Shambling zombies, covered in blood and gore, hungering for human flesh, approaching a small group of hopeless survivors – we’ve seen it in The Walking Dead, iZombie, World War Z, Resident Evil and countless other pieces of horror media. The zombie has become an inescapable cultural figure that’s found, not just on TV or movies, but on shirts, hats, board games, phone cases, and more. But we wouldn’t have this cultural zeitgeist without George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. With almost no budget, Romero defined the horror genre and broke through societal taboos around race, class, and nihilism. Romero rejected conventional horror tropes and created something that reflected a nation in shambles during the Vietnam War, as well as the corrosive effects of capitalism on society as a whole.
The film’s protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), is a Black man. While Ben’s race is never explicitly addressed in the film, it is hard to ignore as the rest of the cast is white. Unlike the other white characters, Ben has the most control of the situation, immediately taking the role of the group’s leader. When he arrives at the farmhouse, he begins to board up the windows and doors by tearing apart the stereotypical home of the 1960s family. He pulls apart tables, chairs, and parts of the kitchen to keep the undead out of the home; to protect those in the house he must literally tear it apart.
This piece is written by our guest writer Redmond Bacon.
Caleb Landry Jones was everywhere last year, playing supporting roles in movies as diverse as The Florida Project, Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Displaying such a great range, with every character wholly different, his own moment in the spotlight has been well overdue. Sadly, for him, To The Night, which sees him play a trauma victim suffering from psychotic episodes, will not be the movie to catapult him to leading man status.
He plays Norman, a man who survived a deadly fire as a child which killed his parents. Now he is a father himself, living in an atelier-like apartment with his girlfriend Penelope (Eleonore Hendricks ). Its hard to say what exactly he does as a job, although it looks like he might be an artist — creating a model of the house that his parents died in and the opening scene showing him at an exhibition. He is in desperate need of help, his psychotic breakdowns leading to him smashing up the apartment and even raising his hand to Penelope. Its not a pretty film to watch, and he is not an easy character to like.
Horror is gay. It’s a genre about, among other things, destroying societal conceptions of heteronormativity and domesticity. Gay horror fans like myself see ourselves in these narratives about monstrosity and “otherness” and take hold of them, making them our own. In his book, Queer Horror Film and Television: Sexuality and Masculinity at the Margins, Darren Elliott-Smith says, “…the study of monstrous homosexuality in the horror film has also revealed the celebratory pleasures offered to queer, gay and lesbian viewers’ oppositional identification with the very same monsters that threaten the norm.” Our identities threaten heteronormativity and we cheer on those monsters that do the same. Horror is not only about queerness, but is shaped by queerness, with LGBTQ+ directors, like Clive Barker and Don Manici, creating horror classics such as Hellraiser and Child’s Play, respectively.
While gay horror directors and fanatics have helped shape horror film, their work is eclipsed by toxic tropes created to “other” LGBTQ+ characters and make them into villains. Horror ultimately reflects societal fears and for much of recent history, society has been afraid of gayness and the threat it poses heteronormative conceptions of family and relationships. While our current cultural context is evolving into a slightly more accepting one, this genre has perpetuated toxic tropes, two of which that I’ll discuss here, that depict LGBTQ+ characters as deviant, horrific monsters.
In David Lynch’s quintessential feature film, Eraserhead, a young man is faced with something both horrible and inescapable: his own impending fatherhood. And he doesn’t just become the father to any child, but to a mutated creature with a long, giraffe-like neck and skin that glistens as if covered in something akin to a mucous membrane. It has bulbous eyes, a face like a salamander, and a body that is never seen, hidden beneath taught bandages of swaddling. It groans, it screams, and it shrieks into the days and nights. It even refuses all food, haunting the young man, Henry, until he is compelled to kill it with his bare hands. But what is it that makes this child so particularly grotesque? It is unnatural, practically inhuman, and it defies all natural laws of what we believe human bodies to be.
But then, what about that is particularly scary or, perhaps, why does an unfamiliar body upset us? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “body horror,” a subgenre of horror film, as “horror elicited by the depiction of destruction or disfigurement of the human body,” but I like the Wikipedia definition better: “Body horror, biological horror, organic horror or visceral horror is horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the unnatural graphic transformation, degeneration or destruction of the physical body. Such works may deal with decay, disease, parasitism, mutation or mutilation.” So what does body horror say about how we view the human body? Why are our own bodies scary, and why is their potential mutation and destruction able to be exploited to incite fear and terror in us, other than for the obvious reason that it just looks, well, horrifying? I believe we fear our bodies, even hate them, because our physical forms are a constant reminder of our mortality. “Contemporary horror films play on the fear….of one’s own body and its potential destruction” (Ronald Allen Lopez Cruz). Body horror exploits our fear of our flesh, which will soon rot and decay and cease to exist.
The use of horror as a metaphor for the impact of repressed female sexuality in cinema can be found in a range of films, from Julia Ducournau’s arresting debut feature, Raw, to Brian de Palma’s masterful tale of a girl’s unusual coming of age in Carrie. It’s not necessarily a new way of tackling the subject of teenage girls and their first ventures into sexual desire, but it is a deeply effective one and serves as the central theme of Thelma—Joachim Trier’s brilliant meditation on one young woman’s discovery of the wants she has stifled for so long.
The titular Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a quiet, thoughtful freshman who, when we first meet her, appears to be overwhelmed by shyness. As she attends university in Oslo, a sharp contrast to the notably eerie house that she lives in with her parents in the Norwegian countryside, she initially struggles to settle into the student lifestyle with her fellow classmates. Through brief glimpses into her relationship with her parents, often presented in the form of somewhat invasive phone-calls to Thelma after her classes, we learn that they are fundamentalist Christians to whom Thelma can barely admit that she drank a little wine without panic rising. Already, within the film’s first thirty minutes, the repression surrounding Thelma’s life has been established. Once we learn that she has spent the first eighteen years of her life under the thumb of her parents–akin to the way in which Sissy Spacek’s telekinetic lead of Carrie spent hers restrained by her mother–the visible concern that arises whenever she speaks to another person begins to make sense.
Grief, guilt, and mental illness are not unusual themes in horror film. We’ve seen them in The Babadook, The Witch, It Follows, the list goes on. But Ari Aster’s debut feature film, Hereditary, takes the struggles of grief to another horrifying level. What he creates is a tense, devastating, and at times difficult to watch, look at the trauma we suffer at the hands of our family and how that trauma lives on past death.
Hereditary opens on the grieving Graham family. Annie, played by the phenomenal Toni Collette, has lost her mother and is trying to work her way through this loss with support groups and working on her artistic miniatures. Meanwhile, her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) tries to maintain some semblance of normalcy with their son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and young daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). But slowly everything begins to fall apart into a very dark place. Telling you any more about the plot would ruin the film and this is best viewed without any idea of what to expect.
Horror has always provided a foundation for social commentary. As an audience, our fear of the monsters on screen can reflect – or negate – the fears that are deeply rooted within our communities. Gender, therefore, is an obvious topic for the horror director, and the academic links between feminist analysis and genre filmmaking are extensive. It’s the reason why Much Ado takes part in ‘Women in Horror Month’; we wish to highlight the fact that women excel when it comes to the monstrous and the terrifying.
Karyn Kusama lies at the very heart of this link, as a horror filmmaker who places female stories front-and-centre within her work. Her protagonists are richly developed, flawed and driven – whether that be for blood, success, or revolution. Her films provide subtle commentary upon the patriarchal grip of masculinity, the immovable nature of grief, and the overbearing pressure of maternal love. Her stories are interwoven with humour, poignancy, and wit. From ‘Jennifer’s Body’ to ‘The Invitation’, Kusama’s short filmography is an example of how female filmmakers truly own the horror genre.