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What is it about horror films? Critics' and audiences' reactions to John Carpenter's The Thing and other horror flicks.


The reception from the critics and from many
audiences was that they were very shaken up and
very upset by the film. ... They thought I had
gone too far [and they] called me a
'pornographer of violence'.

- John Carpenter on reaction to The Thing.

When Paul Byrnes summed up Species II as 'everything you never wanted to see', he was speaking as the quintessential mainstream critic. He dismissed the film as unnecessary and gratuitous, and warned the audience against the far-fetched, shocking and horrifying images that Species II as well as The Thing present. However, such a statement does not really help in understanding what these films do for the audience, and does not provide any reasons for why these films are so popular. These films are what many people want to see, over and over again, regardless of whether the films themselves are disgusting and shocking or whether their creators are 'pornographers of violence'. Such statements are obviously missing the point of the horror film. Its elaborate special effects, and grotesque and graphic imagery seem to attract rather than repel an audience, and do so on different levels and reasons, both superficial and psychological.

Pauline Kael called The Thing a film of limited imagination, grimly serious and a landmark in gore. Her apparent displeasure in the 'apocalyptic devastation' of the film is evident when she characterises some of the effects as 'oozing, jellied messes of blood and entrails and assorted parts of people'. What later was classed as a cult classic amongst some audiences within genre publications was dismissed as unimaginative and unworthy by critics.

Another example is Roger Ebert who asserted that The Thing depends on its special effects, which he classes as elaborate, but nauseating and horrifying. He does unashamedly admit to being scared while viewing The Thing, but says that such a reaction seems unnecessary because it has been done so many times. That is,
Unless you are interested in [seeing] anonymous greasy organs extruding giant crab legs and transmuting itself into a dog. I'll bet that thousands, if not millions of moviegoers are interested in seeing just that.

Ebert's point leads one to a quandary. Audiences are clearly enthusiastic about experiencing horror films. Millions of people partake in the experience of seeing horror films with the knowledge that they will repeatedly be shocked, scared, and unsettled. However, the elaborate and grotesque images and subject matter are apparently something one should not and would not want to see according to critics.

It can be said that one reason the genre is so popular, is for the simple reason that some people like to be thrilled and excited when they partake in viewing a film. This explains the popularity of horror and science fiction films based on their role as escapist fare, with a primary aim to generate suspense, and to surprise, beguile, and astonish. Brophy articulates this best when he calls horror an 'opiate of adrenalin'. On a relatively superficial level, the viewer does not have the time for 'the critical ordinances of social realism, cultural enlightenment or emotional humanism.' The satisfaction one gains from such an experience comes from the escalating suspense and tension, the anxiety, fear, shock, and eventual pay-off and 'nail-biting' climax. In that sense, the horror and science fiction film provide 'primitive gratification' , where the pleasure one derives from the image 'is, in fact, getting the shit scared out of you -- and loving it; an exchange mediated by adrenalin.'

Films such as The Thing or Species not only revolve around a fear of being assimilated or devoured, but a sense of revulsion at the actual process of such an event. Jancovich states that the threat and subsequent action of engulfment by the creature are highly playful and anarchic . Continuing from this explanation, Susan Sontag notes that the pleasure and excitement offered by the genre is a form of 'extreme moral simplification' where cruel and amoral feelings are given an outlet.

[There is an] undeniable pleasure we derive from looking at freaks [or] beings excluded from the category of the human. The sense of superiority over the freak conjoined in varying proportions with the titillation of fear and aversion makes it possible for moral scruples to be lifted, [and] for cruelty to be enjoyed.

When we see the dog pursued by the Norwegian men at the beginning of The Thing, we potentially feel sympathy for the defenceless animal. When we finally figure out that the dog is in fact a deadly alien being, which eventually transforms itself into a nauseating and grotesque creature right before our eyes, curiosity and fear replace our initially sympathetic perspective. We also find it hard to look away from the horrifying images. As ugly as the images are, the destruction and tragedy of seeing men devoured by the unknown creature fascinates us as voyeurs and spectators, in the very same way as the alien exploding out of a man's chest in Alien, and a tongue ripping through a man's head during a kiss in Species. It disgusts the viewer, leaving them hungry for more.

Horror films speak to our subconscious, according to Charles Derry. They deal with issues that are often painful for us to deal with, or simply with those things that frighten us. Whether that be the predator, the demon, or the end of the world, the horror film is truly frightening when the subject and images directly address those fears that lie within. The Thing did that perfectly, as the characters became obsessively paranoid until their numbers dwindled down to two, whereupon the audience is left with the ultimate paranoia, as it is not clear who The Thing is when Childs and MacReady are the lone survivors at the end of the film. In the Alien saga, the heroine faces the task of battling an army of deadly aliens. In Mimic, it is mutant cockroaches, and in The X-Files, it is an array of threats from the obvious alien force, to the paranoia-inducing government conspiracies and cover-ups. From childhood fears of the 'bogeyman', to those of the unknown and paranormal, horror films play on our innate fears, and sometimes allow us to directly address them within a fictional context.

The threat to the self, and more specifically, to the body, is a common thread in many horror films. The body acts as nothing more than fodder for the alien /mutant creature or the predator as it is mutilated, disintegrated, devoured and obliterated. The emotionless killer alien/mutant creatures that populate these films eschew societal beliefs concerning the sanctity of the human body. Jancovich identifies the sub-genre of 'body-horror', which he defined as
the crisis of identity through a concentration on processes of bodily disintegration and transformation. Within these films, bodies erupt and mutate before the eyes of the audience, and it is these processes which are the central preoccupation of their narratives and visual style.

Brophy argues that The Thing took the characteristics of body-horror, which he says was initiated by Alien, to its logical limit. The essential horror of The Thing was in the alien's total disregard for the human bodies it destroyed. The most talked about scene of the film is, of course, that where the doctor's arms crash through a presumedly dead officer's chest. His arms are then torn off by the creature within the chest, followed by the subsequent sequence of the head of the body mobilising itself, by extruding crab-like legs. When another officer says "You've got to be fucking kidding!", he speaks for the audience who are stunned , amazed, and mortified at the sight of such a horribly graphic scene of body mutilation.

Obviously, we as the audience know that The Thing/creature/mutant/alien/killer is not lurking behind our seat when we stare in terror at the screen before us, but the film's gruesome realism certainly provides a terrible scare. Some of audience is satisfied that it has escaped the banality of their everyday lives, and others have been thrilled and astonished. On a deeper level, the horror film addresses some of our personal fears, and it displays and recreates images that go against a moralistic underpinning of society -- the sanctity and pre-eminence of the human body. Brophy sums it up best when he describes it as a 'dumbfounding magical spectacle.'
The contemporary Horror film in general plays with the contradiction that it is only a movie, but nonetheless a movie that can work upon its audience with immediate results. As such, it is only the result that counts.

Critics will emphasise the shocking, graphic, and violent aspects of the work within a negative context. Ironically, it is these supposedly repellent aspects that attract audiences to the genre in the first place.


Bibliography

Brophy, P. 'Horrality: The Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films'. Art & Text 11, Spring, 1983.

Derry, C. 'More Dark Dreams: Some Notes on the Recent Horror Film', in American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Ed. Gregory A. Waller, University of Illinois Press: Urbana, 1987, 162-174.

Ebert, R. review of The Thing. Source:

Hughes, D. 'Chiller'. in Dreamwatch, 39 November, 1993, 40-41.

Jancovich, M. Horror. B.T. Batford: London, 1992.

Kael, M. 5001 Nights at the Movies. Source:

Sontag, S. 'The Imagination of Disaster', in Against Interpretation. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux: New York, 1966, 1986.

Films

The Thing, directed by John Carpenter. 1982
Species, directed by Roger Donaldson. 1995
Species II, directed by Peter Medak. 1998
Mimic, directed by Guillermo del Toro. 1997
Alien, directed by Ridley Scott. 1979
Aliens, directed by James Cameron. 1986
Alien3, directed by David Fincher. 1992
Alien Resurrection, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. 1979
The X-Files, directed by Rob Bowman. 1998


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