Friday, October 28, 2011

Horror and Conservatism

Even if you’ve never heard of Arch Oboler, you may know the plot of one of his many radio plays if you’re familiar with Bill Cosby’s stand-up comedy. Cosby made the Lights Out episode “Chicken Heart” famous to generations who had never really listened to fiction on radio. I understand that as a consequence some people believe that Cosby made up the story. Either way, many of those who know about it now remember “Chicken Heart” as an example of how something absurd can be frightening to children or exciting to those who experience it in suitable surroundings. Few seem to remember it as twenty-minute rebuke of pacifism framed as a science fiction horror story.

It is not for nothing that the subject of the experiment that drives Oboler’s story was a chicken heart and not, for instance, the kidney of a bear or the stomach of a lion. The story’s protagonist is a scientist filling the role of the unheeded prophet, insisting that the chicken heart, which grows with every pulse and consumes everything around it, must be destroyed with firepower and brute force. But everyone who is in a position to combat the thing insists upon searching for a more delicate solution, refusing to declare war upon the thing until it is too large and too powerful to be stopped.

This sort of conservative metaphor is typical of Arch Oboler’s horror plays. Also typically, they were the some of the best examples of horror on radio. His story titled “Neanderthal Man” conveys the same ideas as “Chicken Heart,” but with an even broader focus and more didactic presentation. Three characters slip into a time that predates civilization and find themselves confronted by an ancestor of human beings. The two men argue about how to deal with the threat. One has a gun and wants to shoot the Neanderthal dead at the first opportunity, while the other abhors guns and wants to try to communicate with it and reason with it. The latter is killed by the pre-human creature, and as he lies dying he acknowledges that it was foolish to think that one could reason with an uncivilized enemy.

Lights Out has another episode, titled “The Dream,” which stars Boris Karloff as a man who is compelled to kill by a vision of a spectral woman, who continues to haunt him throughout his arrest, trial, and conviction, prompting him to insist that he die as a consequence of his crime. The entire episode is clearly devoted to arguing in favor of a broad application of the death penalty. The theme is not just conservative, but boldly conservative, with Karloff’s character making it very clear that his death is necessary not because it will dissuade other murders, or give peace to his soul, but just because the social convention ought to be that if you take a life, you ought to give your own. And between Karloff’s exquisite voice acting and Oboler’s excellent horror sensibilities, it is a frightening tale just on its surface.

“Revolt of the Worms” is a marvelously effective horror story, and I read it as a self-righteous defense of the bourgeoisie. The metaphor is less obvious than some of his others, but it seems to be on some level an attempt to instill fear in the wealthy, educated, or successful about the possibility of being attacked and overrun by those who have been empowered by the efforts of that higher class. The stories theme is one that I am especially likely to take issue with. It is also one of my very favorite radio horror stories.

Also among my favorites is “The Thing on the Fourbile Board,” an episode of Quiet, Please, which was written and directed by Wyllis Cooper, who actually created Lights Out before passing it off to Oboler. “The Thing on the Fourbile Board” is generally a favorite horror tale for anyone who is familiar with old time radio. Spoiler alert in case anyone is interested in listening to it: It tells the story of an invisible creature uncovered from deep in the earth by an oil drilling operation. The character that we initially see as the protagonist tells the story in retrospect, culminating in a climactic confrontation with the creature, wherein he dumps paint on it to make it visible. Advancing to the present, we learn that he took pity on the monster, and actually married it, resolving to take care of it by feeding it a steady supply of human victims.

What’s interesting about the creature in this story is that it is a neat little package of sexual transgressions. It has the face of a little girl, but the body of a spider, and when the narrator introduces it to the audience he says that she likes to be called Mike. By being married to and presumably sleeping with it, the narrator is dipping a finger into the trifecta of bestiality, pedophilia, and homosexuality. Add to that the fact that the first evidence of the creature is a severed finger bearing a ring and the perceived transgressions seemingly expand to include adultery or divorce. No doubt there is also meaning in the fact that the creature is ordinarily invisible, and that we are initially led to trust the narrator. The implication is clearly that these discomforting elements of society and the human psyche were buried and invisible unless brought into focus, but that they were there, and that your own neighbor might be a practitioner of bestiality, a pedophile, and adulterer, or – no doubt frightening in 1948 – a homosexual. So as I see it, put simply, one of the best horror stories ever written for radio is about the conservative values of mistrust and a blanket terror of social taboos.

I am an extraordinarily analytical consumer of fiction. Even when it comes to horror, I want the story to mean something, even though I recognize that that may not be typical of horror. So I give a close reading to the story and its themes whenever I can, to such an extent that most others would quickly grow bored and frustrated with me. In my necessarily solitary viewing I have tended to get the impression that the horror stories that are not only the most fun to analyze are quite conservative in their message, and that the same are often the most frightening.

Of course, that correlation is only natural. What is typically most frightening to us is the unfamiliar, and the outcome of current social change is always unfamiliar, as well as being the usual enemy of conservative thinking. So thoughtful horror tends to uphold existing taboos, painting social mores as either that which is being threatened or that which will defend the protagonists against the veiled evil that is stalking them. For my generation, there is no more obvious example of this than the rules of slasher films. By and large, nothing is more dangerous to the killer’s potential victims than being a sexually active adolescent. Drug use will also tend to get you in trouble.

Yet thinking much farther back than that, many familiar horror archetypes used in classic films and reused through the decades represent the dangers of failing to respect existing social boundaries. The once-commonplace mad scientist tended to be someone who brought about destruction and his own violent downfall because he tampered in areas that were seen as God’s domain. There is also no shortage of stories in which the thing that begins the horror is a transgression against traditional religion by way of experimenting with the occult.

Vampires are avowedly godless creatures, as well as being sexually provocative and often tempting women to adultery. As the archetype developed it came to more frequently represent homosexuality at the same time that homosexuality in American culture was becoming more visible while still being far from mainstream acceptance. The Lost Boys remains perhaps the most famous example of vampirism/wizardry as gay/AIDS metaphor, if you watch it closely.

From the same era, the film Fright Night contains several scenes that transparently depict the vampire as a sexual predator. He pursues an underage boy and girl to a nightclub in one scene and engages in a sexual dance with the girl, hypnotizing her with his eyes so that she goes to him of her own accord before breaking away and falling to her knees while crying in what could just as well be a show of shame as fear. Later he similarly draws in a young adolescent boy, softly reassuring him that he’ll be happy as a vampire before embracing him beneath the cover of his cape and calling to mind the often repeated image of the vampire bite as sexual penetration. The victim then becomes transformed into someone who dresses differently and takes pleasure in destruction and crime.

The monster in Fright Night is thus a man who corrupts the youth, which would not necessarily be conservative were it not for certain other indicators. The first thing that arouses suspicion about the antagonist is that when he moves into the neighborhood, he is unmarried and lives with another man. Pederasty aside, the aspects of homosexuality and sexual promiscuity in the character are evidently not incidental, but part of what is supposed to make him psychologically threatening. Also of note is the fact that one of the protagonists is a much older, solitary man who develops a bizarrely close relationship with the main protagonist, another young, male teenager. This suggests to me the flawed message that an older, desexualized, presumably more conservative male character is implicitly more trustworthy than the one who is viscerally alluring.

Werewolves, of course, are a way of presenting the more broadly-conceived threat of unrestrained impulses. This also does not specifically need to be conservative, although the more conservative person will be more likely to utilize that archetype, by virtue of attaching a greater sense of value to sexual and social stability, to civilization as directly opposed to nature, and to property rights.

That latter consideration calls to mind the observation that certain films do not utilize archetypes that have any inherent socio-political meaning, but still deliver a conservative message. The Changeling, for instance, is an exceptionally well-executed haunted house film, and ultimately turns out to be one long statement about the importance of inheritance rights.

The original Saw I take to be liberal film, on some level. The killer’s motivation is to see that his victims glimpse the starkest possible reality of their own vices, which somewhat plays into my earlier essay about the role of horror and the possible link between liberalism and appreciation of the genre. However, Jigsaw evidently isn’t interested in getting those who play his games to recognize unpleasant truths out in the rest of society; he only makes them confront their own flaws. That makes it seem like he’s horrifically advancing the old conservative talking point of “personal responsibility,” demanding that these people overcome their shortcomings by sheer force of will.

Of course, one can never assume that a writer agrees with the views of his characters, so it could just as well be that Jigsaw is meant to represent the horror of overzealous commitment to enforcing the personal responsibility of others. However, the scene featuring the woman who survived one of his earlier games suggests otherwise, in that she herself insists that Jigsaw helped her to overcome her drug addiction. Though nobody in their right mind would approve of his methods, it may be that the audience is meant to come away from the film thinking highly of the idea behind them, which is evidently that social supports don’t work and that those who can’t fix their problems on their own deserve to be consumed by them.

Of course, a sense of justification pervades an awful lot of horror. The audience is frequently offered the suggestion that the victims somehow deserve their fate. Though the awfulness of their deaths is beyond the pale, it is often suggested that the protagonists have done something wrong and that the events of the film constitute a trial by fire for them. This plays into what may be at once the subtlest and most significant conservative horror trope: a sense of cosmic leveling.

This too is natural. It’s hard to write or expect an audience to relate to something that’s so bleak as to deliver a gruesome death to an educated, down-on-her luck, virginal charity volunteer. We want to believe that there’s at least something that causes another person’s death or pain to make a little bit of sense. Nobody wants bad things to happen to good people for no reason, but in my estimation one difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals lament that that such things do happen, and conservatives steadfastly believe that they don’t. From a certain staunchly conservative point of view, if you’re poor, it’s probably because you didn’t work hard enough; if you’re sad, it’s probably because you don’t go to church; if you get hacked up by the campus psycho killer, it’s probably because you had sex out of wedlock.

In this sense, even horror films with didactic liberal messages, like Cannibal Holocaust, have a conservative philosophical bent, insofar as they identify completely internal causes for many of the terrors that people are forced to face. I would expect a more distinctly liberal horror film to allow terrible things to happen to its characters without excessively rationalizing them. I have great respect for films that are bold enough to allow bad things to happen to good people, because that it what happens in reality. Indeed, that is the worst of what happens in reality, and representing and bringing people face-to-face with that should be the highest aspiration of horror.

Still, I absolutely love some horror stories that have distinctly conservative themes. In addition to just being scary or generally well-structured, they often put on display the kernel of truth that lies behind some conservative thinking. And that in itself can be quite scary.

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