SAMHAIN SPECIAL: Counterculture's Cinematic Corpses w/ Jon Towlson

October. The glorious time of year were my usual fixation on horror films, the paranormal, and supernatural dials up several notches. What's been interesting this time around has been my reevaluation of the world of horror through the lens of social commentary and rebel politics. About a month back I rewatched the great documentary, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, which lays out a detailed backstory of the evolution of the American horror film genre as it responded to and absorbed nearly a century of this countries unfathomably turbulence.

My favorite section of the history coincides with the explosion of the counterculture in the late 1960s when art, music, sex, spirituality, politics, rebellion and drugs where pushing social tensions to a fever pitch. Young people used all available modes of self-expression to challenge the status-quo, rejecting what had come before in dramatic fashion. This was the beginning of an era of filmmakers working outside of the Hollywood system and formulaic approach. Movies were being made by amateurs, students and outsiders in places like Pittsburg and Austin.

The freedom of their creative experimentation gave us some of the most groundbreaking movies ever seen. Having not lived it myself, it took me awhile to see how these movies connected to events and traumas that were fresh in the minds of the hippie generation. The rock n' roll, the drugs, Vietnam, Charles Manson, political corruption, anti-authoritarianism... it all found it's way into the films. You just had to wipe away the blood to get a good look at it.

For me, this reflection was provoked by the recent deaths of two of my childhood heroes – legends of horror filmmaking, George A. Romero and Tobe Hopper. Losing Romero this July was bad enough but the shock of Hopper's passing in August seemed too tragic to be real. Both of these following the loss of Wes Craven just two summers ago.

Filmmaker, Tobe Hooper - R.I.P

Horror has always been a vehicle for facing our own mortality, at the unforgivingness of a seemingly ambivalent universe. In horror, anyone can die at any moment. It certainly gets one thinking about what it is we are doing with the life we have and what will we will leave behind when our time comes. 

In the case of Romero and Hopper, what they have left us are bodies of work that changed the course of film and cultural history. Sets of nightmares that will be visited on future generations of movie watchers that will get scared shitless by flesh-eating zombies and chainsaw wielding maniacs for the first time just as we once were. There's something reassuring about that fact. 

These astute horror buffs to come may even pick up on the social and political themes that both filmmakers deliberately wrote into the psyches of their villains and victims. They might get so into the work that they pick up books of film theory that drill deep into the times in which the films were made. I hope they come to appreciate that in between all the scares and thrills were ideas and themes drawn from a specific period and yet still relevant as ever. The horrors of the past seem to inevitably be revisited upon us in a vicious cycle, like so many nightmares. 

For the sake of those future horror fans, I hope they find a copy of Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present, written by Jon Towlson. In my sadness over the losses of our horror pioneers coupled with anger and anxiety over the plague of bad dreams being unleashed with daily regularity, the book found it's way to me. 

While not solving or making sense of our all too real historical and present terrors, Towlson reminds us of the power and release found in expelling our fears rather than stuffing them down. 

Horror for me has always been a fun and outrageous escape into the weird and shocking, away from whatever pains the days brought. My time spent with it could be justified merely on the cathartic level of experiencing that freeing adrenaline rush. For a great many movies, that's as much as we can expect to get for our monies worth. It's the rarer exceptions that stick with us. That make us think. That haunt us for as long as we live. The creators who have made those connections with me have earned my undying praise and love. To the greater audience who have felt the same way as me, a bound has been forever formed.

Tis the season to look death in it's face. To taunt and laugh at the coming grave. To dance with devils, demons and the undead, realizing our time is sure to come – just not today god-damnit. And if the thought of your own mortality scares the living shit out of you... remind yourself...


Jon Towlson

Do you have a first horror memory?
I was an anxious kid, so I probably gravitated to the horror genre as a form of therapy; it was a way to try to conquer my fears. I grew up in Britain in the 1970s during a time of social unrest, militant trade unionism, and the lead up to Thatcherism. I think I absorbed much of the social trauma of the time through exposure to the news media. 
For example, the rabies scare whipped up by the UK tabloid press in the mid-‘70s terrified me! Then in July 1978, at the age of eleven, I saw The Crazies on BBC television, and the scenario it presented (a society in collapse) really resonated with me. I don’t think the film scared me as such (unlike The Exorcist, which severely traumatized me as a young child; even though I didn’t actually see that film until years later, I read about it and became obsessed with it) but it was thrilling and seemed very real.
What does it mean to you to be “subversive”?
In terms of horror films, those that pose some sort of challenge to the status quo in terms of content and/or form. Many of the films in my book carry an anti-authoritarian message. That’s probably the litmus test for whether I would consider the film subversive or not, in the political sense. 
Some of the films challenge narrative and/or genre conventions also. I looked at what I thought were the dominant ideologies of each decade, from the 1930s through to the 2000s, and then chose films that I felt challenged these in some way. The aim of the book was to say how they did so, and track recurring themes through the decades. 
Why is it that you personally have an affinity for the subversion you’ve recorded in your book, Subversive Horror Cinema?
I’m not a political activist, as such, but it has always made sense to me that horror films, to an extent, could constitute some form of oppositional cinema. As I have said, I grew up in Britain under Thatcherism (in fact I grew up in Thatcher’s home town of Grantham), so became class conscious early on. 
That inevitably affected the way I read into films later when I came to do my degree and postgraduate study in film. The socio-political approach to horror is what attracted me to the genre as a critic. 

What was the point in which you decided that horror filmmakers where intentionally using the genre to make social commentary that would be too provocative to be accepted in any other genre. (I think we see this in the sci-fi genre very clearly as well.)
After reading interviews with filmmakers over the years. 
Romero has, for example, often explained the attraction of working in the genre in terms of opportunities to use allegory, or as he puts it, write ‘parables’; and has said that horror films reflect what’s going on in the world because “that’s where you get the idea from in the first place”, suggesting that the filmmaker is consciously making social commentary. 
This may not be the case with all horror directors, of course, but Tobe Hooper, Jeff Lieberman, Pete Walker among others have said the same about their work, that the social commentary is intentional on their part.
Filmmaker, George A. Romero - R.I.P

At the very beginning of horror we saw social commentary beneath the surface. How did films like Frankenstein and Freaks from the 1930s provide a message about a very real horror?
In the book I talk about these films in terms of eugenics which reached its peak of popularity around about 1932, when these films were released. That year there was a huge eugenics conference in New York. Scientists were advocating the elimination of the ‘unfit’ through sterilization. 
One of the exhibits at the conference showed the patients of a New York hospital: these patients – including a Schlitze-like ‘pin head’ – closely resembled the cast of Freaks, made in the same year. At the same conference, scientists were talking about criminality being genetic (as opposed to the result of social conditioning) and giving speeches about criminals having abnormal brains, like Dr. Waldman does in Frankenstein
In ‘30s horror Frankenstein’s monsters and freakish characters are considered genetically ‘unfit’. I think large sections of the cinema audience would have made the connection, even if on an unconscious level. Certainly studios and filmmakers were aware of it. Paramount, for example, actively capitalized on public fears of eugenics on Island of Lost Souls. The studio invited a eugenicist onto the set during filming, supposedly to verify the accuracy of the film’s science, but mainly as a publicity stunt, and Paramount used eugenics for publicity after the film’s release.

Your book contains an opening preface in which you write about the work of George A. Romero and it’s affect on you as a child. With his passing this summer, do you have any new thoughts about what he meant to not only horror but the cinematic world and culture at large?
Romero probably came closer to expressing countercultural values in his films than anyone else in horror; for me, his films talk about the need for co-operative social endeavor, for rejecting state-sanctioned violence, and for learning to co-exist with the part of ourselves that is ‘monstrous’. I would say Dawn of the Dead is still probably the most optimistic horror film I have seen.
Land of the Dead, too.
You write that horror is cyclical in a way that mirrors the economic and military upheavals that haunt our world with frequency. Can you touch on some of the historic periods in which horror was able to strike a chord due to public fears and insecurities?
As you say, horror seems to enjoy its greatest phases of popularity in times of economic depression and war, or in other periods of upheaval. 
The main cycles have been 1931-1936 during the Great Depression, 1939-1945 (the Second World), 1968-1978 (Vietnam; civil rights struggles; Watergate; oil crisis) and post-2000 (9/11; banking crisis; economic downturn). 
Significantly, this most recent cycle of horror has lasted the longest by far (17 + years) and shows no sign of abating. Horror production around the world is now at an all-time high.
Your book has a few chapters dedicated to the effects of the late 60’s counterculture on horror. Specifically, how horror in particular was able to house some very dark and poignant social commentary under the cover of “entertainment.” Who were the main players of that time and what were they trying to say generally speaking?
In the late 1960s I would say that Romero, Polanski and Peter Bogdanovich in the States represented a move toward modern horror in the wake of Psycho and The Birds. Their films (Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Targets) were concerned with the horror of the human personality rather than the supernatural. This led to the apocalyptic horror of the 1970s where madness becomes endemic and leads to total social collapse. A key figure in Britain in this respect was Michael Reeves who made Witchfinder General and The Sorcerers. For me, his films explore the notion that violence breeds violence within the patriarchal society (and “to that end,” as Reeves himself once wrote, “violence in itself is insanity”). 
Reeves’s characters exhibit what social psychologist Erich Fromm described in the 1960s, in relation to the escalating violence of the time, as “lustful destructiveness” arising from feelings of uncertainty, impotence and powerlessness in the face of a repressive, hypocritical and often brutal establishment. 
In Reeves’ films, the “good” person is driven to these acts of violence by society’s old guard, who are themselves vindictive and ruthless in their suppression of the rising generation. Not surprisingly in the ‘60s/70s there were a lot of ‘generation gap’ horror films like these. Leon Hunt describes generation gap horror as depicting the “old, metaphorically cannibalistic generation preying on the ‘youth’ at what should be the moment of its ‘liberation.’ 
As a kid the subtexts in a film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre just blew by me. Now as an adult I can appreciate all the relevant social tensions writer/director Tobe Hooper was weaving into the story of a family of demented cannibals. 
What legacy did Tobe Hooper leave behind? What social messages did he manage to convey over the course of his career?
I can probably best answer this by quoting from my Subversive Horror book. “If the encroaching violence taking over our society is inescapable because it is inherent in the American psyche, as Michael Reeves and other ‘60s directors suggested, Hooper went on in Texas Chainsaw Massacre to trace the roots of this to the pioneer myths of the Old West. The Western film actually entered its revisionist phase in the late 1960s, coinciding with the emergence of the apocalyptic horror film, and the civilization/savagery dichotomy that lies at the heart of the revisionist Western informs the apocalyptic horror film, including The Texas Chain saw Massacre. 
Hooper takes up the civilization/savagery motif of the revisionist western, and recasts it as a form of psychosis afflicting its characters. In Hooper’s film, modern capitalist society has become degenerate, and the apocalypse can be traced back to the pioneers themselves. 
In other words, the main message of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that the very same frontier spirit – the drive that propelled American civilization forward toward Manifest Destiny - led to moral schizophrenia in the Watergate era.”
Turning to another sadly passed on horror master - Wes Craven famously talked about how horror can effectively externalize all of our shared internal fears and repressions. In dealing with his filmography, which of his films do you think is most successful in achieving those ends?
Craven was very good at taking those shared internal fears and placing them in a social context. I think the most literal example of this would be The People Under the Stairs, where dispossessed children are kept under lock and key in the basement of a gun-toting fundamentalist degenerate father-figure. 
Craven has quoted Spalding Grey: “That which is kept in the dark degenerates”. We can see this idea in many of Craven’s films. Krug in Last House on the Left and Freddy Kruger in Nightmare on Elm Street are poor white trash (Krug is a Vietnam vet; Kruger a child molester) who return in degenerate form to exact revenge on a society that has ‘kept them in the dark.’ 
Filmmaker, Wes Craven - R.I.P

Returning to Romero, how did he manage to successfully make sweeping statements about the government, military, patriarchy, the 2nd Amendment and biological weapons all in one film, 1973’s The Crazies?
He presented all these elements as forming one vast, interlocking structure. In The Crazies violence starts at the top of the pyramid and then spreads down through every social and governmental structure. This creates a culture of violence which infects a whole society like a virus. 
For me the message of The Crazies is that violence is largely inculcated in the population by patriarchal social and political structures; and the only way to immunize oneself from such “infection” is to recognize the insanity of patriarchal violence and consciously reject it, as David, the ex-Green Beret tries to do in the film. 

Have repressive actions or campaigns been taken against the horror genre since its inception? In what ways and why was it done?
Censorship as repressive action has come into force in the 1930s in America with the stricter enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, which resulted in the total cessation of horror film production for three years in the late ‘30s. Horror films produced during the Second World War were subject to stricter censorship under the Production Code than those made in the early ‘30s. This followed campaigns against immorality in the movies by various pressure groups as part of a cultural backlash brought about by the social upheaval of the Great Depression. Horror films were subject to repressive action again in the early 1980s when the Video Recordings Act was introduced in the United Kingdom. 
This resulted in a number of horror films being banned in Britain, and all films released on video in the UK subject to certification; this had an impact on horror production in America and Europe as one of their main markets was effectively cut off. The industry regulates itself in this way partly for the major studios to retain dominance over the independents, as was the case both in the early days of home video and in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s & 1940s. 
Censorship is arguably needed to keep economic base and ideological superstructure in alignment. When a schism develops, as happened in the 1930s where studios desperately needed to stay afloat and briefly turned to sex pictures, horror films and gangster movies to draw in audiences with sensational, taboo-breaking content, there’s pressure to close it, and increased censorship inevitably comes into play. Government may subsidize the industry when this happens, or relax trade laws to help keep the industry afloat. I write extensively about the censorship of ‘30s horror in my book The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films, 1931-1936.

Horror has been a medium that flourished with the rise of independent filmmaking. Is it part of the subversive, anti-establishment nature of the writers and directors that make it so?
Partly that and partly the need to cater for an audience who may share those same values. Horror films have traditionally appealed to the youth since the 1950s when the film industry discovered that teenagers had the disposable income, and the transport, to make up a significant section of the movie audience. AIP and Herman Cohen started making horror movies that spoke to teen experience, and which carried an anti-authority message.
I was a Teenage Werewolf was the first of these drive-in movies. 1960s and 1970s student youth sought alternative cinema and this was provided not only by the drive-in, but also by the repertory theatre, college cinemas and the inner-city theatres showing exploitation double-bills and midnight movies. To these audiences, independent cinema - and particularly cult cinema - equated with countercultural alternatives. This helped support independent filmmaking, but in horror also led to a shift in the paradigm from classic to modern, with subversive undertones that reflected the political viewpoints of the changing audiences.
How did the threat of “mutually assured destruction” find expression in horror and sci-fi during the Cold War era?
Often it would be quite literal, such as the fear of radiation that might lead to mutation, as in Them or The Incredible Shrinking Man. Allegorically, the alien invaders of 1950s sci-fi were sometimes a thinly-veiled stand-in for the Communists, as in Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. Then the fear of the atom bomb might manifest itself in more subtle ways. 
In I was a Teenage Werewolf, the protagonist is troubled, constantly on edge, and prone to fits of uncontrollable anger; he jumps at loud noises. I would imagine that he was little different to many teenagers of the time left in a state of high anxiety by constant air-raid drills and the knowledge that they could be incinerated at any moment. Then, there is the influence of the fear of ‘mutually assured destruction’ on the filmmakers themselves. 
Lieberman, Romero, Craven, Hooper, have all spoken of how they were afraid of the Bomb when they were growing up. I think you can see this Cold War fear carrying over into the apocalyptic scenarios of their films. Nuclear fear, and its wider effects on our society, is an under-researched topic. 
Certainly the media has always used the public fear of nuclear war as a tool for controlling people’s thoughts and behavior. You can see that in action right now in the news media. It’s also very useful for those in authority to do so. What is it that Marilyn Manson says in Bowling for Columbine? “Keep them afraid and keep them consuming”. That was certainly the case in the ‘50s.
Can horror or sci-fi actually have the unpleasant effect of demonizing the “other” in society?  Are there examples of that?
It’s in the nature of the genre to present a ‘return of the repressed’, and as the repressed inevitably returns in monstrous or degenerate form, then demonizing the ‘other’ becomes a very real danger. An example might be Candyman (which I have just finished writing a book about). 
The Candyman is the victim of racial violence, and yet his actions are violent. He is, to an extent, sympathetic because he is a victim of social oppression, and yet he is a frightening figure too. This kind of ambiguity seems inherent to the genre; but it may also account for why the genre provokes so much discussion and evaluation. If the monster was conceived in wholly positive terms, where would ‘horror’ come in?
What impact did the televising of violence in the news media have? Particularly in the Vietnam coverage.
In the 1960s, horror films like Night of the Living Dead started to draw on traditions of screen realism derived from the Direct Cinema documentary movement in the USA and Cinema Verité in France. A number of horror filmmakers started out on 16mm, which was a format developed for combat news cameramen. 
Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in fact, was shot on an Éclair NPR 16mm camera, the same model often used to cover news. So the look, as well as the content, of the news and documentaries of the time had an influence on directors like Romero, Hooper and Craven. News footage of Vietnam was censored until the early 1970s when public opinion started to shift against the war, so it’s difficult to claim that graphic news footage specifically influenced the first films in modern horror such as Night of the Living Dead
Certainly, the footage of the napalm attack on Trang Bang and other graphic news film that started to filter past the censors in the early ‘70s had an influence on films that came later, like Last House on the Left. The Production Code dissolved in 1968 and that also led to cinema becoming more graphic. 
The Vietnam footage was just one aspect of televised violence in the 1960s; the civil rights riots, assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King and student shootings such as that at Kent State were all reported on the news. I think this all contributed to greater realism in the cinema because it was no longer viable to cover up or glamorize screen violence the way Hollywood had previously done. 
Is horror actually reflecting a violent society rather than the other way around? At least in the early days?
It’s difficult to argue it the other way around, isn’t it? No empirical evidence exists to prove screen violence causes violent behavior; it’s easier to accept that the news media cultivates the belief that we live in a society that is more violent than it actually is. 
I tend to think that horror cinema is more likely to act as a vent for fear, rather than cultivate fear or provoke violence in the way that, according to some media effects theorists, the news media does. So, yes, for me horror reflects society’s fears and siphons them off harmlessly!
You write about a thematic baton being passed down the line among horror directors working in the 1970s. Can you recap what that was all about and what brought you to that notion?
This is to do with a developing line of enquiry about the nature of apocalypse facing America in the 1970s, and how each major director working in the genre picked up that theme from the previous director, and ran with it. Eventually these filmmakers, as I’ve already stated in relation to Tobe Hooper’s work, located a pathology in the very ‘frontier spirit’ that underlies the American Way. 
We can see this in the continuity of theme in Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes  Just Before Dawn. Each film builds upon theme successively, so you get the sense of a baton being passed back and forth within 1970s horror – from Romero (Night of the Living Dead) to Craven (Last House on the Left) to Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) to Cronenberg (Shivers) to Lieberman (Blue Sunshine) and back to Romero (Dawn of the Dead) – a working through of the issues collectively. 
My conceit is that Hooper and Craven showed unwilling to move beyond the apocalyptic, but the work of Cronenberg, Lieberman and Romero in the 70s moved towards the possibility of a new order based on tacit observation of alternative ideologies and/or countercultural values. 
I should also point out once again that the revisionist westerns of this era, such as The Wild Bunch and Soldier Blue, figured in this as well. It’s difficult to imagine Last House on the Left or Hills Have Eyes without Soldier Blue, for example. The horror film and the western are very closely linked as genres because they are inextricably tied up with ideas of ‘normality’ vs. the ‘other’, savagery vs. civilization etc.
What was horror saying in the excessive, greed is good Reagan era?
Generally it is thought that the early ‘80s slasher is part of a neoconservative backlash against the horror films of the ‘70s, although there is also a train of thought that the films of the 80s, although not as oppositional as those of the ‘70s, also show a hesitancy to reaffirm dominant values. 
But I think we had to wait until after the slasher cycle to see horror really making a statement about neoliberalism in the way that you suggest. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is, I think, a good example of a film that criticizes ‘Reaganomics’ for creating or at least perpetuating an economic underclass. And then, of course, there’s They Live!
There are lots of illustrations of big budget horror films being awful and low budget ones setting the benchmark for greatness. How does money ultimately impact the final creative product? 
It may not be budget per se, but the machinery that goes on behind the scenes in terms of the big budget horror movies being distributed (and often funded) by the Hollywood majors. The Hollywood studios are in the business of making money and so there is an inevitable conservative influence on the scripts that are chosen for production and the inherent messages and values that come through in the films themselves.
It’s really the corporate mindset that led, particularly in the ‘90s, to franchises like the Nightmare on Elm Street series, where you saw the vitality being zapped from the genre and the audience subsequently losing interest. Then you need a Blair Witch Project or a Paranormal Activity, with a budget small enough to be able to take risks, to bring some freshness back into the genre. Inevitably those films, if they are financial successes, become franchises themselves, and the whole process starts again.
In the book you write in-depth about David Cronenberg’s Shivers. While I love that film, I also felt works like Scanners and Videodrome are just as subversive. Since there wasn’t space in the book perhaps to touch on them, could you offer some thoughts on the political/societal implications of Cronenberg’s career in overview?
Cronenberg started out as an underground filmmaker; he seems fascinated with underground and counterculture movements and depicts these in the strange subcultures and political movements that populate his films. Scanners are a counterculture of sorts, and so are the infected in Shivers and Rabid, the Cathode Ray mission in Videodrome and the car-crash fetishists of Crash
They exist within a dystopian context: in opposition to a corporate modernity that scarcely seems fictional. Cronenberg pits his countercultural heroes or revolutionaries against this sterile, corporate world. For Cronenberg, there are no easy answers. He has said: “there is an ambivalence on my part when it comes to preaching subversion because I’m aware that along with revolution of any kind comes destruction. 
You touch on John Carpenter’s They Live, which has become a huge touchpoint for calling out that era of alien elites, pulling the strings in secrecy and the propaganda of consumerism and TV media. Why do you think the cult following of that film continues to resonate so powerfully with people?
I think that the film is upfront in the way it points these things out, that underlines how blatant the messages of consumerism and conformism have actually become. There is no false consciousness anymore. We can all see it for what it is. The film provides a very easy solution, ‘kick ass and chew gum’. So it’s an entertaining film, a satire.
They Live

Carpenter is right at the top of list of politically conscious directors if not always overtly. What else in his filmography stands out to you in that regard?
Early in his career, Carpenter was considered a reactionary because of Assault on Precinct 13, which was thought to demonize ethnic minority gangs and Halloween, which was considered misogynist. 
But, yes, there is also the sense that his films champion the worker, perhaps. Macready, Snake Pliskin, Jack Burton are all on the side of the underdog! I think there is a blue collar sensibility in many of his films. 
What films in particular do you think reflect the terror and shock of 9/11 and the successive wars following?
I thought 28 Weeks Later was outstanding in this respect. The way it depicted a military Green Zone and an inability to maintain order after American invasion. 
In the film this takes the form of the military’s botched response to an outbreak of the “rage” virus which threatens to infect everyone in the zone. The film took its inspiration directly from events in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think.
28 Weeks Later

I have never liked the sub-genre called ‘torture porn.” It always felt cheap and without substance. Extreme violence just for the sake of it. But can you make a case that those films have a social relevance or are trying to express something about the times when they were made?
I imagine a case can be made. I have read many academics who have drawn links between torture porn and Guantanamo Bay, for example. I also know of scholars who investigate the intersection of hardcore pornography and hardcore horror. 
I think it’s a valid line of enquiry, but not one that interests me personally. If nothing else, it’s proof that horror exists in many forms inside and outside of the mainstream.
Who are the artists in the genre today who are using the medium to make relevant statements? What should horror be communicating today if it’s not already?
I think we are seeing a rise in the number of women who are using the genre to relate their own experiences. There are new filmmakers (men and women) who through university study are very much aware of the radical aspects of the genre and are committed to it. Independent production is growing, thanks to digital technology, so alternative voices are constantly emerging. 
I think we are going to see more women filmmakers, more ethnic filmmakers, going into the genre and bringing new vision to it. A good example is Ana Asensio’s A Most Beautiful Island. It takes the perspective of a female illegal immigrant in New York City. Asensio wrote it, directed it and starred in it; she brings a unique viewpoint to the genre.
These days we see a lot of doomsday, epidemic, post-apocalypse themes being milked for all they’re worth. Why are we seeing this, do we fear societal breakdown more today than ever or does it seem more likely or inevitable?
Perhaps the apocalypse scenario allows us to ask some pressing questions about the future of society. Where are we going? Can we survive imminent destruction? Can society be changed for the better? 
Can we give up the old values, the old patterns of behavior? Is there an alternative? The Walking Dead, for example, is very much concerned with these questions and I think that is one of the reasons for its massive popularity.
Two recent films I can think of that really pushed the genre were, The Witch, It Comes at Night and Get Out. Did you see them and if so, what was your assessment?
Horror does seem to be taking increasingly abstract forms in some films. This has led some critics to think that we are moving beyond horror towards something new, although I am not sure that this is the case. Horror fiction, especially short fiction, has been taking this approach for a long time. 
I did think that Get Out pushed the black horror subgenre in certain respects. It was unequivocal in the way it vindicated Chris, even to the point of his leaving Rose to die at the end. I read that as a statement on class inequality: as white middle class, she is his oppressor. 
Get Out 
Compare that to Candyman, which has been criticized by some for saying that “we are all slaves”, when in fact, the material circumstances of the white, middle class characters in the film are very different to those of the black characters: simply saying “we are all slaves” precludes serious discussion of true economic racism, according to some critics of Candyman.
Does horror allow us to believe that a new, better society is possible? Or are we just plain fucked?
That’s the million dollar question! It partly comes down to that ambiguity in the genre that I mentioned before. But it also relates to a wider cultural prohibition. 
It may be an inherent contradiction of our culture that dominant ideology allows for depictions of its own destruction but will not permit the envisaging of a political alternative to capitalism.  
The film critic Robin Wood once remarked that there exists in the dominant culture a taboo on imagining alternatives to a system that ‘can be exposed as monstrous, oppressive, and unworkable but which must nevertheless not be constructively challenged.’
In the horror film, I think this translates as showing society in breakdown whilst stopping short of actually presenting any way out of apocalypse. Very few, if any, horror films give us a glimpse of what an alternative society might be like that is not based on dominant values. As I said earlier, maybe Romero’s Dawn of the Dead comes close.
What is the power in leaving a film unresolved or without a tidy ending in which evil is sufficiently defeated?
Well, in the most positive sense, it represents an unwillingness to return to normative values. In many films though, the evil might not be defeated, but basic values are shown to be worth fighting for!


To learn more about Jon and his books, check out his Amazon author profile

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