be for me to write about horror, because horror is so important and so difficult and so unique. I appreciate a broad swatch of film, and, on average, I watch only a few horror films a month. However, there is something about it that I am marching around. One aspect of that is the weird relationship I have, as a horror fan, to those who are not horror fans. This breaks two directions, one which I think matters and one that does not. Inevitably, for non-horror fans, there can be something distasteful about enjoying horror films. One is simply those who interpret enjoyment of these films as the most crass form of sadism. That, when you watch something considered horror, you simply are reveling in the suffering of others. This is one of those concepts where I don’t feel the need to take seriously. Look, what drama exists that does not have some element of what is unpleasant in life? Do we experience art depicting unpleasant things purely on the level of “it is nice or it is not nice”? I cannot be bothered with such reductive, and honestly gross thinking.

Yet, there is something there, not so much in the kind of moral tongue clucking one can often encounter. Those folks for whom distasteful things are simply not proper for anyone to enjoy. At the college where I work, there have been two suicides this year. It is a difficult and painful experience, for students and staff, and there is a lot of sadness around right now. When folks are dealing with the reality of loss and death, sometimes they turn to dark things for solace. However, sometimes they do not. In fact, I know from my interactions here that many would not find the kind of explorations of pain and death and violence I watch helpful at all. This goes further than just personal loss. Yes, for many focusing on death doesn’t help them deal with the loss of friends and family. It is also true that Horror often explores pain which is tied to societal kinds of oppression. When one is regularly submitted to white supremacy, patriarchy, deadly forms of heteronormativity then perhaps explorations of suffering and fear are simply adding to one’s pain. The films themselves often play off of these fears, including them both to critique our social realities but often to exploit them as well. Now, for me, horror allows for a unique exploration of the very themes I care about. However, the enjoyment factor can complicate things, especially as a heterosexual CIS male. So many films play off of tropes of female victimhood, that defense of them can become difficult, and is perhaps a task not worth embarking on. So, while I find horror to be actually useful for me as well as enjoyable, and I mean that as someone struggling for justice in the world, I understand this barrier folks have.

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Still, the reality of folks responses to horror to me seems imbalanced to the numbers of folks who see these movies. Yes, Horror is no longer in its heyday, when briefly in the 80s it was one of the most profitable genres in film making. Yet, many mainstream Horror films still make money. Often, while folks may not have watched much Horror, they are generally familiar with many of the major franchise characters of the genre. That is to say, few folks identify as Horror fans, yet so many folks know Freddy or Chucky or Jason. In this sense, I feel like Horror and Hip-Hop have some similar characteristics. That is a strange statement in 2016 when it seems like Hi-Hop dominates all of pop culture across many different countries and societies. Yet, long before we acknowledged it’s impact, Hip-hop was a kind of universal language of music and culture. Think for a moment. Lets say it is the late 90s, and someone says to you they want to be a rapper. The reality, too often, was that while many folks around the world, millions even, listened to hip-hop, they did not respect it. To admit to wanting to make the very art so many folks enjoy was, and in some places still is, an admission of something embarassing or unsavory. In the same sense, it seems like many folks around the world watch Horror films. At least they do so casually. But to be a fan, or a maker of such films, to admit participation in that world, is still unsavory in many circles. This thing appeals to many people, has impact across a wide and diverse swath of popular culture, and yet is somehow inherently shameful. It is portrayed as not something one should care about or have an investment in.

I circle back then to this idea. When I write about horror I feel a need to defend it, either from real or imagined attackers and detractors. This makes writing personally, critically, sincerely about the genre always a bit difficult to me. I am always confronting these straw men in my head and, thus, on the defensive, wanting to make something more of this genre. I am not alone. One doesn’t need to do much a deep-dive on horror think pieces to discover the struggle over the meaning of the genre is real. For every hand wring moralization concerned that horror, despite existing for years without the complete collapse of civilization, is somehow still responsible for social decay, there is another noble defender of the genre mining it for some value beyond entertainment. I write that, and it seems as if I think Horror is without that value. That is not the case. However, I worry about the defensive tone of these pieces and in my own writing. Horror may in fact create a unique space for very important conversations about the human condition, but that is not WHY it matters or is enjoyable or why you should watch it. Too often, these intended defenders end up suggesting that it is only because of these unintended social commentaries that horror earns its right to exist. That is simply not true. I do not want to give into this values game by somehow valorizing some noble character to a genre that never asked me to paint such a caricature of it. Horror doesn’t need my sympathy think piece.

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In fact, and maybe I have said it too many times already, but let me say again: it is the LACK of direct social purpose that makes horror so interesting as a space of considering deep ideas. That is to say, horror can be reductive and exploitative, at times more than other forms of art. These films exist to tantalize, and from a certain perspective can play into some of our worst inclinations. They commodify violence and sexuality and spectacle creating philosophical issues for the conservative and progressive alike. Yet, I mean none of that as a hard criticism. The extreme nature of horror is part of what draws me, in the insane over-the-top excess of it. Horror often transgresses for the least political reasons, and yet I so often value those extreme transgressions. So often in constructing that space, where death and desire and fear and identity are all explored, Horror accomplishes something almost in spite of itself. Some of the MOST politically or socially vile in content are actually the most aesthetically engaging or interesting. Even more, the films which have a history of opportunism, films which represent the most crass and self-interested versions of creativity, might still impact the viewer in a way none of us could expect. They might create an opportunity for a completely unique engagement with some essential aspect of being human.

Again, I say all this not to defend horror, and that is, in the end, why I started writing. I am sick and tired of defending horror. Horror doesn’t need my defense, not just because I am tired of doing it, but inevitably my defense gives weight and credence to those cultural sanitizers that would like it to go away. Still, I want to point out the unique ways horror creates these spaces without lifting it up as a defense of its excesses. That is to say, horror, itself, is inevitably plagued by cliché, by the limits of the scary story. Somehow these simple tales, little more than campfire stories designed to play into our anxieties, still affect us. Horror still manages to reflect something deep, almost subconscious, about our entire culture. It reflects these deep recesses, and in the rare cases illuminates them in unique ways. It does this in spite of what it is, of its most base and grimy aspects; maybe even because of them. This is not a defense then, but an acknowledgement of what a neat magic trick Horror still is. Thank you Horror, for being that shadow that somehow can, at times, add more clarity and light to my world.

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Liam O'Donnell
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Liam O'Donnell

Liam O'Donnell is co-creator and co-host of the Cinepunx podcast and Editor in Chief of the Cinepunx website. Liam has written about film, music, politics and faith for a variety of publications in real life and online. Despite his advanced age he can be seen moshing in the greater Philadelphia area, usually to a cover song. He can be seen sitting in the audience at the newest comic book film, the retro drive-in screening of a Fulci film, or catching a series of Jodorowsky films. Liam has worked in social services, events planning, arts curation, education, community organizing, faith communities, and scooping ice cream. He has worked with festivals like This Is Hardcore Fest and The Awesome Fest. Despite all these things, Cinepunx is definitely the coolest thing he has ever done.
Liam O'Donnell
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