Sunday, October 16, 2011

A History of Horror

by Winston Wheeler Dixon
(Piscataway: Rutgers UP, 2010)
eBook, 224 Pages, 3993 KB, Nonfiction

Ever since horror leapt from popular fiction to the silver screen in the late 1890s, viewers have experienced fear and pleasure in exquisite combination.  A History of Horror, with rare stills from classic films, is the only book to offer a comprehensive survey of this ever-popular film genre.  Chronologically examining over fifty horror films from key periods, this one-stop sourcebook unearths the historical origins of legendary characters and explores how the genre fits into the Hollywood studio system and how its enormous success in American and European culture expanded globally over time.

Now, I have read a lot on horror, and not just recreationally.   I have done a lot of serious academic reading, studying and writing on the horror genre both in literature and in film.  In fact, I’ve pretty much made an academic career for myself writing about horror.  Believe it or not, it is viable academically.  (It even got to the point where I was known as “the Horror Guy” among both my cohort and the department.)  Amongst my rummaging in the academic discourse surrounding the horror film, I have come across the writings of Professor Winston Wheeler Dixon more than once, so when I discovered that he had a book length study of the horror genre, I knew I needed to read it.  I probably should have known better…

In my past readings, I have taken issue with some of the points in Dixon’s articles, but that is part of academic discourse, you don’t always agree with what you have read, in fact, that is usually a good jumping off point for your own writing.  Yet, in A History of Horror, Dixon seems to be missing the forest for the trees in his “overview” of the horror genre.  While the book does a good job of covering the history of the genre from its beginnings to the current era (or at least current as of the writing) there is a distinct tone of dismissal hiding amongst Dixon’s writing when he begins a discussion of the era of New Horror (more or less 1968 to the present).

The bulk of Dixon’s book focuses mostly on the pre-Night of the Living Dead era (Romero’s film being a universally-recognized turning point in the genre) and does so with a distinct air of nostalgia; a why aren’t films as good as they used to be wistfulness.  There is a distinct feeling of fondness for the Universal monsters (as well as a clear sense of despair that they, to paraphrase Dixon, were reduced to broad burlesque players in films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (which, for the record, I like!) and even a tone of respect for the Hammer films of the 50s and 60s.  However, his tone shifts once he reaches the 70s and the directors behind the New Horror.

George A. Romero and his Dead films barely get two paragraphs.  Wes Craven is dismissed as a sequel generating hack.  Tobe Hooper is written off as a sensationalist and one-hit wonder.  Only John Carpenter gets more than two cents of Dixon’s time, and Halloween is given its due, but as with all of these men who changed the face of the horror film, Dixon spends more time dwelling on their failures than on their successes.  By lamenting the change that occurred in horror including the increase in violence, the lack of origins—for the most part—of the monsters/killers, and an emphasis on nihilism, and wondering why the films of the late 60s and 70s (and beyond) could not be more like those of the 30s, 40s and 50s, Dixon misses the point.

There was a significant shift in the American cultural landscape, socially, politically and aesthetically.  With the omnipresent threat of nuclear war, the social despair and unrest caused by the seemingly endless conflict in Vietnam as well as a distrust of political leadership in the wake of Watergate America was changing.  Add to these the Civil Rights Movement, Second-Wave Feminism, as well as growing unemployment, a perceived assault on “manhood,” and an energy crisis America and Americans (as well as the rest of the world) would (and could) not be content with the horror film in its classic form where good wins and  the monster/threat is vanquished in the end.  Yes, there are films that still follow that formula in the post-1968 era (in fact they are among the most formulaic films produced by Hollywood) but the directors that changed the face of the genre embraced the shift in the American landscape and it was reflected in their films.

Dixon, to my mind, compounds his error by first addressing the very real fact that the events of September 11, 2001 created a shift in the horror genre (much in the way that Vietnam did) but then discusses films that really have nothing to do with this change.  While I realize that in the last 40 years or so the horror film has become transnational in nature and Japan, France, Italy, Spain and Korea are creating some very interesting and provocative films Dixon all but ignores the fact that American horror experienced another shift as well.  Sure the slasher genre is still there, each one trying to be more explicit than the last, but other films such as 30 Days of Night, The Hamiltons, and especially The Strangers are investigating questions of identity, the sanctity of the home as well as family and the self in a post-9/11 landscape.  Instead Dixon chooses to focus on those films that, in his mind, are derivative and serve no purpose other than to spawn sequels and generate money for the studios.  This is a short-sighted view at best and only serves to strengthen Dixon’s erroneous proposition that horror films “aren’t what they used to be” and that they should revert to the classical storytelling that was embraced in the 30s and 40s in a petitio principii fashion.

In the end, for the casual viewer of the horror film there are better books out there that chronicle the history of horror and discuss its impact on the cultural landscape (add to this the fact that Dixon gets some basic plot points of some modern films wrong, most notably the identity of the killer in the first Friday the 13th film … seriously, how do you mess that one up?).  I would recommend, just off the top of my head, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (very accessible and readable), Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film (academic in tone, but a fascinating read) Steffan Hantke’s anthology American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium (an insightful and broad overview of the genre) and Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror (a fascinating and accessible read that better lays out the transitional period in horror between about 1968 to 1979).  Dixon’s book, while occasionally interesting and insightful, is just too one-sided for me to recommend unconditionally.  Get it at the library if you must, but don’t shell out money for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment