Defending Horror’s Primal Instincts

Maxwell Dean (Vasquez)

I Spit On Your Grave PhotoConsidering my previous editorial highlighted the more progressive elements of horror cinema then it may, to a degree, be surprising that I am willing to defend it’s more clearly, what is termed, exploitative elements that as fans we can’t deny exist.

I openly admit that I enjoy films that may be considered by some to be sick, disgusting or exploitative – particularly by those in the mainstream  – including Hobo with a Shotgun, the original Evil Dead and Zombie Flesh Eaters.

It is the very fact, though, that both sides of horror cinema exist, thereby reflecting its inherent complexity, that  I believe we can defend it. If we look at other genres then you could conceivably argue that this dual complexity doesn’t exist. In action movies such as the most recent Die Hard film we see generic cannon fodder after cannon fodder blown away with very rarely any characterization. Yet this is not criticized as much as horror for some reason.

Unsurprisingly however my following argument is contrary to the tabloid media view that horror films are a medium through which its viewers are corrupted by its imagery. For this argument I will relate the theories of famous psychologist Sigmund Freud to horror cinema. Let me explain. In a Freudian sense horror cinema let’s us explore both our primal violent and sexual instincts in the safety of our home by our own choice without the need to go outside on the street and stab someone. Rather than the explicit imagery controlling us, in the overwhelming majority of instances we are through the horror cinema medium controlling these inherently human instincts ourselves. When violence in the real world does occur and the person takes away these primal instincts and expresses them in a violent act in reality, and they are in the extreme minority, they are often susceptible through previous mental health issues.

Throughout history we can see leaders such as Hitler have exploited and re-awakened what Freud describes as a sub-conscious and irrational force inherent with the human mind. Indeed advertising uses techniques developed directly from Freudian concepts – most notably the figure of Edward Bernays – to to sell us, often, products that cause  the death of many more people than the very rare individual who commits atrocious crimes and who is speculated by the media to be influenced by a horror film. Notably the idea of democracy was manipulated by Bernays and other figures in the 21st century with the aim of maintaining a fixed elite. The population in their view couldn’t be trusted so what we now call consumerism was a tool to control the masses. Importantly this spawned an idea that this ‘brand’ of democracy in essence was something to be protected against the evils of communism. Bernay’s believed that such a fear should be exacerbated. Indeed it was this same fear that supported the USA’s political policy of containment.

This was also critical to, along with the Soviets own crimes, atrocities throughout the Cold War such as those carried out in the Vietnam war – by both opposing forces – and the support of fascist right-wing governments by the USA and extreme left-wing governments by the Soviets in what was a strategic global power game.

Edgar Allan Poe – as we know, an author of many macabre tales – had his own word for this, ‘The Imp of The Perverse’ – a title of a short story published in 1845 and a term that preceded Frued’s own theories by 40 years. This allowed him to explore his own journey through the dark recesses of his mind and project the themes and imagery that they conjured using the literary medium of his day.

Watching Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde from 1931 a couple of nights ago it also occurred to me that its own narrative represented a microcosm of these concepts that are so intrinsic to human society. We can identify this symbolism in the tension and stress that develops in our main character throughout the development of the films narrative, as a result of what he sees as a divide between a repressed and extraordinarily civilized upper class society  – those who hide their subconscious – and a lower class society that openly expresses these inherent instincts. This is what ultimately symbolises the dual ego’s of Hyde and Jeckyll. In his desperation our educated and wealthy character creates a mixture to release himself within an opposite form – the polar opposite – but eventually losing all control of his alter ego and in a final act violently terrorizes the streets as like a wild animal.

I am not saying that watching horror would have prevented the ultimate and uncontrollable manifestation of Jeckyll but I will once again state that I strongly believe that contemporary horror films are a channel to release these instincts. Note that I do realize that my argument contained in this article may seem to contradict my previous thoughts in other pieces about the appeal of horror to reflect reality. To concede that horror films area medium for our sub-conscious instincts however does not make these previous thoughts any less relevant because ultimately, the nature of horror films both allows filmmakers to highlight issues in society through their often complex commentary and the viewer to explore these on a psychological level rather than, as like our political leaders, exploit these primal instincts, in for example the form of war.

Relating this to a contemporary context the tabloid newspapers during the UK’s video nasties scandal played on these same irrational sub-conscious fears to convince us, using Bernay’s own term, a ‘engineering of consent’, that horror movies were the evil incarnate, a spawn of the devil himself – which in their sensationalist rhetoric must be burned!. Surely using the medium of horror films to release our primal instincts has less barbaric consequences than for example the acts of western governments, including the UK’s support for fascist right-wing dictatorships out of a geopolitical power game – including Chile or other right-wing governments in Latin America during the same era. It is that which lets the Mr Jeckyll of human society lose and not horror films.

The Exorcist Chronicles

Yet too many times as in the recent Connecticut shooting our institutions or various political organization’s are too quick to blame them. In the case of the shooting the NRA blamed violent media and therefore more widely implicated horror films. Whats the NRA’s own answer to stop school shootings – to encourage children as young as eight to treat guns as if some kind of adorable toy product. On a channel five news programme it reported on a young girl describing her pink camouflaged AR-15 rifle, clearly labelled with NRA branding, as her ‘pinky’. I am sure whoever is on the wrong end of the gun when a kid enacts a school shooting won’t be so affectionate about its bullets as she is for her own gun.

What I will concede however is that there has to be a limit to what is displayed onscreen, as we all will inevitably express our own personal preference (Child rape is where my limit starts). We cannot deny that there are mentally disturbed individuals who will be influenced by violent media and I also concede that kids are more impressionable than adults. This is however where age restrictions to prevent minors from accessing exploitation themed and explicit material should come in and be properly enforced. To censor explicit sexual and violent material for all of society only encourages society to ignore the true roots of its problems – while using explicit and violent media as an easy target – and propagate a authoritative society. Such a society encourages us to individually repress our sub-conscious primal instincts while our media and political leaders act on and encourage us to pursue irrational behaviour out of fear of a projected enemy, as for example in the 80’s, video nasties .

Yet while I am willing to defend grindhouse/exploitation films like Hobo With A Shotgun or Zombie Flesh Eater’s what I can’t stand is a bad piece of filmmaking. In this fan’s opinion many of the so-called ‘torture porn’ such as Hostel or later Saw sequels and their imitators are guilty of creating a simplistic image which allows the media to create controversy around any film. This is partly due to their focus on explicit gore at the expense of all other cinematic elements or originality. The result of this is to hide the elements of true craft that may be present within other exploitation films such as Hobo With A Shotgun or a deeper societal  message.

From the very original Grimms Fairy Tales  – a source of escapism that incorporated many grisly and macabre elements before Disney turned them into a mainstream product – to Poe, to the french Grand Guignol horror theatre to pre-code hollywood, to the exploitation/grindhouse  films of the 60’s/70’s and horror films of today these all were and are a source to release our violent sun-conscious so that it does not remained repressed within ourselves and therefore we do not turn into our own Mr Jeckyll. 

As a final piece of advice I would simply encourage all horror fans to lock your doors and windows and stick on a classic like Bride of Frankenstein. It will be ensured to keep you glued to the screen.

That is, enough for you to ignore the potential cries of war by our leaders.


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