Sunday, 19 October 2008

...But Fear Itself #2: Didn't That Used To Be My Wife?

The more time I spend on this earth, the more terrified I am of psychoanalysis. By this stage my expansive collection of tics and neuroses and phobias has become so astonishing that I'm afraid any attempt to unravel it will take me with it, leaving me an empty shell, a walking corpse with a caffeine addiction.

Of course, as disturbing as the idea might be to me, I imagine the thought of wading into my mass of psychoses would be terrifying enough to keep any self-respecting therapist up at night. I mean, I'm sure they appreciate a challenge, but probably one more along the lines of "Complete the Great North Run" or "Eat a doughnut without licking your lips" rather than "Repaint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel using only your forehead, whilst drunk and blindfolded". Psychiatrists tell their children to eat their vegetables so that SpaceSquid doesn't come in the night and demand to know why he's afraid of towels.

This is all by way of saying that sometimes, I don't know why certain things appeal to me as much as they do, and often that inability to understand myself bothers me. So it is with the sub-genre of horror with which this post concerns itself. Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that two of my favourite films are Day of the Dead and Aliens (not strictly a resident of Horror house, but certainly a frequent guest who looks after the place whilst the Horrors go on holiday), two movies in which death isn't the worst-case scenario anymore, it's becoming, one way or another, one of them. My DVD collection is filled with this sort of stuff, from 28 Days Later to The Ring (which, admittedly, is only really an example in the original novels, and the Korean film The Ring Virus).

Clearly, I'm not the only one with a morbid fascination for this stuff. The ideas of possession and loss of self have been big business for Hollywood for a while now, so much so that the idea of a "zombie film" has emerged, a category so loose that admission apparently only requires the presence of a condition that is passed by contact and makes you attack other people. Hell, you could include From Dusk Til Dawn on that basis. The idea seems to becoming increasingly common, and that's before you start thinking about the implicit use of this theme in countless films featuring ghosts and spirits. After all, once the dead have killed you, what do you become?

Maybe on some level that's the point. Zombies and Rage-sufferers and aliens that have half-inched your DNA are all in some sense continuations of the self once it's shuffled off the mortal coil. Without wishing to sound pretentious about all this (shut the hell up), it's perhaps a suggestion that yes, there is an afterlife, but it'll suck big-time. We won't even get to be ourselves anymore, just shambling creatures devoid of rationality, operating entirely on instinct.

Certainly that's the idea behind Shivers, which itself shares certain elements of the "zombie film", albeit with zombies that can talk and prefer shagging to cannibalism (and who doesn't?). Rather than painting pictures or composing operas or, I don't know, brushing their teeth or something, all the parasite victims can do is infect others, and bonk them senseless. Interestingly, Cronenberg seems to be suggesting that this is a fate that mankind in some sense deserves, or at least one which would have definite up-sides. Watching Dr St. Luc so embroiled in a business call that he doesn't notice his devoted and gorgeous nurse taking off all her clothes right in front of him makes you think that maybe he has a point after all. Perhaps we are all so busy we're not stopping to smell the flowers any more. Of course, it does not follow that the best way to deal with this is to superglue ourselves and our loved ones to the nearest rose bush. Whilst I, like 99.9% of the population, wholeheartedly endorse the idea that I could do with more sweet, sweet lovin', the idea of totally surrendering myself to that urge constantly, rather than being able to write and eat at restaurants and maybe catch the occasional movie, is not really much more enticing than becoming one of Romero's "stenches". Instinct has its place, but not at the total expense of rationality.

Anyway, the fear of death and what follows is one possible reason as to why these ideas and stories scare some of us so much. There are other possibilities, too. Whilst the concept of becoming what stalks us is a very, very old one, it's worth noting that at least in the two most obvious examples, vampires and werewolves, their ability to pass on their condition is only one small part of their mythology. Yes, a bite from a werewolf will infect a person (and it has been suggested that this idea might very well stem from attacks by rabid wolves), but so too would eating part of a cow killed by a wolf, or drinking from puddles made by a wolf's footsteps (though surely anyone desperate enough to do that has bigger problems on their hands). Likewise, there are many ways one could become a vampire, besides being bitten by one. The "turning" of Lucy and then Mina is an important part of Dracula, of course, but, perhaps not surprisingly considering when it was written, they are seen more as possessions Dracula is attempting to steal than characters whose plight is to be considered and sympathised with. Mina's fear of what she will become is only touched upon, almost as an afterthought.

The exact point at which the fear of being taken over became the focal point of such tales is, naturally, hard to pin down. Based on my own experience I would suggest Invaders From Mars as a possible starting point. This film was released in 1953, while McCarthy was at the height of his power, and "the Red under the bed" was a much-trumpeted threat to the West. It is perhaps at this stage that for the first time the idea of loss of self as a person met loss of self as a culture (which ties in to my first post on the subject of fear). The Americans had been threatened with invasion several times in the past, both as colonials and their own independent nation, but the idea of the quiet corruption of their own civilisation by a radically different one was something new.

It's thus no surprise that Invaders... is pretty obviously the anti-Communist fantasy that many people suggest Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is. The case for the former film deserving the crown is far more compelling, though. Where ...Snatchers focuses on individuals desperately trying to outrun change, and ends with the implicit suggestion that such flight is hopeless, Invaders finishes up with good ol' Uncle Sam's Army heading into the alien saucer and fucking up the Martians' shit. Well, actually it ends with it all being a prescient dream, but while usually such an ending is rightfully lambasted, it makes a weird sort of sense here. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, as the old (mis-)quote goes. Defeat one red menace (is it coincidence that Mars is red? Well, probably yes, but still), and there's another one waiting for a dose of American whup-ass. Eventually, though, each one will be defeated by US power and defiance. It reads as nothing so much as a faintly scary lullaby to the American subconscious; "We got yer back, but still; watch out."

...Snatchers, though, is a very different beast. By the time it was released in 1956 McCarthy's star was very much in decline. Whilst it is possible to see the film as an Invaders... style warning of a silent take-over of America, it's just as easy to see the pod-people (quiet, unobtrusive, unemotional, the very opposite of the infected in Shivers) as McCarthy's vision of the perfect Americans. Don't make noise, don't make a fuss. Carry on about your business. It's the individuals, the different, those that don't fit in that we are after. Which works as a metaphor for a totalitarian state, but works just as well for the witch-hunts of McCarthyism.

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend might be considered an honorary member of the horror-as-Communist-analogy club. Certainly the familiar elements of losing your loved ones and your own self to some barely-understood phenomenon is present and correct. Crucially, though, the book ends with Neville wondering whether the fact that "vampire" society has so completely replaced his own means that it should be their laws which take precedence, rather than his own attempts at self-preservation. Perhaps here the implication is that Communism should only be fought until a given point, that once a given critical mass in a society demands a certain change, then perhaps that change should be implemented. It's not an idea without its problems, and its attendant risks, but it's an interesting point, one missing from all three adaptions of the book to celluloid. The first of these, The Last Man On Earth, is perhaps most historically important since it inspired Romero to write and film Night Of The Living Dead, which along with its first sequel is probably one of the most influential horror films of all time. Certainly many of the films that employ the "replacement" trick are in its debt.

By the time the fear of Communism began to wane, AIDS was rising to replace it as the major bogeyman of our times. It's explicit affect on horror cinema is not easy to judge. The Fly is about the only obvious example of its influence that I can think of, which Cronenberg denied existed anyway (the influence, not AIDS). In general, though, the hypothetical template for a horror movie informed by AIDS would be very similar to the template for a horror movie informed by anti-Communist paranoia (not to mention the degree to which horror films from the eighties onwards just swipe stuff from Romero, rather than any real-world situation). That's an interesting realisation in itself, but then it probably shouldn't come as any surprise, both fears after all are rooted in the notion that the enemy is simultaneously everywhere, and that they look just like us! It doesn't matter that we convince ourselves it could never happen to us personally (the level of society-wide denial over the AIDS epidemic was truly extraordinary, with hindsight), it could happen to everyone around us and we'd never no until it was too late. No man is an island; if civilisation itself falls prey to such sickness, it's canned food and shotguns from here on out.

I guess what I'm trying to say is how surprising it is that the loss of self theme is so intrinsically linked with the end of civilisation film. There are exceptions, of course. I've already mentioned The Fly, and Ginger Snaps is another. Alien is a third, after a fashion. Interestingly, all three of those films involve themselves with very different themes, the loss of self is incidental. These are films more about change than loss specifically, though in the case of The Fly that's not really too relevant a distinction. With Alien, though, which is arguably about a woman's fear of rape and a man's fear of pregnancy, and with Ginger Snaps, which is quite unarguably about reaching puberty (the subtext is very much text, as they say), these are films about biology, violation, and how the two may not always be distinguishable.

So there's a lot going on here. We worry where we go when we die, what happens when a society dies and we're right in the middle of it, and what we will become when the world, other people, or even our own bodies arbitrarily decide to throw a spanner in the works. At heart, it's more than just the fear we will lose ourselves, it's a more general fear of change, of upsetting the boat and the status quo. Not that being turned into a flesh-crazed corpse isn't scary enough, obviously.

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