Tuesday, October 24, 2006

What Me Worry?

(Day 6 of Countdown)

The insanity of the real world brings to light the central irony of horror. Supposedly, the sane person functions well in society. But if that society is bull goose looney, what does sanity mean?
Consider the case of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cold War audiences assumed the threat robbing the personalities of townsfolk must have been representative of communism, but the director thought he was making a satire of American consumer culture. In fact, the American critique Siegel intended is the way the movie holds up best, capturing our fear of the other in the process. The misreading of Siegel's movie says that much more about American society in its tendency toward denial, outright blindness and projection. It's amazing how horror illuminates our sickness even as it appeals to it. For such reasons, serious people make horror for serious reasons.

We will soon get around to the way the politics of Mary Wolstonecraft and William Godwin found their way into their daughter’s novel Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi, who became synonymous with Dracula, was a political exile from Hungary for his labor organizing there. Another Hungarian immigrant, Francis Faragoh, who scripted the 1931 Frankenstein, was infamous in Hollywood circles for his organizing on the Left. Boris Karloff helped build the Screen Actor’s Guild because of the exploitation he’d experienced as an actor. Curt Siodmak, who wrote The Wolf Man, saw his film as a way to metaphorically deal with the Nazi threat he’d fled in Germany (right down to his creation of the 5-pointed star which appears on the palms of the werewolf’s intended victims).

In the ‘50s, television playwright Rod Serling turned to fantasy and horror in response to censorship. Twice, Serling wrote scripts for the theatrical showcase Playhouse 90 inspired by the Emmet Till case (the brutal lynching of a 14-year-old black Chicago youth in Mississippi that helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement). No doubt anticipating a fight even the first time out, Serling changed the specifics to the extreme—Till’s corollary was an elderly Jew--but the fact that the story ended with an acquittal of the murderer made the point too obvious for the sponsors.

Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion, tells what happened:

“U.S. Steel demanded changes in the script. The town was moved from an unspecified area to New England. The murdered Jew was changed to an unnamed foreigner. Bottles of Coca-Cola were removed from the set and the word ‘lynch’ stricken from the script (both having been determined ‘too Southern’ in their connotation). Characters were made to say ‘This is a strange little town’ or ‘This is a perverse town,’ so that no one would identify with it….When it was finally aired in April of 1956, ‘Noon on Doomsday’ was so watered down as to be meaningless.”

When Serling tried to approach the story again with a teleplay called “The Town Has Turned to Dust,” the results were equally neutered. In 1957, when he wrote a play about the United States Senate, Serling recalled, “To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited.”

As a result, later that year, he explained to an incredulous (and apparently gullible) Mike Wallace that he’d given up “serious” writing in favor of a little sci-fi show called The Twilight Zone. From 1959 until 1964, Rod Serling became a household name tackling every issue imaginable from the horrors of racism to fascism to nuclear annihilation in the relatively safe space created by his fantastic Zone.

During this same period, film’s “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock not only delivered some of the edgiest material on television in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but his movies took a turn toward outright horror with Psycho and The Birds. In Psycho, the murderer is the archetypically good boy who dotes on his mother. In The Birds, nature itself seems to have gone, perhaps justifiably, unsane. Both movies have, at least at first, female protagonists who are socially isolated, who are morally complex and questionably sane themselves and represent the growing alienation of women in society. Of course, both movies question the sanity of the society itself. In Psycho, it’s a world where people live caged lives pretending to be free, while The Birds emphasizes the instability of the social veneer, at one point the protagonist being called a witch who has caused nature to run amuck.

The falsely accused, or the wrong man theme, may be the most common theme in all of Hitchcock’s work. The idea that the social order is maintained with all the rationality of the lynch mob forms a foundation for many of the most famous Hitchcock films, including the 39 Steps, Spellbound, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest and Frenzy. At the same time, the agents of ordered society, the police, are almost always portrayed as bumbling, even dangerous, fools. This theme in Hitchcock’s work is often attributed to the director’s childhood---when, to make an impression, his parents left him in jail for a night. It made an impression all right—that parents and police alike are nuts, and sometimes dangerous ones at that.

At the same time, most of Hitchcock’s films show ordered society as a place wherein people really have very little control over their lives—at best, they spend their time negotiating their way in and out of traps. Most of the above films carry that theme as well as Notorious, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Marnie.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Hitchcock’s films almost always emphasize the similarities between the monster and its victim, the villain and the protagonist, the insane and the sane. Movies that focus on this kind of doubling include Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and Vertigo as well as virtually every film listed above. Arguably the 20th Century’s greatest craftsman of suspense was one of our greatest social critics. Hitchcock’s modern world is an irrational, unjust and thoroughly treacherous place.

At the end of the millennium, as America’s cultural markets became so specialized and divided that very little pop culture reached the broad audiences the Big Three networks once did, one of the exceptions to the rule was the long-running sci-fi/horror series the X-Files. Inspired by one of creator Chris Carter’s favorite childhood series, the Watergate era’s The Night Stalker (which pitted a rogue newspaper reporter against various cover-ups of things that go bump in the night), The X-Files overcame the problem of suspension of disbelief the earlier series had. While it was improbable that a newspaper reporter would find a monster every week, it was perfectly logical that an FBI team might be assigned to study the unexplained and that somewhere in America that unexplained might bare some real fangs on a regular basis.

The X-Files was most famous for its long and convoluted conspiracy thread, which traded in the same anxiety about those in power who had been the real antagonists in The Night Stalker. At a time when the majority of Americans had grown disillusioned with both political parties and opted out of voting all together, at a time when O.J. Simpson could be found innocent of murder primarily because of distrust of the police, the X-Files tapped into those feelings of distrust and helplessness. The only trustworthy FBI agents were the rogues with the motto “Trust No One.”

But the show may have been at its best when it veered away from the government conspiracies and focused on various monsters of the week. In those episodes, a gothic image of America emerged—a place where an endless series of skeletons burst out of closets in every dark corner of the country. Concepts of normalcy were regularly upended. In one episode an Arkansas cult is feared responsible for a series of murders while the true culprit is the town’s chicken processing plant. In another, Satan worshipping teens are accused of ritualistic violence when in fact the PTA is responsible. In one of the show’s most horrifying, funny and controversial episodes, "Home," small-town sheriff Andy Taylor and his deputy Barney are murdered by monsters created by generations of inbreeding that reach back to the Civil War. Just as the quality of the X-Files began to wane, Joss Whedon’s series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer would manage to find a way to address virtually every issue facing millennial youth with healthy doses of such humor and horror.

In the wake of 9/11/2001 and in the midst of the War on Terror, shows like Lost, Jericho, Invasion and even revamped sci fi like Battlestar Galactica all tackle today’s fear and paranoia by complicating rather than simplifying the complexities of the issues facing frightened, embattled societies. And more politically simplistic, movies like Saw, Wolf Creek and Hostel force us to experience wrongful imprisonment, sadism and torture in a political climate that makes excuses for such evils. Time and time again, the insanity that erupts from the poisoned earth of horror reveals the fault lines of our identity.

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