Roger Ebert has never been a fan of horror films. Indeed, he is more or less convinced that they are they are products of sick and twisted minds that extrude material only appealing to adolescent boys. He’s been on the attack even recently, responding to a reader’s question about horror in the Chicago Sun-Times by describing these films as “a metaphor for lust, raging hormones, male insecurity, conflicting emotions, etc.”
Wow. That makes those of us who love this stuff quite the bundle of horror ourselves, doesn’t it? And if you write a book that you describe as “a valentine to the horror community” (as I’ve described Monsters in America several times) then, well, you must be a quiet loner who keeps to himself and has a really big freezer.
This isn’t even close to the first time Ebert has launched a broadside against the genre. He infamously coined the term DMT (“Dead Teenager Movie”) to describe, well, more or less every slasher film ever made. He makes the argument that these films essentially plot a narrative that begins with a group of teenagers and proceeds to their gruesome doom. End of story.
Why this long war on horror films? Why reduce the complex and long-running slasher genre to tales of killing teenagers that allow other teenagers (especially weird little boys) to work out their angst? Why, even when explaining the artistry of the great Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, did Ebert describe it as “effective production in the service of an unnecessary movie?”
During the wonderful Q&A at my appearance at Hub City Books back in October, a very smart person who clearly had a strong background in psychology cited several studies (most of them a few decades old) that suggest that violent media has an ill effect on children. This is, of course, part of a long-running cultural debate that has found expression in everything from Tipper Gore’s late 80s crusade against rock music to current discussions about violence and video games.
This isn’t Ebert’s concern but he does draw on some of the same simplistic ideas about how people interact with media as passive observers with very little control over their own response or how they shape the meaning of what they experience.
It’s really a hydraulic view of the human personality. Pressure gets applied to one part of the mechanism (violent and distrubing images) and the pressure comes out of another spout in the mechanism (misogyny, violent tendencies, and anti-social behavior, lack of empathy). “Garbage in, Garbage out” is the garbage that numerous teachers, clergy and other authority figures have tried to feed us over the years.
But guess what? Human beings are more complex than this and so are the cultural forces that constrain and construct them. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously noted that human beings are “suspended in webs of significance” we have spun ourselves. We’ve created cultural productions of all kinds, and find ourselves entwined in them. Even the kid who goes to the “DTM” to watch some gore and see some boobs runs the risk of having an encounter with ideas about mortality, sexuality and the experience of terror that will turn them into a filmmaker, a writer, a film critic, or, worst of all, a cultural historian.
Now, let me put in a good word (as if the great man needs one from me) for Roger Ebert. Film geeks everywhere love him and for good reason. David Canfield, a critic for Twitch magazine based in Chicago, describes Ebert as just a really cool person, courtly and kind. And, Ebert has always given a tip of the hat to classic horror (by which he tends to mean silent-era stuff…but also the kind of thing a lot of contemporary horror fans ought to spend more time on).
But one of the most telling things about Ebert’s most recent broadside against the horror genre is his contention that the films are plotless and only tell us about the issues of the filmmaker and the issues of the audience. Maybe so. Maybe they even tell us about the society that produces them, its fears and conflicts, Maybe film always does that and maybe that’s why they provide primary sources for cultural historians like me.
I’ve got more to say on this discussion and I bet you do too. Talk to me in the comments section and on Twitter and Facebook.
Cool stuff going on this week. I’m on Minnesota Public Radio on Monday and the internet radio program “Late Night in the Midlands” that night to talk monsters and horror. We’ll be posting these new interviews soon. Now, a bit of pop culture goodness.
What I’m Listening to: I’ve really gotten into the old-school British progressive/psychedelic rock band the Strawbs lately. I’m especially interested in their early bluegrass, American traditional, phase and how they morphed into some of the weirdest rock of the 70s. Think Wishbone Ash meets Pink Floyd meets the Decemberists. Also, picked up Tom Waits new one Bad as Me. First studio album in like seven years or something. I love, love, love it…favorite is “Last Leaf on the Tree” where Keith Richards joins in on guitar and vocals.”
What I’m Reading: I’m researching the Highgate Vampire panic for my contribution to an essay collection. This has allowed me to revisit some classic favorite like Bill Ellis’ Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions and the Media and Joe Laycock’s Vampires Today. Back from my travels, I’ve caught up on my comics pile and am loving Gail Simone’s Batgirl, Snyder’s new Batman and his Swamp Thing. I’m a Marvel guy. Am I turning into a DC guy? Can’t let this happen.
What I’m Watching: Twilight Zone marathon recently and Beth and I watched the great Buffy Thanksgiving episode “Pangs” to commemorate our annual holiday of animal cruelty and ritual sacrifice. I’m watching the Walking Dead and American Horror Story and loving them but need to catch up.
What I’m playing: SKYRIM! SKYRIM! SKYRIM!