Monday, April 23, 2007

The Culture of Fear, Part 1: The Cinema of Torture

In light of the fact that I wrote a book about the relationship between horror films and American pop culture, someone recently asked me what I think about the current spate of horror films that celebrate torture. I didn’t have the kind of ready-made answer that I could offer if they had asked me about previous decades in cinema history, because: (1) I have not written about horror films since I finished my book in 2003, and so my thoughts about recent horror films are relatively unfocused, and (2) It is not easy to get a grasp on pop culture without the advantage of hindsight. It only occurred to me (belatedly) in the last year or so that the “cinema of torture” is the defining trend in American horror films of the current decade. I believe it’s fair to conjecture that this has something to do with America’s current political climate, which can be summed up in one word: frustrated.

For Americans, the current war began on 9/11 – a wake-up call so surreal that, at the time, most of us could only compare it to a movie. I was one of the many people who watched the events unfold on television, and remained dumbstruck for days afterward. Soon after, shock turned to mourning, mourning turned to anger. The Bush administration answered the people’s call for action by invading Iraq in the spring of 2003. At the time, the nation had a clear goal: to eradicate the pervasive threat of terrorism at its most accessible source – a country that supported known terrorists. This was the beginning of “the war on terror,” a worldwide effort to root out the Evil of terrorism before it could spread.

Flash forward four years. The war on terror has become a desperate effort to maintain order in a foreign country, where acts of terrorism are more common than ever. The U.S. government now practically stands alone in this once-heroic effort. The American people are conflicted about what to do: stay the course or admit defeat? We do not like to admit defeat.

Perhaps this explains our cinema’s obsession with torture – our entertainment is not just reminding us of specific atrocities of war, like the events at Abu Ghraib… it is also reminding us that torture is the last resort of a person, or a country, that is willing to sacrifice human rights to achieve their goal. By any means necessary.

A few years ago, I read a very good book on America’s foreign policy during the Vietnam War. The author, a professor at a well-known university, wrote the book after one of his students expressed the belief that we only lost the Vietnam War because the American government wasn’t completely committed to the cause. The United States, he figured, couldn’t possibly have lost a war against a tiny third-world country, unless it simply didn’t try hard enough. After further discussion, the professor realized that his student’s knowledge of the Vietnam War was based largely on the film Rambo: First Blood, Part II, in which Sylvester Stallone single-handedly wins the Vietnam War through sheer rage. (It is worth noting that, in the months after 9/11, Stallone announced that he was working on a script for a new Rambo sequel.) Nowadays, we might simply send Jack Bauer to sort things out behind closed doors.

Which brings me to my big question: How many Americans are desperate to win the current war at any cost? How many of us are willing to dispense with any and all measures of restraint? The terrorists are merciless, we say, and so we must be equally merciless. Our administration calls the terrorists Evil – the implication being that they are beyond reason, and can only be dealt with in one way. This is the end result of the “culture of fear”: from shock to mourning to anger to inhumanity.

We still have not recovered from the blow that started us down this path. The “war on terror” is still linked, in the popular consciousness, with 9/11. We are still afraid of what happened that day. Those of us who were not in New York are afraid to think of what it would have been like if we ourselves had been there, experiencing the horror first-hand instead of watching it on TV. We are afraid that it could have been us, afraid that it could be us next time.

When we look beyond our pain and our anger, we understand that if we are willing to torture anyone, anyplace, anytime in order to achieve our goals, then we MUST be psychologically prepared for the possibility that we could be subjected to the same merciless treatment ourselves. Any place, any time. It is not an easy thing to cope with that kind of fear… much easier to see it played out on the big screen, in a movie that we know will end in roughly 90 minutes.


  1. Joe -

    I think that you are on to something here. In my essay on contemporary horror, which is down at the moment because of our Virtual Fools maintenance, I posit that the direction toward torture and the "cinema of pain" is due to a widespread misreading/misinterpretation of genre history. For example, these films extract an aspect (transgressive, graphic violence) from the "savage cinema" of the 1970s, yet they neglect the social dimension. Indeed, Romero, Cohen, and to some extent, Hooper, would be mere footnotes were it not for their critical voice.

    I see "pain" films as a misdirection of the genre at large. Instead of confronting the "other," these films eviscerate it.

    Given the guilt legacy of post-Vietnam horror films (DEATHDREAM and NAKED MASSACRE come to mind), do you predict a similar fallout from our current War in Iraq? We already see the makings of it in Joe Dante's HOMECOMING.

  2. Kevin -

    I just watched "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" and your note perfectly sums up the difference between the original 1974 film and the 2006 prequel -- Instead of confronting the other, the new film eviscerates it.

    Possibly we could go back much further, to Aristotle's prescription for Greek tragedy, to make the argument that this new batch of horror films lacks the pathos for true catharsis. I've been reading John's book on slasher films of the 80s, so I find myself thinking more and more about the "responsibility" of horror films to provoke some kind of redeeming thought or emotion, even if it's subconscious.

    If future horror films are going for guilt, I hope they will be more like "Deathdream" (which had plenty of pathos) than "Homecoming" (which was just a farce).

    More to come...