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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

 

Extroverted horror

You know what I think? I think we're going through a period of extrovert entryism in horror movies.

Here's the principle. You know the traditional horror movie rules, because everybody does: in order to survive, you have to be the sensitive, well-behaved, virginal one. Anyone who has sex, parties or makes off-colour jokes is shortly going to get a knife in the head. Now, the traditional explanation for this is that horror movies are sexual morality tales, run on the principles of Puritan continence. But actually, there's an explanation that works rather better if you think about film-makers and audiences: traditional horror movies are the introvert's revenge.

Think about it. To an introverted teenager, of the kind that usually survives a slasher flick, the world is a more abrasive place than their peers think. There are dangers their peers don't see, problems their peers don't worry about, limits to the comfort zone that their peers just crash right through. Extroverted kids who are partying, shagging and making a big racket can be annoying, either because they provoke envy, or give you a headache, or genuinely seem to be unaware of dangers that are vitally present to the introvert. So what happens in a horror movie? The extroverts brazenly take risks that the introvert avoids, and in so doing, catapult themselves into the path of danger. The introvert, who knows better than to get reeling drunk when there's a killer around, who's capable of hiding in a cupboard without feeling the compulsion to make a lot of noise, whose social role has always been that of observer and so is simply more experienced at seeing the dangers, the flickers, the hiding places and trapdoors and shadows on the wall, suddenly comes into his or her own. Usually her own, in fact: you can posit various theories about why the killer is traditionally male and the survivor traditionally female, but the simplest, I'd say, is that, assuming a young male viewer, the killer comfortably embodies his anger, while the final girl embodies both the purity of his self-image - it's more acceptable to be virginal and do your homework if you're a girl - while also being the kind of girl that (unlike the girls who get the rapist's knife) he'd actually like to go out with rather than just shag.

In a slasher movie, in short, the introvert is proved right to have worried about all that stuff, and people who blithely insisted on doing it anyway get their throats cut, which finally shuts the bastards up. They are, in fact, the ultimate art form of introvert rage.

Adolescence isn't kind to introverted kids, and the result is that introverts can be, in their quiet sort of way, pretty pissed off about quite a lot of things. Now, think about the people who make films. Your average movie director is probably going to be fairly introverted himself; certainly your average writer is, because you need to be able to work things out in your head in order to make a movie. Art creation is an inturned activity. So, back in the day, slasher movies involved a stalker, often silent and uncommunicative, not to mention masked - an introvert, in fact, who'd finally snapped - or, alternatively, like Freddy Kruger, a grotesque extrovert who gets into the privacy of your dreams, brutally unwilling to let you mind your own business, which is to say, a caricature of how extroverts seem to an introvert in a really bad mood. The stalker goes after a group of kids, and the most introverted one is the one who makes it through. The introverted artist gets to express both their sense of innocence and their fury in the opposed hero and villain, and everybody goes home cathartic.

Except lately it's started to change. Because, while many an introvert likes slasher movies - if you're prey to your own imagination, toughening yourself up by exposing it to the kind of fears that plague you in the night, and calling it entertainment, is a coping mechanism - they started to attract extroverts as well. Extroverts, you see, like mayhem. They like it when things get stirred up. Slasher movies are transgressive and energetic, and they often involve a lot of partying going on at the sidelines, and, best of all, you can watch them with your buddies. You wouldn't exactly get in a keg and shout advice at the screen if you were watching Three Colours: Blue - or at least, you could, you could do anything if you wanted, but it doesn't really lend itself to that experience. The film's contemplative sadness might defeat you, or you might shout it down, in which case you might as well have watched something else in the first place, but either way, you could probably have had a better time. Horror, though? It's all about the jumps, and watching other audience members' reactions is part of the experience. And the axe-wielding killer is the bringer of that experience: in cinematic terms, he's the guy who turns up with the speakers: he brings the music, and everyone else can start dancing. For an extrovert, the slasher is not a punisher who goes around silencing the noisy, but an entertainer keeping things from getting too quiet.

So have you noticed something? These days, it tends to be the extroverted kids who survive horror movies, and the introverts who get killed.

I've just seen Hostel; my boyfriend read me opining on the subject of torture porn and came back from the library with a rented DVD, suggesting kindly that I might like to research said opinions. And I noticed something interesting about it: the character who survives, Paxton by name, is the most extroverted one - but also, by virtue of his unreflecting, live-for-the-moment nature, the one with the least past. Of his two companions, one is a sensitive soul who wants to visit museums and is mourning the end of a relationship; ordinarily you'd expect him to survive, but no, on the slab he goes. The other has less personality, but he does appear to have an ex-wife and a daughter, so presumably there's some past there somewhere. Paxton has no past, or at least, there's a story about seeing someone drown as a child, but it doesn't crop up until after both his pals have had their respective hashes settled. As a result, it's not surprising that Paxton is the survivor because it breaks with genre cliches; it's surprising because he lacks any apparent talents. He doesn't have a cracksman's training, or a tolerance for poisons, or double joints, or an observant disposition, or pyschological skills; nothing is seeded to suggest there's anything distinctive about him. So when it comes to getting himself out of trouble, he has no cards to play. He speaks German, but when he tries talking it to his German torturer, he winds up gagged; other than that, there's nothing we know about him, so there's no way we could expect him to escape.

This puts the movie into rather a fix, plot-wise. Once the trouble starts, our surviving hero's position is handcuffed to a chair bolted to the floor of a secret room, under the supervision of a torture-implement wielding psychopath, with armed guards all through the building, corrupt cops in the area and no train stations around for ten kilometres. It looks pretty bad, doesn't it? If you stuck to the laws of plausibility, you would, with the best will in the world, have to admit that Paxton was pretty much sunk. Perhaps if he had some special skills that we'd seen earlier on, we might expect him to get out - but the problem is, he's just a party animal, and a good head for liquor and an eye for a pretty girl aren't really transferable skills when you're in a dungeon.

The result is that the movie is forced into one of the biggest deus ex machinas I've ever seen. Paxton gets his first lucky break when his torturer slips on blood and accidentally cuts off one of his own legs with a chainsaw. That's a pretty remarkable piece of good fortune, but it doesn't stop there: Paxton then runs into a talkative murderer who decides to throw away his gun so Paxton can conveniently pick it up; Paxton then slips outside and finds a car whose owner has thoughtfully left the keys in the ignition. All of this is a bit unsatisfying, but perhaps it's unfair to blame Roth too severely: given the lack of skills our extroverted hero displays, a fairy-godmother narrative is undoubtedly the easiest way of fixing the problem that the script created for itself.*

(It's also notable that the girl Paxton escapes with, a quiet Japanese sort, kills herself when she realises how mutilated her face is. You'd think once she saw the blowtorch coming at her, she'd have realised she wouldn't look quite like her old self by the end of the day, but that's extrovert logic: introverts are weak and slow you down with their emotionality.)

Perhaps it's an innovative break with tradition to have the guy you'd expect to die first live, but then, some traditions are just there because they make sense. It doesn't make sense for the guy with the least personality, intelligence or talents to be the one who manages to get out of an impossible situation unless you resort to saving him by sheer blind luck, and that's less fun than crafty plotting. Usually, if you want someone to escape, it's because of a plausibly small mistake on the part of his captors. Hannibal Lecter's minder accidentally leaves a pen in his cell, and all the rest of it is Lecter's cleverness; the Count of Monte Cristo exploits a ten-minute window of time that depends on the death of his friend and the fact that the guards can't see into his cell unless they open the door. The escapees, in fact, have to depend on their wits, because the narrative isn't going to help them very much, and that's as it should be. Having a guy escape an impossible trap because everyone else keeps obligingly disarming themselves is simply less fun to watch.

Hostel is an example of extroverted horror, but there are others. In The Host, for example, the monster appears in broad daylight right at the outset rather than lurking in the dark - well, you wouldn't want him to be bored, would you? - and one of the most prominent early deaths is a girl who's listening quietly to music in her own little world, minding her own introverted little business. The fictional predecessor Saw's maniac is most obviously based upon, John Doe of Se7en, is definitely an old-school introvert, going around savaging people for such crimes as lust, greed and pride - sins that an introvert probably keeps to himself, but doesn't enjoy seeing other people flaunt - and, in an act of spectacular introspection, decides that he himself embodies one of the seven deadly sins and should die as a result. That's a pretty inturned killer. Move to Saw, and there's no such self-examination: both killers are envious of their victims, but in Saw, we see a killer who is angry with people not for having too much fun, or the wrong kind of fun, but for having too little fun: the people who get punished are suicide survivors who have turned inwards and refused to get out there and party like it's 1999. The very concept of torture porn, as opposed to slasher movies, is a move in the extroverted direction: rather than the cat-and-mouse dance of social avoidance, you get the good guy and the bad guy thrown together in a chamber of horrors with a locked door. It's nasty, but at least it's not lonely.

Hostel, at least, feels like the child of The Evil Dead more than anything else, a film that's equally inexplicable in its choice of survivor. In The Evil Dead, the sensitive psychic girl gets killed first, a nice but unremarkable boy makes it through the night alive while all his friends are briskly dispatched, his repeated cry of 'Why are you torturing me?' never answered by the narrative. The actual answer is that he was a mate of the director, in the same way that I suspect Paxton survives Hostel primarily because he's the character who bears the closest resemblance to the director, but those aren't artistic answers. This may be an obvious observation, but there is a point here: in general, extroverted horror tends to take the foundations laid by introversion and reproduce the structure quite precisely - except that it decides, heck, this time we'll save a character that I like.

And that's why such films feel strangely off. They seem like a misunderstanding of the whole point, a revelling in the flash and gore with none of the anger and soul. It's not that I resent extroverts winning - I know some nice extroverts, after all - but in the context of a horror movie, having the party animal be the survivor just seems weird. It's like having a costume romance where the heroine leaves the Byronic dark horse in the last chapter to go with the shallow rake who's been proven an all-round bounder. Sure, you could make it work, but you'd have to do some character writing; the bounder would have to be redeemed somehow, or else the heroine would have to be shown to be more of a bounder-fancier than a home-and-hearth type. Extro-horror could similarly make it work to have an extroverted survivor; after all, there are plenty of characteristics - physical strength, leadership skills, charm, decisiveness, daring, aggression - that are perfectly compatible with an extroverted nature, and would probably also help if someone was brandishing half the contents of their garden shed at you. But it doesn't seem to happen in the movies I've seen: we get a standard intro set-up, and then the extrovert survives for no particular reason.

I don't think the jar I'm feeling here is just artistic conservatism: the whole structure of the Bad-Thing-Out-To-Get-Us story depends on the principle of danger threatening out of the shadows. And when the shadows have monsters lurking in them, heedlessness is not a survival trait. It just doesn't work to have the survivor be someone who has no qualities that separate them from their cannon-fodder peers. The result is that it feels random, not in a reflecting-the-randomness-of-uncaring-fate way, but in a this-story-is-weird way. You can imagine the production meeting:

'Who shall we kill next?'
'How about that one?'
'Are they an appropriate choice?'
'No, but it'll be fun! I don't especially like him anyway, so he'll do, won't he?'
'Shouldn't there be some kind of logic to the structure?'
'What? No! Who let that guy in?'

The terrors of the imagination begin in the mind, most particularly the minds of people who spend far too much time in there, and horror movies are, fundamentally, imaginary terrors. That's not an easy thing to get away with disregarding, and if you do it too casually, you get a disunity of vision in the piece.

And there's another reason, to do with something that's hard to explain in the context of horror without risking garble but nonetheless important: the concept of justification, of necessity. It's not that sticking a knife into someone is ever justified in real life; it's more that there are different emotional reasons for choosing to do it in fiction. Introvert horror movies are about fury, about pent-up anger finally finding expression. That's an intense emotion, and it's difficult to express in a low-key way. It becomes necessary to find an extreme means of expressing it; the slashings become, in some way, artistically justified, because they're the only way of saying it. But it's harder to justify a fictional killing if the reason it's there is just to make a provocative film, to stir up the audience and keep things energetic. There are lots of different ways to do that. It's hard to explain, but the extro-horror films I've seen lately simply feel less necessary than the intro ones, like they have less reason to be saying what they're saying, and are simply killing characters for the fun of it. Violence is a dire thing, and if it's artistically necessary, that's fine - but violence purely for its own sake? That's not so good.

I'm not arguing against violence in movies per se: I've seen far nastier movies than this latest crop and thought them really good, such as Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hellraiser, all of which are more gruesome but less gratuitous. In a way, a problem I have with extro-horror is that it lacks conviction. If you're just killing people for a few jumps and a laugh or two, or because you liked other horror movies you've seen, then you're taking the deaths less seriously. You're treating them as fictional. That makes them less shocking, not more: I'd hesitate to rewatch the recent gorno films because they weren't particularly enjoyable, but I'd hesitate to rewatch the old ones because I'm not sure I could stand them. They're so grisly that they're very close to being unbearable. And, again, that's how it should be: if a film is out to shock me, I want it to work. I remember a documentary accompanying the Wes Craven box set I watched remarking that with Hitchcock, you felt in the hands of a master, but with seventies slashers, you felt in the hands of a maniac. Either's fine, but the recent gornos don't feel like either. They feel like being in the hands of an intermediary who hasn't completely understood the point of the genre, and that's a pity.

I'm entirely sympathetic to the idea of extroverted horror in principle; extroverts are often lovely people and deserve a lot of good art, and it's not as if any one psychological type owns any one genre. But I do believe that if extros really want a horror genre of their own, they need to do more rethinking of the basic structure than most of the gornos I've seen are displaying. If a movie's going to be extroverted, it needs to be extroverted from the ground up. There are a lot of things that extroverts are likely to be angry about, or frightened of, so there's got to be a lot of potential for good scary stuff. I just don't think that the horror genre, if it really wants to enjoy an extroverted phase, has quite tapped it yet. Right now, it feels like extroverted icing on an introverted cake, and that's a taste that won't quite satisfy anybody.


*Actually, I can think of an alternative, just to prove that introverts are just as unsqueamish as extroverts when we try. (If you don't like gore, look away now.) The solution is this: Paxton has both his hands clamped to a table, and the torturer breaks one of them with a hammer, a la Casino. Gritting his teeth, Paxton pulls the now-crushed hand out through the clamp, punches his torturer so hard that he skewers one of the guy's eyes with a protruding finger-bone, grabs the hammer in his blood-soaked fist and rips out the torturer's voicebox with the claw end. While the guy is struggling to deal with his newly-adjusted circumstances, Paxton then grabs the nearby drill or chisel, uses it to unscrew the bolts that are holding down the clamp on his other hand - these things, after all, are meant to be used for DIY - avails himself of the numerous tools and weapons that the cell is bristling with, and makes good a dramatic and somewhat sticky escape. No doubt it would be painful for him, but if his situation has any advantages, it's that the sound of screams combined with drilling isn't going to stir his guards' interest.

Comments:
I tend to see the entire world through an introvert/extrovert lens. It seems as though you do too. So, although I don't enjoy horror fiction, this post made sense to me.

Because introverts are naturally more self-reflective, they will understand this intro/extro stuff far better than extroverts ever will.

By the way, have you ever read THE INTROVERT ADVANTAGE by Marti Olsen Laney? Fantastic book.
 
Thanks for the recommendation! I wouldn't say I saw the entire world through that lens, but it can sometimes be a useful way of looking at art... :-)
 
That's quite an intriguing way of looking at it that I'd never thought of before.

While we're recommending books, I'd also have a look at The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. It's about high sensitivity, which is not quite the same as introversion but is often linked with it. Many of the traits you ascribe to introversion I would personally ascribe to sensitivity--particularly in seeing details that others tend to miss.
 
This reminds of that sci-fi film Cube. Have you seen it? If not I won't spoil it, but suffice to say that the actions of the characters seem completely illogical all the way through, as does the way their attitudes change. It's almost as if the characters (not the actors) know there's a story arc to complete and dammit, they'll get there however they can, regardless of consistency.

I'm a big fan of slasher flicks like the Friday 13th series, but I can't stomach the torture porn films. There's something very ... knowing about the violence in those films, as if they're catering to the audience's bloodlust rather than trying to scare you.

The example that springs to mind is a film called I Spy, in which a group of teens are living in an isolated house in the mountains as part of an online reality show. The twist is that the website running the show is a snuff sight and the teens are being killed off for the viewing pleasure of an elite audience. Nobody survives - everyone is treated to a gruesome death either at the hands of the mysterious producers or another teen. It's not entertaining to watch (for me) because there's absolutely nothing redeeming about any of the characters, and no hope is offered. In contrast, traditional slasher flicks (despite the endless sequels) usually offer a glimpse of daylight (metaphorical and actual) at the end.
 
'as if they're catering to the audience's bloodlust rather than trying to scare you'

Aha, I have a theory about that, but that's for the next post...

:-)
 
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