Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Babes in the Woods: On "God, Sex and Love on American Campuses"

The following is a response to "God, Sex and Love on American Campuses" by Sociology Professor Roger Friedland for The Huffington Post (link) originally posted on Facebook.

Speaking as a college-age virgin of this generation, I see things in a different, more unsentimental light than this author. I speak as one to whom grave doubt about the reality of love catalyzed a serious crisis of faith, as it is said that God is love and love is from God. Our author comments on the mythos of love that "Students don't exactly believe in it anymore. The majority suspect love might be a fiction invented to keep women down," which is to say they are aware on some level of the discourse's economic ties to patriarchal capitalism. Professor Friedland's generation sought to challenge this system through Dionysian destabilization and deregulation of the process ("free love", "free store") that dialectically actualized its Apollonian antithesis, the neo-Puritanism of the Christian Right, but what it did not in fact actualize was love. So now it's his turn to face the historical consequences of the world he helped actualize, a world torn between anxiety and authoritarianism, and daddy more or less openly admits that his research is a deployment of knowledge undertaken with the aim of rendering his daughter's bodies from active bodies into passive bodies. That they too may wish to venture into the dark forest of self-discovery where all adventures begin with the onset of menstruation, rather like Red Riding Hood, is not a possibility he would like to entertain. But this is in knowing hypocrisy, as his own adventures during his own rite of passage involve "stoned encounters in strange beds and on forest floors with girls whom I didn't know very well," which are of course basically the elements of said fairytale. Where would the author be now if he showed up in that dark wood some two decades before the existentialist influenced Post-Punk/Gothic band The Cure released “A Forest” (link), and no one was there? Thomas C. Foster aptly comments “In the age of existentialism and thereafter, the story of lost children has been all the rage... But you don’t have to use ‘Hansel and Gretel’ just because it’s the flavor of the month. Or even of the last half century.” (Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Literature Like a Professor p. 63) Whereas in this story entrance into the forest marks the anxious destabilization of values once held securely, the difference now is that Hansel and Gretel can no longer hold hands.

Consistent with his inauspicious beginning, Professor Friedland’s defense of the value and importance of love seem apparently designed to make Simone de Beauvoir roll in her grave. “I think there is third reason, one that points to love as a structure of faith central to the making of our world. A relation with the divine is one in which you acknowledge your lack of sovereignty and self-control; admit that you are not your own basis, your own source; and depend on an other for your being whom you will never really understand or control. Religiosity and real romance are parallel orders of experience.” Thus the subject can dodge freedom and anxiety, courage and responsibility, by rooting one’s existence within the Other, who remains Other. The experiential parallelism between human love and divine love is not reassuring, for ours is a generation born of broken promises, and the sovereign Deity is quite full of them. If God is dead, which is to say that any set of values can no longer be securely rooted in the idea of God for eternal validation, then so is love. As such, this ideological development is not surprising from a socio-historical standpoint. Our author says that the value of love is the “essential... prerequisite of our kind of history,” which is to imply there is some kind of Platonic essence, some cosmic cookie cutter that establishes the presently constituted order of patriarchal capitalism in the never-ending bond of love. This order has co-opted the profound desires unleashed by Friendland’s generation to the ends of commodity fetishism and mystified reification, and hence to the ultimate deferment of these very desires for real connection and expression. And in the end, desire and the hope it implies is indefinitely deferred, or goes on to find expression in an illusion of wish-fulfillment, while the categorical emptiness of nothingness continues to abide as the promises of God remain far off. It’s no coincidence that two of the most influential Hansel and Gretel films of my generation are Suspiria directed by Dario Argento and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre directed by Tobe Hooper, which horror film historian David J. Skal describes along with related films as “the collective witnessing and reenactment of childhood’s murder by premature, media-driven sex.” (David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror p. 297) But whereas Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel can count on the protection of God the Father and Mother Nature where their earthly father and mother has abandoned them to die, now the lost children are simply ruthlessly slaughtered in an industrialized misse-en-scene. I write now as representative of a new lost generation, vanished somewhere in “the uniform weave of the matrix.” I am not an atheist, I am simply grieved and frustrated to live in a world where love is a lie, everything I see around me is a tragic illusion whose decay is readily manifest, and the covenant God appears to be just one more deadbeat and cop out, while I remain lost in a forest, all alone.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Beauty and the Beast: On Linda Williams, Courageous Spectatorship, and Horror Cinema (English Composition II Homework)

Linda Williams begins her essay “When the Woman Looks” with a stereotypical recitation of the culturally assumed gender dynamics of horror spectatorship. “Whenever the movie screen holds a particularly effective image of terror, little boys and grown men make it a point of honor to look, while little girls and grown women cover their eyes or hide behind the shoulders of their dates” (Williams 15). Wherever this clichéd state of affairs holds true, one might imagine it has much to do with a cultural discrepancy in the way men and women are engendered in regard to the exercise of the existential virtue of courage. For as Paul Tillich defines it, “Courage is an ethical reality, but it is rooted in the whole breadth of human existence and ultimately in the structure of being itself... The courage to be is the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation” (Tillich 1-3). But if courage is indeed “rooted in the whole breadth of human existence”, then it is also true that the courage to be is the ethical act in woman affirms her own being in spite of those elements of her existence which conflict with her essential self-affirmation.

Tillich argues that courage is rooted in the experience of anxiety, because “anxiety is the existential awareness of nonbeing... Anxiety is finitude, experienced as one’s own finitude” (Tillich 35). This underlying awareness may in turn either manifest itself in anxiety, which is the generalized apprehension of the threat of nonbeing to the subject’s self-affirmation, or fear, which is the terror of a particular concrete manifestation of this underlying threat, such as an attack from an assailant, being eaten by clowns, or a piano dropping from a tall building. In “The Concept of Anxiety", Soren Kierkegaard regrettably believed that anxiety belongs more to woman than to man as a consequence of being “the weaker sex”, and that this implies that “in anxiety she moves beyond herself to another human being, to man” (Kierkegaard 143). A regrettable turn for a philosopher like Kierkegaard, for this is to say that her strategy for dealing with anxiety is rooted not in existential self-affirmation through courage, but in rooting her own being to the male subject and his courage relationally, but asymmetrically. Even so, in this essay, Soren Kierkegaard adds an important additional dimension to understanding the nature and existential gravity of anxiety.

Kierkegaard traces the ontology of anxiety experienced by the subject to the dialectical synthesis of mind and body in spirit, and of the eternal and the temporal in the moment. Extrapolating from this principle, Kierkegaard argues that within the state of anxiety the subject is made aware of possibilities that may be converted into actualities, and hence of his own existential freedom as a human subject. “Whoever is educated by anxiety is educated by possibility, and only he who is educated by possibility is educated according to his infinitude. Therefore possibility is the weightiest of all categories... in possibility all things are equally possible, and whoever has truly been brought up by possibility has grasped the terrible as well as the joyful... in order that an individual may thus be educated absolutely and infinitely by the possibility, he must be honest toward possibility and have faith. By faith I understand here what Hegel somewhere in his way correctly calls the inner certainty that anticipates infinity.” (Kierkegaard 154-155) As such, the means to ultimate courage in the face of anxiety and negation is to root one’s existence in eternity by means of faith in the Absolute, which Kierkegaard names as the God of the Christian faith. In other words, the confrontation with anxiety is rooted in the existential quest for the state of transcendence of one’s given conditions.

Within the atheistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, this line of reasoning takes a different, but related import and gravity. Sartre begins by extrapolating from the mad prophet’s proclamation in Frederick Nietszche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra that “God is dead”, which is to say that history has reached a point at which human values can no longer be rooted in faith in that which is eternal and Absolute, but must be created ex-nihilo within the void of nothingness, nihility, and nihilism. Where once we believed that we were a part of a skillfully directed production of cosmic redemptive proportions, with the absence of the director, we now find ourselves flung suddenly on stage, and left to improvise in the absence of lines, direction, or a script. As a consequence of this exile from predefined meanings, Sartre says that “man is condemned to be free.” For in the final analysis of things, we are never held hostage to our given conditions and deprived absolutely of our freedom. By virtue of being conscious subjects says Sartre, we always retain the power to choose how we will act in relation to the conditions in which we find ourselves, whatever exactly the consequences. And yet, this freedom is an anxious freedom.

On the one hand, we are anxious because of the awareness of our own looming negation in death, and that there is no source of ultimate meaning to cling to in the interim. Sartre says this results in various states of boredom, terror, and nausea, all of which are familiar concerns to the horror film. On the other hand, we are anxious because of the awareness that we are absolutely responsible for own actions; they cannot authentically be blamed on any Other. God as the infinite Other has already met his demise, and so cannot be blamed by the consistent nontheist for any contingency whatsoever. Even so, the Other as that amorphous audience whose gaze looks upon us, whose conscious thoughts fissure into our conscious thoughts, and who desire and discipline us to perform in a certain way, a way that may lie with or against our own desires and affinities, has a more tangible effect on how we take ourselves as human beings. Depending upon a given set of conditions, this gaze may affirm or alienate the subject from his or her own being as a subject. What this means is that how we look and act toward others will render them more as subjects or less as objects. But the final verdict and responsibility rests oneself and whether one can take oneself and one’s existence with authenticity. The locus of faith, therefore, is turned inwards with regard to whether one takes oneself in good faith or bad faith. For Sartre as well as Kierkegaard, living authentically is an overriding ethical concern, although the latter argues the condition of authenticity is ultimately only attainable to those who live by faith in God. For Sartre, meanwhile, the greatest virtue and courage is to create one’s own values and live them out as the outworking of one’s own existential project undertaken as a free subject. To live such an authentic life is to leave the state of immanence within one’s given conditions and enter a state of transcendence.

Depending on one’s choices and affinities, one’s own views of the ontology and gravity of courage and anxiety may align closer to those of Kierkegaard or to Sartre. Tillich’s own notion that “The ultimate source of the courage to be is the ‘God above God’; this is the result of our demand to transcend theism” (Tillich 186) lies ambiguously in between. Of course, such matters of ultimate concern are intimately related to whether we take the various phenomena of religious experience as authentic or inauthentic. In this regard, it is worth noting that Rudolf Otto argues that the awe and ineffability of religious experience is rooted in “fear and fascination” in the apprehension of the numinous as “the ‘wholly other’” (Otto 29). In other words, the state of anxiety may not strictly be rooted in the ontic awareness of negation against the backdrop of nihility, but in the awareness of one’s own negation in the face of that which is utterly beyond. As stated by Kyoto School Zen philosopher Keiji Nishitani, “religion upsets the posture from which we think of ourselves as telos and center of all things... When we come to doubt the meaning of our existence in this way, when we have become a question to ourselves, the religious quest awakens within us” (Nishitani 3).

Interestingly, Rudolf Otto argues his point in relation to the attraction and repulsion aroused by reading ghost stories (Otto 29). What this implies is that horror films have a direct relation to matters of religion and spirituality, and vice versa. Indeed, Kim Paffenroth, a professor of religious studies, explicitly states about the ontology of the monster: “What makes such hybrid or divided beings even more interesting, however, is that they are not always just monstrous, but their combined nature is also frequently a quality of what humans consider holy and sacred” (Paffenroth 7-8). But this should not ultimately surprise us, for the great monsters of the cinema have assumed the status of contemporary myths, their films the quest stories shared by outsiders of every generation. These are the texts sought out for answers by those who question themselves and society, many of whom would sit uneasily in church pews for reasons wholly other than a state of numinous apprehension. To quote Rick Worland, “Controversial -- and appealing -- aspects of horror films include: the spectacle of extreme acts of violence, more or less open sexuality that defies conventional norms and attendant assumptions about gender roles, treatment of particular religious and moral values and attitudes about the nature of evil; social and less overtly, political values implied in the portrayal of traditional authorities and social institutions (e.g., government, science, the Church, the family) and a film’s ultimate faith in the efficacy of those institutions to protect society from the monster/evil and restore the status quo” (Worland 119).

Of course, even if some sense of “normalcy” is recreated by such authorities and institutions in a reconstituted status quo, the capacity for any affinity with and/or sympathy for the monster tends to subvert the legitimacy of their exercise of power to define “the norm”. As such, even many horror films “in the classical mode” unjustly regarded by critics like Rick Worland and Robin Wood as representing “a strongly conservative tradition” (Worland 21) may still carry profound potential to subvert and critique the repressive “norm” of the status quo to invite the viewer to deeper passion and authenticity. If organized religion often ranges from ambivalence to open hostility toward the horror genre and its fans, it is in no small part because of its dubious commitment to uphold the status quo at the expense of hackneyed rituals, placid pastels, and dull sermons. And yet, like the myth of the trickster, the myth of the monster anxiously unsettles the position that religion can exclusively regulate the terms of access to the numinous by virtue of its assigned role as mediator. Just as the trickster, the monster bursts forth the boxes, categories, chains, and coffins to which it is confined to illustrate that the sacred too cannot be confined by such delimiting factors.

For what is the terrible place in which the horror narrative unfolds if not the sacred place as yet unmapped and unmediated by the symbolic order to some extent? When blind and wandering Oedipus stops to rest in a sacred grove, a stranger warns him: “First move from where you sit; the place is holy; It is forbidden to walk upon that ground.... It is not to be touched, no one may live upon it; Most dreadful are its divinities, most feared” (deSilva 251). Again, “Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17). In both cases, a sense of dread and anxiety is awakened by the apprehension of the numinous and its disruption of normative categories. Rudolf Otto’s ghost is “the ‘wholly other’” because it is “something which has no place in our scheme of reality but belongs to an an absolutely different one, and which at the same time arouses an irrepressible interest in the mind” (Otto 29). So while this or that symbolic system will claim justification for its policies on the basis of a declared reciprocal alliance with the Absolute, presumed to be the source of all religious experience of great symbolic importance, the relation is far more fluid and destabilizing to the boundaries it has constructed and enforced. “The magic objects tossed behind the panic-ridden hero--protective interpretations, principles, symbols, rationalizations, anything--delay and absorb the power of the Hound of Heaven, permitting the adventurer to come back into his fold safe and with perhaps a boon” (Campbell 176).

Hitherto we have discussed the amorphous boundaries and definitions of the concept of “the Other”, a term whose exact meaning is defined by the context in which it is used. It is in this regard that we now come to the work of Jean-Paul Sartre’s longtime partner and protege, Simone de Beauvoir, to tie together the various strands explored so far and relate them to questions of courage, anxiety, and the gender dynamics of horror spectatorship. Considering herself the Socratic midwife of Sartre’s existential ethics, Beauvoir was a crucial early pioneer in the synthesis of existentialism and feminism, whose work has been highly influential to feminists and social theorists ever since. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir begins by asking in so many words the question “What is woman?”, demonstrating that in her time the definition of what it means to be a woman is a contested category. “To state the question is, to me, to suggest, at once, a preliminary answer. The fact that I ask it is in itself significant. A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man” (Beauvoir xxi) Even so, within my own time the question of “What is man?”, and what it means to be a man is a similarly contested category. Why indeed should the definition of masculinity be beyond philosophical inquiry and scrutiny, not least on the authority of Beauvoir’s own work? For many males, the threat of not really being a man, to not embody the essence of “masculinity”, is a very grave source of anxiety indeed, one to which many will respond by adopting stereotypical patterns of behavior and the metaphysical views they imply.

Still, Beauvoir has a point in that this state of affairs implies that “woman” is culturally defined not in relation to herself as an existential subject, but in relation to man who defines her existence through his agency. Drawing out the implications of this, Beauvoir concludes “man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being... She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.” (Beauvoir xxii) Here the amorphous boundaries of the concept of the Other assume a distinctly social definition to describe those who occupy positions of marginalization, such as women, Jews, blacks, indigenous peoples subject to colonization, laborers subject to those who control the means of production, and all other persons and people-groups relegated to the boundaries of a given socio-economic and symbolic order not specifically named by Beauvoir. One becomes marked and denigrated as Other by those in power who posit themselves as Subjects by means of their dominion over the definition and destiny of the Other. The power of this normative masculine gaze held by the postulated Subject to define his Other in relation to him is itself related to the objectifying look of the Other in the sense previously spoken of by Sartre. This underscores the importance of distinguishing between the different, but related senses of Otherness hitherto discussed.

The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts... Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought. Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself. If three travellers chance to occupy the same compartment, that is enough to make vaguely hostile ‘others’ out of all the rest of the passengers on the train...

Lévi-Strauss, at the end of a profound work on the various forms of primitive societies, reaches the following conclusion: ‘Passage from the state of Nature to the state of Culture is marked by man’s ability to view biological relations as a series of contrasts; duality, alternation, opposition, and symmetry, whether under definite or vague forms, constitute not so much phenomena to be explained as fundamental and immediately given data of social reality.’ These phenomena would be incomprehensible if in fact human society were simply a Mitsein or fellowship based on solidarity and friendliness. Things become clear, on the contrary, if, following Hegel, we find in consciousness itself a fundamental hostility towards every other consciousness; the subject can be posed only in being opposed – he sets himself up as the essential, as opposed to the other, the inessential, the object. But the other consciousness, the other ego, sets up a reciprocal claim (Beauvoir xxii-xxiii).
Because of this primal hostility, the existential subject is formed against the backdrop of the Other, even as this subject must somehow address the Other’s claim to subjectivity. Within the context of patriarchal culture, the “problem” is addressed by the patriarchate positing themselves as the Subject of history, against which the Other’s claim to existential sovereignty is denied. And yet, “The native travelling abroad is shocked to find himself in turn regarded as a ‘stranger’ by the natives of neighbouring countries. As a matter of fact, wars, festivals, trading, treaties, and contests among tribes, nations, and classes tend to deprive the concept Other of its absolute sense and to make manifest its relativity; willy-nilly, individuals and groups are forced to realize the reciprocity of their relations” (Beauvoir xxiii). This being the case, Beauvoir goes on to query:

How is it, then, that this reciprocity has not been recognised between the sexes, that one of the contrasting terms is set up as the sole essential, denying any relativity in regard to its correlative and defining the latter as pure otherness? Why is it that women do not dispute male sovereignty? No subject will readily volunteer to become the object, the inessential; it is not the Other who, in defining himself as the Other, establishes the One. The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One. But if the Other is not to regain the status of being the One, he must be submissive enough to accept this alien point of view. Whence comes this submission in the case of woman? (Beauvoir xxiii-xxiv).
In answering this query, Beauvoir brings up two basic points that will be extrapolated throughout the rest of the work. The first is related to the concrete domination of man over woman and social resources. “To decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal – this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste. Man-the-sovereign will provide woman-the-liege with material protection and will undertake the moral justification of her existence; thus she can evade at once both economic risk and the metaphysical risk of a liberty in which ends and aims must be contrived without assistance. Indeed, along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become a thing” (Beauvoir xxvii). The second point, therefore, is an extrapolation of Sartre’s notion that “man is condemned to free”, which is to say that woman is beset by anxiety rooted in the ontic awareness of her own existential freedom. To evade and repress this anxiety, she surrenders her deep-rooted freedom to the demands of a patriarchal culture, becoming the Other against which it is positied without so much as finding the means of resistance, an existential act of taking oneself in bad faith. Similarly, in The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich argues the great temptation of his age is to surrender “the courage to be as oneself,” a life-stance he sees as embodied in existentialism, to the stifling demands of normalizing conformity to Soviet or American culture.

Over against these temptations to an inessential life, as “existence proceeds essence” implies that the fact of existing proceeds whoever exactly one exists as, Simone de Beavoir proposes that woman must have the courage to posit herself as an existent in her own right, and make the claim to reciprocal subjectivity. For her part, Beauvoir’s work implies, but never explicitly states a doctrine of courage to enable woman the courage to be as herself, over against ontic anxieties and cultural pressures that would tend toward her negation. “A young girl,” says Beauvoir, “who had no special deference to the stronger sex, was reproaching a man for his cowardice; it was remarked that she herself was a coward. ‘Oh, a woman, that’s different!’ declared she, complacently. The fundamental reason for such defeatism is that the adolescent girl does not think herself responsible for her future; she sees no use in demanding much of herself since her lot in the end will not depend on her own efforts” (Beauvoir 335).

The present author recalls a heated online discussion with a young woman over the filmic quality of The Crazies directed by Breck Eisner, claiming that the film’s graphic content is naturally repulsive to her as a woman, and that she was “forced” to watch it by an ex-boyfriend. For his part, Eisner is admirably gender conscious, the film’s heroine displaying exactly the type of courage throughout, so it is not as if she is complaining about watching something demeaning as such. In regard to her point about “natural” repulsion, I made a timely application of the theories of Julia Kristeva and Rudolf Otto to show how that her attitudes regarding abjection were self-reflexive of her attitudes about her body and her self, and that the film deployed aesthetic discourse of abjection to make a critique of normative American culture in the age of terror. But most important to the present contexts is the way I made reference to Simone de Beavoir’s philosophy of existential freedom to challenge the idea that she could truly be “forced” to watch the movie. To truly be “forced” to watch a movie, said the present author, one would have to be strapped in the seat with their eyes held open, as in the Ludovico technique of A Clockwork Orange. As this sort of viewing experience remains remarkably unpopular, it becomes clear that she was not so much forced to watch the movie, as she refused to exercise her existential freedom not to watch the movie because of the consequences attached to it. As such, in saying that she was “forced” to watch the movie, she takes herself in bad faith by failing to exercise her existential freedom in a cultural situation of unlocked theater doors which remain open to her. Noting that the young woman was remarkably outspoken, I queried why she failed to exercise this freedom, drawing parallel between the political themes of the film and her personal situation with her ex-boyfriend. Here I aptly cited Simone de Beauvoir’s remarks in the conclusion to The Second Sex:

The innumerable conflicts which set men and women against one another come from the fact neither is prepared to assume all the consequences of this situation which the one has offered and the other accepted. The doubtful concept of “equality in inequality,” which the one uses to mask his despotism and the other to mask her cowardice, does not stand the test of experience: in their exchanges, woman appeals to the theoretical equality she has been guaranteed, and man the concrete inequality that exists (Beauvoir 721-722).
Whereas these conflicts had already broken the relationship, in the case of this young woman existential courage may have been exercised by walking out of the movie. But here we will posit another kind of courage, a courageous spectatorship exercised by the feminine gaze upon horror films to challenge the fears and anxieties that bind her to an inessential existence. Stereotypical cultural norms would have it that that women beset by fears and anxieties in the midst of viewing a horror film should respond by leaning upon her man and drawing upon his courage, and all that implies for her role in the world and its future. But for the woman to face these with a courage of her own implies a much greater field of possibilities for her within the world and its future. Thus Linda Williams admits an ambivalent affinity for horror because of its capacity for expression of women’s desires, and “a surprising (and at times subversive) affinity between monster and woman, in the sense in which her look at the monster recognizes their similar status within patriarchal structures of seeing” (Williams 18). In her essay’s conclusion, Williams implores “It is crucial for women spectators to realize the important change that is taking place before our very eyes, which habits of viewing, not to mention habits of not viewing, or closing our eyes to violence and horror in general, may keep us from seeing. We are so used to sympathizing, in traditional cringing ways, with the female victims of horror that we are not likely to notice the change, to assume that films such as these have maintained this sympathy while simply escalating the doses of violence and sex” (Williams 32).

Here Williams makes the essentializing move of presuming complete assimilation of the post-Psycho family of horror films to the entire body of film like a Platonic essence out of hell, an unfortunately common stereotype for a genre that specializes in destabilizing norms and confounding expectations (Psycho itself is an excellent example). She is surely right, however, in highlighting the need for women to exercise courageous spectatorship to face the world and its problems, not least those which pertain to her existential self-affirmation. As critics from Robin Wood to David J. Skal have emphasized, horror cinema represents a cinematic space for “the return of the repressed”, in which buried anxieties related to unadressed problems in the body politic, problems ontologically grounded in the human existential condition, can resurface symbolically in the conflicts of the narrative and be consciously addressed. This being the case, horror cinema is ideal for the exercise of the virtue of courage, which yields many blessings.

Like many feminist film critics drawing upon the work of Laura Mulvey, Linda Williams’ account of horror spectatorship fails to take into account the existential capacity for subjective interpretation, not least as applies to audience reception. Whereas she takes the monster’s raison d'être to be the punishment of the female gaze, her essay in general strongly implies manifest anxieties related to gender and sexuality. If the male monster is grotesque and disfigured, it is not because he is really a “double for the women” (Williams 20), but rather because he is an extension of male anxieties related to the threat of castration, and through it to the fear of withstanding the female gaze, as projected through the myth of Medusa. This is the reverse side of the virile male hero that has engendered voyeuristic cinema structures in an egotistical mode of wish fulfillment; only this time the male monster looks and discovers only horror and revulsion in the face of his desires. Like the adolescent male, “He looks into the mirror, hoping to see Lothario or Lochivar, Paul Newman or Paul McCartney. Instead, staring back is pimply, half-formed apparition as appalling as the Creature from the Black Lagoon” (Greenberg 340). After these remarks, Harvey Roy Greenberg goes on to write “The hero of The Wolf Man (1941) and the heroine of Cat People are both afflicted with the adolescent’s alienation, the painful sense of--as one patient put it--‘being alone and afraid, in a world I never made’” (Greenberg 341). Similarly, Rick Worland remarks:

That adolescents who, to greater or lesser extents, often picture themselves as physically ugly victims of a fearful and punitive society have largely sustained the horror film economically suggests another basis for the genre’s steady popularity. These often-ambiguous reactions to the monster are the aspects that readily admit the work of Lon Chaney. The fear of death is reflexively tied to the dread of injury, mutilation, and of disfigurement, results that are not only physiological but also strongly bound up with physiological and also social factors. Chaney’s Quasimodo is a sympathetic, even heroic figure. He is also a martyr, his deformed back stripped for public ridicule and whipped in the film’s most famous sequence (Worland 146).
An apt illustration of Linda Williams’ description of the woman’s sympathetic gaze in horror, in this very scene Esmeralda brings the humiliated creature some much needed water in parallel to the passion and affliction of Christ. This alliance in turn affords new existential possibilities created by a partnership not of the One and the Other, but of an affinity of dyadic alterity with monstrous potential to redefine the norm. This is the underlying root of what Williams terms “the extreme excitement and surplus danger when the monster and the woman get together” (Williams 24). Most monsters within the classical period of horror cinema possess a certain element of androgyny that ties his condition to that of woman, i.e. in the Wolf Man’s susceptibility to moon phases, or Dracula’s flowing sensuous clothing. Williams herself remarks, “Clearly the monster’s power is one of sexual difference from the normal male” (Williams 20). Anxieties related to gender and sexuality are often ontologically rooted in an implied essentialist view of gender, so that if one has an affinity for this or that, or is unable to perform this or that norm, one is not really a man or woman. Thus in horror’s classical period we have disfigured creatures which defy social and gender norms, while in the family of films following Peeping Tom and Psycho, we have tormented young men experiencing deep-rooted anxieties related to their gender, sexuality, and place in the world, which ultimately results in a violent return of the repressed.

And yet, precisely in giving expression to these fears and allowing them to be confronted courageously, horror cinema points the way to a broadened, existential view of gender, which allows a greater range of possibilities and affinities. Similarly, in her study of audience reception and advertising messages in horror’s classical period, Rhona J. Berenstein documents the implied cultural appeal of the genre was its capacity to challenge normative gender roles in the very act of spectatorship. “For example, in order to draw as many patrons to Mark of the Vampire as possible, a first-aid stretcher was placed in the lobby of the Loew’s Colonial Theatre in Reading, Pennsylvania. The in-house stunt was accompanied by advertisements in the town’s newspapers addressed to ‘women who are not afraid.’ The notices recounted the film’s story line and challenged female viewers to attend a screening. As a copy for the ad suggests, the contest winner was expected to respond against her conventional gender role--by being brave” (Berenstein 128). In the present author’s experience, responses to horror films among women range from an acute case of the heebie jeebies, and all that implies for repressed terrors and anxieties which ultimately lie elsewhere, and a strong sense of affinity expressed in individuals with the courage to defy social norms. Similarly, horror challenges the false courage of those who believe that musculinity is rooted in never experiencing fears or anxieties, enabling them to confront these elements of negation to lead a more essential existence. Soren Kierkegaard once somewhere said, or at least implied that “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” In this regard, the monsters of horror cinema can act as a mythic guide to lead them through their anxieties to a greater range of freedom and possibilities for the future. Commenting on the capacity of myth and ritual (and by extension, horror films), in all its ego-shattering aspects to catalyze a return of the repressed, Joseph Campbell writes:

But this realm, as we know from psychoanalysis, is precisely the infantile unconscious. It is the realm that we enter in sleep. We carry it within ourselves forever. All the ogres and secret helpers of our nursery are there, all the magic of childhood. And more important, all the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring into adult realization, those other portions of ourself, are there; for such golden seeds do not die. If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvelous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life. We should tower in stature. Moreover, if we could dredge up something forgotten not only by ourselves but by our whole generation or our entire civilization, we should become indeed the boon-bringer, the culture hero of the day--a personage of not only local but world historical moment (Campbell 12).
The purpose of this essay is to show how women and men can use the monsters of horror cinema as a personal guide, and catalyst of discovery of precisely these potentialities. Out in the real world, it is my hope that they will make use of these means of courage to face social and gender anxieties to recognize and affirm those undergoing the same. Within this recognition is the tremendous potentiality implied by the co-relationship between woman and monster within horror cinema. As a window to these possibilities, one may here cite Edward Scissorhands directed by Tim Burton, a film that reveals the tremendous creative potentialities, and indeed potencies, within woman and monster alike if only they would but affirm each other. This is an important corrective to the violent repression of Psycho, Peeping Tom, Dressed to Kill, Halloween, and all the slasher films. Like Edward, we can use these powers not to destroy, but to create, and to challenge stifling normativity to reveal remarkable new potentials for the future.

Works Cited:

Beavoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Berenstein, Rhona J. “‘It Will Thrill You, It May Shock You, It Might Even Horrify You’: Gender, Reception, and Classic Horror Cinema.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1996. 117-142.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero of a Thousand Faces (Third Edition). Novato: New World Library, 2008.
deSilva, David A. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Greenberg, Harvey Roy. “King Kong: The Beast in the Boudoir--or, ‘You Can’t Marry That Girl, You’re a Gorilla!’.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1996. 338-351.
Kierkegaard, Søren. “The Concept of Anxiety.” The Essential Kierkegaard Ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 138-155.
Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Trans. Jan Van Bragt. London: University of California Press Ltd., 1982.
Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. London: Oxford University Press, 1950.
Paffenroth, Kim. Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006.
Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Williams, Linda. “When the Woman Looks.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1996. 15-34.
Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Everyday is Halloween: A Contextual Analysis of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (English Composition II)

Imagine a circle of deep-rooted trees in the midst of a dense forest. Upon each of these trees is a carefully carved and hand painted emblem, a heart, a shamrock, an egg, a turkey, but especially a Christmas tree and jack-o’-lantern. Each of these emblems is a door with a handle, and if you turn the handle, you can step inside the hollow of the tree to enter a whole new world patterned after the particular holiday that emblem symbolizes. As you descend into this circle of trees from aloft, a storybook narrator guides you around each of these trees, appealing to your curiosity about where holidays come from, before stopping to open the jack-o’-lantern door and invite you inside. A pitch darkness now covers everything in sight, and a distant jack-’o-lantern is the only source of light. As you come closer, the pumpkin head is revealed to belong to a cruciform scarecrow attached to a signpost that reads “Halloween Town”. The scarecrow blows in the wind with the autumn leaves as you come near, and you find yourself in a spooky grey cemetery. There the spirits of the dead immediately rise to greet you, inviting you participate in the town festivities. Departing from the cemetery gates and entering a town filled with steep Gothic spires, you are met by such familiar childhood terrors as the monsters under your bed and stairs. Continuing on your tour, you are met by such town citizens as vampires, the mayor (a literally two-faced politician), a tentacled amphibious creature, werewolves, and witches. As per their yearly autumn ritual, the gentle monsters play their own parts in a scary--but not too scary--display of their own unique powers to frighten. Singing the town anthem “This Is Halloween”, the monsters say that it’s okay to be thrilled and scared, to take risks and “ride with the moon in the dead of night”. And while shadows on the moon bring terrors in the night, it’s still worth it to find the courage to face them, because “life’s no fun without a good scare.” But really, none of the monsters here are mean, it’s just their job to frighten us. In other words, monsters can be our friends, they can help guide us through darkness and discontent, because these are areas with which they are intimately familiar.

Such is the unforgettable opening scene of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, a 1993 stop-motion animated film directed by Henry Selick, and produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi. Originally conceived while working for Walt Disney in the 1980’s, Tim Burton drew up the original character designs and story, but was disappointed by the constraints the company placed upon him, which would prohibit a full-length stop-motion animated feature, and put the project on hold. Burton cites as creative influences Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated holiday features such as Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Mad Monster Party, et al., as well as How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Burton & Salisbury 115-116, Carroll). “The initial impulse for doing it was the love of Dr Seuss and those holiday specials that I grew up watching... Those crude stop-motion animation holiday things that were on year-in, year-out make an impact on you early and stay with you. I had grown up with those and had a real feeling for them, and I think, without being too direct, the impulse was to do something like that” (Burton & Salisbury 115). Finally, in 1990, with the financial and popular success of Edward Scissorhands and Batman, Burton began discrete inquiries regarding whether Walt Disney held the rights to The Nightmare Before Christmas. “And they did own it,” says Burton, “because they own everything. There’s this thing you sign when you work there, which states that any thoughts you have during your employment are owned by the thought police. Obviously, there’s no real way of doing it quietly. We tried, but they were soon right there and they were fine - which is against their nature - so I’m very respectful and feel honoured that they let it happen” (Ibid. 118)

Owing to his commitment to directing Batman Returns, and the slow, painstaking nature of the medium, Tim Burton entrusted the project to fellow Disney veteran and stop-motion animation director Henry Selick while taking a very active hand in its production. Because of this shared authorship, The Nightmare Before Christmas provides an excellent introduction to both directors’ distinctive styles, sensibilities, symbolism, and themes. What qualities are most clearly shared in Burton’s and Selick’s work is a strong affinity for the ethos of the outsider, and for German Expressionism as processed through Gothic horror films of the genre’s classical period. By means of this Gothic Expressionism, the familiar can be rendered the uncanny, revealing dark or strange undercurrents inherent in normative life that create deep-rooted conflict for the outsider protagonist and his or her allies. By facing these undercurrents, and challenging cultural pressures for stifling conformity with strange but authentic passions, the outsider hero or heroine can discover a boon of creative power which will lead to a qualitatively better life than that which has been ordained by a repressive status quo. Not coincidentally, these qualities make Tim Burton’s and Henry Selick’s work quite popular among alienated youth and creative misfits in general, and the Gothic subculture in particular. This holds especially true for The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film that has become iconic to the degree that its vast array of merchandise both bootlegged and official has become an instantly recognizable cultural symbol of affinity for the dark, strange and unusual.

Jillian Venters, an online Gothic advice columnist who goes by the title “The Lady of the Manners”, suggests Goths faced with concerned friends or family members to “ask them what they think Goth means and try not to roll your eyes or snort derisively at whatever movie-of-the-week answer nonsense they come up with. Instead, after they’re done talking about the dangers of Goth, gently explain what Goth really is. Start with ‘family-friendly’ examples such as The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Tim Burton movies such as Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, or Corpse Bride” (Venters 77). Of course, The Addams Family is not “family-friendly” in the sense that The Brady Bunch is “family-friendly”, as each of these sources entails an interesting critique of normative family dynamics, opening fresh passions and possibilities. But of special interest here is the way Venters, an “eldergoth” (a term describing a longtime of the Goth who has been involved with the scene since its flowering in the 1980‘s), takes The Nightmare Before Christmas as an important clue of contextualization to help non-Goths understand the ethos of the subculture. Similarly, Gothic musician, writer, and renaissance man Voltaire references the massive cultural and subcultural influence of Tim Burton’s films in the context of defending popular Glam Metal musician Marilyn Manson against his Gothic scenester critics. “While Manson owes more to Alice Cooper than he does to Peter Murphy, he has undoubtedly succeeded in bringing the Gothic aesthetic to a mainstream audience (an accomplishment only rivaled by the cinematic contributions of Tim Burton)” (Voltaire 90). Within the text, Burton’s direct influence upon the subculture is almost taken as a given. This is discretely signaled by the Ethergoth’s comfortable “night in with a Tim Burton movie”, the Deathrocker’s “‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ Boxer Shorts” concealed beneath black pants with extra belts, and the subcultural appeal of “Tim Burton’s Tragic Toys” (Ibid. 7, 55, 93).

Tim Burton’s own attitude toward the Gothic subculture appears to be one of strong affinity. Throughout his career, he has kept current on aesthetic developments in the subculture, most recently giving us a second round of Steampunk Gothic horror with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Gothic & Lolita inspired looking-glass romanticism in Alice in Wonderland. Lydia Deetz, the Romantigoth heroine of Beetlejuice, remains a personal and subcultural favorite among all Goths presented on film. Tim Burton grew up in suburban Los Angeles heavily influenced by the first wave of Punk, and appears to view musical offshoots such as New Wave and Goth as springing from the roots rather than branches breaking off to form something else. Describing his profound alienation and anger in high school, Burton comments “It was as if I was exuding an aura that said ‘Leave Me The Fuck Alone’... But punk music was good, that helped me, it was good for me emotionally. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but there’s enough weird movies out there that you can go a long time without friends and see something new everyday that kind of speaks to you” (Burton & Salisbury 2). One of the signature features of the majority of Tim Burton’s films is that they are scored by Danny Elfman, the lead vocalist of of Oingo Boingo, a New Wave/Ska Punk band that began as an offshoot of an eccentric theater group, and which remains popular in the Gothic subculture owing to its macabre playfulness. Burton remarks of Oingo Boingo “Before I was in the movies I’d go see them in clubs. I had always liked their music. Of all the groups that I went to see, which was mainly the punk kind of stuff, which I love, I always felt that because they had more people in the band and used weirder instruments, the music seemed to be more story-oriented in some way, more filmic” (Ibid. 48). Similarly, in Batman Returns, the film Burton directed contemporaneously to the production of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gothic icons Siouxsie & The Banshees perform Catwoman’s theme “Face To Face”. Director Henry Selick’s attitude toward the Gothic subculture seems to be one of quiet acceptance, simply stating of audiences attending his 2009 film Coraline, “There were some blue-haired girls too, kids into Goth and emo, what you might expect” (Capone). When the interviewer connects this to the aesthetic style and enduring popularity of The Nightmare Before Christmas, its “classic Goth image”, Selick gratefully relates an anecdote. He tells of of a completely tatooed woman during the October 2006 The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D re-release who asked him to sign her leg, which she would then turn into a matching tatoo along with Burton’s and Elfman’s signatures. “It’s great to be a part of anything that has a life beyond the first few weeks,” he concludes (Ibid.). Reading between the lines, it seems fair to say that Selick is cool with the Goths who are fans of his movies if he takes pride in this kind of fan.

Also during The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D re-release, MTV interviewer Larry Carroll disparages the subculture, inquiring of Burton “For better or worse, you're a patron saint of the so-called ‘goth’ movement. How do you feel about that?” (Carroll) But Burton defends Goths, responding “People get scared of people like that, but they really are quite sweet, great people. It's that image versus what people have in their heart versus what people think people should look like — that always causes a problem” (Ibid.). The interviewer further inquires “On the flip side, though, goth kids are often linked with things like suicide and cutting. Have you ever had an encounter with a fan who ultimately took the goth thing too far?” (Ibid). To this Burton responds “Well, I can only speak for myself, and I know responding to that kind of imagery didn't make me worse. It made me feel more at home and psychologically able to work out certain things. People argue the opposite, that it creates that kind of problem, but most of the people are using it to work out things in life” (Ibid.). Within this interview, Carroll also brings up the most common objection to The Nightmare Before Christmas: “Usually, people think of Halloween as death and monsters, and they associate Christmas with love and family. Should the holidays be segmented like that?” (Ibid.) In response, Burton appeals to the precedent of Christmas slasher film Black Christmas, which probably had very little influence, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which holds more thematic parallelism. Converse to Carroll, horror film historian David J. Skal remarks “Filmmaker Tim Burton captured the odd, interdependent energies of America’s two leading holidays in the animated feature the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). directed by Henry Selick” (Skal 396-397). But why indeed should these two holidays seemingly at complete odds with each other be so closely interrelated?

To be sure, kids often really freak out in the presence of Santa Claus, apparently enough so to build a niche of horror parallel to the fear of clowns, and Nightmare’s hero Jack Skellington can indeed appeal to the modus operandi of “Sandy Claws” to get the creatures of Halloween Town really excited about Christmas. Halloween is a holiday rooted and autumn and harvest, with its attendant reminders of death and apocalyptic forces, and is believed to be a time when the dead are closest to the living, as mediated by pagan, Christian, and post-Christian cultural practices. The Nightmare Before Christmas pays homage to this aspect of Halloween by means of its representation of the communion between the living and the dead in the aforementioned opening scene, in the way the cemetery occupies a communal center as a restful refuge, and in Jack’s companionship with the ghost-dog Zero. While Jesus of Nazareth was probably born in the spring, the influence of Sextus Julius Africanus’ chronology popularized the notion of a December advent to similar symbolic resonance. “Part of the immense satisfaction of the Christian story,” writes literary professor Thomas C. Foster, “is that the two great celebrations, Christmas and Easter, coincide with dates of great seasonal anxiety. The story of the birth of Jesus, and of hope, is placed almost on the shortest, and therefore most dismal (preelectric) day of the year” (Foster 183). One important element of the Wisdom Christological hymn of Jesus’ advent in John’s Gospel is that the dawning of the true light reveals how very dark the world is, and with characteristic thematic resonance Jesus later remarks “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil” (John 7:7). Within a tragic and corrupted world, there is no greater evidence that love and death, joy and suffering, vocation and doubt, go hand in hand than Jesus himself. To John, the metaphor of “darkness” represents an absence of saving light and knowledge, while to Goth the metaphor of “darkness” represents the experience of suffering, doubt, and death. In a crucial sense, therefore, John’s “light” is not fundamentally incompatible with Goth’s aesthetic of “darkness”, contrary to certain Christian opponents of the subculture, because of the contextual meanings attached to those words. The Nightmare Before Christmas aligns more closely with secular celebrations of Christmas and Halloween, but the film holds generally respectful to basic Christian beliefs. The cemeteries of the film are places where the dead are hallowed, and prominently feature crosses and an angel holding the book of life (cf. Revelation 20:11-13). Santa Claus cites as his ethos the words of the host of angels in Luke’s Gospel “Haven’t you heard of peace on earth, and good will toward men?” (cf. Luke 2:11-14). This is to say that this is the true spirit of the Christmas despite kidnaping pranksters, and military installations that blast dreams out of the sky owing to cultural misunderstandings. Even then, the man with the strangely melting face is allowed the dignity of a discrete prayer on Jack’s behalf in the time of his peril.

But we live in times when the words of the angels and Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) have not yet come to completion, and the churches act with stunning complicity and collusion with the powers that be. They have become part of the problem instead of people of the solution, the mere guardians of repressive normativity above the praxis of nativity. Not coincidentally, this figures strongly in Tim Burton’s filmic critique of the repressive legacy of Puritanism, rooted in the ideology of Calvinism, upon the American church and society throughout his career. Commenting on the cultural appeal of holidays like Christmas and Halloween, Burton remarks that “The best I can decipher is that when you grow up in a blank environment, any form of ritual, like a holiday, gives you a sense of place. Most other countries are rich with ritual, but I guess America is a relatively new country and a fairly Puritan one. Growing up in a suburban environment where it’s pushed even further in that direction, makes you feel very floaty. So holidays, especially those two, were very much a grounding or a way to experience the seasons, because in California you don’t get any” (Burton & Salisbury 124). In application, the project of The Nightmare Before Christmas is to counteract American ritual deprivation rooted in Puritan austerity by emphasizing two important rituals deeply rooted in the nation’s cultural fabric as a way to mark one’s subjective sense of place within the cosmic order of time and space. The film retains its perennial impact and popularity by aligning with the most effective elements of sources like the Rankin/Bass holiday specials to create a filmic ritual of the seasons for those marginalized by their surrounding environment. Similarly, Simon Reynolds notes an important element of the ethos of the Gothic subculture from its origins. “Redefining punk rebellion as deviance from norms, these proto-Goths proposed an escape from the crushing commonplaceness of everyday English life, into ritual and ceremony, magic and mystery” (Reynolds 354). So important is the element of religious critique and ritual emphasis to the Gothic subculture that I like to say “Goth is to religion what Punk is to politics”.

Of course, even churches founded with the intent of including those outcast by the normative gaze of can also become part of the problem. It is in this regard that the present author recalls sitting with his darkly inclined friends, each with a certain affinity for androgyny, amongst a congregation resembling the Island of Misfit Toys. There Reese Roper preached an unfortunate sermon against Christmas titled “Jesus... The Third Way” (Roper). In his sermon, Roper expresses grave concerns about the Dionysian element of ancient pagan rituals of the Winter Solstace, effectively rooting the Christian life in a strategy of repression, rather than cathartic sublimation through dramatic forms like tragedy and horror. The gospel and the passions represented by Christmas celebrations ancient and contemporary, we are to understand, are irreconcilable, and the intrinsic power of the ritual must be denied, not transfigured. But of greatest relevance here is the way he lampoons Rankin/Bass holiday specials like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, calling them “some candy coated cartoon about some stupid snowman, or some effeminate elf that really in his heart of hearts wants only to be a dentist” (Ibid.). This remark is interesting, not because of his implied gender essentialism, fear of feminization, or characteristic insensitivity, but to the extent they reveal an element of critique of normative gender and social roles in Burton’s source material. Amidst a narrative about misfits struggling against prejudice and insecurity because of their unique differences from imposed norms, the advice is to align with others facing similar problems and discover power in those differences. If Santa Claus can affirm Rudolph, perhaps it is because he faced prejudice of his own for being so gosh-darned liberal-minded in Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Compassionately trying to bestow toys to children growing up in a repressive environment of Sombertown, because he was raised by a family of toymaking elves, Kris Kringle runs into stark opposition by the town Burgomaster, and even his beloved Jessica, who is a schoolteacher. However, Jessica experiences an epiphany in the form of a psychedelic sugar plum vision which brings her to the realization that Kris Kringle is where it’s at. Exiled from the church and the nations by their ironic notoriety, the couple marries in the forest with God and Nature as their witness, moving operations to the North Pole.

On the darker side of things, Rankin/Bass Halloween special Mad Monster Party (1967) was another important influence upon The Nightmare Before Christmas. “There was one I liked when I was a kid,” says Burton, “called Mad Monster Party. People thought Nightmare was the first stop-motion animated monster musical, but that was” (Burton & Salisbury 121). Mad Monster Party concerns the a party thrown by Baron von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff), who summons all the classic Universal Monsters together to learn who is to become his successor upon his impending retirement. The reason for his retirement is that he has used his scientific knowledge to channel “the power of the universe” to discover “the secret of destruction”, leaving a mushroom cloud in its wake. But rather than leave it all of these terrifying creatures, Frankenstein determines to bequeath his rich legacy to young Felix Flankin, his klutzy but kind-hearted young nephew, whose greatest monstrosity appears to be that he is an uncontrollable sneeze machine. The film is filled with the kind of punny horror humor popularized by publications Famous Monsters of Filmland, and Felix, we are to understand, stands in for all the young people like Tim Burton who peruse such entertainment while dealing with their anxieties. Of course, among the company conflicts and conspiracies are rife, the most dangerous being a plot between Count Dracula and the beautiful but deadly femme fatale Francesca to bump off poor unsuspecting Felix before the announcement to change the verdict. But beyond mere power, Francesca wants the freedom and autonomy denied her by Frankenstein, who has created her with the intention of making her his wife. Fortunately, young Felix is very lucky indeed, and after obliviously surviving several assassination attempts, actually meets Francesca, who realizes the lad is far too unassuming to be a threat, and the two fall in love. Still, the monsters grow restless about this decidedly un-monstrous inheritor, and unite against him. In the finale, King Kong, standing in for junior’s enormous libido, comes in to rescue him from all the monsters that beset him, but becomes an even greater danger. The island gets nuked by Frankenstein when all is said and done, while Felix and Francesca ride away in a boat to return home from their adventure. Francesca stereotypically bursts into tears at an unexpected time, having a cyborg gender crisis about only being a construct, but the two are revealed to have more in common than they previously realized. It is a film that makes sustained reflection on the way young people make use of horror as a kind of myth to guide them through rites of passage and deal with their anxieties, especially those related to gender roles, sexuality, and social dangers of the atomic age.

Another important influence is the widely beloved, if also widely lampooned, B-movie holiday classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). The film is fittingly set on Mars, a planet dedicated to war and technological imperialism. The film opens on green antenna-capped Martian children mesmerized by a news broadcast interviewing Santa Claus at the North Pole on behalf of the children of earth. Naming off his reindeer, Santa deadpans “Nixon” among the list, effectively linking the narrative to the contemporaneous Vietnam War by reference to former Vice President and future President Richard Nixon. Owing to its rigid and excessively rationalist social structure, the educational system allows the Martian children no room for formative play or subjective expression, its “electronic teaching machines” plugging in an adult level of information and indoctrination straight from the cradle. Sensing on some level the absurdity of the world imposed upon them, these alienated Martian children rebel en masse by withdrawing into the constant vigil of earth television programs, no matter how “silly”, “ridiculous”, or “meaningless”. Deeply concerned about this emergent phenomenon of dysfunction, the noble Kimar consults the 800 year old sage Chochem concerning its origins and solution. Famously, actor Leonard Hicks brings a strong Shakespearean quality to his performance as Kimar, something like Julius Caesar for the age of telecommunications and space technologies, which has been variously interpreted as making this particular earth program more or less ridiculous than it already is. Informed by Chochem that the Martian children have made Santa an icon of their need for play, and that Mars needs a Santa Claus so children can be children, Kimar resolves to kidnap and dislocate the earth Santa to save the children of Mars. After some genuine silliness, Santa finds himself shanghaied aboard a rocket ship with a couple of no-nonsense kids as wily saboteurs to the rescue. Now really upset about Santa’s disappearance, the nations of earth manage to get along for once in order to try to bring him back, calling on the assistance of space scientist Werner von Green. Upon landing, Santa is set to work in a Martian toy factory, despite being an old-fashioned kind of guy who likes everything handcrafted in his workshop. Needless to say, he wistfully laments this alienation of labor in being reduced to a button pusher with no control over the product of his craft. And some Martians are still dead set against the mere idea of a Santa on Mars, and try to kill him to preserve their good ol’ glory days. But the children intervene with their war toys and a kooky bubble jamboree, the screwball nobody knows what to do with becomes the Martian Santa Claus, and all earthlings are returned home. It is a quaint old film with renewed resonance for the children of the information age, who have grown up amidst the culture shifts of the Internet Revolution, widespread cynicism about systemic political and socio-economic corruption, and a disastrous campaign of Neoconservative American imperialism rooted in a period of post-Cold War anxieties, an age of terror.

The final film to note is How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), adapted from a children’s storybook written by Dr. Seuss. Voiced by actor Boris Karloff of Frankenstein fame, The Grinch is a furry (but by no means cuddly) green creature who lives in a cave on the outskirts of Whoville. Outcast and abjected from the Who’s Who of Whoville, the Grinch regards their yearly Christmas celebration as a perennial nuissance, a time when their noisy toy contraptions and joyful communal singing create a horrible racket. Taking a reductionist view of the Christmas holiday, the Grinch determines to steal all the material culture surrounding its celebration, so the Who’s will all sing “Boo Hoo” instead. To this end, the Grinch hatches a plan to disguise himself as Santa Claus to enter everyone’s home and steal all their Christmas stuff. But the Grinch, we are informed by Karloff as the omniscient narrator, has a heart that is two sizes too small. Even so, he practically has a heart attack when he is caught and interrogated by wide-eyed Cindy Lou Who, who wants to know “Santie Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why?” Children, who are undergoing the rudimentary processes of subjective formation, tend not to see contextualizing rituals and gift exchange through jaded eyes, but as a revelation of new possibilities within their world ordinarily concealed by normality. But the Grinch, like so many Grinches, makes up a fib and cop-out about fixing up the Christmas tree to rob Cindy Lou of her discovery, only himself to discover that the Who’s are still joyfully singing on Christmas morning. And so, “He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!” Experiencing his heart growing a whole three sizes, the Grinch summons immense strength to prevent his heavy-laden sleigh from falling off the mountain, and restores all the stuff to the proper Who’s, where he joins their Christmas feast as a guest of honor, carving up the roast beast.

These are the holiday films that have become perennially beloved from generation to generation, an important influence upon Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Even Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has found renewed popularity by way of being shown and lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000, while Mad Monster Party has been reissued in September 2009 as a special edition DVD to coincide with that year’s Halloween. Although typically propped up as a stabilizing norm for the holidays, each of these films share a strong outsider’s ethos with discernable elements of social critique. It is not surprising, therefore, that Tim Burton and Henry Selick would have such a strong affinity for this material in line with their directorial sensibilities. “The idea behind Nightmare,” says Burton, “also came from a combination of feelings to do with those Rudolph things. Thematically that’s something that I like, still respond to, and have responded to in other films about that type of character, somebody, like a Grinch, who is perceived as scary but isn’t. Again, that goes back to the monster movies I liked as a kid. They were perceived as frightening and bad, but they’re (sic) weren’t. It’s also true in society, people get perceived that way all the time” (Burton & Salisbury 116). This peculiar form of social ostracism is quite common among members of the Gothic subculture, both before and after their affiliation, and it is in this regard that horror-related imagery most deeply resonates. “The underlying philosophy of Goth is that our society is predominantly hypocritical,” writes Voltaire. “Goths hold that the ‘normal,’ ‘upstanding’ members of our society who pretend to be ‘good’ all of the time are in fact capable of doing great evil. This is because Goths are often people who were victims of some kind of abuse--physical, verbal, or emotional--at the hands of these very same self-righteous folk” (Voltaire 15). To such individuals, the monster appears as a kind of mythic hero or guide that emerges from the traumatized unconscious to fight off the alienating repressions of normalization. Here it is instructive to cite Burton’s comments about the appeal of horror movies growing up.

I’ve always loved monsters and monster movies. I was never terrified of them, I just loved them from as early as I can remember... And that kind of stuff just stuck with me. King Kong, Frankenstein, Godzilla, and Creature from the Black Lagoon - they’re all pretty much the same, they just have different rubber suits or make-up. But there was something about that identification. Every kid responds to some image, some fairy-tale image, and I felt that most monsters were misperceived, they usually had much more heartfelt souls than the human characters around them. Because I never read, my fairy tales were probably those monster movies. To me they’re very similar. I mean, fairy tales are extremely violent and extremely symbolic and disturbing, probably even more so than Frankenstein and stuff like that, which are kind of mythic and perceived as fairy-tale like. But fairy tales, like Grimms’ fairy tales, are probably closer to movies like The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, much rougher, harsher, full of bizarre symbolism. Growing up, I guess it was a reaction against a very puritanical, bureaucratic, fifties nuclear family environment - me resisting seeing things laid out, seeing things exactly as they were. That’s why I think I’ve always liked the idea of fairy tales or folk tales, because they’re symbolic of something else. There’s a foundation to them, but there’s more besides, they’re open to interpretation. I always liked that, seeing things and just having your own idea about them. So I think I didn’t like fairy tales specifically, I liked the idea of them more.

For a while I wanted to be the actor who played Godzilla. I enjoyed these movies and the idea of venting anger on such a grand scale. Because I was quiet, because I was not demonstrative in any way, those films were my form of release. I think I was pretty much against society from the beginning... I think these impulses to destroy society were formed very early. I went to see almost any monster movie, but it was the films of Vincent Price that spoke to me specifically for some reason. Growing up in suburbia, in an atmosphere that was perceived as nice and normal (but which I had other feelings about), those movies were a way to certain feelings, and I related them to the place I was growing up in... Vincent Price was somebody I could identify with. When you’re younger things look bigger, you find your own mythology, you find what psychologically connects to you. And those movies, just the poetry of them, and this larger-than-life character who goes through a lot of torment - mostly imagined - just spoke to me in the way Gary Cooper or John Wayne might have to somebody else (Burton & Salisbury 2-5).

Before his previously cited comments about the importance of attuning with the rhythm of the seasons, Burton notes the profound deprivation of myth in mainstream American culture. Citing the rich spiderweb of Native American myths surrounding characters like “The Dog Woman and Lizard Man” as an example of the way myths can “tap into your dreams and your subconscious”, he argues that films have this same power to effect symbolic healing from within. “It’s something I’ve found is not ingrained in American culture,” laments Burton, “that sense of myth or folklore. The best America could do is Johnny Appleseed - kind of soft, mutated” (Ibid. p. 124). Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell draws upon the work of Carl Jung and his predecessors to argue that mythic symbols arise from archetypes in the collective unconscious, which is why similar imagery emerges from cultures which never directly influenced each other. For example, the forest is a recurrent image in myths, fairy tales, horror films, and especially in Tim Burton’s movies where the hero or heroine undergoes a test, trial, or rite of passage, and there encounters powers not usually seen by the garrish light of day. “In the Grimms' tales, the forest is a supernatural world, a place where anything can happen and often does. According to Jungian psychology, the forest is a representation of the feminine principle and is identified with the unconscious. The foliage blocks the sun's rays, the sun being associated with the male principle. The forest symbolizes the dangerous side of the unconscious, its ability to destroy reason” (Heiner). But powers of horror situated at the borderlands of the symbolic also mark the location of unmapped boons to be discovered by the questing adventurer. Commenting on “The Princess and the Frog”, Joseph Campbell writes,

As a preliminary manifestation of the powers that are breaking into play, the frog coming up as it were by miracle, can be termed the ‘herald’; the crisis of his appearance is “the call to adventure”... It may sound the call to some high historical undertaking. Or it may mark the dawn of religious illumination. As apprehended by the mystic, it marks what has been termed “the awakening of the self.” In the case of the princess of the fairy tale, it signified no more than the coming of adolescence. But whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration--a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand. Typical of the circumstances of the call are the dark forest, the great tree, the babbling spring, and the loathly, underestimated appearance of the carrier of the power of destiny (Campbell 42-43).
One of the most common objections to the Gothic subculture is that its “Everyday is Halloween” aesthetic is inappropriate for everyday life, which is to say the psychic forces aroused by that Holiday must remain buried for all but one day of the year. Like the Gothic subculture, Halloween represents an opportunity for the destabilization of fixed roles imposed by normativity, allowing for the release of those repressed energies and anxieties denied by the culture. So by showing us the circle of trees for the holidays in the dark forest where rest all the archetypes, the film is saying ‘Come with me, and I will show you a place within where everyday is Halloween.’ In Halloween town, this kind of expression is the norm, not the stagnant masquerade of suburban hegemony that will admit of no alienation or discontent. Even here, Jack Skellington, the one honored as “the Pumpkin King” by a supportive community, suffers an ineffable longing and discontent with the incessant sameness. So basically, what Burton is saying here is that no matter what anyone else says, its okay to be sad or scared. Halloween Town is a landscape of perpetual autumn where the seasons never change and few plants grow. Trying to address the roots of this cultural malaise, Burton successfully attempts to set up a filmic myth to attune his viewers to the rhythm of the seasons. In one of the film’s most iconic images, Jack climbs a spiral hill in the perceived solitude of the cemetery to cry out his plight to the full moon, the camera in seeming orbit around lunar gravity. Within The Nightmare Before Christmas, and its two directors’ films in general, the symbol of the moon bears two related connotations. The first is that the moon is the visual representation of the unseen influence of Providence of Fate, just as the unseen pull of the moon governs the tides. Thus in Nightmare Jack enters the forest and is pulled in the door to Christmas town by the fateful wind shortly after this scene. Similarly in Coraline, when the moon is almost covered by the ominous shadow of the button that symbolizes imposed conformity, the competent but confounded heroine is ultimately rescued from this cruel fate by the feral feline Christ figure after uttering in despair “Oh, God. I've lost the game. I've lost everything.” When the moon is full and bright, there is certainty, but when covered in shadow, there is doubt and anxiety. The second connotation of the moon is related to the lunar-menstrual cycle, and through it the cycles of rhythm and fertility. In his book on the origins and history of rhythm, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart writes,

In the beginning was noise. And noise begat rhythm. And rhythm begat everything else... Everywhere we looked we saw rhythms, patterns moving through time - in the cycles of the stars and the migrations of animals, in the fruiting and withering of plants we gathered and eventually domesticated. Rhythm was the heart of mystery. And probably nothing was more mysterious for the ancients than the fact that once a month, with the waxing of the moon, the women in the tribe began to bleed. And if they didn’t bleed - that too was part of life’s mysterious rhythm (Hart 12).
Way back in the Neolithic era around 4500 B.C., a great site of pilgrimage was the city of Çatal Höyük. Travelers would come here to worship “multiple manifestations of one principle, known by such names as the great goddess, the great mother, the mother goddess,” and it was a “society focused around fertility and the rhythmical attunement to nature that agriculture demands” (Ibid. 72). A distinctly matrilineal cultus, Hart notes “A contemporary German scholar, Doris Stockmann, suggest that what went on in the sacred spaces of Çatal Hüyük were audiovisual dance rituals, where ‘each individual could experience and feel the event with all his senses.’ Percussion was the driving musical force behind those rituals. Painted on the walls of Çatal Hüyük are images of concussion sticks and clappers, bullroarers and flutes... According to archeologist Marija Gimbutas, author of The Language of the Goddess and one of the major scholars attempting to reconstruct the consciousness of Neolithic Old Europe, there was ‘an intimate relationship between the drum and the goddess’ (Ibid. 72-73). Whereas the importance of the rhythm fades with the rise of patriarchy and the ascent of male divinities, the connection between rhythm and the divine feminine principle never really goes away. One can get a sense of this in Exodus, when after Pharaoh’s armies drown in the sea, the prophetess Miriam engages in a tambourine ritual of celebration along with the women of the twelve tribes, and all that implies (Exodus 15:19-21). Perhaps rhythm may be said to be the herald song of Wisdom weaving together God’s new creation, a new exodus with myriad new possibilities. “Behold, I am making all things new”, says God in Revelation 21:5, where the holy city Jerusalem and the surrounding environment coexist in perfect harmony, in echo of the Wisdom of Solomon. There we read of Wisdom, “Though she is one, she can do all things, And while remaining in herself, she makes everything new. And passing into holy souls, generation after generation, she makes them friends of God, and prophets” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:27). Interestingly, the music of the Gothic subculture places a very strong emphasis upon rhythm and ritual, both in tribal rhythms of counter-cultural refusal of assimilation, and in the dysfunctional rhythms of technological existence. Notably, the ending of The Nightmare Before Christmas answers Jack’s malaise upon the hilltop with the proposed union with Sally upon the same spot, while Santa Claus brings the Christmas gift of snow, and with it, life-giving moisture and the change of seasons. In this regard, The Nightmare Before Christmas may rightly be regarded as a kind of contemporary fertility myth.

Having discussed elements of symbolism and intertextuality, let us now turn to the four principle characters of the film, Jack Skellington, Sally, Santa Claus, and Oogie Boogie. Within Christendom, the classic fertility myth is the story of the questing knight. In these stories, a young man as yet untested, but pure of heart, typically rides forth with his sword or lance to face some trial in search of the love of a maiden, or even the holy grail. At the origins of the story, the holy grail is basically about a guy who is trying to find how he can get a hold of a particular maiden’s number so he can learn about the rather remarkable chalice she was holding at a feast one night, which is to say about her sexuality. But as the story grows, it develops deeper mythic and mystical connotations about those who would seek to penetrate into the very ground of being to discover some ultimate Truth or Wisdom. “Typically the knight rides out from a community that has fallen on hard times. Crops are failing, rains have stopped, livestock and possibly humans are dying or failing to be born, the kingdom is turning into a wasteland. We need to restore fertility and order, says the aging king, too old now to go in search of fertility symbols” (Foster 136). These are very trying times indeed, so it is not surprising we’re seeing a lot of films that draw upon this source material. But if the story of the questing knight is taken too literally, one ends up becoming like the bold and endearing, but indeed errant Don Quixote. Tim Burton says that “Jack is like a lot of characters in classic literature that are passionate and have a desire to do something in a way that isn’t really acknowledged, just like that Don Quixote story, in which some character is on a quest for some kind of feeling, not even knowing what that is. It’s a very primal thing to me, that kind of searching for something and not even knowing what it is, but being passionate about it” (Burton & Salisbury 116).

By means of his exceptionally terrifying yearly performances as the Pumpkin King at Halloween time, Jack has achieved a position of exceptional renown both in Halloween Town, and in waking nightmares internationally. Although highly esteemed by his community, Jack has grown weary and discontent of this once satisfying vocation, and secretly longs for he knows not what. He believes that he is alone in the world and that no one truly loves or understands him. But unbeknownst to Jack, he has captured the gaze of Sally, who understands what he is going through but is too shy to confess her love. While less overtly androgynous than most of Tim Burton’s heroes, Jack’s skeletal frame and commitment to theater within a working class community retains something of this element from his other works. Beseeching the moon from a place emptiness and longing, Jack immediately enters the forest in search of deeper solitude, but instead finds unexpected adventure. It is here that Jack encounters the circle of trees containing all of the holidays, and gazes with wide eager eyes at the door marked with the Christmas tree, and opening that door, is pushed inside by the fateful wind. Here it is instructive to cite Mickey Hart’s comments on Joseph Campbell,

Campbell had added the mythic dimension to his sensitivities. He knew that the great myths were still resonating, however faintly, all about us, if only we developed the ears to hear this music. As far as Joe was concerned, we all had the potential to live out the hero’s journey, if only we would take the first step and enter the dark wood of self-knowledge. Adventures don’t begin until you get into the forest. That first step is an act of faith. In his now-famous formulation, Joe used to put it this way: “Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.” Campbell lived his life according to this principle, and he urged everyone he met to try it. He was my kind of subversive (Hart 45).
Opening the door to Christmas Town, Jack is astonished by the remarkable culture that has formed around its winter landscape. Just being here is like a calling, a very strong affinity indeed, and he knows that he must take word of this newfound place with him to Halloween Town. Encountering his darkened silhouette upon the snow, Jack learns that the creative head of this place is one “Sandy Claws”, a figure with which he can “identify.” Riding home in a loaded sleigh, he has the mayor call a town meeting “immediately!” Displaying the various Christmas paraphernalia to the mystified denizens of Halloween Town, he finds himself explaining Christmas within a Halloween framework, ballyhooing the severe terror of the one they call “Sandy Claws”. The townspeople are excited, but Jack is discontent that they don’t understand “that special kind of feeling in Christmas land.” Trying to solve the mystery of Christmas, Jack pores over book after book, and applies scientific methodology courtesy of equipment borrowed from Dr. Finkelstein. He even works it out to the equation “(Sugar Plum Visions EGG NOG) -> snowman x (chestnuts/open fire) ÷ bells 12root(Dec. 25) + Sandy Claws = CHRISTMAS”, but it still doesn’t make sense. At this moment, he receives a generous gift from Sally, but does not understand the occasion, and she has vanished from sight before he can ask her about it. Exasperated in his efforts to understand the meaning of Christmas, he casts a small ragdoll aside to his red-nosed ghost dog Zero, who tries to bring him a portrait of who he is. But instead he sees himself as Santa Claus, and exclaims to the eager townspeople waiting outside “Eureka! This year Christmas will be ours!”

Summoning all the creatures of Halloween Town together to assign them roles for the upcoming Christmas run by Halloween Town, it soon becomes apparent this year there will be far more tricks than treats given to the unsuspecting people of The Real World. Entrusting the task of kidnaping the real Santa Claus to young Lock, Shock, and Barrel, “Halloween’s finest trick or treaters”, he insists that they “leave that no account Oogie Boogie out of this!”, but their fingers are crossed. The mischievous trio’s initial efforts manage to bring back a traumatized Easter Bunny, but Jack manages to set them straight by means of a Christmas tree shaped sugar cookie. For the undertaking at hand, everyone’s unique talents and passions are welcomed and included, with Jack offering support or constructive criticism where needed. So when Sally tells of her terrible vision of Jack’s Christmas, and warns “It’s going to be a disaster!” when he assigns her the task of sewing the red and white outfit, he thinks she’s talking about a fashion disaster. He tries to reassure her in her creative skill, saying “Now don’t be modest! Who else is clever enough to make my Sandy Claws outfit? I have every confidence in you.” While well intentioned, Jack isn’t really aware of what’s going with Sally, not least in her relation to Dr. Finkelstein from whom he draws technological support. Whereas Dr. Finkelstein deploys male science as a tool of repressive control over Sally, who he has literally constructed, Jack is simply the inexhaustibly curious seeker who uses science in the search for understanding.

Making good time in the preparation of his coffin sleigh, Jack is joined by the skeleton reindeer Dr. Finkelstein has prepared for his midnight ride of Christmas Eve. Meanwhile Lock, Shock, and Barrel finally manage to kidnap Santa Claus, exclaiming “Trick or treat! Yyyaa!” as they bag him in an enormous Halloween sack. Finally meeting Santa face to face, Jack is surprised he does not in fact have claws, and overconfidently attempts to reassure him his holiday is in good hands before stealing his hat. So while Santa is off to the sinister Oogie Boogie, Jack prepares to ride off in his sleigh. But just when it appears to be hopeless because Sally has discretely inserted fog juice into the fountain at the town center, Jack’s ghost dog Zero arrives with his bright red nose to light the way. Heading off with Zero at the head of the team, Sally implores “Wait Jack! No!”, but to no avail. Now in The Real World, Jack happily bestows presents sure to give good shocks for the whole family, like a shrunken head, a killer wreath, an enormous python, and two matching vampire dolls of a count and a duck that come to life and go chasing after the children that opened them. Believing he is doing a well, Jack proudly exclaims “You’re welcome, one and all!” while a parallel cut reveals calls pouring into a local police station. With news bulletins and the mobilization of the military, things aren’t looking good for the skeleton man. At first Jack believes the searchlights and rockets he’s seeing are because “They’re celebrating! They’re thanking us for doing such a good job!” But as Jack and his sleigh become a dark shadow upon the moon’s surface, the sad truth is revealed when he is shot from the sky, desperately crying out as he falls “A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” Watching Jack befall this fate while viewing through a magic fountain, everyone in Halloween Town is utterly distraught, with the mayor gravely announcing that he has met his end.

Landing upon the book of life held in the arms of a stone angel in the midst of a snow covered cemetery, Jack becomes disillusioned about the blindness of his actions. His spirits are lifted, however, that he has put forward his best efforts, whether or not anyone understood. And in that moment remembers who he is, and tearing off his tattered Santa garb to reveal his ordinary clothing, he exclaims “I am the Pumpkin King!” Seeking to set things to rights, Jack sets forth to restore Santa to his rightful place. Hearing Sally cry out for help, Jack realizes she and Santa have been captured by the sadistic gambler, Oogie Boogie, who he sees is playing a “game” that will end in them being dropped in a pit of boiling lava. Pulling a trick of his own, Jack manages to place them in a hallowed-out iron maiden while himself appearing on the slab before a bewildered Oogie Boogie. Thus begins the limber showdown that will end in Oogie’s demise. Seeing an indignant Santa off, who aptly exits through the chimney, Jack queries Sally about her reasons for being down in the boogieman’s lair, learns that she wanted to help him and begins to realize the true nature of her feelings. Triumphantly returning to town alive and well, everyone rejoices, while Santa brings the gift of snow, wishing them a “Happy Halloween!”, which is answered by Jack’s “Merry Christmas!” Despite cross-cultural misunderstandings and expansionist hubris, the relations established between the two holidays are not ultimately hostile. Meeting Sally on the now snow-covered spiral hill, there Jack proposes his love by the bright light of the full moon, and they embrace in the closing shot of the movie.

Jack’s friend Sally is a ragdoll stitched together and animated by the mad science of Dr. Finkelstein, who keeps a strict watch over her, and tries to control her every action. Like Francesca from Mad Monster Party, it would appear that Finkelstein has fabricated Sally with the intension of making her his bride, and has been frustrated in this regard. Famously, James Whale’s Frankenstein monster was stitched together from the body parts dug from graves, while David J. Skal comments that his square head “powerfully evokes the plight of an old consciousness forced to occupy a new paradigm, a round brain bolted uneasily into a machine-tooled skull” (Skal 132). Later on, Skal transposes images of Hans Bellmer’s similarly crafted 1934 sculpture The Doll with actress Elsa Lanchester as she “prepares for her role as the Bride of Frankenstein (1935)”, the former bearing the caption “Woman as modernist construction” that reveals an important subtext of the latter (Ibid. 188). In Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Selena Kyle, a lonely but catlike secretary hired by Max Shreck of Shreck Industries, a suitable name for a vampiric enterprise, and seems constantly out of her element within the corporate patriarchy. When she meekly raises her voice either to make a suggestion or pose a question about the company’s dubious power plan, she faces the glaring eyes of the businessmen around her, and Schrek publicly humiliates her by stating “I’m afraid we haven’t properly housebroken Ms. Kyle.” In her domestic life, Selena surrounds herself with symbols of normative “femininity”, faces immense social pressures on her answering machine, and has a very strong affinity for cats. Curiously prying around her boss’ files, she suffers an acute crisis of fragmented “identity” when she is knocked out of a tall skyscraper window, which is to say just because one plays by social and gender norms does not mean that those norms ultimately work out in one’s favor. Limping home in a traumatized daze after being revived by a horde of hungry cats, Selena’s efforts to rehearse her normal routines are now like adding insult to injury, she destroys the symbols of her old life in a violent outburst of repressed anger, ruthlessly purging the lingering remnants of pink cuteness in the mode of “paint it black”. Finding a black vinyl coat in her closet, she cuts it apart and stitches it back together in a black catsuit that would fit nicely in any Goth or Rivethead nightclub, becoming the famed Batman anti-heroine Catwoman.

Commenting on Sally’s own stitched-together look, Tim Burton says that because of “the Catwoman thing, I was into that whole psychological thing of being pieced together. Again, these are all symbols for the way you feel. The feeling of not being together and of being loosely stitched together and constantly trying to pull yourself together, so to speak, is just a strong feeling to me. So those kind of visuals have less to do with being based on Frankenstein, than with the feeling of pulling yourself together” (Burton & Salisbury 123). In contrast to most of the creatures of Halloween Town, the fear and fascination evoked by Sally is not the terror of death and disfigurement, but of the uncanny, that which one would not expect to be alive, but is, simultaneously evoking the feeling of being dead and alive. As commented by the narrator at the beginning of Frankenstein, this kind of terror “deals with the two great mysteries of creation--life and death.” In the case of something like a piece by Hans Bellmer, the feeling of the uncanny plays havoc on paradigms of sexual objectification while simultaneously evoking them, because they draw attention to the phenomena of subjectivity. Having stitched Sally together and brought her to life, Dr. Finkelstein has a hard time dealing with the demands of her subjectivity, and tries to control her to actions to compensate. But Sally has grown quite handy with a sewing needle herself, and deploys this skill to assume greater control over her own body, coming apart and stitching herself back together as the need arises. In general, Sally’s character is a good illustration of the Foucaultean principle that the means of resistance are included in the deployment of power itself. For example, because of her assigned cooking duties, Sally has learned how to discretely season the meal with Deadly Night Shade, which is more apt to cause a hangover than kill anyone in this world, in order to afford some quality time away from home. Irritated about being chronically poisoned, her creator complains: “You’re mine, you know! I made you, with my own hands.” To this Sally responds, “You can make other creations, I’m restless, I can’t help it!” Surely there is more to life than what she is being shown.

Owing to prolonged enforced isolation, Sally is generally quite shy around others, and has an underdeveloped sense of confidence in herself and her own abilities. Escaping on Halloween night to attend the town festivities, there she gazes longingly at Jack from behind the hangman’s tree. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, it would be very difficult indeed not to have a strong rapport with Sally’s desires, and her gaze is ultimately rewarded. Following a run-in with her father, Sally loses an arm but uses it to rap him on his metal head as she makes her escape to the same cemetery to which Jack will withdraw. Stricken to the heart as she listens in on his lonely soliloquy from behind tombstones, she musters her courage to reveal her presence all too late, and says empathetically as he enters the forest off in the distance, “Jack, I know how you feel.” Feeling enthusiastic about Christmas in general upon Jack’s return, she is still somewhat uneasy about the way he is presenting it, sensing that it doesn’t add up, and that something is very wrong. Preparing a basket of gifts for Jack after being locked in a tower following her escape to the town meeting, Sally takes a leap of faith right out the window, and eerily springs back to life and stitches herself together after appearing to be dead. Commenting on his years working at Disney, where his designs were received enthusiastically but never used, Tim Burton says that “I felt like a trapped princess. I had a great life, in a way, I was able to draw anything I wanted, but it was like working in a sealed environment in which you would never see the light of day” (Ibid. 12). It is in this context of creative entrapment that the metaphor of the princess in the tower recurs in Tim Burton’s films. Hoisting up the basket upon a pulley to Jack’s own tower, she hastily withdraws from sight before they can converse on the occasion for the gift.

Dropping down in self-disappointed exhaustion behind the wall below, she stops to pick a dead flower and play ‘He loves me, he loves me not.’ But the flower transforms into a Christmas tree before bursting into flames, and Sally is horrified by this new vision. Visions are a crucial theme of Tim Burton’s work, so the way Sally’s own vision and creative potential is addressed is an important subtext of the film. To this end, she is dismayed to learn of Jack’s plan to take over Christmas, and tries to warn him of impending disaster, but he just doesn’t get it. Working hard on the Santa outfit she has been assigned to make, Sally tries to reassure him that he doesn’t have to be Santa to be important, but by now he is far too obsessed. Meanwhile, Dr. Finkelstein is busy constructing a new partner for himself, this time removing half his brain and inserting it into her cranium, a rather effective approach to ensuring relational compatability, not to mention empathy. “What a joy to think of all we’ll have in common. We’ll have conversations worth having!” he says, kissing the brain before the lid closes on his lips. Resorting to Fog Juice on that fateful Christmas Eve, she tries to keep Jack safe at home while showing her empathy for his disappointment. But Zero comes with his bright red nose, and off he rides into the night. Withdrawing to sing a soliloquy of her own, Sally laments her lingering premonition, resultant detachment from everyone else, and Jack’s failure to notice her feelings for him. Pondering the future of her and Jack, she comes to feel “It’s never to become/for I am not the one.”

Realizing later that night that things are about to get really bad when the news reporter announces the military has been mobilized to stop Jack’s midnight ride, she sallies forth to rescue Santa Claus. Finding him in the lair of Oogie Boogie on the outskirts of town, she tries to fragment off her leg to distract him while her severed hands untie the ropes that bind Santa as she prepares to extend a ladder. It is a macabre caricature of the fetishization and latent violence of visual fragmentation of women’s bodies. But realizing he’s been duped, Oogie’s brand of sadistic voyeurism insists upon inflicting suffering on the whole person, and he recaptures them both. When next we see them, Sally and Santa are tied to an apparatus fashioned to incrementally dump them into a pit of boiling lava. There he plays a game of death with a role of the dice, hitting another increment with every pip of the dice. Caught in dire straights, and hearing the mayor’s report that Jack Skellington has met his demise, Sally consents to being rescued by calling out for help. Still, the psychology of this doesn’t really register as the average “damsel in distress” scene, because she is captured along with a powerful magical being like Santa Claus, and had a highly competent plan of rescue herself. Duly moved to the relative safety of the iron maiden like a much luckier Barbara Steele, there she watches until the end of the showdown. Inquired by Jack as to the reasons why she is down in Oogie’s lair, she awkwardly begins to explain that she wanted to help, and Jack begins to understand her feelings. There they are interrupted and pulled up together by a rope sent by the Mayor on the information of Lock, Shock, and Barrel, who apparently didn’t intend for things to get this bad. By this time Dr. Finkelstein has finished his literal soul mate, and in all probability could care less now what Sally does or becomes. When we next see Sally, she is moving in to sit on the snow covered spiral hill to finish peeling the flower to learn whether ‘he loves me’ or ‘he loves me not.’ But before she can finish, she is thrilled to hear the voice of Jack, who makes his proposal then and there. There they end on the shared soliloquy “For it is plain/As anyone can see/We’re simply meant to be.” Finally on the same page together, in this relationship Sally will be able to discover and express her voice and visions without fear.

Moreso than the other characters, Sally has the closest understanding of Santa Claus. It is no surprise, therefore, that at the end of the film he rebukes Jack on her behalf, stating “The next time you get the urge to take over someone else’s holiday, I’d listen to her! She’s the only one who makes any sense around this insane asylum.” In other words, why didn’t anyone pay attention to her in the first place? As has been previously explored in this essay, portrayals of Santa’s character range from liberal toy crusader, to the kind of old-fashioned conservative who simply wants the personal quality of hand-crafted items. Interestingly, Burton’s Santa falls somewhere in between, with the medium of the film itself expressing the visual power and physicality of hand-crafted artistry. Commenting on this element of stop-motion animation, Burton says its appeal is “the handmade aspect of things, part of an energy that you can’t explain. You can sense it when you see the concentration of the animators as they move the figures, there’s an energy that’s captured. It’s like when you look at a Van Gogh painting. I remember the first time I saw one in reality. You’ve seen them in books, but the energy that’s captured on that canvas is incredible, and I think that’s something nobody talks about because it’s not something literal. It’s the same with this kind of animation, that’s the power of Ray Harryhausen” (Ibid. 119). Like the golem brought to life, the stop-motion animation evokes many of the feelings and ideas associated with dolls and the Frankenstein mythos. This holds especially for the dark German expressionism of directors Tim Burton and Henry Selick, as well as stop-motion animators like Shane Acker and the Brothers Quay. And as Keith Neilson writes in the epilogue to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, “Frankenstein presents us with one of the most powerful images of human alienation in the language. Whether it be the intelligent, articulate creature of the novel telling his poignant story or Boris Karloff’s mute giant, that sense of total, frustrated isolation dominates all versions of Mary Shelley’s vision” (Shelley 236). On the other hand, stop-motion animation shows the viewer the immense power of expression afforded by human labor. Karl Marx lamented that this instrinsic expression of humanity had become so obscured by the Industrial Revolution, and its ensuing automation and division of labor under the owners of the means of production, that human beings became profoundly disconnected from themselves, which he termed alienation.

Interestingly, the first two shots of Santa Claus are of his shadow in the toy factory he operates. Only seeing this and hearing of his modus operandi, Jack Skellington assumes that Santa Claus is a very scary fellow underlying the gingerbread sweetness of Christmas Town. But in actuality, both the town and factory he runs are in every sense warm, cozy, creative, and inviting, and manage to be so within the context of extensive automation. This is not the post-industrial blight, poverty, cynical exploitation, commodity fetishization, and dubious factory “accidents” of Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which bears different, but related thematic content. The point of The Nightmare Before Christmas is not to literally show us what is, as if all the toys of Christmas are made by happy elves most years except this one, but to show us a place inside that will show us what could be. And for creative leaders like Jack Skellington and Santa Claus, that is a world where the creative passions of every member of the community are affirmed and included, no matter how strange and unusual they may be. This is the secret wish of every outsider and outcast, although usually obscured by resistance to the pressures of normative conformity. So when Santa is kidnaped by Halloween Town’s disaffected trick or treaters, there is a certain element of irony. Confused and disoriented when he comes to, he isn’t really capable of serious resistance when Jack Skellington informs him of his plan to take over Christmas, and that everything has been taken care of. Notably, Jack, seemingly patterning himself upon Santa Claus, only gives the children one gift of eminent symbolicity (albeit in Halloween terms), implying a certain limit upon consumerism, while allowing for the symbolic discovery of rituals of gift exchange.

Learning of Lock, Shock, and Barrel’s plan to take him to the lair of Oogie Boogie, he retorts “Haven’t you heard of peace on earth, and good will toward men?” To which they respond with a resounding “No!” Which is to say, that while he is a strong advocate of this kind of peace using the feelings surrounding the toys he gives as a means to this end, even he only has a limited power to implement these beliefs. Out in The Real World, the armed forces have their missile launchers ready, and can blast any presence deemed hostile right out of the sky, and that’s where the money and power is, because that’s how the fears are channeled culturally. The world of Halloween Town is a world of bats, not bombs, but even they can fall into an attitude of cultural imperialism at his expense. Held hostage at grave peril to the life and death gambling whims of Oogie Boogie, he finds an unexpected friend in Sally, who tries to rescue him but as captured herself. It is here that we come full circle back to the beginning of these remarks upon Santa’s character. But even though he is rightfully angry, Santa is not one to be resentful, and brings Halloween Town the gift of snow, and with it life-giving moisture, the promise of the change of seasons, and lasting cultural ties between the two holidays.

The final principle character to note is Oogie Boogie, a very jazzy way of saying the boogeyman, the anomalous wraith that has terrified young children for generations. Said to be the scourge of mischievous and otherwise disobedient children, here it is revealed he is actually in alliance with them. The inspiration for Oogie’s character comes from Jazz musician Cab Calloway, who would sing and dance with his orchestra both in physical and cartoonized form via rotoscope for Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons. A caricature of Jazz Age flappers like Clara Bow, who grew up in an environment of emotional abuse and escaped to Hollywood seeking a more carefree life, in a typical episode Betty sets off into the world in voluptuous gown, and is beset by all manner of weirdness, spookiness, and creepiness. In a time of racial ambivalence contemporaneous with the Harlem Renaissance and the peak of the second Ku Klux Klan, a time when black creative voices were making a marked impact upon American culture, the role played by Cab Calloway in the cartoons is ambiguous. In Minnie the Moocher, the film short begins with a stylish live performance of Cab and the orchestra, before fading out to Betty facing harsh pressures at home. Running away with her dog Bimbo after leaving a note and entering through the dark forest into a hidden cave, there she encounters Cab Calloway as a singing and dancing ghost walrus accompanied by ghosts, skeletons, and witches who provide backup vocals. In one telling moment, a group of three ghosts behind bars phase through those bars before phasing back in, duly allowing the guard open the prison door and escort them to the electric chair. It is like watching Albert Camus’ “The Guest”, in which an Arab prisoner charged with murder is set free, but nonetheless escorts himself to prison to face probable execution, as if the true terror he can’t face is that he is condemned to be free. Such a story has interesting existential implications for racially motivated executions, official and unofficial, then and now. Betty too bitterly flees to “Home Sweet Home” upon being chased by all the terrors of a mad, mad world.

It was this kind of experience that left an impression on Tim Burton during his childhood. “The Cab Calloway thing was a more specific reference,” says Burton, “when Danny and I were talking about it, it had more to do with this feeling of remembering, because I remember seeing these Betty Boop cartoons, where this weird character would come out. I didn’t know who it was, but it would do this weird musical number in the middle of nowhere, and it was like ‘What the hell was that?’” (Burton & Salisbury 123). In contrast to the citizens of Halloween Town, Oogie Boogie takes the ethos of being scary too far by actually hurting people. To this end, he has either been exiled from Halloween Town for becoming sadistic, or become sadistic for being exiled from Halloween Town, but the end result is that he is bad, bad news. Oogie’s opening shot of the film is actually the appearance of his shadow on the moon during the Halloween festivities, foreshadowing the menace of his presence later on. Oogie Boogie is a giant ghost-like creature sewn together in a large stuffed burlap bag. Taking refuge in an underground lair, Oogie has set up a a series of death traps within a jet set casino-like atmosphere to suit his own fancy. Perhaps one might see within this an implied element of economic criticism, but there is nothing to prove this one way or the other. Relishing the opportunity to hold lives up to a game of chance (with the exception of his own), he doesn’t even play fair with those unfortunate enough to fall into his grasp. Allied to Lock, Shock, and Barrel, these three carry out mischief on Oogie’s behalf and bring him prey. Sending him an unfortunate insect they have partially boiled and turned green, Oogie sucks it in and devours it whole. When “Sandy Claws” is delivered into his hands, the same one rumored to be a terror in the night, Oogie bursts into a Jazz number reminiscent of Cab Calloway to terrify him and reveal his modus operandi. Skipping over the previously described rescue attempt of Sally to his battle with Jack, when Oogie is defeated by having his burlap skin ripped off, he is revealed to be a colony of insects falling into oblivion, the last of which is the green bug we saw earlier. Santa promptly smashes it, which is to say that the real identity of the boogeyman is all of those threatened by being crushed for being small, instead becoming very big. As villain, the role of Oogie Boogie is important for showing the boundaries and limits of the monsters of Halloween town, which is drawn at actually hurting people.

So as an important filmic text to the Gothic subculture, what does all of this reveal about the subculture? The intertextual material referenced by The Nightmare Before Christmas related to the holidays of Christmas and Halloween have been shown to contain themes of social and technological alienation, the importance of creative expression, a willingness to defy social and gender norms, the possibility of embracing one’s monsters as friends, and a critique of violence and war. Whether explicitly, as in Mad Monster Party, or implicitly, as in the casting of Boris Karloff in How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, these films contain important links back to horror-related material in general, and the Frankenstein mythos in particular. Seeing such material as a kind of guiding myth, Tim Burton deploys it to create a kind of rite and ritual rooted in the rhythm of the seasons. He takes the viewer into the forest to show them a place where everyday is Halloween. In Jack, we see a creative mind who cultivates this quality in others, while showing that it is okay to be sad or discontent. In Sally, we see a doll who finds creative means of resistance to the roles and confinements imposed upon her, and who must find courage to express her own voice and vision. In Santa we see a man who uses generosity as a means to confront what is wrong with the world. And in Oogie Boogie, we see where the boundary of embracing horror related imagery is drawn, which is precisely where the idea of actually hurting people is actually suggested in earnest. These are doors into the values and boundaries of the Gothic subculture, so it is of little surprise that the subculture has embraced the film so enthusiastically.

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