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.

3 comments:

I. said...

Fascinating. An enjoyable read as always. You don't pull any punches on your papers do you? I mean, gender roles, existentialism, politics, religion, horror movies, classic literature and philosophy... is there any major issue relevant to humanity that you have left out? :)

I have missed seeing you on CAA, how have you been as of late? I hope you absence isn't the result of any personal calamity?

Finally, I wanted to ask you if you had heard much of anything about the band My Silent Wake. They seem intriguing, especially with songs like "Severed", but I don't know much about them. Do you have any comments about them?

-ich1990

Michael Bridgman said...

When I started this blog, it was during my second existential crisis, and I knew that I wanted to write about topics that really mattered. To be sure, there's a lot of subjects I have yet to deal with in writing, in fact, I believe I'm on the verge of a breakthrough. My absence from CAA owes to the combined factors of a semester with two writing classes that reduced me to a very creative vampire, and basically singlehandedly causing the first thread I posted in to be closed down, which is never a good sign. I would be lying if I told you I wasn't going through a personal crisis, although it is chiefly a mental form of anguish. I've even lost faith in a personal God, although instead of an existential crisis, I feel profound anger and discontent. I haven't heard anything about My Silent Wake, so I couldn't comment one way or another.

I. said...

That sounds rough, man. I am not sure what to say, except that I am praying for you and hope that you will be able to work through this anguish.