Horror cinema and surrealism
Partial in favour of horror? To this crime I plead guilty. Friends of mine have noted that I will seek out and enjoy odd remarkable scenes and atmospheres even in such movies that are quite obviously poorly done, poorly held together, largely banal, or quite despicable. There is an important overall lesson hidden here, in that surrealist appropriation of cinema is shamelessly hedonistic in the sense that it focuses on anything that manifests and stimulates the poetic spirit, regardless of the quality of the craft, the smartness and brilliance, the cultural value, sociological interpretations, deconstructivist interpretations, deliberate populism, cult value or irony. On the other hand, the banalities I happily endure for the sake of these scattered moments and aspects are dependent on my selective affinity for this particular genre – confronted with the same level of banality in action or science fiction, or especially comedy or porn, it won't take me many minutes to give up the waiting for moments of poetic productivity, which are probably there in those genres too.
Nevertheless, I will argue that horror is one of the major forms of popular surrealism. It very often represents that necessary fundamental break with realist conventions, both in literature, film and other media, and in life experience. Indeed, in life experience such realist conventions are even more stifling than in fiction, by reducing everything to a banal version decided by the least common denominator, represented by the least ambitious or hopeful reconstruction of a normality, denying all deep ambiguity, the complex sum of possibilities and determinations, the entire sphere of the unknown... This entire sphere of unusual events, overdetermined and multilayered reality, significant chance, adventure and radical doubt, calling all conventional consensus views and all lazy dull habit into question, is typically labelled as "supernatural", and, wherever the contrast becomes acute with the conventional reductive interpretation of things and thus the strategy of habitual work-consumption-rest treadmill, as "horrifying". So all of this fiction, the popular representations of this entire sphere of events, the popular imagination about its implications, are typically grouped together under the heading of "horror".
It must be admitted that genre conventions abound in horror cinema too, and a glaring lack of imagination is often all too obvious, but there is also a remarkable breadth of subverting, ignoring and going beyond these conventions, both in low budget fan flicks and big hollywood productions. If fantasy and science fiction seem to have to a larger extent frozen in genre conventions than horror, those two genres have somewhat less surrealist potential in that they typically play in more static "other" worlds, which are very often mere allegories or mere displacements of highly conventional quasirealist-sentimentalist drama into exotic settings and exotic makeup. In contrast, horror typically focuses on the transitions-breakthroughs-ambiguities with the "normal" world of our everyday experience, therefore potentially pedagogic-subversive as to the real exploration of such breaks/portals in real life.
This is something which horror has in common with surrealism, which typically also focuses on such convergence points characterised by ambiguity and poetic productivity. It is this inclusive-integrative-dynamic sense of reality which is a fundament of surrealism, making up the simple etymological sense of its "over-reality" as well as remaining one of the several parts of its continuous identity as historically integrating its experiences and strategies.
But what about fear? Some films make me scared, some don't the least. I think that is an aspect which is usually irrelevant for the fundamental points of horror cinema.
I will not give an overview or history of horror cinema here, nor a list of recommendations, nor a delineation-comparison with horror in other genres such as literature and comics. I will discuss some central aspects of horror cinema from the surrealist viewpoint. In an objective manner – yet inevitably my constellation of emphases will be personal.
The real strangeness of things around us
The basic convergence of surrealism and horror has its growth medium in the weird goings-on in everyday life, in the paranoid-type vigilance triggered by them and enhancing them, the willful or resistant abandoning to the attention towards the unusual, weird and potentially strongly meaningful in the world. This is about all the unusual possibilities conventionally overlooked, all the uncanny atmospheres conventionally denied or rushed through. If some horror movies still tend to lean towards on one hand stark rationalisations (it was all just a scheme carefully orchestrated to scare someone) or to bland psychologisations (it was all just imagination), it is far more common to retreat to a kind of loose piecemeal extra-scientific ideology: ghosts, spirits, powers, the supernatural – but what is that? Just a class of interpretations, ranging from lame rationalisations to imaginative mythologisations, of manifestations of the unusual and unknown in everyday life.
It is one of the main points of surrealism to not deny the unusual phenomena and their dynamism, but still reject all these more or less religious poor explanations, avoid succumbing to premature rationalisations. In the movies, let them go on with their fairytale concepts, they're not fooling us, we know that the dynamism of weird happenings, chance and significant casual events is an aspect of life itself, and such a dynamism can be remarkably effectively simulated and savoured in the particular fiction of the horror movie. It contributes to teaching us to see. It orchestrates and emphasises those poetic atmospheres where everything is hanging in suspense and anything seems possible, the moments of the surreal. On the most simple level this is obvious in films of hauntings; all these haunted houses, the poltergeists, the insistent messages and the chaotic disturbances. It's partly very banal, still often very effective, sometimes orchestrating a liberation of the anti-utilitarian, fetishistic or just poetic surrealist sense of the object, sometimes luminous juxtapositions, constellations of things, true poetic images, classic surrealist assemblage. A literally convulsive beauty is sometimes achieved in the very "over-the-top" absurdness of many stories; where strange events and convergences, personal tragedies and emotions are so densely accumulated together with the unfettered expressionism of blood and gore (for this particular line, Re-animator (1985) remains a centerpiece). In a way this is the old formula of Walpolian Gothic, plausible human reactions to implausible courses of events, the mechanics of the mind encountering the world of inclusiveness where anything is possible, the so-called paranormal or maybe the surreal. Yes, on an aesthetical level, this is clearly a kind of expressionism, but since surrealism is not an aesthetic it doesn't mind employing other aesthetics for its purposes...
Another particular point is very strong in 70s horror movies, when theatrical conventions are long abandoned but conventions of realist cinema are still not adapted; the filmmakers have the means to tell a story realistically yet they refuse for the sake of the uncanny atmospheres. They just need to take the time to zoom in on the weird details, to allow extended moments of suspense between lines of dialogue, between action and reaction, between moments, to just skip some of rationalisations or uninteresting details. Neither the directing nor the acting achievements strive primarily to give us some illusion of reality (which is just conventional anyway), but primarily to create atmospheres. This is why the much denigrated Boogey-man (1980) is such a gem, and one of the several reasons why Dario Argento is the greatest horror director today is that he has retained much of this non-realistic storytelling since the 70s.
The notion of atmosphere is partly vague – we typically connect it with situations, we may connect it with persons and objects, we definitely connect it with place. As connected to place can also be a point of convergence between horror and surrealism. The sense of "soul" of place, a sort of intense significance which can be experienced at a particular geographically located nexus, is of course what is in horror quickly interpreted as hauntings.
But it is not just haunted houses, be they the classic mansions, ruins or hospitals, or modern office buildings, factories, garages, tunnels and basements; one can find explorations of such creepy or uncanny atmospheres also in forest glades, beaches, corn fields, old trees, mountains, lakes and bogs, boats, metro systems, open squares, etc – any such place which may be associated with such an atmosphere in real life. (But that old mansion does remain a privileged place; I can't say 60s classics like The Haunting (1963) and The Innocents (1961) have lost any of their direct appeal – and modern examples like, say, Darkness (2002), The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), House of Voices (2004), Saint-John's Wort (2001), The Orphanage (2007), remain so exciting regardless of the various particular deficiencies in the scripts.) What the specific historic factors are that make these places abandoned or obsolete yet charged with meaning and unresolved conflicts varies, and will contribute much to the interpretation and less to the experience.
There are many horror films which are "site-specific" in that they probably really are the product of someone having visited a creepy place, noting "geeze, this place is scary, someone ought to make a horror movie here", and actually having gone ahead and done it. Such films (two random examples picked from the pile: Death Tunnel (2005) of an American haunted sanatorium and Catacombs (2007) of the Parisian catacombs) can actually be seen as a neighboring subgenre of the surrealist documentary-style poetic exploration of atoposes and abandoned sites. They just wanted to convey the real atmosphere of the place, and chose to do it through the piece of fiction it inspired in them.
Those depths of the minds
What is called "psychological horror" is often effectively cultivated in cinema, and also often makes sense from a surrealist perspective. Again, we may not always consider it to be scary, and we may not consider it to be a deviation from a desirable normality, but instead we may see it as more or less admirable, inspiring and informative manifestations of the real ambiguity of things and the actual accessibility of the unknown. The very paranoid-type vigilance connected with the noticing of the unusual details or the atmosphere of place, typically sooner or later leads to some kind of questioning of the self, or rather of that self-righteous phantom which is the supposed monolithic detached integrative distinct individual person. To what extent does the creative mind participate in forming the reality we perceive as external? To what extent do others partipicate in the processes we regard as our own thinking? To what extent do parts represented within us have not just distinct interests from each other, but also different modes of perception and lines of reasoning, to what extent do they have secrets from each other?
Faced with unusual enough events, most people, in a horror film like in everyday life, will ask "Am I going mad?". But doesn't madness then just become a type of hastened rationalisation, just like it was to invoke "spirits", "ghosts" or "forces"? Is just losing control, losing illusion of control, which is the scary thing, or does it have to trigger a particular acute contradiction? And the often fairly obvious psychoanalytical interpretations we can cook up – just because we can point out patterns and mechanisms that will account for the type of phenomena manifested, they nevertheless remains toothless in accounting for the very dynamism of their phenomenology. (Freud just started breaching this didn't he?) But from a surrealist viewpoint it is arguably this phenomenology and its poetic productivity which is the starting point. The worlds they invite us to, how these are included in the field of possibilities. For philosophers, such basic questions are cerebral exercises; for children, madmen and poets they are undetermined and flesh-real: Are my parents actually evil monsters? Is it all a conspiracy? Is someone hiding under my bed? Are they all dead? Am I dead? Do we embody mythological forces and play out some grand drama we don't understand? Was it I who killed my friend? Is it I who am the monster?
Parts of this, questioning the delimitation of the self and the mind, have already started looking out at more vast perspectives. And this is perhaps another aspect of horror, the "beyond" – that which far exceeds our understanding and our schemes, Lovecraftian horror, the overwhelming. Perhaps this is an element where it is not possible to do as I have done so far, to calmly claim that surrealism and horror are interested in all the same things, only surrealism wouldn't necessarily care if they are scary or not and may in fact possibly regard the fear as merely a simple reaction against losing control when faced with the unusual – be it pleasureable or not, be it childish for proving the existence of such thresholds or admirable for being a symptom of the seriousness of the contradiction. For if the overwhelming is calmly savoured or sprightly investigated, it seems like it maybe wasn't really overwhelming, but either just an aspect of poetic hedonism in general, or something we have categorised in advance. And indeed, this perhaps remains one of the fundamental differences between religion and poetry, whether one is happy with fitting those glimpses of the strongest psychic dynamism into a traditional and socially utilisable rationalisation, or letting them remain unexplained and dynamic. Sometimes just a bit too dynamic. Difficult to handle. The centrifugal force, the vertigo – the shards of everything broken in the process...
This can be things that are just far too big, too close or too rich, as in a fit of fever or a drug trip. It can also be those situations where it is simply not possible to understand the motives of everybody else, simply not possible to communicate with them. This is when the paranoia has become not just a method but a full framework which paradoxically creates a thick transparent film between oneself and the rest of the world; it has such a wealth of meaning that it isn't possible to grasp, it isn't possible to interact with in some way which makes sense to oneself. This may be cosmic schemes, alien elder races, or it may be, as in those settings which are maybe the most scary of all; those that are very close to the common alienated interactions of our everyday life, in the streets, in the shops, at work and at school, and especially at home. All the modern zombie films, no hope, no communication, and all the most horrifying family drama, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as the unsurmountable portal star. Such critique of the family is an example of the sometimes very sharp or profound social criticism in horror. That aspect might be interesting and enjoyable, but again, just like the manifold forms of black humour, and, I dare argue, fear itself, is probably not among the central points making up the attraction of the genre itself.
The body the monster
Finally, to return to another perhaps solidly surrealist point which is indifferent to fear and focuses on poetic phenomenology, there is the monster. The unusual creature, the physical exception, the individual whose being expresses its deviation and strangeness, the body turned image and image turned flesh; the central horror hero.
The transformations into these strange creatures, both physically and mentally, both the ontogenetic metamorphosis and the possession or the empathy, in whichever form, the transformation remains a fundamental trope of poetic phenomenology. (Bachelard's discussion of the animalness in Lautréamont is a classical discussion of this that makes much sense to horror cinema). The metamorphosis in itself; the unfolding of viscera and skin into strange new shapes, these fragments and suggestions of insects, of genitals, of larvae, of trees, of ferocious beasts, of dinosaurs, all the morphological gore.
Monsters are fantasies in physical shape, and they are mythology in its irreducible parts. Strange beings. In this the two categories of monster and superhero often overlap, at least with the classical "film monsters" and the Marvel comic book monsters of the 70s, or with many of the present-day antiheroes, paranormal investigators etc. I've been so impressed by the constellation of moving physical manifestations of weird fates in 13 Ghosts (2001) specifically as a superhero group, and film monsters like Freddie Krueger and Pinhead the Cenobite are commonly recognised as either superheroes or some kind of rockstars. Clearly, with classic literary monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, just like with modern comics mascots like Hulk and Hellboy, it is very existential, about monster-being; the phenomenology of the outsider. This has a sentimentalist aspect, where one is always at the risk of giving up the dynamics by suddenly becoming accepted into the fuzzy community of the normals, and then a fairly uninteresting destructive dynamics in the resentment in realising that one wasn't fully accepted after all. More importantly, monsterdom has a shamanistic-Rimbaudian aspect, this systematic disorder in the senses, the strange series of hardships and pains and pleasures, in order too see more clearly. The poet role. One we perhaps have to approach to the extent we want to make ourselves available to all these unusual phenomena, this wide range of possibilities, this abundance of meaning, which characterises horror, and even more poetry.
Again, the surrealist potential in horror appears to have little to do with to what extent it invokes horror. The most important part is that it is a relative free zone from many realistic rationalisations and constrictions, and therefore in fact will be able to show us more of that which is actually real, and be poetically productive in much the same way as reality itself is – if we only allow it.
(published in Patricide #3 2011)