Thursday, November 01, 2007

Haunted Houses, Slasher Flicks and Gentrification...

I got an e-mail late last night pointing me to this article: "Haunted House Films Are Really About the Nightmares of Gentrification", with the question "What do you think?" It's an interesting article if you've got an interest in horror flicks and/or gentrification, but, I have to admit, I remain largely unconvinced. By which, I mean that I disagree with many of the things he's saying.

The basic premise is that haunted house films- a subgenre of horror- are really about gentrification. In particular, they're about people believing that their homes have been gained through violence, and will be taken back the same way, and that, since audiences are assumed to be white, and the victims of gentrification are generally communities of color, the monsters in these film are representative of racial minorities. Under this model, and according to the author, horror films serve as escapist entertainment that allows us to avoid the "truth" that we participate in the displacement of others, and that we are vulnerable to displacement, ourselves.

It's an interesting idea, and I can think of a few films where it's probably applicable, but that doesn't make it applicable to all horror. The problem is that Miller, the author, seems to want to take what is an interesting theory about some haunted house films, and shoehorn it onto horror in general, while ignoring the historic context of horror in film and literature.

Now, there are definitely films that I think you can legitimately argue draw inspiration from or can be tied into gentrification in some way. Generally, these types of films are the "rich folks sticking their noses where they don't belong" type. You take a group of rich or middle class people from "the city" and have them head out into the country, where they stumble upon some dangerous local color. It almost always involves having the city folk looking down on the locals as uneducated hicks... until the country folk turn out to be homocidal maniacs.

There's definitely some class issues at play in those kinds of stories, but it's sort of hard to know which way to take it. We're usually presented with a bunch of a spoiled, ignorant city folk who get their just deserts at the hands of insane, homicidal poor people. Think: The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre (neither of which, it should be noted, are haunted house movies). Of course, it's never quite that simple, either. While The Hills Have Eyes is certainly about a bunch of spoiled lazy city folk, it's also shows how thin the facade of civilization is- in the right circumstances, even a "normal" middle class family can become violent, brutal, and savage. And neither of them are haunted house films.

Even if we accept that some films involve themes dealing with gentrification, does it makes sense to claim that all films are about gentrification? Miller points out that a lot of modern haunted house films are about "fictional families [that] move into spaces from which others have been violently displaced" and then "suffer for that violence even if they themselves have done nothing wrong."

I'm willing to accept that a large number of haunted house movies rely on some variation on this theme, but I think that the conclusion Miller draws from this fact is questionable: "This thriving subgenre depends upon the audience believing, on some level, that what 'we' have was attained by violence, and the fear that it will be taken by violence."

My question here is... why? In what way does this subgenre depend on this fact? Many haunted house movies depend, not upon this idea that we believe what we have was gained through and will be lost through violence, but, rather, on the notion that evil acts can stain reality. They can be about the fear of losing things to violence- and, certainly, the fear is about loss (of life) to violence- but I'm not sure that it's the case that it's always about a fear of losing your home. It's often more about the fear of the unknown, or, another cliche that Miller seems to ignore: the fear of an evil that never dies.

Movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elmstreet are practically the gold standard for this cliche- no matter how hard you try, you just can't kill evil. The main antagonist of Halloween- Michael Myers- is shot repeatedly, stabbed, hit by cars, thrown out of windows, tossed down a well, blown up... and he just keeps coming back for more. One of the protagonists in the first film states it rather explicitely very early in the film- Myers is evil personified.

But, those are slasher films- what about haunted houses? Consider The Grudge, which Miller specifically points to. Miller asks "is it possible to imagine The Grudge in an economic structure where housing is guaranteed -- however problematically -- and where people have extremely limited freedom to choose their own housing?"

I argue, yes, in fact, it is. Nothing that happens in The Grudge relies on the people involved choosing the house. The Grudge is a film about the ways that evil acts leave a stain- a curse- on the things around them. The film could just as easily have taken place in some kind of forced housing situation. The haunting is about the evilness of murdering your family, and the stain that it leaves.

Miller's premise, however interesting, is significantly harmed by poor justification, and what appears to be a serious lack of understanding about some pretty important aspects of horror. Horror, in both film and literature, has a long history of beening very subversive. It's often used to criticize social norms and culture, and as a means of making people uncomfortable with things they take for granted- it's generally not used to make audiences feel good about bad things.

This problem becomes really evident starting at paragraph six, when he suggests "The biggest cliche in the modern haunted house film is that of the Indian Burial Ground. In Pet Semetary, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror, the source of the problem is that the real estate parcel in question has desecrated sacred ground."

First of all, three movies does not "the biggest cliche" make. Second, the most recent of those three movies was Pet Sematary, which was released almost twenty years ago. Hell, Amityville Horror was released in 1979, almost three decades ago. In other words, this "cliche" isn't nearly as ubiquitous as Miller suggests.

There are a lot of cliches in modern haunted house films, but "Indian burial ground" isn't really one of them. More common is the "ghost of a murderer/murder victim/suicide" (in other words: ghost of a person who causes or is the victim of a tragic death)trope from films like 13 Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill, The Grudge, The Others, Rose Red, Stir of Echoes... Hell, horror movies involving demons or the devil coming to torment or possess people are more common than the Indian burial ground.

And, ultimately, Miller's argument isn't just about haunted house films, either. After his comment about Indian burial grounds, he mentions the father of all zombie films, Night of the Living Dead: "That's one of the main ways the horror genre, on its surface so apolitical, connects to the United States' histories of genocide. How far a leap is it from the menacing ex-slaves in Birth of a Nation to the zombies in Night of the Living Dead?" and:

The spate of slow-moving zombie films that followed in the wake of "Night of the Living Dead" represent a capitalist nightmare of communist revolution: the brain-dead bloodthirsty working class, desiring nothing but our destruction, rises us up to besiege "us" in our comfortable homes, our malls, our military bases.

This is probably the most blatant example of Miller misreading/misunderstanding/misrepresenting a work of a horror. How far is the leap from menacing ex-slaves in Birth of a Nation to the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, Miller asks us, and I'm happy to answer: huge.

In Birth of a Nation, Gus is presented as a monster- an animal. He is murderous, and attempts to rape an innocent woman. When he is lynched, the audience is supposed to be glad, because he "got what was coming to him". Night of the Living Dead, on the other hand, is strongly critical of racism in America. The death of Ben in Night of the Living Dead is important- Ben, the only black character, is a strong, smart character who does his best to help save everyone in the house, and is able to survive the night until "help" arrives in the form of a posse of gun-toting white folks, who then shoot him. The audience is supposed to be shocked and outraged by Ben's death, and the casual racism of those who murder him without a second thought.

Further, Miller's interpretation of the zombie film as a genre is seriously flawed. I'd certainly agree that zombie films generally represent a "capitalist nightmare", but it's sure as hell not one "of communist revolution: the brain-dead bloodthirsty working class, desiring nothing but our destruction, rises us up to besiege "us" in our comfortable homes, our malls, our military bases."

The horror of the zombie film is that we are the zombies, not communists. The zombie film is critical of the mindlessness of capitalist consumption, of the herd mentality of people who buy into consumer culture and flock like herd animals to malls and subdivisions. The horror isn't about losing your possessions. Zombies don't care about your things, they want to make you just like them. The horror of a zombie is the horror of never-ending consumption- of a hunger that never ends, and can never be filled.

Middle class America are the zombies. It's never really been a very subtle metaphor.

Dawn of the Dead is a scathing criticism of American culture- from the casual racism of the police slaughtering immigrants during a raid on a tenement and the bloodlust/thrill of violence that leads to Roger getting bit, to the dangers of greed that unbridled capitalism perpetuates.

The characters in Dawn of the Dead think they've found a paradise when they come across a mall to make their home. They've got everything they ever wanted- nice clothes, jewelry, entertainment... everything that we're told makes for happiness. And yet, they eventually realize that these things don't make them happy- they're prisoners. And when a group of bikers break into the mall, it's in an effort to loot and plunder- another capitalist pursuit.

It's no coincidence that many zombie movies show how the greatest danger to us during a zombie uprising isn't the undead, but other living humans. Greed, anger, and distrust are frequently shown as being at least as dangerous as the zombies are.

Don't get me wrong, horror films are not perfect, and many of them do reinforce some pretty terrible social stereotypes. You don't have to look far to see, for example, a lot of really sexist stuff in horror movies, and the slasher flick, in particular, is notorious for exploiting puritanical notions of sex. Essentially, having it leads to destruction.

Ultimately, I just can't agree with Miller's argument. Even if we narrow the argument down to just haunted house movies (despite the fact that he goes off to argue that all kinds of slasher films, zombie films, etc are also about gentrification), there are simply too many cases where that argument doesn't makes sense- e.g. Dark Water, where a poor single woman moves into a cheap apartment in a rundown area is about gentrification? What about a haunted house film where the house is a former asylum? etc.

A better argument could be made that many haunted house films work well as illustrations of the class or race struggles that gentrification leads to. In other words, horror movies aren't necessarily about gentrification, but can be used to illustrate the problems with it. Instead, Miller came up with an interesting theory about a couple of movies, and attempted to shoehorn it onto an entire genre of films, and is forced to use examples that don't make sense.

And I really disagree with this bit:

These days, the two most popular plotlines in the dozens of scary movies that come out each year are: (1) A middle class family or group of teenagers wanders into the wilderness and the clutches of a depraved monstrous lumpenproletariate ("The Hills Have Eyes," "Wolf Creek," "The Descent," "Wrong Turn," "Cabin Fever," "Chainsaw Massacre," "Silent Hill"); or: 2) A similar configuration of victims menaced on their own luxurious turf by monsters who symbolize "our" paranoid fantasies of the violent, dispossessed working class, even if they do not actually come from it ("When A Stranger Calls," "Cry Wolf," "Cursed," "Scream," all the slasher films that do not fall under the first category).

I'll grant that there are some serious similarities between The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn, Wolf Creek, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and that there are some pretty obvious issues at play in the conflict there: middle-class educated people who are afraid of and terrorized by depraved, uneducated, poor people. I disagree with including films like Silent Hill or The Descent with those, though- the themes are radically different.

Silent Hill isn't about a class battle, it's about religious persecution. The evil, there, comes from a religious cult that burns an innocent child alive, and, in her pain, she makes a deal with the devil to get revenge. The Descent isn't about class warfare, either- the monsters in it aren't human, nor are they stand-ins for humans. The story is really about two women, and their reliationship to each other- it's about trust, family, love, and honesty, and how we deal with betrayal. The monsters are incidental, and are just a tool used to create conflict and force the women to undergo change.

The idea that all horror is necessarily about class conflict and monsters "who symbolize 'our' paranoid fantasies of the violent, dispossessed working class" just seems really forced and reductive, and, like I said, it seems to intentionally ignore the history of horror as a means of social criticism.

Still, I really liked the last paragraph:

The haunted house film makes assumptions that are worth questioning: Who are "we" as an audience? To whom do these films address themselves? Who haunts "our" homes? Whose homes do "we" haunt? But it also contains the seeds of a real dialogue concerning the human costs of the housing crisis, and our responsibility and our power to do something about it.

Obnoxious scare-quotes aside, those are all valid questions. You don't have to think that all horror is about gentrification to address them, either.

Extra reading:
Even when I think that Miller is on to something, I feel like he takes it the wrong direction. Consider his remarks about Native Americans with regards to The Shining. Miller says:

Guilt over the North American genocide persists, in spite of centuries of racist history that have clouded the general public's grasp on the extremity of violence perpetrated against the Native Americans -- the broken treaties, the Indian Removal Act, the smallpox blankets. With the death of the Western as a film genre and the success of the Civil Rights Movement in challenging the blatancy of racism in mainstream culture, the Indian-as-bloodthirsty-savage was transformed into the Indian-as-murderous-ghost.

This is interesting, to me, precisely because there's plenty of evidence that The Shining is a criticism of the way that White America ignores and overlooks the poor treatment of other races (particularly Native Americans), as this author suggests. The Shining isn't about "Indian-as-bloodthirsty-savage... transformed into the Indian-as-murderous-ghost" at all. There's no evidence that it's ghosts of Native Americans creating the problem- rather, it's the evil of our own actions coming back to haunt us. The ghosts in the hotel in The Shining are the spirits of white men, not Native Americans, and the victims in the story are all minorities- a black man, children, a woman- not Nicholson's character. Nicholson represents the evilness of the hotel, and the history of racism that it represents.


EG said...

I think your critiques are dead on--you kept anticipating everything I was about to say! The movie I can think of that best works as an attack on gentrification is Poltergeist. Despite being terrifying (because of a clown), even that doesn't really work because the spirits in question are, if I remember correctly, the spirits of white Christians. And anyway, nobody dies.

What's interesting to me is that gentrification is usually an urban process, but most of the class-conflict horror movies you cite and that I can think of are very much a rural-urban split. I can't think of a single movie that could be read as a comment on intra-urban gentrification.

Well, Wolfen, I guess. But that's not a haunted house movie. It is quite racist, however.

RMislander said...

I would say that the gangster film is more accurately a portrayal and critique of gentrification than anything else. Often the characters are inspired to take criminal path because of what they didn't have due to class structure of their environment. A look at Scorsese's filmography alone points that out. Mean Streets, the pseudo-gangster/nihilist Taxi Driver, Ray Liotta's intrigue of money and glitz that he cannot have with a normal living in Goodfellas, right down the line to The Departed, where Nicholson claims that you don't get anything for free in this world (like, say, the moneyed middle and upper classes). You gotta take it.

You see the young Godfather in Robert De Niro rise up from poverty to take what he otherwise cannot have, and you have him playing the opposing role in a Bronx tale, saying that an honest living, no matter how broken and impoverished it may be, is honest. Now we have American Gangster, where Harlem is the last stop and proving grounds for those disenfranchised from the rest of New York, and Frank Lucas rises to the top with no regard for the moneyed classes, where he even buys a multi-million dollar home. "They've been bleeding Harlem dry since the minute they got off the boat." He references gangsters here, but this easily can be applied to the moneyed classes. I could on and on with Scarface, Menace 2 Society, Boys n' the Hood, all variations on the gangster theme, but they all revolve around the displacement of lower classes based on classism and racism.

EG said...

I think that the gangster film works that way at least in part because organized crime has worked that way. Each immigrant wave has given rise to a new force in organized crime specifically because it brought with it ambitious, intelligent, ruthless young people who were allowed no access to mainstream, acceptable means of achievement. I think a decent argument could be made that organized crime, at least as portrayed in movies and film, is essentially capitalism without any brakes or checks. The question is--is that critique, given how glamorized that world is often made to seem?

RMislander said...

I don't think the argument needs to be made that organized crime is capitalism. People who would argue against that would point out that the illegal methods of gangsters in providing goods and services are not in line with capitalism.

Except for the glaring fact that capitalism is an amoral system. At it's purest supply meets demand, period. The methods used to supply a demand are not inherently built into concept of capitalism itself.

LG said...

Hi, I came across your blog via a mention on The Curvature. Lots of interesting material to read through in your archives.

I was wondering, though, about this sentence in this post:

In Birth of a Nation, Gus is presented as a monster- an animal. He is murderous, and attempts to rape an innocent woman.

Not sure about the "innocent" qualifier here for the woman. What is the point in tacking that on, instead of just saying "attempts to rape a woman"?

Roy said...

Thanks for the comment, LG.
You're absolutely right--there's no reason for the qualifier. It would be no more excusable if she weren't innocent. Thank you for pointing it out, because I hadn't even really noticed it.