Film CULTure

The goal of this page is to provide brief tastes of how academics who are both fans and scholars of popular culture discuss films featured at The Normal Theater. Think of this page as a “professor’s commentary” in the spirit of bonuses on DVD/BluRay releases.

Film CULTure Essays by Dr. Eric Wesselmann

Video Nasties

Nasty Videos, Nasty Censorship, and Nasty Bias

“This material harms our children! It should be banned!” Am I talking about the current crusade against “woke” textbooks in schools? Violent video games in the 2000s? Rap and heavy metal music in the early ‘90s? Dungeons & Dragons in the ‘80s? Comic books in the ‘50s? Movies in the ‘30s? How about pulp westerns from the late 1800s? All of the above! For better or worse, debates around media censorship and free speech are nothing new in the U.S. Indeed, these debates have occurred in countries across the world. One of the most intense struggles over these issues, at least in Western democracies, occurred in England in the 1980s and ‘90s: the so-called “Video Nasties” era. 

Brief history lesson: When home video devices became readily available in England, films were released on video uncut, containing material that would have otherwise been removed for theatrical releases by the British Board of Film Classification (similar to the Motion Picture Association in the U.S., albeit government sponsored). Without going into too much detail (many great books and documentaries cover the social and political dynamics of this period thoroughly, including Severin’s Video Nasties pt. 1pt. 2), parents, politicians, and other special interest groups became terrified that children, or other individuals perceived as impressionable, would have access to videos that depict graphic physical and sexual violence, which would then “deprave and corrupt” them. Thus, these self-proclaimed moral watchdogs lobbied for these films to be heavily restricted or even outright banned if possible. Film scholar Kate Egan described the legislation that resulted from this controversy – the 1984 Video Recordings Act – as “perhaps the most stringent form of regulation imposed on the media in a western country” (2007, pg. 1). Thus, videos classified as “nasties” became illegal to stock and distribute, making them inaccessible not just to minors but to anyone. Suddenly, the government was telling British adults what they could – and could not – see in the privacy of their homes. Though some of these films still remain banned to this day, the social and political fervor has since died down and the related moral panic largely is considered laughable in hindsight, even by some of the media outlets that originally championed the moral crusade for censorship.

Thus, one may ask why this period should be studied any more than as a cultural curiosity embedded within a specific national and historical context. Why should people outside of England care about a controversy that began over thirty years ago? Can we learn anything that may be relevant for current (and future) socio-political discourse, either in England, the U.S., or in other countries? 

Any historical event or cultural movement has complex socio-political and psychological explanations. One factor I want to highlight is the psychological dynamics of media censorship. Though many historical, cross-cultural examples of calls for censorship have been driven by conservative movements, there certainly are examples of liberal-oriented efforts against media (and media figures) too – see current debates about “cancel culture.” We see individuals of various political leanings advocating for free speech and individual liberties in some contexts, yet also calling for bans, or at least content revisions, on controversial media products in other contexts. Such assertions seem contradictory and we may be tempted to call these individuals hypocrites. However, such conflicting views can occur in many, if not most, people. 

For example, I’m a strong proponent of free speech and generally anti-censorship, though even I have my lines. Ultimately, most (if not all) of us do. Some individuals just have lines that include more types of material than others. There are attitudes toward censorship generally, which seem to hinge on a benevolent, though often misguided, desire to protect people from being harmed by media. What people differ on is who they want to protect and the content they want to protect them from. Sometimes people are fine with violent content but want to heavily restrict or abolish sexual content (or at least specific types of sexual content; see Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Other people generally are fine with sexual content but decry violence, especially sexual violence. Then there are those individuals who want anything even remotely controversial or potentially offensive restricted. Ultimately, this is where one’s moral values, political opinions, and personal biases come in to play. Individuals often find it laudable to restrict speech and media content when the content is something they disagree with, but view such efforts as a repellant violation of liberty when the content is something they agree with. I imagine that we can easily come up with examples of this biased reasoning from people we know, and if we think hard enough and are honest with ourselves we can probably find at least one example from our own past reasoning. For better or worse, people often are inconsistent. 

In the U.S. we currently are seeing public calls for book banning – and sometimes burning! – from both politicians and parent groups. We are seeing educators being reprimanded or even fired simply for sharing information from public libraries about controversial (though still legal) material. Right now these calls are coming from the political right, but our history demonstrates these calls can also come from the political left. It may be tempting for us to minimize or even ignore these actions when they are in concert with our worldviews. However, we do well to be mindful that even if we agree with these initiatives now, there is always the chance that someday the focus will shift against us and our views will be on the receiving end. The late media scholar Martin Baker, one of the few academics to challenge pro-censorship figures directly during England’s Video Nasties era, argued "I think the most interesting thing to me is just how little historical memory we have. The next time there’s a panic we won’t remember just how stupid the last one was and how people get away with things…Critical voices have to care about history. We have to care about the way in which things got controlled in the past because that's when the damage gets done and if we don't keep that historical memory we will allow them to do it again next time." (Video Nasties, 2010, dir. J. West). 

I will add this very modest addendum to Baker’s powerful clarion call: Those of us who value free speech should also challenge our own biases in these media debates, taking care that the draconian “them” doesn’t become “us” in a different context. If you find yourself thinking “I’d never support a ban” or “that could never happen here,” pause and think critically. One of the biggest lessons from over a half-century of social psychological research is that, depending on the context, it definitely could happen in certain circumstances. Don’t underestimate the power of our worldview-based biases.

Additional Readings

 Barker, M. (1984). The video nasties: Freedom and censorship in the media. London, UK: Pluto Press.

 Egan, K. (2007). Trash or treasure? Censorship and the changing meanings of the video nasties. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

 Falkof, N. (2020). On moral panic: Some directions for further development. Critical Sociology, 46(2), 225-239.

 Feng, G. C., & Guo, S. Z. (2012). Support for censorship: A multilevel meta-analysis of the third-person effect. Communication Reports, 25, 40-50.

 Fisher, R., Lilie, S., Evans, C., Hollon, G., Sands, M., Depaul, D., ... & Hultgren, T. (1999). Political ideologies and support for censorship: Is it a question of whose ox is being gored? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(8), 1705-1731.

 Hier, S. P. (Ed.). (2011). Moral panic and the politics of anxiety. London, UK: Routledge. 

 Hoffner, C., & Buchanan, M. (2002). Parents’ responses to television violence: The third-person perception, parental mediation, and support for censorship. Media Psychology, 4, 231-252.

 Martin, J. (1997). The seduction of the gullible: The curious history of the British “video nasties” phenomenon. Nottingham, UK: Procrustes Press.

 Petley, J. (2011). Film and video censorship in modern Britain. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press. 

 Tropiano, S. (2009). Obscene, indecent, immoral, and offensive: 100+ years of censored, banned, and controversial films. New York, NY: Limelight Editions.

EvilDead2_1

Horror, Humor, and Staying Groovy

The Evil Dead film series – key films in the sub-genre known as “splatstick” – are horror/comedy hybrids that mixes extreme gore with slapstick-style comedy. This is not surprising given that director Sam Raimi is a huge Three Stooges fan. Effective splatstick is a fine line indeed, and the filmmakers need to be mindful of which edge of that line they want to lean on. Whereas the first Evil Dead film leaned toward the gore/horror end (which may be one the reasons why it was labeled the ultimate “Video Nasty” in the U.K.), the second film (Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn) opted more for the comedy end. True, it has copious amount of blood, bodily dismemberments, and demon-possessed mayhem – just like the first film. This time, however, the blood gushes with the pressure of a fire hose, and the physical violence has all the tongue-in-cheek winks to the audience found in a well-choreographed professional wrestling match. 

I’ve watched this film an obscene number of times. When I first discovered it in high school, I dragged countless friends over to my parents’ basement and subjected them to the film. Some friends didn’t get it, but there were the hearty few who I successfully converted to the cinematic wonders that are Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. This film, perhaps more than any other, inspired me to make my own DIY movies in college. Most of my movies were shrines to Evil Dead 2, and the friends who helped me make them were wonderfully tolerant people. 

What seems to keep fans coming back to this film is the playful chaos, the cinematic winks and nods that keep the grim subject matter from ever being taken too seriously (by the audience at least). The characters in the film take the situation seriously enough, even if the audience realizes how absurd everything is. It is that absurdity that likely allows viewers to keep a safe distance psychologically.

When I first watched The Evil Dead trilogy, I watched the films backwards, not purposefully, but because that was the way they became available to me via the local video store (yep, I watched them on VHS). So, I saw Army of Darkness – the third film in the trilogy and the one with little (if any) horror – first and ended on The Evil Dead. I loved all of them for different reasons, and I can honestly say the first one disturbed me (in that good “horror fan” sort of way) more than it made me laugh. It’s the second one I keep returning to, and the one that I start people on. The horror is just absurd enough that it provides the safe psychological distance to help me feel control over the idea that a character I’m being encouraged to empathize with is beset by evil Candarian demons who are ready to rend him asunder and swallow his soul (and not necessarily in that order). Further, it ends less bleakly than its predecessor. We know that even if Ash cannot rest after the dawn, he is still alive at least – and still has a chance to rage against the dying of the light.* As such, we share his chance. Horror theorists argue that the best horror films are the ones that afford us an opportunity to confront our fears in a safe, controlled environment. They become tangible, controllable, and much less scary than the uncontrollable, seemingly random threats that often surround us outside the theater. 

Horror, disgust, and humor: although they seem to be so different, many theorists have argued they share similarities. They all are visceral, knee-jerk emotions. Whether you feel your blood run cold, your stomach turn, or the uncontrollable sensation to guffaw, you are dealing with something that catches you off-guard. Psychologists who study emotions note that these high-arousal emotions, whether positive or negative, can often work in concert, the arousal from one bleeding over (yep, I went there) into the other. The mounting tension as you reach the top of the roller coaster makes the laughter going down that much more relieving. The jump-scare in the darkened theater makes your date feel that much safer (and attractive) when you grab hold of them. 

Fear, excitement, and humor are contagious. That’s why watching a film like Evil Dead 2 in the theater is such a wonderful ride. We get tense together, eagerly awaiting the key splatter set-pieces and groovy catch phrases, and we cheer wildly when they are delivered. The lights come up and we leave the theater, knowing we’ve just been on a wild ride with people who ‘get it.’ We are not so alone anymore, and the dark is much less scary. 

Join us.

*apologies to Dylan Thomas

Additional Readings

Cantor, J. R., Bryant, J., & Zillmann, D. (1974). Enhancement of humor appreciation by transferred excitation. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 30(6), 812-821.

Cohen, B., Waugh, G., & Place, K. (1988). At the movies: An unobtrusive study of arousal-attraction. Journal of Social Psychology, 129(5), 691-693.

 Goldstein, J. (1999). The attractions of violent entertainment. Media Psychology, 1(3), 271-282.

 Hallenbeck, B. G. (2009). Comedy-horror films: A chronological history, 1914-2008. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

 Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1993). Emotional contagion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(3), 96-100.

Johnston, D. D. (1995). Adolescents’ motivations for viewing graphic horror. Human Communication Research, 21(4), 522-552.

 King, S. (1983). Danse macabre. New York, NY: Berkley Books.

Pearl, W. (1994). Laughing screaming: Modern Hollywood horror and comedy. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Riekki, R., & Sartain, J. A. (2019). The many lives of The Evil Dead: Essays on the cult film franchise. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

Warren, B. (2000). The Evil Dead companion. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

They Won't Stay Dead - Or Cooperate

A violent mob relentlessly assaults a building, hammering on boarded up windows and reinforced doors with anything they can get their hands on. The people inside huddle together desperately, struggling to overcome their own egos and prejudices to survive the onslaught. Am I talking about a horror movie, or an actual event of sociopolitical unrest? Did this event happen in the 1960s, or in 2020? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, and that was precisely the point director George Romero and screenwriter John Russo were making in their groundbreaking film Night of the Living Dead (1968). Romero argued that a good horror film is transgressive culturally, that “you do horror to upset the apple cart” (Nightmares in Red White and Blue, 2009, dir. A. Monument). Romero said in multiple interviews that he and his collaborators infused the film with a lot of their anger and frustration that the U.S. counter-culture movement was failing to change the status quo. They asked themselves what it would take to shake society out of its apathy. Maybe only the dead coming back to life – and eating the living – would get people to start working together for the good of all. Or maybe it would just hasten the demise of our society by pouring gasoline on the fires of human miscommunication and division. 

Night… is one of my all-time favorite horror films. Ironically, I did not see it until I was in my early 20s. By that point I had been a horror fan for most of my life and had seen a lot of modern horror: films that were gorier than this grainy, black-and-white film from the ‘60s. However, that did not diminish the film’s power to shock me. I was unsettled deeply by the ending and had trouble sleeping that night. Why did this film that was made about a decade before I was born hit me at such an existential level? The sociopolitical turmoil of the time was something I only had read about in history books; the privilege of my race, gender, and socioeconomic status protected me from the intergenerational trauma of those times. Horror films, like any work of art, are cultural products and reflect aspects of the time, place, and worldviews of their creators. However, they are timeless in that audience members also bring their own cultural backgrounds and personal experiences to bear on the narrative. Horror author Stephen King argues that the most effective horror stories are ones that hit audience members at two key levels: 1) attacking cultural taboos of the time and place of its creation, and 2) resonating with universal fears – things that would scare anyone regardless of their age, geographical location, or backgrounds. These stories transcend time to scare multiple generations.    

Night succeeds on both levels, which is probably why King uses it regularly as a case study in his treatise on horror entertainment, Danse Macabre (1981). One of the most common ways people discuss this film is within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and race relations during the time of the film’s creation and release (see the documentary Birth of the Living Dead, 2013, dir. R. Kuhns). Indeed, it is hard not to see the physical and social conflicts between the main character Ben, played by the African American actor Duane Jones, and the middle-aged, curmudgeonly Mr. Cooper, played by the White actor Karl Hardman, as anything other than the embodied struggle of those in search of racial equality and social justice versus those who benefit from white patriarchal supremacy. This is a great example of how the artists’ intended meaning does not necessarily match audience members’ experiences. Romero and Russo did not intend for a race-based interpretation of these character dynamics. In the original script, no racial identity is mentioned for Ben. They cast Duane Jones simply because he was the best actor who auditioned for the part, and they thought they were being progressive by NOT re-writing the part to emphasize the actor’s race. But, given the film premiered shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they were aware that such an interpretation was likely despite their original intentions. They knew their film was going to bite down on a cultural nerve. Indeed, it did and still does during the continued struggle for social justice.

Stephen King notes that Night also hits taboos that exist in multiple cultures, such as cannibalism, matricide/patricide, handling decaying remains, and dispensing with culturally valued rituals for honoring the dead. King also argues that, if nothing else, all horror films deal with the biggest universal concerns – the fear of death and the uncertainty of what happens after, both for our physical bodies and for our consciousness or soul (for those who are spiritually-oriented). Night… thumbs its decaying nose at these concerns. Not only do the ghouls (they are not referred to as “zombies” until the sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) released a decade later) kill people, but they “have begun eating the flesh of the people they murder.” Indeed, though we do not directly see it in this first film, it is likely that some victims are eaten alive. Not a pleasant way to go. Further, the victims who escape having their remains decimated go on to become ghouls themselves. These ghouls do not communicate so it is unclear how much consciousness, if any, remains from their previous lives, but their use of tools and weapons suggest there may be some. That begs the audience to question: “Does that mean our loved ones are still in there somewhere? Does that mean we may be trapped in a rotting shell too?” These questions are reanimated and further developed in Romero’s later Dead films. Romero shatters any protective illusions that the ghouls/zombies became some external force different from the protagonists (and the audience): “We know we’re gonna die…we’re the living dead” (The American Nightmare, 2000, dir. A. Simon).

Both Romero and Russo argued that the main characters were not meant to be heroic or exceptional in any way. They were written simply to be normal people who were thrust into an absurd, life-threatening situation, acting how real people probably would. Perhaps the characters' normalcy makes it easy for audiences to empathize with them, taking their perspective and asking themselves “What would I do? How would I survive?” Heavily invested audience members may find themselves even yelling advice to the characters on the screen. A core tragedy of the film is that some characters make good decisions, and others make bad decisions (even if for the best of intentions), and at the end of the day (or night) none of it matter ultimately. In a world where the dead walk, can anyone truly escape? 

This film’s nihilism shocked audiences then as it does now. Humans have psychological needs to feel some sense of control and to find existential meaning. They may take different paths to fulfilling these needs (even if their efforts may be illusory), but the motivation is universal. Night… refuses to provide any suggestion that these needs matter and that there is any hope for humanity. This is an effective tactic for pressing on what Stephen King calls audiences’ horror-focused “pressure points” (King, 1989, pg. 5). However, it does not bode well for creating a film franchise. Let’s be honest – the entertainment industry is a business, and a steady source of profit is paramount.  Audiences may tolerate, and even enjoy, a single film with an ending that sounds the death knell for humanity. But would they support a series of films providing no hope at all? Indeed, Romero suggested in multiple interviews that the downbeat ending for Night… caused them difficulty finding distribution (Williams, 2011). Perhaps this is why Dawn… and the subsequent sequels ended with at least a modicum of hope, even if the characters had to go through hell to get there. 

One theme Romero examined in many of his films, Dead-related and otherwise, was the breakdown in human communication and cooperation as key problems, perhaps even more so than any monstrous threat. This theme, beyond any other, may be the most applicable to audience members’ lives, whether they saw the film in 1968 or today. Humans are social by nature, an interdependent species that can only survive and flourish by cooperation. This was a lesson that Romero’s protagonists were beginning to learn in his last few Dead films. Though we will never know what specific thematic lessons Romero had in store for future installments, we can focus on the theme he left us. If we are to have any hope of escaping disasters in our own world, human-made and otherwise, we need to recognize our interdependence, overcome our egos and petty divisions, and start cooperating.

Additional Readings:

Baumeister, R. F., & Wilson, B. (1996). Life stories and the four need for meaning. Psychological Inquiry, 7(4), 322-325.

 Becker, E. (2007). The denial of death. Simon and Schuster.

 Clasen, M. (2012). Monsters evolve: A biocultural approach to horror stories. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 222-229.

 King, S. (1981). Danse macabre. New York, NY: Berkley.

 Mar, R. A., & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(3), 173-192.

 Proulx, T., & Heine, S. J. (2006). Death and black diamonds: Meaning, mortality, and the meaning maintenance model. Psychological Inquiry, 17(4), 309-318.

 Rothbaum, F., Weisz, J. R., & Snyder, S. S. (1982). Changing the world and changing the self: A two-process model of perceived control. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 42(1), 5-37.

 Raney, A. A. (2005). Punishing media criminals and moral judgment: The impact on enjoyment. Media Psychology, 7, 145-163.

 Russo, J. (1985). The complete Night of the Living Dead filmbook. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

 Williams, T. (Ed.). (2011). George A. Romero: Interviews. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

The Terminator
Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Finding Hope and Agency in the Human Machine

“No fate.” The image of Sarah Conner carving this phrase into a picnic table has stuck with me since originally seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day on VHS in the early 1990s. It is a pivotal moment for both the character and the overall narrative – one that puts Sarah in an ethical conundrum that audiences likely share. If you had the power to stop the slaughter of millions of people, and prevent the prolonged trauma of subsequent generations, by simply murdering one person before they made the fateful decision that would put humanity on a course to nuclear holocaust, would you do it? There is always the chance that the person might make a different decision, especially with your guidance. Can you justify becoming a killing machine, even if only for one victim, if it means potentially saving future generations? These questions might traditionally be discussion fodder in university-level philosophy courses, but they are also at the heart of director James Cameron’s Terminator series (at least the first two films). 

Both films generally are classified as science fiction. Famous science fiction author Isaac Asimov defined the genre as stories focused on “human responses to changes in the level of science and technology” (Asimov, 1982; p. 22). These stories usually depict technology as opening vistas to utopian dreams or dystopian nightmares, or as sci-fi actor/fan Wil Wheaton noted “[stories] that tell us what we could be and warn us about where we’re going” (In Search of Tomorrow, 2022, dir. David Weiner). The two Cameron Terminator films, when viewed collectively, represent a mix of both story types. They are generic “hybrids,” much like the titular cybernetic organism. Cameron argues that a theme crosscutting his films is “our potential destruction and the potential salvation as human beings coming from technology and how we use it, how we master it and how we prevent it from mastering us” (Wootton, 2003; reprinted in Dunham, 2011).

The first Terminator film mixes in elements of Film Noir and even horror films, as Cameron described his first vision of the robotic antagonist as “a robot design that could be split in half and still pursue its victims in classic sort-of 70s slasher style…a knife-wielding robot, cut in half, crawling over the ground after some poor female victim” (Other Voices: Back Through Time documentary on the 2001 MGM “Special Edition” release). Cameron also noted the key theme of this first film was a philosophical conflict for the characters: “It’s fate vs. will” (Chute, 1985; reprinted in Dunham, 2011). Though the film ends ambiguously, Cameron originally filmed a scene demonstrating Sarah Connor’s growth from a victim of fate to a pro-active hero who demonstrates the proclivity to become a future leader; not just the one Kyle Reese keeps telling her she is pre-ordained to become but perhaps one who actively can shape the future in new directions (Deleted Scenes commentary track, 2001 MGM “Special Edition”). 

The second Terminator film, Judgment Day, film builds upon the themes of the first. Though Cameron initially regretted having to cut the scene of Sarah’s growth in the first film because of pacing issues, he noted it was serendipitous because he was able to revisit and flesh out this idea in the sequel (The Terminator, Deleted Scenes commentary track, 2001 MGM “Special Edition”). Further, the film adopted more traditional action genre elements and even humor, which had to be played delicately so as not to undercut the general serious premise of the narrative. These new elements perhaps led to the film feeling more hopeful than the previous one, with Sarah narrating “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” The original (deleted) ending of the film was even more hopeful, with the nuclear holocaust completely averted. However, Cameron chose to make the ending more uncertain because “if the future is changeable, then the battle is something which has to be fought continuously and you can’t do it with a single stroke…the dynamic between good and evil is eternal” (T2: More Than Meets the Eye, 1997 Lionsgate “Ultimate Edition”).

The Terminator unexpectedly was a box office smash, and the highly anticipated sequel delighted both audiences and critics alike. Many folks argue that the sequel provides a rare instance where the latter exceeds the original film. Regardless of one’s preference, the two films tapped the cultural zeitgeist when they were released. Indeed, as sci-fi film writer/director Nicholas Meyer (film writer/director) notes, “Science fiction, certainly the best of science fiction is inevitably a reflection of what’s going on on Earth at the time it was written, all works of art are ineluctable products of the time in which they are created” (In Search of Tomorrow, 2022, dir. David Weiner). 

However, situating these two films in their sociopolitical climate does not account for the films continued popularity. Yes, one could argue that those individuals who saw them during their initial theatrical runs may simply be reacting nostalgically upon re-watching today. But that does not explain how new generations of fans continue to discover appreciation for the films. Indeed, there have been several subsequent films and even a TV series. For better or worse, Cameron’s Terminator stories are just as relevant today as they were in the 1980s and 90s. We are still facing the same threats of climate change, political terrorism (both global and domestic), wars and rumors of wars. The specter of nuclear annihilation has returned, rising much like Cameron’s initial fever-induced dream vision of a T-800 emerging from the flames (Chute, 1985; reprinted in Dunham, 2011). In some ways, we face even more existential uncertainty as we negotiate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an emerging global health crisis with monkeypox, and political instability. Though The Terminator’s dark vision of an armed individual entering a public place and mechanically murdering innocent people en masse may have seemed like a fictional horror story then, tragically it is a nightmarish reality today. 

It may be that these films help us work though our personal and cultural anxieties, as Cameron suggested the first film served as a way for him to wrestle with the omnipresent threat of nuclear Armageddon as he grew up during the Cold War (Wootton, 2003; reprinted in Dunham, 2011). Though grim, The Terminator was not meant to be nihilistic but rather “tried to say that you take responsibility for your own life, and for the life of society” (Chute, 1985; reprinted in Dunham, 2011). It was a call to personal reckoning and action. After all, what point is using a story as a warning or cautionary tale if there is no hope or chance to change course? Or, as the future John Connor passes back to Sarah via Reese, “the future is not set. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be.” This message is revisited in the sequel via Sarah’s table carving, elucidated by young John’s exclamation “There's no fate but what we make for ourselves.” The second film concludes with Sarah asserting her new-found hope. 

Such a message likely is something that audiences resonate with, and perhaps may be one reason why many argue the second film surpasses the first. People generally have a psychological need to feel that they are in control of their destiny, or at least can have a significant impact on their immediate environment. People respond negatively to the idea that their lives simply may be at the mercy of uncontrollable forces, or worse yet randomness. When someone is told they cannot do something, a common impulse is to assert one’s agency and shout back “Yes, I can!”, whether it be at one’s caregiver, an authoritarian political system, or even the existential void. A sense of hope and optimism are important ingredients in inspiring people to action and change. Not only are they helpful in overcoming the stressors – and sometimes traumas – we experience in life, but in general hope and optimism contribute to overall psychological well-being. 

So, whereas many science fiction films can depict dystopian warnings that, as Will Wheaton notes, can make “people feel very small and very out of control” (In Search of Tomorrow, 2022, dir. David Weiner), Cameron’s first two Terminator films instead provide an explicit call to action. Don’t go gentle into Armageddon. Take responsibility for what you can control and make a positive impact on your environment. Work for the future you want with the knowledge that, as Cameron said, “no matter how inconsequential you may seem to others or even to yourself, your individual existence may have great value in the future” (Other Voices: Back Through Time, 2001 MGM “Special Edition”). Make your own fate. 

Additional Readings

Asimov, I. (1982). Asimov on Science Fiction. New York: Doubleday.

Bailey, T. C., Eng, W., Frisch, M. B., & Snyder, C. R. (2007). Hope and optimism as related to life satisfaction. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3), 168-175.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (pp. 416–436). Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446249215.n21

Dunham, B. (Ed.). (2011). James Cameron: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi. 

Feldman, G. (2017). Making sense of agency: Belief in free will as a unique and important construct. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(1), e12293.

Gollin, R. M. (1992). A viewer’s guide to film: Arts, artifices, and issues. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 

Leotti, L. A., Iyengar, S. S., & Ochsner, K. N. (2010). Born to choose: The origins and value of the need for control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(10), 457-463.

Long, L. J., & Gallagher, M. W. (2018). Hope and posttraumatic stress disorder. In M. W. Gallagher & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of hope (pp. 233–242). Oxford University Press.

Snyder, C. R., Ilardi, S., Michael, S. T., & Cheavens, J. (2000). Hope theory: Updating a common process for psychological change. In C. R. Snyder & R. E. Ingram (Eds.), Handbook of psychological change: Psychotherapy processes & practices for the 21st century (pp. 128–153). Wiley.

Steindl, C., Jonas, E., Sittenthaler, S., Traut-Mattausch, E., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Understanding psychological reactance: New developments and findings. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 223(4), 205-214. 

Silent Night, Deadly Night
BlackChristmas

‘Tis the Season For Sleigh Bells, Screams, and Moral Outrage 

Note: BLACK CHRISTMAS shows on Friday, December 10th at 10:15p. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is not on the schedule for 2021, but the equally outrageous DIAL CODE SANTA CLAUS will screen on Friday, December 17th at 10:15p.

Ah, slasher films. A type of horror film that is often maligned, even within a genre that is already culturally marginalized, but almost always a sure-fire bet to make money. They’ve come in and out of fashion over the past few decades, but much like their most popular antagonists the films are resurrected for a new sequel or remake every few years. As a “child of the ‘80s,” my first memories of horror films revolve around slasher films. Michael Myers (Halloween), Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th 2 onward) and Freddy Kruger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) were U.S. cultural icons, especially in October. There were even Atari, Commodore 64, and Nintendo games for these franchises! Additionally, at least one kid in my grade school Halloween parade dressed as one of these infamous icons every year.

What made these films so popular? Horror films, like all films, are constructed media products that reflect the sociocultural forces they emerge from. Film scholars who approach horror films from this perspective argue that the most effective examples of the genre are those that find the vulnerable areas of culture and attack with their life-threatening weapon of choice: whatever will provoke the most fear and dread in us (within reason, of course; audiences are still meant to enjoy the ride). One major shift in horror starting in the 1960s (with Psycho) was to change the source of horror from external threats (e.g., countries outside the U.S. or outer space) to ones that were homegrown, and the closer the threat was to cherished institutions and the family unit, the scarier. By the late 1970s and early 80s, most popular horror films chose this approach, and the slasher genre exploited it for all it was worth.

Both Black Christmas (1974) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) are model entries in the slasher genre. Black Christmas was most notable for both putting together some of the key elements that we now identify with slasher films (e.g., point-of-view shots used to indicate both the perspective of the killer and also keep up audience tension by keeping the killer’s identity a secret) and for making the young adult victims realistic and relatable. Director Bob Clark specifically wanted to inject social commentary on relevant gender issues (see bonus materials on the Shout Factory 2016 release of the film). These elements would be reinforced culturally in the critically and commercially successful Halloween (1978), a film directed by John Carpenter. These two films were soon followed by a hemorrhage of slasher films, many using various holidays to exploit viewers’ feelings of safety and nostalgia for the cultural practices surrounding these holidays by subverting them with danger and fear.

This subversion was perhaps too effective, with Silent Night, Deadly Night being the proverbial last straw. Upon its release, the film ignited a firestorm of moral outrage from concerned parents and various conservative activist groups. But why this film and not the previous entries? By the film’s release, 10 years after Black Christmas, the genre conventions were firmly established and this film delivered on the key aspects that both audiences and investors wanted from slasher films (i.e., sex and violence). Silent Night, Deadly Night‘s content could certainly be considered offensive, but did not differ significantly from other slasher films in the amount of violence and sex portrayed. Unlike most other contemporary slashers, however, this film focused on the killer’s backstory. Director Charles E. Sellier, Jr., viewed the film as a psychological study of the personal traumas and social pressures that might make someone a serial killer (see bonus materials on the Anchor Bay 2012 release of the film). Indeed, I found this portion of the film particularly disturbing as it depicts a young child experiencing repeated traumas of physical and psychological abuse.

However, it wasn’t the focus on the killer’s traumatic past that protestors cited as the reason for their moral outrage. Rather, they were incensed that filmmakers would dare sully the sanctity of the Christmas season and its beloved cultural icon, Santa Claus. Yes, the disturbed killer dispatches his victims while wearing a Santa suit.

It did not seem to matter that the killer was only dressed as Santa, rather than having the killer be Santa. Further, this was not the first slasher film to have their killer dressed as Santa (e.g., Christmas Evil (1980) and To All A Goodnight (1980)). The primary concern focused on the wide-spread advertising campaign that prominently displayed images of the killer in Santa attire, especially the film poster that featured a Santa-esque arm emerging from a chimney holding an axe. A barrage of angry phone calls and letters to the production company, letters to newspaper editors, theater picketing, and news interviews with concerned parents followed suit. [Several of these letters are archived on the Anchor Bay 2012 release of the film.] After only a few weeks, the film distribution company recalled the film. They re-released it later with a radically different advertising campaign – one that removed all explicit references to the killer resembling Kris Kringle. Of course, the campaign made full use of the previous controversy to entice potential viewers (i.e., “They tried to ban it! They didn’t want you to see it!”).

How can we understand the psychological dynamics of this societal reaction? Many of the protestors did not just want the advertising stopped, they wanted the film completely banned. This certainly seems contrary to a society that has enshrined free speech in the First Amendment. Two highlighted editorials explicitly preface their complaint with being in favor of free speech but drew their line at using Christmas and Santa Claus in slasher films. Why? The psychological core of censorship is the desire for protecting society, especially its most vulnerable members, and its cherished morals. Of course, moral values can differ across members of a society and form the core of many controversies (e.g., the “Culture Wars”). Moral outrage and the desire for censorship cuts across the political aisle – both conservative and liberal groups have spearheaded campaigns to censor various types of media. Who is offended all depends on the specific context of the contested text.

Many letters highlighted their motive to protect children, not just from seeing violent content but from having their view of Santa Claus tainted. One writer specifically referred to the film as “an invasion of children’s dreams and fantasies. It’s a form of child abuse.” This person’s complaint is perhaps a tad exaggerated but protecting children from harm has been a consistent thread throughout civil debates concerning media regulation and censorship. But some protestors’ concern went beyond children and extended to the holiday itself. One critic claimed the film “could kill the spirit of the season for good” and at least two other individuals argued this film violated an aspect of U.S. culture that was “sacred.”

I want to focus on the use of the authors’ use of the word “sacred.” Christmas as a holiday certainly holds religious significance for Christians, but the killer was not dressed as a religious figure like Jesus. The cultural figure of Santa is technically a secular symbol. Yet still, these authors seem to imbue Santa with a cultural and moral significance that one usually finds in religious concepts. Ideas of sacredness and purity are important components of how many cultures define morality and are often instilled into cherished cultural symbols (e.g., flags, scripture or other documents key to one’s worldview). When someone behaves in a way that violates something perceived as sacred or pure, people often respond by being morally, and sometimes physically, disgusted. Interestingly, several letter writers and critics described the film using words like “sleazy,” “repulsive,” sick,” “garbage,” “rotten” and a product “of a diseased mind.” All these words have links to psychological research on the physical and emotional reactions people have when they are disgusted by something or afraid of somehow being “contaminated” physically or morally.

Even though most people use concepts of purity and sacredness to some degree when judging moral issues, some focus more heavily on them than others (take an assessment of your own views here). For individuals who do not imbue Santa Claus with these elements, or who are not particularly focused on purity as an aspect of morality, they likely are not bothered by Silent Night, Deadly Night, at least any more than they would be by the content found in most slasher films. So, if you dig slasher films, or horror more broadly, it’s worth your while to experience one or both iconic films. Also, you’ll never think of the name “Billy” in the same way again.

Additional Readings:

Fisher, R., Lilie, S., Evans, C., Hollon, G., Sands, M., Depaul, D., ... & Hultgren, T. (1999). Political ideologies and support for censorship: Is it a question of whose ox is being gored? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(8), 1705-1731.

Haidt, J. (2008). Morality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(1), 65-72.

Hoffner, C., & Buchanan, M. (2002). Parents’ responses to television violence: The third-person perception, parental mediation, and support for censorship. Media Psychology, 4, 231-252.

Kelly, D. (2011). Yuck! The nature and moral significance of disgust. Cambridge, MA: Bradford.

Maddrey, J. (2004). Nightmares in red, white and blue: The evolution of the American horror film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.

Nowell, R. (2011). Blood money: A history of the first teen slasher film cycle. New York, NY: Continuum.

Rockoff, A. (2002). Going to pieces: The rise and fall of the slasher film, 1978-1986. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.

Schoell, W. (1985). Stay out of the shower: 25 years of shocker films beginning with “Psycho.” New York, NY: Dembner Books.

Tropiano, S. (2009). Obscene, indecent, immoral, and offensive: 100+ years of censored, banned, and controversial films. New York, NY: Limelight Editions.

Williams, T. (1996). Hearths of darkness: The family in the American horror film. Madison, WI: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Tetsuo_1

The Universality of Isolation, Identity, and Disgust

Each time I finish watching Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989, dir: Shinya Tsukamoto), my first thought is “What the hell did I just see?” This film has been categorized as having elements of ‘Cyberpunk,’ ‘Avant Garde,’ and ‘Horror’; thus, the film aesthetics are edgy, iconoclastic, experimental, and deeply unsettling. Further, the film boasts an industrial/noise soundtrack that is so good it paradoxically melts my face, punishes my ears, and makes me want to dance at the same time. I’m probably in the minority of audience members on this latter part; industrial and noise musical genres are acquired tastes and viewers who are unfamiliar with them may simply feel lost in the cacophony. This audiovisual artistic mix certainly is eclectic, and the narrative seems disjointed at times, though I suspect that at least some of my confusion is because I am not Japanese, nor was I raised in Japan. I’m sure there are cultural nuances lost on me. There are other scholars who have written on the cultural context of the film so I will defer to their expertise in that regard (see Bonus Materials).

I respond predominately to the horror aspects of the film. Though understanding much of what scares us involves cultural analysis, horror theorists argue there are some core elements that humans share regardless of time and place. As famed U.S. horror/sci-fi director John Carpenter argues, “We are all afraid of the same things. That’s what makes these movies so universal…We’re all afraid of death, loss of identity, loss of a loved one, disfigurement, all the horrors of humanity, we all have them, we can all relate” (Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest; 2003, writer Steven C. Smith). 

Humans have an innate need to belong, and most people cannot survive long periods of isolation without experiencing both psychological and physical injury. Being alone can be scary and we often seek others for solace when we are afraid: fear and isolation seem intimately linked. Tetsuo only has a handful of actors (six according to IMDB.com), with the main character (named in the credits as “Man”) generally interacting with only one character at a time. Thus, the character seems oddly isolated from society. Additionally, the main character and his romantic partner (named in the credits as “Woman”) seem to cling to each other for fear of loneliness. This seems to be especially true for the main character as he is terrified as his body begins to transition from flesh to metal: “Never leave me, OK?” he asks her desperately (English translation in subtitles).

This brings me to the other themes common to horror: identity loss and bodily disfigurement via transformation. Three characters change into human/metal hybrids, often in bloody fashion. For the main character, this process is slow and painful, threatening not only his personal sense of self but also making him fear how his partner will react. Our most important relationships are built into our self-concept so when a relationship ends, we lose that part of our “self.” If his partner were to leave the relationship in horror, he would face several threats: damage to his identity at multiple levels in addition to facing the horror of loneliness. 

The second half of the film involves a battle between the main character and the “Metal Fetishist.” The latter starts as the primary antagonist and foil to the main character, but eventually the two meld together into one techno-organic being. Film and cultural scholars have analyzed this outcome as a meditation on the nature of identity and ambivalent “love/hate” relationship humanity often has with technology. Tsukamoto has noted that the “combination of metal and flesh came in part of the wish to express eroticism…I felt I needed a metaphor to express that aspect, which became the invasion and erosion of the body by metal…to express eroticism through iron” (Mes, 2005, pg. 59).

In North American cinema, perhaps no filmmaker dwells on the themes and anxieties surrounding identity and the body more than director David Cronenberg. Though one could likely find threads that connect most (if not all) of Cronenberg’s films to Testuo, the ones that have the most direct focus on technological fetish/phobia, transformation, and identity are Videodrome (1983), eXistenZ (1999), his remake of The Fly (1986), and his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s industrial culture classic Crash (1996). Several film scholars and critics have made these connections and perhaps this is unsurprising given Videodrome and The Fly (among other films) were released only a few years before Tetsuo. Both Videodrome and eXistenZ deal with a merging of one’s individual flesh and modern technology, and what that means for one’s self-concept and general sense of reality. 

The Fly deals with the horror of one’s body decaying and changing into something unrecognizable, as well as the ambivalent reactions of one’s loved ones to the change. Phil Nobile, Jr., editor-in-chief of famous U.S. horror magazine Fangoria, argues that The Fly is an allegory “about death and dying and watching someone you love become a different person by degrees…whether that’s about disease and aging or whether that’s just about a relationship running its course” (In Search of Darkness, 2019, dir. David A. Weiner). Cronenberg has made similar assertions, pointing out Western society’s general aversion to the aging process: “Why not look at the processes of aging and dying, for example, as a transformation…It’s very hard to alter our aesthetic sense to accommodate aging, never mind disease” (Rodley, 1997, pg. 82). More broadly, Cronenberg argues that films focused on disease and decay are simply ways to provide “an examination of what is universal about human existence” (Rodley, 1997, pg. 127). 

Many viewers of Tetsuo could find elements of these ideas in the film, especially if they are familiar with Cronenberg’s portfolio. Most importantly, Tsukamoto also has acknowledged a creative debt to Cronenberg (Mes, 2005, pg. 63; see also Archival Interviews on Arrow 2021 Blu-ray release). Personally, I am struck by the parallel between the reactions both the romantic partner character in Tetsuo and Veronica, the female lead in The Fly, have to their lovers’ transformations. Both react with a mixture of horror, love, and compassion. Phil Nobile, Jr. argues “[Veronica] is essentially euthanizing her life partner at the end of the film. And her sobs at the end of that are maybe one of the most real moments of ‘80s horror I’ve ever seen.” (In Search of Darkness, 2019). One can finding similar heart-breaking elements in Tetsuo when the romantic partner watches the main character transform, and they fight to the death. 

Both Tetsuo and many of Cronenberg’s films fall within the horror subgenre called “body horror,” which is usually characterized as any film that provokes fear, dread, and disgust via detailed focus on bodily injury and the corporeal nature of humans. There is a long history of psychological research on the emotion of disgust. Disgust generally is considered a “basic” emotion, one that is reflexive, cross-cultural, and exhibited even in young children and infants. This suggests that the emotion is hard-wired into our species and ubiquitous across time and space generally. At its core, disgust has a protective function – people experience it when confronted with situations that could involve pathogens, poisons, or other threats to one’s immediate survival. Biologically, when someone is “disgusted” they wrinkle their nose (effectively closing off their sense of smell to gross smells) and fight the urge to vomit, which would expel anything harmful from one’s body. Various sights, smells, and even sounds, can trigger this response. A common trigger involves bodily fluids, especially blood. Not only are there several scenes in Tetsuo that involve gore, but in a few situations the main character touches pieces of metal in his face that spray blood all over. Graphic bodily injuries also evoke disgust, such as when the main character peels portions of his skin off to expose the bloody, metallic viscera underneath, or when the Machine Fetishist shoves a metal pipe into a self-inflicted leg wound. The sight of insects like flies, cockroaches, and maggots – often associated with decay and disease – can disgust people. In Tetsuo, the Metal Fetishist freaks out when he notices maggots crawling on his leg wound. In short, there are no shortage of disgust-provoking moments in Tetsuo

Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a great example of how films can move us. It is a multi-sensory experience of both pleasure and pain, often at the same time. Audiences are equally disgusted and intrigued. Regardless of our individual histories, personalities, or cultural backgrounds, we are affected by the film experience. We leave the theater transformed – we may not all come out the same way, but at least we know that we are not alone. 

Bonus Materials

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

Conrich, I. Metal-morphosis: Post-industrial crisis and the tormented body in the Tetsuo films. (2005). In J. McRoy (Ed.), Japanese horror cinema (pp. 95-106). University of Hawai’i Press.

Gottesman, Z. (2016). Tetsuo and Marinetti: Akira as a cyberpunk critique of futurist modernity. Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, 8(2), 104-126.

Haidt, J., McCauley, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors. Personality and Individual differences, 16(5), 701-713.

Lorenz, A. R., Libarkin, J. C., & Ording, G. J. (2014). Disgust in response to some arthropods aligns with disgust provoked by pathogens. Global Ecology and Conservation, 2, 248-254.

Mes, T. (2005). Iron Man: The cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto. Fab Press.

Napier, S. J. (2001). Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke. Palgrave.

Poppi, F. I. (2018). Machina ex homine, homo ex machina: Metaphor and ideology in Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”. Metaphor and the Social World, 8(2), 207-228.

Revert, J. (n.d.). The horror body: Transgressing beyond the anatomy’s boundaries. https://www.academia.edu/download/39347814/The_horror_body_transgressing_beyond_the_anat.pdf [Accessed 11/20/2021].

Rodley, C. (Ed.). (1997). Cronenberg on Cronenberg. Faber & Faber.

Couple embracing, concerned, strongly backlit

Pandemics, trauma, and managing identity

Borders are sealed; flights are grounded; people (wearing face masks) waiting in long lines for testing and experimental treatment. No, this is not a report from the nightly news. This is a description of the world in Little Fish (2021), described by imdb.com as a drama/romance/sci-fi hybrid. The film is set in the fall of 2021 amid a global pandemic. The viral threat is not COVID-19, but rather a neuroinflammatory infection called NIA. This virus can affect anyone with no clear patterns in transmission, progression, or directions for treatment. Essentially, it is a viral version of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. While not directly fatal, the characters grapple with existential questions about what it means to forget their significant others, their shared past, and ultimately all memories of who they are. Further, how do you and your loved ones go forward with life after that? Or, as main character Emma puts it, “How do you build a future when you keep having to rebuild the past?”

This film does not intentionally reflect our current global anxieties, still struggling through a pandemic ourselves (albeit one with different medical concerns). True, sci-fi stories generally focus on providing audiences with social commentary on current issues, whether they are set in the 23rd century or simply a year or so in advance of our current date (Little Fish was supposed to premiere in 2020 and was in production during 2019). Film scholar Vivian Sobchack argued that sci-fi films focus on “the limits of knowledge and with the imaginative making, unmaking, and remaking of worlds and human identities (1996, p. 316).” That description certainly fits Little Fish, which asks these questions at three levels: individual, interpersonal, and societal. Further, it contrasts these levels, such as when Emma says, “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?” Many of us have had to re-define what we consider ‘normal’ since March 2020 and what our lives will be like after the pandemic is over. What aspects of our pre-COVID life can we get back and what will change indefinitely?

Little Fish certainly presents us with characters experiencing similar concerns, even if the health implications of NIA are different from COVID-19. But the specific threat that NIA presents is one that cuts to our existential core. Humans have a general need for a positive, coherent sense of self. Part of this involves a sense of self-consistency across time: connecting memories of who you were with current beliefs about who you are, and ultimately who you hope to be.

Many people who experience memory loss due to traumatic brain injuries or degenerative illnesses (e.g., Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia) also report feeling a loss of identity, intensifying their mental health distress. Colloquially, friends and family members of these individuals will sometimes lament that their loved ones are no longer the “same person.” Such acknowledgement involves a grieving process; one that is likely experienced both by the person forgetting and the ones being forgotten. This is something that is acknowledged in Little Fish in several characters’ relationships tested by an NIA diagnosis and subsequent memory decline. 

Our identities – and memories – are intimately connected to our social relationships. Further, we build shared narratives and meaning when it comes to dealing with traumatic experiences, both at the level of our immediate social networks and at the broader level of our shared cultures. This process can be complex and likely will take time. But this is one role that sci-fi films can play in our culture. Just like horror films, they can provide a shared event and language to deal with our concerns and fears (see more here and here on the horror angle). Even though Little Fish is not classified as a horror film, there certainly are moments that are deeply unsettling and riff on current anxieties, even if that was not the original intent. It will be interesting to see how films like Little Fish and other pandemic-related films will be experienced by future audiences, especially those young people who are negotiating key developmental milestones amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Will these films provide safe ways of negotiating generational trauma? Will these films be looked upon with an ironic sense of nostalgia? Probably, it will be a little bit of both. 

Additional Readings:

Addis, D. R., & Tippett, L. (2004). Memory of myself: Autobiographical memory and identity in Alzheimer's disease. Memory, 12(1), 56-74.

Davidson, P. S., Drouin, H., Kwan, D., Moscovitch, M., & Rosenbaum, R. S. (2012). Memory as social glue: Close interpersonal relationships in amnesic patients. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 531. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00531 

Fivush, R., Habermas, T., Waters, T. E., & Zaman, W. (2011). The making of autobiographical memory: Intersections of culture, narratives and identity. International Journal of Psychology, 46(5), 321-345.

Gollin, R. M. (1992). A viewer’s guide to film: Arts, artifices, and issues. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 

Jetten, J., Haslam, C., Pugliese, C., Tonks, J., & Haslam, S. A. (2010). Declining autobiographical memory and the loss of identity: Effects on well-being. Journal of Clinical & Experimental Neuropsychology, 32(4), 408-416.

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5(2), 100-122.

Prebble, S. C., Addis, D. R., & Tippett, L. J. (2013). Autobiographical memory and sense of self. Psychological Bulletin, 139(4), 815-840.

Sanders, S., & Corley, C. S. (2003). Are they grieving? A qualitative analysis examining grief in caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer's disease. Social Work in Health Care, 37(3), 35-53.

Sanders, S., Ott, C. H., Kelber, S. T., & Noonan, P. (2008). The experience of high levels of grief in caregivers of persons with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia. Death Studies, 32(6), 495-523.

Sobchack, V. (1996). The fantastic. In G. Nowell-Smith (Ed.), The Oxford history of world cinema (pp. 312-321). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

ElmSt2

Elm Street, gender, sexuality, and representation

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. Wes Craven) was an international box office hit, reinvigorating the slasher sub-genre of horror films by creating a truly supernatural villain (Freddy Krueger) who stalked and murdered his victims in the one place where no one could protect them: their dreams. Further, this killer had a personality, instead of the other killers who were often masked and silent. Rather than simply stalking unsuspecting victims, Freddy Krueger made his intentions clear to the characters from the beginning and often used their darkest fears against them (especially as the series progressed). His James Cagney-style swagger and razor-sharp wit (second only to his clawed glove) entranced audiences and a star was born, a villain audiences couldn’t look away from and loved to hate. 

As typically expected of popular horror films in the 1980s, the executive producers quickly green-lit a sequel with the hopes of creating a franchise. The creators of the first film had set out to do something poignantly different from the mainstream slasher films at the time, and the sequel Freddy’s Revenge (1985, dir. Jack Shoulder) was no different. This film centers on main character Jesse Walsh (played by Mark Patton), who moves into a new house five years after the events of the first film. Unbeknownst to Jesse, this was the house of the first film’s survivor, Nancy Thompson. Freddy’s glove remains hidden in the basement, and his soul still haunts the house. Freddy subsequently possesses Jesse and uses him as a conduit to enter the Waking World and wreak havoc among Elm Street’s teenagers. Director Jack Shoulder explicitly said, “I felt no compunction to follow the template of the first film” (Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, 2010, dirs. Daniel Farrands & Andrew Kasch). Not only was having Freddy leave the Dream World a new twist in the film universe, but so was the choice of a male lead. As actor Robert Englund (the man underneath the Freddy make-up) put it, “We had a real sensitive male lead instead of a typical macho teen boy…he became the equivalent of our heroine in jeopardy in Part 1” (Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street, 2020, dirs. Roman Chimienti & Tyler Jensen). This film established actor Mark Patton as the first male “scream queen.”

The film opened to wonderful box office numbers and exceeded the first film in ticket sales, guaranteeing the establishment of a continuing franchise. However, the film immediately became controversial among fans, and it remains so to this day. There are various reasons for this controversy. First, even though a formula for the film universe had not been established officially, Robert Englund believes, “They did break one rule; they took Freddy out of the dream” (In Search of Darkness: Part 2, 2020, dir. David A. Weiner). This certainly is a departure which may have violated some fans’ expectations, but at this point they only had one previous film in the franchise and never explicitly indicated Freddy had to stay in the Dream World. Indeed, a key component of the first film’s final conflict was survivor Nancy’s attempts to bring Freddy into the Waking World. So, Freddy’s exodus from the characters’ nightmares could not have been the only reason for fans’ mixed reactions.

More commonly, many fans disparage the film for having a male lead, specifically one who did not fit the rigid gender norms for “traditional masculinity” in the 1980s. The vulnerability that actor Mark Patton brought to the role, the characteristic that director Jack Shoulder “really liked” (Never Sleep Again), did not work for many audience members, who had grown accustomed to the pattern of the Final Girl (a specific type of Scream Queen) in slasher films. The Final Girl is a young woman who survives the killer’s onslaught by overcoming her vulnerability and developing a sense of agency to defeat the killer. Film critics and scholars have argued this character type affords audience members a point of identification both for fear (which is the key function of horror films) and strength. Of course, why does the gender identity of the character ultimately matter? Doesn’t everyone feel fear, regardless of their own identity? As the character Rod Lane from the first film notes to his girlfriend Tina Grey, “Guys can have nightmares too, you know. You ain’t got a corner on the market or something.” Further, actor Heather Langenkamp (who played Nancy in the first and third films of the franchise) notes that term “Final Girl” is problematic because it is gendered by nature and others the character, whereas terms like “protagonist” or “hero” would be more inclusive; Langenkamp asserts, “Equal opportunity ass-kicking is what I’m all for” (In Search of Darkness, 2019, dir. David A. Weiner).

Unfortunately, in the 1980s, many audience members appeared not to be ready for a male protagonist that violated traditional binary gender norms. This characterization, combined with the general homophobia that existed in U.S. culture at the time, likely drove many fans’ initial negative reactions to the film. It certainly characterizes most of the negative reactions toward the film today, with many Internet trolls putting their homophobia front-and-center and filling their critiques with horrible slurs and bigoted comments. These negative reactions to Freddy’s Revenge, and the painful effects they have had on lead actor Mark Patton (who is gay and was keeping his sexual orientation closeted at the time of the film’s release), have been chronicled in the documentary Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street. In addition to shedding light on an important part of horror film history, this documentary is an invaluable resource for educating viewers on the social dynamics of both Hollywood and the U.S. generally during the 1980s and 90s. Patton discusses his journey from having this film effectively end his acting career to now providing him an avenue for activism, using his public appearances at fan conventions and this documentary to raise awareness for issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and anti-bullying projects. As Patton notes toward the end of the documentary, “I used to say, ‘I take the bricks that people throw at me and I build a firm foundation,’ and that’s what I’ve done with A Nightmare on Elm Street…I changed the conversation…” (Scream, Queen…). 

Though a portion of audience members may have responded to Freddy’s Revenge negatively, Nightmare fans from the LGBTQ+ community immediately reclaimed it as a source of acknowledgement and empowerment, and it continues to inspire many fans to this day. Mark Patton notes that his activism is, in the end, “for those boys who are sitting in a room, they looked up at the screen and they saw themselves” (Scream, Queen). This point situates discussions of this film within the broader issue of the importance of representation within media. Many studies by psychologists have examined the importance of having positive media representation on the mental health of individuals who belong to groups marginalized in society. Indeed, having a lack of characters who share one’s identity can make individuals feel that their group is invisible and excluded socially. Feeling excluded is a key aspect to discrimination, both at the interpersonal and societal level. Further, having a general sense of social inclusion is imperative for individuals’ well-being; thus, media representation matters. There are several interviews in Scream, Queen in which fans who are members of the LGBTQ+ community highlight how important Freddy’s Revenge was to them during their youth; several fans noted how it provided them a sense of validation and helped them feel like they weren’t alone. That is an impact that few horror films can claim. Once again, representation matters.

If you haven’t watched Freddy’s Revenge in a long time (or at all), do yourself a favor and watch it as soon as you can. Then, watch the documentary Scream, Queen! You’ll be glad you did.

Additional Readings:

Banks, B. M., Parris, L., & Wesselmann, E. D. (2019). Words can hurt you: Discrimination through nonphysical aggression. In T. Langley & A. Simmons (Eds.), Black Panther psychology: Hidden kingdoms (pp. 157-171). New York, NY: Sterling.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529. 

Clover, C. J. (1992). Men, women, and chainsaws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Eagly, A. H., Nater, C., Miller, D. I., Kaufmann, M., & Sczesny, S. (2020). Gender stereotypes have changed: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of US public opinion polls from 1946 to 2018. American Psychologist, 75(3), 301.

Eagly, A. H., & Steffen, V. J. (1984). Gender stereotypes stem from the distribution of women and men into social roles. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 46(4), 735.

Foster III, W. H. (2005). Looking for a face like mine: The history of African Americans in comics. Waterbury, CT: Fine Tooth Press. 

McInroy, L. B., & Craig, S. L. (2017). Perspectives of LGBTQ emerging adults on the depiction and impact of LGBTQ media representation. Journal of Youth Studies, 20(1), 32-46.

Rivadeneyra, R., Ward, L. M., & Gordon, M. (2007). Distorted reflections: Media exposure and Latino adolescents' conceptions of self. Media Psychology, 9(2), 261-290.

Romeo, K. E., & Horn, S. S. (2017). Adolescents’ judgments of homophobic harassment toward male and female victims: The role of gender stereotypes. Journal of Moral Education, 46(2), 145-157.

Halloween_1
NightmareElmSt_1

Facing our “Boogeymen,” confronting our fear of mortality

In 1978, Halloween exploded on the scene and changed the face, or dare I say the ‘shape,’ of horror. Now, it is important to note that several elements director John Carpenter assembled were not new. For example, using a POV shot for the killer had been done before, as had having a murderous villain menace realistically characterized and likeable young people in a normally safe environment (i.e., Black Christmas, 1974, dir. Bob Clark). Further, using music to create an oppressive atmosphere of suspense and shock had been used famously in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which John Carpenter has affectionally referred to as “the granddaddy of these films” (Going To Pieces: The Rise & Fall of the Slasher Film, 2006, dir. Jeff McQueen). However, Carpenter was the first one to put these elements together in a way that each one effectively complimented and intensified the others, creating an overall package that rocked audiences in a way they hadn’t experienced before. 

One novel concept Carpenter introduced was the concept of a killer who was, in his words, “a force of nature…pure evil” (REMIND magazine: Halloween edition, 2021, p. 6) who hid behind a blank emotionless mask. Actor Nick Castle, who was the primary person under the mask in the first Halloween film, argues that, “Fundamentally, what is scary about Michael Myers is that mask, that rubber mask, that white face, that unknowable entity that is consistent throughout the franchise” (In Search of Darkness: Part 2, 2020, dir. David A. Weiner). This ambiguous mask becomes a metaphorical ink blot test, allowing the audience to project our own fears onto it. Referring to Michael Myers and other masked killers in these films, horror director Joseph Zito argues that “all the dark things that you’re afraid of get behind those masks and behind that darkness that it comes out of, and you know that it is stronger than you” (Going To Pieces: The Rise & Fall of the Slasher Film, 2006, dir. Jeff McQueen).

Carpenter also provided an ambiguous ending in which he suggests that this type of evil is “unrelenting,” “everywhere,” and “never dies” (quotes from Anchor Bay’s 25th and 35th anniversary edition release audio commentaries). Like the protagonists Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis, we may gain a moment’s repose, but we can never truly relax. We always must be vigilant, watchful of our surroundings and beware what lurks in the dark. Indeed, Carpenter argues that audiences should leave a horror movie thinking “what’s going to happen to me when I go home in the dark?” (The Fearmakers, Vol. 2: John Carpenter, 2006, dir. John McCarty). 

In Halloween, Carpenter wanted to “raise this Michael Myers character up to a myth status” (Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest featurette on the 25th anniversary 2003 DVD release) and indeed uses the dialogue of his protagonists to label this character the Boogeyman explicitly. By doing that, Carpenter links his villain with a larger sociocultural phenomenon. Folklorists have long been interested in supernatural figures loosely termed “bogies,” from which the popular term “boogeyman” (or “bogeyman”) is derived. Though each of these creatures have their own cultural nuances, they share some common characteristics. Broadly, bogie figures typically embody cultural fears; stories involve them killing (often eating) people who are unwary and stray into dangerous terrain. The sole purpose of these creatures is to kill; first to terrify and then to destroy. As horror writer Clive Barker notes, the term “bogeyman evokes something that isn’t really human and…isn’t therefore susceptible to reason…argue with…or even ask for mercy from” (Halloween: 25 Years of Terror, 2005, dir. Stefan Hutchinson). In the case of Michael Myers, his former psychiatrist Dr. Loomis describes him by saying “This isn’t a man…I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was pure and simply evil.”

Sometimes, these bogie figures can shapeshift and take on images that reflect individual victims’ darkest fears. Cinematically, this characteristic brings us to the antagonist central to the last big slasher franchise of the 1980s: Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. Wes Craven). Like Michael Myers, Freddy fit the “boogeyman” mold in multiple ways. As far as being an embodiment of what our culture considers evil, they don’t get much eviler than Freddy. Myers may have been conceived as being “evil,” but his emotionless performance made him seem driven to kill at an elemental level as if he were a robot or a shark. Killing is just something he does primally. Freddy, however, relishes in the horrible deeds he engages in, both before and after his death at the hands of vigilante parents. Director Wes Craven reflects on the evil of his villain’s actions: “The killer of children is about the most despicable thing you can think and the deepest and most profound betrayal of the innocence of a child” (Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, 2010, dirs. Daniel Farrands & Andrew Kasch). Further, Craven drew on his own “boogeymen” when fleshing out Freddy’s characterization – he named the character after a schoolyard bully and gave him the physical appearance of a creepy old man in his neighborhood who scared him during his youth. As the series developed, Freddy’s ability to visually embody the specific fears of his victims became key to his methods; actor Ken Sagoes (NOES #3: Dream Warriors, 1987; dir. Chuck Russell) specifically notes that Freddy “was the boogeyman because he could be all these different types of monsters in your dreams” (In Search of Darkness, 2019, dir. David A. Weiner). 

Finally, Freddy reaches mythic status in the Elm Street universe: children sing nursery rhymes about him (“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…”) and none of the parents want to acknowledge his existence explicitly, though they all seem to recognize his threat unconsciously. He strikes at their children, the most vulnerable members of their society, where no adult can protect them: their dreams. Further, Director Wes Craven gave Freddy a claw because a predator with this type of weapon would have been the “earliest thing that mankind would have been afraid of” and even Freddy-actor Robert Englund notes that this narrative universe represents “the universal story of the bad dream, the nightmare and the boogeyman” (Never Sleep Again). 

Culturally, bogie figures are often used as oral warnings from elders to younger generations. Germane to A Nightmare on Elm Street, Englund asserts, “Freddy is a warning. He is talked about, and he’s whispered about” (Never Sleep Again). In later films of the Halloween franchise, Myers also achieves folklore status to the point of becoming a figure the adults don’t want to mention yet the youth often joke about (until they meet him, of course). However, what cautionary function do these characters serve? Certainly, some bogie figures, usually referred to as “nursery bogies,” are used to scare children into obeying the dictates of their elders. These warnings can be as specific as obeying cultural definitions of morality or as general as encouraging youth to stay away from hazardous areas in the natural environment (e.g., dark woods, pools of water, and dangerous neighborhoods). Friday the 13th (1980) director/producer Sean Cunningham describes slasher films as “morality plays” and that the survivors are individuals who have “embodied the moral code that society thinks will help you go far in life” (Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film). More specifically, many critics, film scholars, and audience members view the villains of these films as embodied cultural retribution on young people who misbehave by engaging in premarital sex, underage drinking, and drug use – “the sin factor” as the character Randy termed it in the first film on the Scream franchise (1996, dir. Wes Craven). But is this common view accurate?

Halloween director John Carpenter, co-writer and producer Deborah Hill, and star Jamie Lee Curtis have all denied that this first film had a message of Puritanical morality (quotes from Anchor Bay’s 25th and 35th anniversary edition release audio commentaries). Indeed, as far as the famous Scream “sin factor” argument is concerned, Laurie should not have survived because she smokes marijuana at one point in the film (confirmed by the original screenplay on the 25th anniversary DVD release and various audio commentaries). Deborah Hill argued that they had the teenaged characters engaging in premarital sex, drinking, and smoking joints because that is what many teenagers in the audience were doing and thus viewers could “see themselves” in these characters (25th anniversary DVD commentary). Given that a primary goal of horror films is to inspire fear in the audience, anything that makes it easier it is for audiences to identify with the menaced characters should intensify this fear. Carpenter argues that, if anything, the drugs and sex contribute to the teens’ death simply because they are distracted from seeing the dangers around them: “They get killed because they are not paying attention; there’s no Christian Right morality” (Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest feature on 25th anniversary DVD). He argues the take-home message of the film is make sure people know about the evil that exists around us and “With a little luck and awareness you can survive” (25th anniversary DVD commentary). As for A Nightmare on Elm Street, director Wes Craven argues that if anyone is to blame for the young characters’ deaths, it is the parents; through their vigilante justice, the Elm Street parents inadvertently “caused the deaths of their own children,” coupled with their general refusal to listen to their children’s fears (Never Sleep Again). 

If we use the Scream rules to examine the characteristics of the victims in the first seven Halloween films (pre-reboot by Rob Zombie and excluding #3 which had nothing to do with Michael Myers), only two of these films (29%) have a higher number of “sinners” than “non-sinners” in their body count. Examining the seven original Nightmare on Elm Street films shows a similar ratio. Even in the Friday the 13th franchise, only four of the 10 original films had a higher number of “sinners” in their body count. Finally, for the completist, the ultimate slasher grudge-match Freddy vs. Jason (2003, dir. Ronny Yu) had a victim ratio of 10 “sinner” to 12 “non-sinners.” Simply based on numbers, it appears that these bogie characters are more likely to choose victims who do not drink, do drugs, or engage in premarital sex. So why does this popular conception of slashers essentially being the tool of a judgmental, authoritarian deity persist? 

Humans have general psychological needs for control and for finding a sense of meaning in their environment. Tragedies, especially ones that remind us of our own mortality, threaten these needs. When possible, we try to re-establish our sense of control and meaning by re-affirming our worldviews and finding reasons for why bad things happen to innocent people. Unfortunately, studies have found this often leads to victim-blaming. This victim-blaming tendency may be what leads to people assuming that the victims in slasher films must have done something to incur the wrath of the “boogeyman,” otherwise they would have survived the onslaught. According to directors Carpenter and Craven, indeed there is something that separates their survivor from the other characters who are less fortunate. Carpenter has often argued that it was Laurie’s awareness and focus that allowed her to perceive and evade the threatening Shape that is Michael Myers. For Craven, his character Nancy Thompson survived because of “her wits” and ability to “face fear” – in this case, the fears embodied by Freddy Krueger [I Am Nancy, 2011, dir. Arlene Marechal). So, if we take any lesson away from these films, it should be inspiration from characters like Laurie Strode and Nancy Thompson, two women who channel their inner strength to face their fears and rage against the dying of the light.  

Additional Readings:

Crane, J. L. (1994). Terror and everyday life: Singular moments in the history of the horror film. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hafer, C. L. (2000). Do innocent victims threaten the belief in a just world? Evidence from a modified Stroop task. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 79(2), 165-173. 

Hirschberger, G. (2006). Terror management and attributions of blame to innocent victims: Reconciling compassionate and defensive responses. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 91(5), 832-844. 

Maddrey, J. (2004). Nightmares in red, white and blue: The evolution of the American horror film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. 

Nowell, R. (2011). Blood money: A history of the first teen slasher film cycle. New York, NY: Continuum.

Proulx, T., & Heine, S. J. (2006). Death and black diamonds: Meaning, mortality, and the meaning maintenance model. Psychological Inquiry, 17(4), 309-318.

Rockoff, A. (2002). Going to pieces: The rise and fall of the slasher film, 1978-1986. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. 

Shimabukuro, K. (2014). The bogeyman of your nightmares: Freddy Krueger's folkloric roots. Studies in Popular Culture, 36(2), 45-65.

Vess, M., Routledge, C., Landau, M. J., & Arndt, J. (2009). The dynamics of death and meaning: The effects of death-relevant cognitions and personal need for structure on perceptions of meaning in life. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 97(4), 728-744.

Warner, M. (1998). No go the boogeyman. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

TheWitch_1

CAPTURING THE FEAR OF THE "FOLK"

Horror films, as a broad genre, are defined primarily by the emotions they evoke in audiences: anxiety, disgust, dread, and fear. These emotions are evoked both by a specific threat (be it natural or supernatural) and by general film atmosphere (e.g., scene composition, music/sound design, editing). Most horror films focused on “witchcraft” present a threat that typically falls into one of two camps: the supernatural threat of people using magic malevolently, or the more natural threat of people using the guise of investigating witchcraft for panic, power, profit, or sadistic pleasure. In the latter, the real horror comes from the cruelty humans inflict on each other, sometimes from “best” of all intentions.

Without giving too much away, the The VVitch (2015) involves a bit of both. The writer/director Robert Eggers grew up in New England and wanted to create “an archetypal New England horror story” that would channel the folkloric influences from his childhood (“The VVitch: A primal folklore” DVD featurette). It follows a family that belongs to a sect of Puritans who were extreme even for that period (circa 1630s). The family lives an isolated and pious life, with their ardent faith put to the test when they experience a series of tragic, dire misfortunes. Viewers watch the family struggle against supernatural threats from without and all-to-natural threats from within. The family’s struggle for survival mixes with their fundamentalist religious views to cause, in the words of actor Anya Taylor-Joy, “a deterioration of a family” (DVD featurette).  

Eggers prioritized accuracy as much as possible in ways normally unheard of in small budget films. For example, the set designers hired experts on period architecture and woodwork to reconstruct historically accurate colonial houses (DVD featurette). Even the official title involved a period-appropriate spelling (i.e., “VVitch” rather than the modern “Witch”; DVD audio commentary with Eggers). At the story level, Eggers conducted extensive research into New England and European folkloric stereotypes about witchcraft, often drawing dialogue specifically from historical records of witch trials. Eggers wanted to demonstrate how these beliefs, misguided as they were by fundamentalist anti-Pagan propaganda, influenced Puritan immigrants’ daily lives. Further, Eggers wanted to understand how the horrors of the New England/European witch hunts could happen (“Salem Panel Q & A” DVD bonus). This is a question that has captured the academic curiosity of many anthropologists, historians, psychologists, and sociologists – particularly those researchers who endeavor to use this knowledge to shed light on more recent U.S. “witch hunts” such as the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings in the 1950s and the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s. 

Thus, there are many ways to unpack this film. A good starting point is to center it within the film genre of “folk horror.” Although the generic category is still in its academic infancy, the canonical films scholars use as genre anchor points come from Britain’s 1970s-era cinema: Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971; dir. Piers Haggard), Cry of the Banshee (1970; dir. Gordon Hessler), The Wicker Man (1973; dir. Robin Hardy), and Witchfinder General (1968; dir. Michael Reeves). As is the case with most genre work, debates rage concerning which films fit within the category, and indeed what characteristics make up the category. Thus far, the key elements focus on films that 1) place a key emphasis on the landscape as part of the narrative, 2) convey a sense of isolation for the characters, 3) involve individuals that endorse “skewed moral beliefs” (at least from the perspective of the main character and/or the audience), and 4) have some type of supernatural activity rooted in folklore as a key plot point.

There are many U.S. and British films that involve several (though not all) of these elements, produced from the 1970s onward, such as The Devils (1971; dir. Ken Russell), The Children of the Corn (1984; dir. Fritz Kiersch), The Blair Witch Project (1999; dirs. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez), and more recently Midsommar (2019; dir. Ari Aster). Further, the films that fit this genre are not restricted to Anglo-Saxon and Western European influenced folklore. Severin Films is releasing a collectors set including films from across the globe that involve these key elements of “folk horror,” which is being preceded by an award-winning documentary on the festival circuit. The interest in this genre transcends film, with music projects being categorized under the “folk horror” label as well.    

Based on these criteria, The VVitch (2015) fits the “folk horror” genre label perfectly. Regarding landscape, actor Anya Taylor-Joy argues that “The setting is a character in itself, a very important character” (“The VVitch: A primal folklore” DVD featurette). Further, director Robert Eggers notes that they designed everything in the film such that nature could “be this overwhelming force” of which the audience was always aware (audio commentary and “Salem Panel Q & A” DVD bonus). In terms of isolation, it is important to note that the family chooses to exile itself from its Puritan community at the beginning of the movie, something that becomes a contentious decision later in the film. Additionally, Anya Taylor-Joy argues that it is easy to imagine a family “losing their heads” being surrounded by dark forests and sheltered in an isolated farmhouse daily, with each other as their only social contacts (“The VVitch: A primal folklore”). The skewed moral beliefs component hinges upon the audience’s reaction to 1600s Puritan beliefs, which Eggers describes as “so exotic and strange for us” (“The VVitch: A primal folklore”). Ultimately, the family’s fears of malevolent magic are validated by a few supernatural events tied directly into folklore from both New England and Western European stereotypes of witchcraft (as the final title card of the film claims). 

I could write several papers on the social and psychological nuances in this film. For now, I will focus on the “folk horror” component of skewed moral beliefs because it is something that is a key aspect both of this film and of other notable folk horror films. For modern audiences, the Puritan beliefs seem anachronistic and “fundamentalist” (i.e., rigid). However, it is important to remember that stereotypical beliefs about “witchcraft” and demonic forces were commonplace as real of an explanation for negative experiences such as famine, drought, and premature death, as modern scientific explanations are to most of us. Indeed, many stereotypic beliefs about the harm witches could inflict involved survival concerns (e.g., illness; the sustainability of crops and livestock) and the potential for creating future generations (e.g., reproductive ability; miscarriage and sudden infant death; see the Malleus Maleficarum), concerns that evolutionary psychologists argue are key motivators across cultures throughout human history. As such, it makes sense that the perceived threat of witchcraft would be prominent in Puritans’ daily lives.

Further, their supreme deity allowed such malevolent things to occur, perhaps because they did something to deserve it or because of some other reason unbeknownst to them. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21 KJV) – as simple as that. Beyond using these beliefs to make sense of their own misfortunes, these individuals also responded to belief systems different than their own as an existential threat, both to their own worldview and to the systemic power structure. Psychologists of religion/spirituality have found that this ideological-threat-to-prejudice connection occurs to this day. Given the power of this connection to explain fear and aggression towards “the other” in our modern privileged society, it is reasonable to assume such power was intensified when a blighted crop or diseased livestock could be the difference between life and death for a family or community. Any scapegoat would provide a small measure of comfort – or at least a presumed explanation – for the suffering that devout people experience when every moment of every day is organized around the whims of an active, judgmental deity. Such tensions help us understand some of the ideological struggles that occur in other folk horror films, both from the protagonists’ community and even that of the “antagonists” (e.g., The Wicker Man). Are the beliefs of either side really that different, at least as far as the psychological needs being fulfilled? So, when wielding your judgmental gavel toward beliefs and customs of “provincial folk” that seem superstitious, show a bit of cultural humility. After all, we all have our “folk devils” that stand outside the metaphorical light of our hearths, helping us make sense of this crazy thing called life. The problem is when we immediately assume that we are unequivocally right and anyone who disagrees immediately becomes wrong without room for debate. Then, we can become the devils. 

Additional Readings:

Falkof, N. (2020). On moral panic: Some directions for further development. Critical Sociology, 46(2), 225-239.

Goplen, J., & Plant, E. A. (2015). A religious worldview: Protecting one’s meaning system through religious prejudice. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(11), 1474-1487.

Hood, R. W., Hill, P. C., & Williamson, W. P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Kossowska, M., Szwed, P., Czernatowicz-Kukuczka, A., Sekerdej, M., & Wyczesany, M. (2017). From threat to relief: Expressing prejudice toward atheists as a self-regulatory strategy protecting the religious orthodox from threat. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 873. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00873

Kramer, H., & Sprenger, J. (1971; trans. M. Summers). The malleus maleficarum. New York, NY: Dover Publications. 

Levack, B. P. (Ed.). (2013). The Oxford handbook of witchcraft in early modern Europe and colonial America. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 

Nairne, J. S. & Pandeirada, J. N. (2010). Adaptive memory: Nature’s criterion and the functionalist agenda. The American Journal of Psychology, 123(4), 381-390.

Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108(3), 483-522.

Reed, I. A. (2015). Deep culture in action: resignification, synecdoche, and metanarrative in the moral panic of the Salem Witch Trials. Theory & Society, 44(1), 65-94.

Scovell, A. (2017). Folk horror: Hours dreadful and things strange. Auteur Publishing. 


TheRoom_3

"OH HAI, RIFF-CULTURE": BONDING AND "BAD" MOVIES

Let’s get one thing clear – I love ‘bad’ movies. I’m not talking about films with poor production quality or ones that are unanimously panned by critic and audiences alike. There are plenty of films that I have turned off in the middle, and no amount of fermented beverages could make me suffer through them. I’m talking about ones that, despite their numerous flaws, draw me in with a type of morbid curiosity. Try as I might, I can’t look away. There is an endearing, earnest charm about the films that keeps me hooked.

Of course, these films are not for everyone. They are an acquired taste; one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. However, I’m certainly not alone. Back in 1988, a show started that gave public validation to those who were addicted to the celluloid margins, those enthusiastic viewers who reveled in the glorious badness of ‘bad’ movies. This show was Minneapolis-based Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). The show focused on a host (first Joel Hodgson, then Mike Nelson) who was marooned on a satellite and forced to watch horrible movies. In each iteration, the host suffered through the films with robotic friends; their sarcastic running commentary (i.e., riffing) helped make the films bearable. Indeed, it was this commentary that also made the films enjoyable for the show’s audience. I have fond memories of watching MST3K in high school, and again when the re-runs of the show started streaming on Netflix (Sleep? Who needs sleep?!). Of course, the show has been crowd-funded back into production, and the original contributors have also created their own companies: RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic. In true modern cinematic fashion, the revelry continues…for many, many iterations.

But why do people like me enjoy these films? Why would I take an entire day to walk a 6-mile pilgrimage around San Francisco (My legs were sore for days!) to find filming locations tied to The Room (2003), a film that widely is considered one of the “greatest” bad movies ever made (see the autobiography of actor Greg Sestero)? Research suggests there are many reasons why people love ‘bad’ movies. Some people love the irony of loving something considered ‘bad’ by mainstream audiences, whereas others honestly appreciate aspects of these films that violate cinematic norms. In a sea of repetition, these films buck the trend and stand out; they are memorable, even if for all the wrong reasons.  

I can see aspects of my interests in both motives, but there is something missing. My fondest memories of watching ‘bad’ films involve some of my oldest and best friends. We laughed, we groaned, and we drank an excessive amount of Mountain Dew together. Indulge me as I co-opt a common reference to poet John Donne: just as no person “is an island,” few (if any) fans of these films exist in solitude. The hosts of MST3K kept their sanity by watching the films with their friends, and so do many of us. Laughter often bonds people together, forging a common identity through experience. Watching ‘bad’ movies together simply is one way to make shared memories and satisfy our need for belonging. If you don’t dig it, I’m sure you’ve got something else you are a fan of that fulfills the same needs. If you do dig it, welcome aboard our satellite! Remember, it’s not about the film being “good” or “bad”; the only cinematic sin here is to be un-memorable. Really…just relax.

Additional Readings:

Barefoot, G. (2017). Trash cinema: The lure of the low. London, UK: Wallflower Press.

 O'Toole, L. (1979). Whatever happened to trash? Film Comment, 15(5), 40-44.

 Sarkhosh, K., & Menninghaus, W. (2016). Enjoying trash films: Underlying features, viewing stances, and experiential response dimensions. Poetics, 57, 40-54.

 Sconce, J. (1995). ‘Trashing’ the academy: Taste, excess, and an emerging politics of cinematic style. Screen, 36(4), 371-393.

 Sestero, G., & Bissell, T. (2017). The disaster artist: My life inside The Room, the greatest bad movie ever made. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

 Treger, S., Sprecher, S., & Erber, R. (2013). Laughing and liking: Exploring the interpersonal effects of humor use in initial social interactions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(6), 532-543.

 Weiner, R. G., & Barba, S. E. (Eds.). In the peanut gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on film, fandom, technology and the culture of riffing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

RocknRoll High School_Slide

"DO YOUR PARENTS KNOW THAT YOU'RE RAMONES?!" OR: WE ACCEPT YOU; ONE OF US!

I first discovered the Ramones while in high school in the mid-90s, ironically around the time they disbanded. Thus, I never had the pleasure of seeing them in concert. Over the past few years, famed audio engineer Ed Stasium has been overseeing the 40th anniversary re-release of their first five albums, remastered from the original studio master tapes. Collectors can acquire special versions that include an LP version and several CDs that include a variety of demos, alternate versions, and a live show from that album’s era. I suppose those live albums get me a step closer but still cannot capture the high-intensity energy and musical ferocity that multiple writers have described characterized a Ramones performance. The audio alone certainly cannot convey the full measure of the rabid fan participation. 

 

That is where the film Rock & Roll High School (1979) comes in. It was directed by Allan Arkush (with executive producer, the legendary Roger Corman), and it was just one of long line of zany high school comedy pictures that exploited parental fears about juvenile delinquency, though in this case, the metaphorical tongue was planted firmly in cheek. Like many youth-oriented exploitation/drive-in films, they also integrated popular music into the soundtrack and worked in live performances into the films themselves whenever possible (e.g., “rocksploitation” and Rock Around the Clock, 1956, dir. Fred F. Sears). Just another way to get teenagers into the theater, spending their allowance on tickets and maybe even tie-in merchandise like records (that’s right, vinyl LPs, before they were retro!). Some film scholars have tracked the influence of 50s “rocksploitation” films to the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964; dir. Richard Lester). Interesting trivia: Arkush cited A Hard Day’s Night as a major influence on his film and noted that they filmed portions at the same locations as Rock Around the Clock (2010 Shout! Factory release commentary track).

 

One of my favorite parts of Rock & Roll High School is the concert sequence toward the latter half that is a blast. Aside from the key cast members, most of the audience are actual Ramones fans. According to director Arkush, they “staged a live, marathon show at the Roxy Theater that consisted of 22 hours of nonstop Ramones playing” so that they could get all the coverage they needed of the band and audience to work around their main characters’ scenes (pg. 9 in the DVD booklet for Shout! Factory’s 2010 “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” edition)! I challenge anyone who enjoys the Ramones to watch this footage and NOT sing along. It gets especially hard when they start putting the words on the screen. Of course, that could just be me (apologies in advance to anyone who sits near me in the theater during this film). This is the closest I’ll ever come to seeing the Ramones in concert, so I relish this segment every time I watch the film and sometimes listen to the soundtrack just to sing along to the concert medley.

 

Why do I love these moments so much? Why were fans willing to stand around for hours listening to the Ramones play their set repeatedly during filming? Why are there still yearly concerts to mark Joey Ramone’s birthday, often filled with many fans who, as Ritchie Ramone says, “weren’t even born when the Ramones were together ̶ but they still grew up listening to the Ramones, like they never went away. It’s crazy…but it’s great too” (pg. xvi, Ramone & Aaron, 2018). Why are there enough cover albums and Ramones-inspired bands to warrant their own genre (“Ramones-core”; one of my all-time favorites is The Huntingtons, and The Jasons do an amazing cover album that mixes Ramones music with Misfits lyrics). 

 

Any of these questions likely have multiple answers. Without question, the Ramones have inspired loyalty from multiple generations of fans, and each individual fan could provide a litany of reasons for their passion. For me, it comes down to one of my favorite lines from their song “Pinhead.” They open the song with a chant adapted from the classic Pre-Code era horror film Freaks (1932; dir. Tod Browning): “Gabba gabba, We accept you, We accept you, One of us.” Although this chant was only one of numerous anthems for enthusiastic fans, it is one that I believe embodies the relationship between the band and their fanbase. In an interview included in 40th Anniversary remaster for Leave Home booklet, the Ramones’ co-manager Danny Fields noted, “Everyone in the band grew up as an outsider…But mainly and most of all, they always loved their fans. The fans were #1, who, consequently, felt vindicated, energized, and loved…That was because the Ramones felt like teenage rock ‘n’ roll fans themselves. The music and the show made them them: we are them, and they are us. It was important to establish that unity…That’s the way the Ramones wanted it to be: we are participating in an event that’s bigger than all of us, and we are all equally important. We just happen to be the band” (2017, p. 3-7). 

 

We all have a fundamental need to belong; it hurts to feel left out, devalued, or lonely and we strive to find ways to feel socially connected. For individuals on the fringes of the popular mainstream ̶ the freaks, nerds, wallflowers, etc. ̶ music can soothe this pain and offer an alternative source of belonging. Psychologists, sociologists, and cultural studies researchers have found that fan identities and other subcultures help us do that. These affiliations allow us to affirm our individual interests and personalities while also finding likeminded others, so we are not alone in a crowd. Hanging out in these spaces and engaging in collective activities, such as singing and dancing along at concerts, give us a sense that we are part of something that transcends our individual experiences – something that bonds us and gives us shared meaning. Indeed, some of these ideas purposely are reflected in the film, such as in the “I Want You Around” scene (Arkush, Finnell, & Whitley audio commentary, 2010). 

 

So, to all you old school Rock and Roll High School fans, welcome back to Vince Lombardi High. We’ve missed you. The facilities are yours. To those of you who are discovering this film, and perhaps even the R.A.M.O.N.E.S., for the first time: We accept you, you’re one of us! Oh, and remember: Gabba Gabba Hey!

 

Additional Readings:

Corman, R., & Jerome, J. (1990). How I made a hundred movies in Hollywood and never lost a dime. New York, NY: Random House.

 

Denisoff, R. S., & Romanowski, W. (1990). Katzman's" Rock around the Clock:" A Pseudo-Event?. Journal of Popular Culture, 24(1), 65-78.

 

Doherty, T. (2002). Teenagers and teenpics: The juvenilization of American movies in the 1950s. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

 

Gabriel, S., Naidu, E., Paravati, E., Morrison, C. D., & Gainey, K. (2020). Creating the sacred from the profane: Collective effervescence and everyday activities. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(1), 129-154.

 

Haenfler, R. (2015). Goths, Gamers, & Grrrls: Deviance and youth subculture (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

Keeler, J. R., Roth, E. A., Neuser, B. L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D. J. M., & Vianney, J. M. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: Bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 518. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00518

 

Ramone, R., & Aaron, P. (2018). I know better now: My life before, during, and after the Ramones. Milwaukee, WI: Backbeat Books. 

 

Schlotterbeck, J. (2016). A Hard Day's Night as a musical biopic of the post-studio era. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 33(6), 567-579.

 

Welch, G. F., Himonides, E., Saunders, J., Papageorgi, I., & Sarazin, M. (2014). Singing and social inclusion. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 803. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00803

 

Widdicombe, S., & Wooffitt, R. (1990). 'Being' versus 'doing' Punk: On achieving authenticity as a member. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 9(4), 257-277.

Demonic Movie Poster

EXORCISING THE DEMONS OF DESPAIR

In 1973, a film was released that shocked the U.S. – scared the Hell right out of it (or perhaps into it?). News reports described patrons fainting in theaters, theater janitors cleaning up vomit in the aisles, and four-hour lines just to purchase tickets. Both clergy and mental health workers reported an increase in claims of demonic possession. This film was The Exorcist (dir. William Friedkin), based on the best-selling eponymous novel by William Peter Blatty. There are some who argue that the popularity of The Exorcist, and the subsequent “satanic panic” in the U. S., was a unique cultural phenomenon that emerged from the tumultuous 1960s, characterized by sociopolitical unrest, numerous political assassinations, Cold War fears, and an extended conflict in Vietnam that showed the ever-increasing casualties daily on TV. Whereas some saw the film as dangerous, there were just as many who found its ending hopeful. Author Blatty saw the ending as a triumph of the forces of good via the priest’s loving sacrifice. Newsweek writer Kenneth L. Woodward, covering the film’s cultural phenomenon, argued that the film “seems to serve the psychic needs of its audience. At a time of moral confusion among the sophisticated, the film harks back to starkly fundamental questions of good and evil…it speaks to a basic moral need...” (1974, p. 66). Regardless, many film critics have understood the film as a product of its time, something that Woodward also noted when he described the film’s success as a fad that would ultimately dissipate.  

However, The Exorcist was certainly not the first film of that era to broach the demonic. Just few years earlier, Rosemary’s Baby (1968; dir. Roman Polanski) had provided a cinematic embodiment of conservative U.S. fears both of increased secularism among the general populace and the paradoxical interest in the occult among counter-culture groups. A year later the country would be shocked by the sensational Tate-LaBianca murders, and the subsequent extended trial of the Charles Manson and his “family” (a cult whose members perpetrated the murders). In tandem with this trial, the Vietnam conflict continued to rage on, and then U.S. domestic politics became embroiled in Richard Nixon’s Watergate Scandal. Even the flower-child optimism of the “hippy” movement received grievous damage at the 1969 Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont Speedway Free Festival when members of the Hells’ Angels biker gang assaulted concert goers, leading to the death of at least one person (this concert, and its tragic end, was chronicled in the fascinating documentary Gimmie Shelter [1970; dir. Albert Maysles et al.]). As such it indeed seemed that the U.S., and perhaps the world, was embroiled in an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of the Divine and the Demonic. Perhaps it is fitting then that two years after The Exorcist another Hollywood film, The Omen (1976; dir. Richard Donner) would take the former film’s struggle for the human soul and shift it to global proportions as it began a trilogy of films focused on the birth and rise of the Antichrist.  

The number of demon-focused films have ebbed and flowed since then. They may not always be popular, but they have never completely disappeared. Indeed, that brings us to the most recent entry, Demonic (2021; dir. Neill Blomkamp). Indeed, even before the 1960s there had been films about demons and devils, reaching as far back as early silent films like Georges Méliès’ The House of the Devil (1896) and D. W. Griffth’s The Sorrow of Satan (1922). Perhaps the genre’s longevity is because, as film scholar Paul Wells argues, “The prevailing archetype of the monster is the Devil...In many senses, the theological struggle between good and evil played out in the horror text…becomes a conceptual umbrella for struggles between law and order, the sacred and the profane, barbarism and civility, truth and lies (2000, p. 8).” The concept of a diabolical entity (or entities) is not unique to the Western, Judeo-Christian culture that Hollywood is embedded in. Indeed, these types of concepts exist cross-culturally, and thus tales that involve struggles against these hostile forces also exist, whether told around campfires, on paper, or on celluloid. 

Why do these stories persist? What psychological and social functions do they serve? Perhaps the concept of infernal forces being at the core of calamities provides us an ultimate explanation for why “bad things happen to good people,” especially when these things violate any sense of justice or fairness that we hold dear. Perhaps the diabolical seems the only remaining explanation that we can use to make sense of truly senseless acts of violence and cruelty to which humans subject each other; people behave monstrously because there must be a monster inside them. The Devil made them do it. Further, the stories that focus on the supernatural struggle between the forces of good and evil, whether at the individual or global level, provide audiences with a sense that if “Evil” exists, so must “Good.” It becomes a comforting affirmation that even when things look bleak and hopeless, there is a benevolent force out there fighting for us. Ideally that force wins the current struggle, but even if it doesn’t, there is always the chance that eventually the malevolent will be crushed and the righteous rewarded.    

It is probably all these explanations and more that provide stories of demonic entities cultural resilience; why the genre survives the individual exorcisms at the end of each film. Even if audience members personally do not hold beliefs that demonic (and by extension, celestial) forces literally exist, they can still take solace in the general idea that there is a cosmic balance that will ensure that everything evens out in the end. Even amid global crises, pandemics, wars, and rumors of wars, we can still hold on to that one key motivator that helps us persist in the face of adversity and to be the change we wish to see in our world. That motivator is hope, which can exorcise the demon despair, one that we all must fight at one time or another. Sometimes, despair seems all but inevitable in tumultuous times. Whatever balm you use to restore your hope, please apply it liberally. It will take all of us to make tomorrow better.

Additional Readings:

Baumeister, R. F. (2012). Human evil: The myth of pure evil and the true causes of violence. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.) The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil (pp. 367-380). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

King, S. (1981). Danse macabre. New York, NY: Berkley.

Lifshin, U., Greenberg, J., Weise, D., & Soenke, M. (2016). It's the end of the world and I feel fine: Soul belief and perceptions of end-of-the-world scenarios. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 104-177.

Mitchell, C. P. (2001). A guide to apocalyptic cinema. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Morris, N., & Johnson, M. P. (2002). Apocalyptic thinking, autonomy, and sociotropy. Psychological Reports, 90, 1069-1074.

Pippin, T. (1999). Apocalyptic bodies: The biblical end of the world in text and image. London, UK: Routledge.

Rockett, W. H. (1988). Devouring whirlwind: Terror and transcendence in the cinema of cruelty. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Routledge, C., Abeyta, A. A., & Roylance, C. (2016). Death and end times: the effects of religious fundamentalism and mortality salience on apocalyptic beliefs. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1-10.

Wells, P. (2000). The horror genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London, UK: Wallflower.

Woodward, K. L. (1974). The exorcism frenzy. Newsweek, February 11, 1974, 60-66.

Superman flying

SUPERMAN AND MORAL INSPIRATION: UP, UP, AND AWAY!

I love Superman. I have loved him since I was 12. One of my fondest Christmas Eve memories is getting Superman #75 (November 18th, 1992), the much anticipated “Death of Superman” issue, in all its black polybagged glory. I’m not sure what my parents paid for it, given they probably either had to stand in line to get it when it came out or deal with speculator-inflated prices afterward (I recall seeing copies of it in my local comic shop going for $30-50 in the weeks that followed – at least 10x its $2.99 cover price). I waffled for a few agonizing minutes on whether to ‘break the seal’ on the polybag. I’d heard the rumors that it would degrade the value, but I had to know how this icon of U.S. culture would meet his momentous “end.” He was the first man I ever saw fly, thanks to Richard Donner and Christopher Reeves. He made me believe that it was cool to be altruistic and stand firm in my convictions, even if such convictions were unpopular and belittled in the peer-pressure infused, identity-crisis minefield of adolescence. Just like Huey Lewis, Superman made me feel that it was “hip to be square.” Finally, my parents convinced me to open the bag. Immediately, I was struck by the cover of this special edition – it was designed like a headstone. I knew what was going to happen from the first page, yet I still found myself dreading the conclusion. For the next few months, I regularly went to the comic store to follow the unfolding “World Without a Superman” arc that is one of the best depictions of mourning that I’ve seen in comics – or any media for that matter. I eagerly awaited his triumphant return during “Reign of the Supermen”…no matter how many issues it took.

Why did I care so much about a fictitious character and the universe he inhabited? I was not the only one. Superman #75 is one of the best-selling comics of all time. Interestingly, there were many in the popular press who were more upset about the apparent “death” of this hero than those comic readers who had been reading Superman comics regularly. Several interviewers approached DC’s then-Superman editor Mike Carlin with hostility – “How dare you kill Superman?!” Why such a strong reaction? 

Superman has a long history of influence in U. S. popular culture. Superman is one of only three superhero characters to have been in print continuously since their creation in the Golden Age (1938-1954) of comics; the other two are Wonder Woman and Batman. Indeed, most comics scholars argue that the Golden Age started with Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. Further, Superman has long been represented in media beyond comics, such as newspaper strips, radio, and film/TV serials. In fact, some historians have argued that his radio serial is responsible for alerting the public to the dangerous second coming of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1940s (see the wonderful YA comic adaptation by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Gurihiru). Finally, although the Superman (1978) film may not have been the first film based on comic book material, it was the first mainstream superhero film that gained both popular and critical acclaim, making the rest of Hollywood take notice that superhero narratives could be well-received by audiences and fall within their willing suspension of disbelief. Indeed, as the advertising campaign proclaimed, “You’ll believe a man can fly!” 

This point is important: Superman – whether on film, radio, or in print – does more than just make people *believe* that someone could fly. He inspires people to be their best selves, something that all good heroes do in both fiction and real life. The attraction of his stories is less about wish fulfillment to be faster than a speeding bullet or stronger than a locomotive; it is more about standing up for the vulnerable, protecting the innocent, and making this world a just and inclusive place. Stories about heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, remind us that there is moral beauty in life. This beauty is made more poignant because they are humanized. They may have powers that go beyond what we can achieve literally, but they struggle with the same psychological and moral issues we all do. Their characterization makes them relatable to the rest of us in the real world, which is a key reason why their stories matter to us (see here and here for detailed psychological analyses of Superman). It wasn’t just Superman’s ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or turn back time by flying backwards around the Earth’s orbit that spoke to fans. It was his interpersonal connection to others, his compassion and his honest desire to make the world a better place that made him more than just an adopted refugee from Krypton – it made him a champion for the people and, above all, made him human. 

Additional Readings:

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2016). Hero worship: The elevation of the human spirit. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 46(2), 187-210.

Bowers, R. (2012). Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: The true story of how the iconic superhero battled the men of hate. National Geographic.

Fingeroth, D. (2004). Superman on the couch: What superheroes really tell us about ourselves and our society. Bloomsbury.

Fingeroth, D. (2007). Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, comics, and the creation of the superhero. Continuum.

Kinsella, E. L., Igou, E. R., & Ritchie, T. D. (2019). Heroism and the pursuit of a meaningful life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 59(4), 474-498.

Kinsella, E. L., Ritchie, T. D., & Igou, E. R. (2015). Lay perspectives on the social and psychological functions of heroes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 130. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00130 

Pohling, R., & Diessner, R. (2016). Moral elevation and moral beauty: A review of the empirical literature. Review of General Psychology, 20(4), 412-425.

Rosenberg, R. S. (Ed.). (2013). Our superheroes, ourselves. Oxford University Press.

ActionUSA_1

Exploiting Explosions, Excitement, and Nostalgia

A beautiful Texas day; a stereotypically beautiful couple out for a drive…in a muscle car, with vanity plates and an improbably large carburetor intake adorning the hood. The driver, who goes by the name of Billy Ray, alternates between kissing his girlfriend Carmen, taking sips from his road beer, and driving recklessly. Soon they arrive home and begin undressing; Carmen reminds him that he will not need the firearm tucked in his waistband (fortunately ̶ or unfortunately ̶ they avoid making all the obvious puns that likely pass through the audience’s minds). Their shenanigans are interrupted by a couple of heavies busting in and kidnapping Billy Ray at gunpoint. A hybrid helicopter/car chase ensues, complete with the car jumping a school bus (no, not a shark). It is about 20 minutes into the film when we finally get substantive plot. This is Action U.S.A.!

This film captures the pure spirit of 1980s direct-to-VHS action films, probably direct-to-VHS genre films in general. The plot and characterization take a back-seat to spectacle – over-the-top, excessive, ridiculous spectacle. In a word: exploitation. On the surface, this description sounds like an insult, but I argue that it is anything but. There has always been a place for spectacle in U.S. cinema, even in the most revered films (Ben Hur’s chariot race, anyone? Don’t even get me started on DeMille’s Biblical epics.). Whereas “Classical Hollywood” gave preference to plot over spectacle (without getting rid of it entirely), films on the margins of Hollywood threw caution to the wind and kept audiences begging for more. You want sex, violence, sordid drama, anything that would pique viewers’ curiosity and give them an emotional jolt? Step right up! The road shows, the drive-ins, the urban grindhouses, and later the ‘mom & pop’ independent video stores had you covered. 

It is true that most of these films are not for everyone; indeed, some people enjoy receiving more emotional jolts (in terms of frequency and intensity) than others. Psychologists call this sensation-seeking, and several studies have demonstrated that an individual’s desire to seek new, intense sensations can predict their entertainment choices. That said, we all need a small jolt from time to time. This is probably one reason why many films have at least some spectacle in them, something that makes us laugh, scream, or gasp. Especially during times of uncertainty, we all need a little distraction from the real world. As famous actor and director Ron Howard said, “The way Disney movies, you know, bring out the child in all of us…so can exploitation” (Stapleton et al., 2011). Such is the power of spectacle. 

But Action U.S.A. might do more than just dazzle us with spectacle and momentarily distract us from the real chaos of 2020. For those of us who fondly recall the VHS days, Action U.S.A. provides a us with a 1.21-gigawatt dose of nostalgia. It transports us back to our younger years, wandering through the labyrinth of movies crammed into our local video store surrounded by a deluge of ridiculous covers and eye-catching taglines (most of which were usually better than the films themselves). We would grab a couple of the tapes that promised the most amount of titillation we could get away with renting (assuming the proprietors actually cared about age restrictions) and then binge them, surrounded by friends and junk food. We all need a little nostalgia from time to time, especially during times of uncertainty and fear. 

Whether you are a fan of action films or not, if you have a nostalgic soft spot for the VHS era you should give this film a watch. If that whets your appetite and you want more high-octane infusions of nostalgia, I also recommend the short film Kung Fury. We all do what we must to get through the pandemic; if these types of films are your audio/visual comfort food, embrace them and revel in the spectacle. Stay healthy, stay safe, wear your mask, and wash your hands! 

Additional Readings:

Conway, J. C., & Rubin, A. M. (1991). Psychological predictors of television viewing motivation. Communication Research, 18(4), 443-463.

Greene, K., & Krcmar, M. (2005). Predicting exposure to and liking of media violence: A uses and gratifications approach. Communication Studies, 56(1), 71-93.

Goldstein, J. H. (ed.). (1998). Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Hill, K. (2012). Action movie freak. Krause Publications. http://actionflickchick.com/superaction/ 

Hodge, T. (2015). VHS video cover art. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing.

Johnson, J. (director), & Mitchell, C. (producer). (2013). Rewind this! Orland Park, IL: IPF Productions. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2395970/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0 

Juhl, J., Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2010). Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat. Journal of Research in Personality, 44(3), 309-314.

Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2008). A blast from the past: The terror management function of nostalgia. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(1), 132-140.

Schierman, M. J., & Rowland, G. L. (1985). Sensation-seeking and selection of entertainment. Personality and Individual Differences, 6(5), 599-603.

Stapleton, A. (director/producer), Frey, J., Frank, I., Barold, M., & Douglass, S. (producers). (2011). Corman’s world: Exploits of a Hollywood rebel. KOTB, LLC. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1185371/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0 

Rocky 1.jpg

“Let’s Do the Time Warp Again!”…and Again…and Again.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show often is considered the archetypal ‘cult film’ (or ‘midnight movie’). But what does that mean? Merriam-Webster provides several definitions of ‘cult,’ including “faddish devotion; also a group of persons showing such devotion.”

Scholars freely admit that the quest to provide an agreed-upon, simple definition for ‘cult film’ is about as easy as marching on the Black Gate of Mordor. However, a common theme is that one does not simply set out to make a ‘cult film’ – rather, an audience crowns the film with its cult status. The audience of devotees keep resurrecting the film long after it has finished its primary run. But the fans don’t just watch the film on their own; they want to celebrate their devotion with other likeminded people – people who ‘get it.’ Perhaps Stuart Samuels (1983) put it best when describing showings of these films as “a special event. It’s a show. It’s a party.” (p. 1)

In the case of Rocky Horror, it’s not just the pelvic thrusts that drive the fans insane. So what is it? Why do those of us who love it await the next public showing with so much antici--…--pation?

There are many reasons. For some it’s the homages to old, campy horror and sci-fi double-features. For others it’s the opportunity to dress up and celebrate thumbing our noses at rigid, ‘traditional’ sexual and gender norms. Others enjoy the collaborative experience of engaging in callouts with various alternative scripts. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

One thing I want to highlight is the sing-a-long aspect. Recent scientific research suggests that singing together not only makes us feel good, it can also make us feel bonded socially. It further solidifies a feeling of ‘us’ – we feel we are with people who understand and value us. In short, we belong. Ultimately, that’s what everyone wants. So, whether you are RHPS Virgin, Veteran, or Regular, join us for the ritual.

Additional Readings:

Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books (any of them)

Gabriel, S., Naidu, E., Paravati, E., Morrison, C. D., & Gainey, K. (2020). Creating the sacred from the profane: Collective effervescence and everyday activities. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(1), 129-154.

Hoberman, J., & Rosenbaum., J. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Harper.

Jancovich, M., Lázaro Reboll, A., Stringer, J., & Willis, A. (Eds.). (2003). Defining cult movies: The cultural politics of oppositional taste. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Keeler, J. R., Roth, E. A., Neuser, B. L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D. J. M., & Vianney, J. M. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: Bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 518. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00518

Kreutz, G. (2014). Does singing facilitate social bonding. Music & Medicine, 6(2), 51-60.

Mathijs, E., & Sexton, J. (2011). Cult cinema: An introduction. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Pearce, E., Launay, J., van Duijn, M., Rotkirch, A., David-Barrett, T., & Dunbar, R. I. (2016). Singing together or apart: The effect of competitive and cooperative singing on social bonding within and between sub-groups of a university Fraternity. Psychology of Music, 44(6), 1255-1273.

Samuels, S. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Collier Books.

Welch, G. F., Himonides, E., Saunders, J., Papageorgi, I., & Sarazin, M. (2014). Singing and social inclusion. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 803. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00803

ColorOutOfSpace_1

The Esoteric Order of Lovecraft (and other strange curiosities)

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” H. P. Lovecraft (1927)

H. P. Lovecraft opens his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, with this thesis. It is the core of his approach to horror, what attracts some audience members and repels others. Lovecraft’s ultimate goal was to evoke a sense of overwhelming dread in his readers, an atmosphere of cosmic unease that what awaits humans in the deep, dark, unexplored places of the world (or beyond the reaches of outer space) cares little about us – and that is if we are lucky! More than likely, these Cyclopean horrors actively seek our demise because we make tasty snacks. In Lovecraft’s world, a glimpse of this knowledge, and the creatures that embody it, typically drives his protagonists insane. Only the fortunate characters are dispatched quickly; those that remain complete their remaining days in an asylum in Arkham, Massachusetts (a fictitious town created by Lovecraft).*

Lovecraft perhaps is one of the three U.S. horror writers that has had their works most frequently adapted into films (the others being Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King). That said, most people don’t recognize the name of Lovecraft or that they may be watching an adaptation of his work. There could be many reasons for this, but there are two that can be directly tied to human psychological processes. First, humans have a natural preference for patterns and predictability. These things help us make sense of the chaotic aspects of our environment that we have no control over. These preferences likely extend to the media we consume, which is why art that purposefully violates these preferences are jarring, labeled “experimental,” “abstract,” or “fringe,” often shunned by the mainstream and appealing only to niche audiences.

In the context of horror, the supernatural creatures that seem to be the most successful (i.e., popular and memorable) are the ones that have minimally-counterintuitive characteristics: They generally fit our categorical expectations but have just a few traits that violate these expectations to catch our attention and make them scary. For example, living humans must consume energy (i.e., food) to survive; vampires are humans who are undead and consume the blood of living humans to survive (similar creatures can be found cross-culturally; although they may not drink blood, they typically consume life-essence in some form). Supernatural creatures that possess too many atypical traits are often hard for individuals to visualize and ultimately remember. For Lovecraft, many of his creatures come from the far reaches of space or other dimensions, often defying full description. The descriptions Lovecraft’s narrators do provide thus only give the reader an approximation of what these creatures specifically look like; after that, the narrators die or are driven insane. Interestingly, the Lovecraftian creature that is most popular is one of the easiest to depict – the dreaded Cthulu, best described as a sea-monster with a humanoid body, wings, and an octopus head. I’m not going to even try to describe the non-Euclidian aspects of the Shoggoths, Yog-Sothoth, or Hastur the Unspeakable. Just the mere thought of attempting it makes my head foggy and the boarders of reality precariously thin…

The second aspect of Lovecraft’s writings that makes them an acquired taste is their focus on violating the general human need for meaning. Lovecraft often provided his general philosophy in letters to friends and fellow writers: human existence, with both its joy and suffering, has little meaning in the broader picture of the cosmos. Indeed, Lovecraft argued that the “cosmos is a mindless vortex; a seething ocean of blind forces, in which the greatest joy is unconsciousness and the greatest pain realization.” (1921/1965, p. 156). Given the general human desire for meaning, Lovecraft’s perspective understandably does not resonate with many people. Most horror narratives provide closure by having the monster/antagonist, the embodied threat to cultural values and meaning, defeated and thus the status quo is re-established, sometimes even strengthened. Lovecraft’s narratives typically refuse readers this comfort and thus make reading them much less enjoyable for those who desire such ideological and existential safety.

That said, people do differ in their ability to tolerate ambiguity and a lack of closure. Indeed, some may actively seek narratives that provoke these types of psychological threats if for no other reason than they enjoy the cognitive challenge. Maybe they appreciate the transgressive nature of art that willfully violates generic expectations and cultural norms more broadly. Whatever the reason, Lovecraft’s works have engendered a devoted fanbase who revel in the esoteric nature of his mythos. Lovecraft encouraged several fledgling horror and sci-fi writers, most of whom were his regular correspondence partners, to use mythos characters in their own stories, which helped carry on Lovecraft’s legacy long after his death in 1937. Today, it is common to see merchandise at horror, sci-fi, and comic conventions with the terrifying visage of Cthulu, and even cute and cuddly stuffed animal versions of this Great Old One. Every election cycle there is a new t-shirt or bumper sticker that proudly proclaims “Vote Cthulu – why choose the lesser of the evils?” There is an official Lovecraft appreciation society that creates a variety of media products, both adaptations and homages. There are table-top role-playing games and video games set in Lovecraft’s universe (“The Call of Cthulu” franchise). Many heavy metal bands have made songs referencing Lovecraft’s works, the most notable being Metallica (“Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be”). Finally, anyone who has watched a film in The Evil Dead series or the show Ash vs. The Evil Dead have been exposed to one of Lovecraft’s most iconic mythos elements – the Necronomicon.

The Necronomicon, as Lovecraft envisioned it, is a fictious book that contains forbidden information about his pantheon of other-worldly horrors and the means for summoning them. However, the notes he made about it in his works were so compelling to his readers that many wondered if it were real (he had some fun with this when answering fan correspondence). Eventually, various fans created versions of the Necronomicon (perhaps an early form of fanfic?). The most noted copy was published in 1977 and could be purchased in fine book retailers everywhere. I got my copy on Amazon (seriously).** Despite the dire warning in the book’s introduction, reading it did not shatter my sanity. No really, trust me! I’ve just checked with the Byakhee sitting next to me; it assures me that I am still quite in control of my faculties and that the weather in R’lyeh is wonderful this time of year. In fact, I’m going to take my next sabbatical there. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go back to reading my ancient, musty codex by candlelight.      

Ia! Ia! Lovecraft fhtagn!

* If this sounds suspiciously like another asylum in Gotham City, that is not a coincidence. Learn more here.

**Neither The Normal Theater nor any of its affiliates endorse reading the Necronomicon or any other esoteric tomes one may find buried in ancient ruins, dark caves, or abandoned cabins in the woods. We do not accept any legal responsibility for any physical, psychological, spiritual, or property damage that may occur from the recitation of any passages therein.
Sincerely, Management


Additional Readings:

Hood, B. M. (2009). Supersense: Why we believe in the unbelievable. San Francisco, CA: HaperOne.

Joshi, S. T. (1980). H.P. Lovecraft: Four decades of criticism. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

King, S. (1981). Danse macabre. New York, NY: Berkley Books.

Lovecraft, H. P. (1921/1965). Letter to the Gallomo (to Galpin, Lovecraft, Moe), October 6, 1921. In A. Derleth & D. Wandrel (Eds.), H. P. Lovecraft Selected Letters, I, (pp. 155-156). Sauk City, WI: Arkham House.

Lovecraft, H. P. (1927/2008). Supernatural horror in literature & other literary essays. Cabin John, MD: Wildside Press.

Norenzayan, A., Atran, S., Faulkner, J., & Schaller, M. (2006). Memory and mystery: the cultural selection of minimally counterintuitive narratives. Cognitive Science, 30(3), 531–553.

Proulx, T., & Heine, S. J. (2006). Death and black diamonds: Meaning, mortality, and the meaning maintenance model. Psychological Inquiry, 17(4), 309-318.

Proulx, T., Heine, S. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2010). When is the unfamiliar the uncanny? Meaning affirmation after exposure to absurdist literature, humor, and art. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(6), 817-829.

Webster, D. M., & Kruglanski, A. W. (1994). Individual differences in need for cognitive closure. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 67(6), 1049-1062.

Wesselmann, E. D. & Nairne, J. S. (2017). Natural supernaturalism: Why believe in magic and monsters? In T. Langley & L. S. Zubernis (Eds.), Supernatural psychology: Roads less traveled (pp. 289-305). New York, NY: Sterling.


ReeferMadness_1

Morbid Curiosity, Misinformation, and Cultural Hindsight

“This could happen in your town, to your children!” This dire warning was a key message presented in the advertising material for drug films like Reefer Madness (1936), as well as other films focused on “social hygiene” (i.e., teenage pregnancy and venereal disease) that were popular during the 1930s-1950s. These films dealt with topics considered taboo by mainstream filmmakers, who were beholden to the Production Code that dominated any film coming out of Hollywood. Thus, these films were the only way someone could see information on these relevant social issues taken straight from “today’s headlines.” The last thing anyone wanted to be was a “delinquent parent,” whose teenage child became involved with bad company and brought shame upon their family. The only reason why anyone would want to see these types of films were as preventative measures, right? The fact that these films usually involved at least an hour’s worth of salacious images, focused on people reveling in sin and vice, surely had nothing to do with high ticket sales. Right???

Films like Reefer Madness are often categorized as exploitation films, loosely defined as low-budget films that ran outside of mainstream Hollywood cinema and focused on sensational content (usually at the expense of coherent narrative structure and believable storylines). Many of these films walked a precarious line between giving audiences a glimpse at cultural taboos and violating local obscenity laws. One way that exploitation filmmakers avoided prosecution was by wrapping their sinful narratives up in a surface-level morality play. A heaping amount of celluloid sin was fine as long as the sinners were ultimately punished, and cultural mores reinforced. The presumed ‘moral’ and ‘educational’ nature of these films likely provided individual viewers a way to explain away any potential emotional discomfort or guilt they may experience because of a desire to watch content that would otherwise clash with their general moral values (what psychologists have often called cognitive dissonance). “It’s not that I want to see these sinful details; I need to see them to stay informed and be a responsible parent and citizen. I need to see the full wages of their sins be collected.” This civic-minded motive is certainly possible, but it is just as likely that viewers who claim this may be protesting a bit much.

The idea that people often have a weird attraction to the culturally forbidden is nothing new; one need look no further than common cultural myths. For example, Pandora opened the box; Adam and Eve ate the fruit; Orpheus looked back at Eurydice. Colloquially, people describe something they cannot look away from as a “train wreck” – a strong compulsion to stare at something they probably shouldn’t. What might be the psychological dynamics that underly this compulsion, this morbid curiosity? Perhaps people chafe at society’s attempts to reign in their personal agency, much as the stereotypical moody teenager shouts back to their parents “You can’t tell me what to do!” Psychologists have called the general form of this rebellious tendency reactance – something most of us exhibit to some level. Maybe it’s because when people try to avoid something they believe they shouldn’t see, know, or think, their very efforts to suppress this desire makes it come back with a vengeance (psychologists have studied the counter-productive effects of thought suppression, both as a general cognitive phenomenon and as an acute problem in various types of mental illness). Of course, it could simply be that when people perceive a threat, they often become hypervigilant to information about that threat in order to avoid (or at least minimize) potential harm. Most advertisements for drug and social hygiene films certainly highlighted the potential threats posed to one’s community by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll (or jazz, in the case of Reefer Madness). 

In hindsight, it’s laughable that anyone could watch Reefer Madness (1936) and take their scare tactics seriously, unless of course they had little knowledge of the actual physiological effects of marijuana. This may have been the case in the 1930s and 40s when the film enjoyed its first run, but what about when it was re-discovered and enjoyed success in the 1970s? By then, cultural knowledge of marijuana contradicted the ludicrous depictions in the film. As such, the film was enjoyable more for ironic entertainment than because it satisfied the audience’s morbid curiosity. Film historians of cult films and ‘midnight movies’ have noted that Reefer Madness was popular in the 1970s mostly on college campuses, and it was common for audience members to enjoy marijuana before (or even during) the film showing! The psychological dynamics of ‘midnight movies’ and ironic viewing are fascinating as well, but I’ll save that discussion for another time…

Additional Readings:

Ayal, S., & Gino, F. (2012). Honest rationales for dishonest behavior. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil (pp. 149-166). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Havis, A. (2008). Cult films: Taboo and transgression. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Hoberman, J., & Rosenbaum, J. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Litman, J. A. (2005). Curiosity and the pleasures of learning: Wanting and liking new information. Cognition & Emotion, 19, 793-814.

Meyers, R. (2011). For one week only: The world of exploitation films. Guilford, CT: Emery Books.

Samuels, S. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Collier Books.

Schaefer, E. (1999). “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A history of exploitation films, 1919-1959. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Steindl, C., Jonas, E., Sittenthaler, S., Traut-Mattausch, E., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Understanding psychological reactance. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 223, 205-214. https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000222 

Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.


TheCrow_1

“Dreaming the Crow-Black Dream”*

“Victims, aren’t we all?”

Eric Draven, the main character of The Crow, delivers this line before exacting vengeance on one of the villains responsible for the violent death of him and his fiancé, Shelly. This line doesn’t just punctuate an intense cinematic moment, it cuts through the audience like an existential dagger.

I was 14 when I first saw The Crow, and it quickly became one of my favorite films. Over the next couple years, I became so enamored with the film that my room was soon covered with posters bearing the artwork and film images. I dressed up as Eric Draven three Halloweens in a row. I read the graphic novel source material multiple times a year. I worked with friends on various Crow-themed artistic endeavors, and bought an obscene amount of related merchandise. My first college paper and first speech were on The Crow’s transmedia franchise (I cosplayed Eric Draven in the speech). Later in life, I even commissioned a sketch of myself as the character from none other than the original artist James O’Barr!

There are many reasons why this film (and the other Crow films, comics, and novels) resonated with me and has made such an impact on my life. It wasn’t just because most of my wardrobe made it easy to cosplay the main character! Perhaps part of it was the idea that our emotional connections to loved ones can transcend this mortal coil – an extremely comforting thought when someone is struggling with grief, as I had through much of my young adult life. Perhaps it was my burgeoning interest in post-punk and gothic rock bands, such as Joy Division and The Cure – both of which provided aesthetic inspiration for the comic and the film. The correct answer is all of that and probably more.

I’m not the only one who became ensnared by the narrative universe of The Crow. The film has an international cult-following that goes strong to this day. I still see at least two or three Crow cos-players at every convention I attend. The initial film and comic created a franchise that involves three film sequels, multiple comic arcs, a TV show, a Crow-themed band called Trust Obey (that O’Barr contributed to), and has inspired fans worldwide to express their love for these works of art in various creative ways (one of my favorite examples is by The 69 Eyes, a gothic-rock band from Finland who recorded a song called “Brandon Lee”).

What is it about The Crow that speaks to so many people who have wildly different life experiences? Researchers suggest that successful fiction engages audiences emotionally, and having some aspect of the characters that audiences can identify with intensifies this effect. One need not have experienced the specific trauma faced by the characters to identify with them. In general, people can engage in perspective-taking and empathize with others – even fictional characters. Any perceived similarity between oneself and the character can intensify this experience. Most of us know what it’s like to lose someone we love, or to have some other traumatic event cut us to the quick and shatter our concept of normality. We feel viscerally the aching emptiness, the crushing despair, the existential terror of being in a situation that makes no sense. We rage at the unfairness of a seemingly uncaring world and we shiver at the icy, numbing solitude we feel, even when we are in a crowd. In other words, we don’t need to have direct experience with Eric’s specific circumstances to have at least a small understanding of the gravity of his pain.

One thing that viewers may resonate with is Eric’s sense of moral outrage at the cosmic injustice of his tragedy (this theme shows up continuously in the comic). When innocent people suffer tragedy, it violates the general concept of a ‘just world’: that people reap what they sew, the good are rewarded and the bad punished, etc. The idea of a just world can be existentially comforting and can provide a sense of meaning in a world that often seems capricious and even dangerous. However, when one is directly confronted with tragedy, the belief that there is a cosmic balance is shaken or even destroyed.  People have a fundamental need for meaning and when that need is thwarted, it needs to be restored somehow. There are various ways that people can do that, and many times it is by making some type of spiritual or supernatural explanation. In the context of The Crow universe, innocent victims experience a horrible tragedy (“something so bad happens…”) and are then provided a supernatural avenue to come back from the grave and “set the wrong things right” – in these narratives that typically involves revenge (although the late-90s TV series provides an alternative perspective).  

The actions and traits of main characters (sometimes called heroes or protagonists) can influence the degree to which we identify with and enjoy the narratives. However, many protagonists can behave in ways that we do not agree with and would condemn if the characters were real people. Eric Draven, as well as other protagonists in Crow-related stories, respond to their tragedy by seeking violent revenge on those responsible. Research suggests that when audiences enjoy narratives that involve morally ambiguous protagonists (“anti-heroes”), audiences are not enjoying the character’s morally questionable actions per se, but rather resonating with the character’s emotions and motivations that they find understandable. It is likely that audiences vicariously experience the character’s moral outrage and the revenge narrative re-establishes audiences’ sense of justice and cosmic meaning; like enjoying most anti-hero narratives, the fact that it occurs within a fictional environment makes it acceptable for us to enjoy the narrative even if we might otherwise condemn the actions if they occurred in reality.

Of course, not every Crow fan has experienced intense personal tragedy – there may be something else in the narrative they resonate with. Further, simply experiencing such a tragedy does not mean one will enjoy The Crow. Perhaps someone doesn’t like the moral ambiguity of Eric Draven’s actions, no matter how heinous the actions of the villains. Not everyone enjoys revenge narratives; for them, the fact that it is fiction does not provide sufficient license from them to enjoy the narrative. That’s perfectly fine. Those individuals likely will find their own narratives to give voice to their pain and make sense of their trauma. That’s what many Crow fans like myself have done with these stories; in them, we find some glimmer of light that helps illuminate the darkness of our traumas and we feel a little less alone. Maybe we even find a way to re-forge a bit of meaning from our shattered worldviews.

What many Crow fans ultimately focus on in this narrative is not the trauma of the protagonists, but rather the idea that one’s emotional connections to their loved ones endure beyond grief. Death does not erase our feelings for and memories of the loved ones who are no longer with us. Indeed, it is these feelings and memories that can help us weather the storm and emerge from the trauma, scarred but strengthened. James O’Barr states in his introduction to the 2010 special edition of The Crow graphic novel that his book ultimately “is a celebration of true love.” Indeed, the film ends with a voice-over of the little girl Sara asserting as similar point - that it is our continued love for the people no longer with us that keeps their memory alive.

*lyrics lovingly borrowed from “Burn” by The Cure


Additional Readings:

Baumeister, R. F., & Wilson, B. (1996). Life stories and the four need for meaning. Psychological Inquiry, 7(4), 322-325.

Hafer, C. L. (2000). Do innocent victims threaten the belief in a just world? Evidence from a modified Stroop task. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 79(2), 165-173.

Mar, R. A., & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(3), 173-192.

Jackson, J., Huq, A. Z., Bradford, B., & Tyler, T. R. (2013). Monopolizing force? Police legitimacy and public attitudes toward the acceptability of violence. Psychology, Public Policy, & Law, 19(4), 479-497.

Janicke, S. H., & Raney, A., A. (2015). Exploring the role of identification and moral disengagement in the enjoyment of an antihero television series. Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research, 40(4), 485-495.

Krakowiak, K. M., & Tsay, M. (2011). The role of moral disengagement in the enjoyment of real and fictional characters. International Journal of Arts & Technology, 4(1), 90-101.

Lerner, M. J. (1980). The Belief in a Just World. Boston, MA: Springer.

Shafer, D. M., & Raney, A. A. (2012). Exploring how we enjoy antihero narratives. Journal of Communication, 62(6), 1028-1046.

Spivey, M., & Knowlton, S. (2008). Anti-heroism in the continuum of good and evil. In R. S. Rosenberg (Ed.), The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration (pp. 51-63). Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc.

Vess, M., Routledge, C., Landau, M. J., & Arndt, J. (2009). The dynamics of death and meaning: The effects of death-relevant cognitions and personal need for structure on perceptions of meaning in life. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 97(4), 728-744.

Grease_1

GREASE is Still the Word

When I hear a song from Grease, I’m immediately transported back to high school. I remember parties on those warm summer nights in which the film was playing in the background. I recall school dances, singing along with my peers to songs about cruising around in the ‘ultramatic’ Greased Lightin’ and how we were born to do the hand jive. I get a warm, wistful feeling and conveniently forget the agonizing social awkwardness of those events: Will Sally say yes if I ask her to the dance? What if she dances with Johnny instead of me during [insert cheesy pop love song title]? For the blissful two minutes and 49 seconds of “You’re The One That I Want” I remember a time when I had fewer cares…and enough hair to run a switchblade comb through.

In short, I’m feeling nostalgic. Nostalgia certainly is nothing new - poets, painters, and philosophers have been musing about it for generations. Only within the last two decades have social scientists begun to understand this complex emotional experience. But what exactly is this feeling? The New Oxford Dictionary defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” Being nostalgic is a common experience – one that people experience throughout their lives. Further, nostalgia appears to be a cross-cultural phenomenon. The specific triggers may differ between people and places, but the feelings are similar. Nostalgia is a mixed-bag: we feel warm and fuzzy as we think of our old relationships, but we also feel the pangs of longing and loss for what once was.

Why would we want to be in this emotional state? What does feeling nostalgic do for us? Research demonstrates that nostalgia provides for us a sense of belonging and self-consistency throughout time. It reaffirms our sense of meaning in our experiences – even when the nostalgic memories involve a negative event, we are reminded of how both the good and the bad in our lives have shaped who we are today. Nostalgia inspires us to strive for our goals, to be optimistic about the future, knowing that no matter what comes are way we are rooted in a solid sense of self. We can weather the storms and still be ourselves. We will always have our memories.

Grease is a perfect example of this. Yes, there are many high points for the characters, but there are also plenty of slings and arrows of teenage strife. Many of us likely experienced some of these low points as well during our own trek through adolescence. Perhaps this is part of what makes the characters relatable, whether we were a greaser, a theater/band kid, a student council rep, an athlete, or an avid athletics fan (not to be confused with an athletic supporter).

Like these characters, we all found ourselves on the cusp of adulthood, wondering what we would become. What will our transition to adulthood be like, and will our friendships hold firm or dissolve? When on the cusp of a major life transition, like graduating high school (or college), these intimidating questions are in our minds after we cross the stage, turn our tassels, and toss our mortar board hats in the air. The film’s final song “We Go Together” seems to be an answer to the characters’ (and our) questions about the future. The characters respond to their anxiety by re-affirming their commitment to each other: “We’ll always be like one…we’re for each other…We’ll always be together.” They then embark on adulthood with optimism and a song on their lips. Roll credits.

In many ways, Grease is the cinematic embodiment of nostalgia. Frankie Valli’s lyrics in the opening theme take on a new layer within the context of nostalgia research. For viewers, Grease represents a time and a place; for them it’s got meaning and it’s the way they are feeling. Put another way, nostalgia “is the word.”

Additional Readings:

Barrett, F. S., Grimm, K. J., Robins, R. W., Wildschut, T., Sedikieds, C., & Janata, P. (2010). Music-evoked nostalgia: Affect, memory, and personality. Emotion, 10(3), 390-403.

Cavanagh, S. R., Glode, R. J., & Opitz, P. C. (2015). Lost or fond? Effects of nostalgia on sad mood recovery vary by attachment insecurity. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 773. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00773

Hepper, E. G., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Ritchie, T. D., Yung, Y., Hansen, N.,…Zhou, X. (2014). Pancultural nostalgia: Prototypical conceptions across cultures. Emotion, 14(4), 733-747

Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2018). Finding meaning in nostalgia. Review of General Psychology, 22(1), 48-61.

Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2008). Nostalgia: Past, present, and future. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(5), 304-307

Seehusen, J., Cordaro, F., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Routledge, C., Blackhart, G. C., Epstude, K., & Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2013). Individual differences in nostalgia proneness: The integrating role of the need to belong. Personality & Individual Differences, 55, 904-908.

Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 91 (5), 975-993.

______________________________________________________________________

Eric Wesselmann is a psychology professor. He is also a film buff and obtained a minor in Cinema Studies from ISU back in 2003. Since then he has maintained his film passions by regularly attending pop culture conventions (e.g., Horror Hound Weekend, Wizard World), spending way too much money on merch and autographs. He is a member of the WGLT Psych Geeks podcast, which comments on the interface between psychology and popular culture.