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WYRD WORDS: PERSONAL REFLECTION ON THE ART OF HORROR (PART III)— GRANDFATHER HU

Jun 26, 2023 | Non Fiction | 0 comments

PART III: BODY HORROR (DON’T GET NO RESPECT)

 

Must There Be Horror?

Image used for representation

 

Body Horror is the Rodney Dangerfield of subgenres: it don’t get no respect. 

In case that reference eludes the younger reader, allow me to explain that Rodney Dangerfield (1921-2004) was a Borscht Belt standup comedian who specialized in self-deprecating humor. Dangerfield discovered he could augment the impact of his jokes by preceding them with the phrase: “I’m telling you: I don’t get no respect.” All that followed would be self-mockery, such as the now famous one-liner: “When I was born I was so ugly the doctor slapped my mother.” 

I’m telling you: Body Horror don’t get no respect. 

It is still the poster child for all that is deemed wrong about the genre by those who proclaim their dislike of Horror. Even a much-younger Stephen King dismissed Body Horror as the child of a lesser god when in Danse Macabre he wrote that “the gag reflex of revulsion” is the lowest form of technique available to the Horror writer (37). When he’s at his most desperate as a storyteller, King noted, he will “go for the gross-out,” that “most childish of emotional impulses.” “I’m not proud,” he famously added (185, 37).

It is entirely understandable that many readers — and especially film viewers — might feel uncomfortable with a “subgenre” defined by its focus upon human bodies undergoing the duress of physical violence, illness, decline, transformation, defilement, or sexual violation. 

Indeed, evolution may have primed us to feel discomfort when witnessing the symptoms that accompany accident, infection, and death. Disgust arising from seeing viscera and vomit may keep us safe by automatically inserting some distance between ourselves and any “monsters” that could sicken or slay us, be they bigger than Bengal tigers or tinier than Tsetse flies (Renner). 

But can there be any benefit from encountering the abject in the Arts?

Contemporary academia is comfortable with the idea that valuable insights can be achieved through the application of theoretical approaches to texts that depict horrendous physical violations or transformations. Scholars armed with analytical theories taken from Feminist, Queer, and Critical Race Studies have been especially eager to interrogate the tropes of Body Horror appearing in creative works; this is particularly true for critics writing from within the Film Studies department. This is not to say cinema trumps literature when it comes to the presentation of the abject; consider how common the trope of the defiled human body was to just two of the texts at the heart of the Gothic literary movement: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Unlike their counterparts in the university, popular film critics working for the media seem to have taken longer to control the gag reflex when responding to cinematic portrayals of violence and corruption in Horror films. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, for instance, was panned as indecent and insignificant when it was first released in 1968. The film only earned some degree of critical respect in the United States when the praises of French film critics forced North American reviewers to re-evaluate what is now praised as an iconic work of groundbreaking importance.

Similarly, John Carpenter’s The Thing, released in June 1982, was overwhelmingly dismissed by the most influential film reviewers of the day as a reprehensible “barf-bag movie” — to quote Roger Ebert (1942-2013), one of the same critics who had panned Romero’s film some 14 years earlier (Paul).  A late bloomer in terms of critical reception, The Thing is now posited as a classic example of Body Horror. 

The Thing was in many ways more “restrained” than many other genre films that made something of a splash when they were released during the same period. 

Of course I’m speaking of “splatterpunk” classics such as The Evil Dead (1981) and its sequel Evil Dead II (1987) from director Sam Raimi, The Return of the Living Dead (1985) from Dan O’Bannon, to cite but a few. A relative latecomer to the splatterpunk experience was Peter Jackson, whose 1992 film Braindead (re-titled Dead Alive in North America) ends in an exuberant bloodbath of violence. These films — with their depictions of hands being cut off or bodies being disemboweled — remain the principal examples of “splatterpunk” as a stylistic category. 

The gory glory days of splatterpunk as a marketing phenomenon were already pretty much over by the mid-1990s, though the visually intense presentation of corporeal devastation continues as a trope in many contemporary cinematic releases within the Horror Genre such as the unexpected box office hits Violent Night (2022), Cocaine Bear (2023), and Evil Dead Rise (2023). 

It should not be forgotten that splatterpunk as a style of storytelling is also embraced by many writers. Indeed, the official “coinage” of the term came from author David J. Schow, who more recently acknowledged he was being purposefully “inflammatory and divisive” in his re-working of the category of “cyperpunk” into something that could describe his own writing (Morton).  Etymologically combining the image of blood splatter with the rebellious “punk” rock music movement, the term facilitates serious discussion of works that might otherwise be too-easily dismissed as “distastefully irrelevant.” 

At heart, the splatterpunk movement can be understood as a purposefully radical slap at the bourgeois ideals of “good taste” and “moderation” during a period of strong “social oppression” that accompanied the rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism in Britain and the United States (Tucker). 

It feels acceptable to claim that the splatterpunk movement in cinema, at least, was an act of resistance that used the shock of excessive violence to force viewers to momentarily step out of the consumption mode, look into themselves, and question why they were even mildly entertained by these shows of gore, dismemberment, and death. Splatterpunk films were also transgressive insofar as they led “consumers” to self-reflection about the origins of their own taboos and values. Is it credibly argued that the splatterpunk narrative can deposit subtle hints and warnings into the unconscious mind, leaving readers and filmgoers to ponder bigger questions of morality, responsibility, trust, normality, depravity, and so forth? 

I also wonder if the historically short-lived splatterpunk movement in cinema seed into the cultural collective unconscious the quiet consideration of sociopolitically relevant topics such as official censorship or the influence of “the profit motive” upon cultural production. In its literary form, can the excess of the splatterpunk text be an important contribution to a narrative’s striving toward social commentary, a statement on some aspect of larger systemic structures, or even a study of the boundaries separating accountability from inculpability, action from inaction (Wilburn)? 

And while splatterpunk as a recognizable “movement” may be spoken of in the past tense, “extreme” Body Horror continues unabated in both print and film. What has changed, possibly, is the question of whether or not we need these texts to push us into pondering moral, ethical, or legal margins. 

In a social environment where the borders between “right and wrong” have been so passionately declared, consumers and critics may find themselves less forgiving of the assumption that displays of Body Horror are there to serve a larger purpose. Consider the many who publicly decried the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as anti-feminist “torture porn.”  As one commentator said of the series: “Watching the horrific torture of women should not be easy. It should not be fun. And it should serve a purpose” (Horton).    

The label “torture porn” is now used to signal the dismissiveness of critics who fail to see any value in narrative descriptions or depictions of physical abuse. These critics argue that depictions of extreme Body Horror are a stain upon whatever values might be available within the Horror Genre as a form of Art. The term suggests that these images have no redeeming value. 

Unfortunately, space limitations and the desire for a deeper discussion of Body Horror as a subgenre demands a somewhat abrupt wind-up at this point, making all that preceded a mere “introduction” to the idea of splatterpunk fiction and film holding values that are far deeper than the cuts made upon the fictional bodies. In the next installment of Wyrd Words I will strive to flesh out the larger concept of Body Horror as connected to ideas of social relevance, psychological health, and philosophical assumptions. 

Maybe Body Horror can get just a little more respect.

 


Citations

Horton, Helena. “Ofcom Receives Complaints About ‘Torture Porn’ and Violence in New Handmaid’s Tale Series as Viewers Switch Off.” The Telegraph. 2 Jun. 2018. Online. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/06/02/ofcom-receives-complaints-torture-porn-violence-new-handmaids/

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Everest House, 1981. 

Morton, Lisa. “Interview: David J. Schow.” Nightmare Magazine. Issue 43, Apr. 2016. Online. https://www.nightmare-magazine.com/nonfiction/interview-david-j-schow/  

Paul, Zachary. “From ’Instant Junk’ to ‘Instant Classic’ – Critical Reception of ‘The Thing.’” Bloody Disgusting. 5 Jun. 2017. Online. https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3443226/instant-junk-instant-classic-critical-reception-thing/  

Renner, Rebecca. “Ew, Gross! Why Humans are Hardwired to Feel Disgust.” National Geographic. 30 Mar. 2021. Online. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/gross-why-humans-are-hardwired-to-feel-disgust  

Tucker, Ken. “The Splatterpunk Trend, and Welcome to It.” The New York Times. 24 Mar. 1991. Online. https://www.nytimes.com/1991/03/24/books/the-splatterpunk-trend-and-welcome-to-it.html  

Wilburn, Jay. “The New Splatterpunks.” Lit Reactor. 20 May 2022. Online. https://litreactor.com/columns/the-new-splatterpunks

 


Also read, Wyrd Words: Personal reflection on the Art of Horror (Part I)  and (Part II) written by Grandfather Hu and published in The Antonym.

 

WYRD WORDS: PERSONAL REFLECTION ON THE ART OF HORROR (PART II)— GRANDFATHER HU


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Grandfather Hu

Grandfather Hu

Grandfather Hu is an American expat who has lived much of his adult life in Taiwan, where he has retired after a long career as an English teacher in a local university. This column is his attempt at becoming a student once again by diving headlong into books and creative endeavors that didn’t quite fit into his work in academia. You can find him busy with his blog https://grandfatherhu.wordpress.com/

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