Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, Jason Zinoman, Penguin, 272 pages
Call to mind your most recent nightmare. Chances are it involved a sweaty, panicked flight from some otherworldly monster, or perhaps hiding under the bed or in a closet, desperately holding your breath, muscles tensed, while a faceless killer stalks the room for you. With apologies to Freud, these terrors arising from the darkest recesses of the human imagination stem not from some childhood trauma but from the visual language of the modern horror film.
What Americans today consider “horror” is a recent invention. The Wolf Man and Dracula with his cape and widow’s peak sent pulses racing in the moviegoers of yesteryear. Now they seem positively cartoonish. Whom do we have to thank for the gruesome depths of the American nightmare today? According to cinephile author Jason Zinoman, a group of raggedy, misanthropic directors “taught us what to be afraid of.” They capitalized on the do-it-yourself, renegade spirit of 1970s film and brought an unprecedented level of realism and dread—and, more controversially, high art—to a genre once identified with the schlock and seediness of a porno.
Shock Value aspires to carve out a place for serious analysis of films that critics largely consider distasteful yet are stubbornly popular. As the title suggests, however, Zinoman seems more fan-boy than film scholar, and in cheering for the nauseating violence these directors visited on an all-too-willing public in that tumultuous decade, he smuggles into the book many a dubious assumption. The book contains less analysis than lazy braggadocio: “Night of the Living Dead,” we’re told, “did for horror what the Sex Pistols did for punk.”
Still, Zinoman is the first to lay out in such detail how the grisly tropes of even the darkest fringe of 1970s horror came to be so mainstream as to color advertising and Halloween costumes—and inspire countless remakes. Zinoman’s enthusiastic effort to rehabilitate the most disturbing specimens of horror succeeds mainly in alienating the average, more squeamish reader. But he’s a skilled taxonomist and offers the occasional apt insight about why we watch these movies and how they act upon the audience individually and as a whole.
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The deadly serious “New Horror” was bookended by the low-budget camp of the previous decade and the big-budget camp of the next. Situated between lumbering Frankenstein and wisecracking Freddy Krueger, the golden age of horror began with the demise of the censoring Production Code in 1968 and ended with the take-off of spectacular special effects in the early ’80s. Despite the stark differences, there is a fluid connection between the three decades. The New Horror directors—Wes Craven, George Romero, John Carpenter, and David Cronenberg, to name the most important—all grew up devouring classic monster stories and science fiction at the movies, on television, and in comic books. The unpredictable, runaway success of their work as adults led the major studios to open their doors to horror.
A key reference point for these directors was Alfred Hitchcock, whose artful, slow-building suspense was the dominant cultural force of their youth. Hitchcock skirted Production Code censors, pushing the limits of sexual suggestion and moral confusion. His antiheroes continued the trend begun with film noir of generating sympathy for the killer—a trend that returned irreversibly with the shocking “Bonnie and Clyde” and the revenge fantasies of “Clockwork Orange” and “Straw Dogs.” But Hitchcock soon moved from transgressor to conventional elder, deemed pretentious by a frustrated younger set who wanted more gore, sex, nihilism, and ambiguity.
Each director Zinoman interviewed cites as a breaking point the pat ending of “Psycho,” in which Norman Bates’s crimes are neatly diagnosed by psychiatrists, allowing the viewer the comforting closure of evil safely tucked away in a padded cell. They wanted to give us evil with no backstory, evil that would invite your participation, evil that would follow you home, mirroring the world you lived in.
If dissatisfaction with the tidy dénouments of Hitchcock gave them a push, the pull that drew them toward creative experimentation was the explosive events of the ’60s: Vietnam, riots, lynchings, assassinations, sexual liberation—with all the heady confusion of eros and thanatos vividly displayed in nightly television newscasts. No wonder, then, that the New Horror aesthetic began with a rejection of the polished artifice of Hitchcock and an embrace of the French New Wave’s documentary style. As a traumatized nation confronted malevolent, mysterious forces within itself, horror harnessed the reality that people can be scarier than monsters. The supernatural gave way to the serial killer, the cannibal, the rapist.
Throughout the book, public turmoil parallels personal upheaval, and Zinoman deftly depicts the inner worlds of the directors as both strange and familiar. He notes common threads uniting the auteurs: dysfunctional families, adolescence as lonely eccentrics in conservative small towns, how their love of science fiction and bottom-of-the-barrel horror made them untouchables in the film world. He makes much of H.P. Lovecraft as a shared influence, particularly Lovecraft’s idea of “cosmic fear,” which provokes awe at one’s fragility and helplessness, like the fallen sinner encountering his divine creator. For Zinoman the thrill of being scared—while still safe, at a comfortable remove from events onscreen—isn’t enough. He likes a more generalized, seeping sense of dread before a vague but ineluctable threat, coupled with spikes of disgusting imagery, inducing a temporary madness or surreal flight from the world. To be rendered mute and dumbstruck by something evil is horror at its zenith, and the sharpening sensation of extreme fear can only be delivered in breach of the conventional.
This is far from the mannered, motive-driven villains of Hitchcock. But is the thrill worth the price? Arguably the quintessence of this brand of horror is “Halloween’s” Michael Myers: beyond reason or personality, calmly, steadily advancing on his wanton teenage prey with all the phlegm of a door-to-door salesman. Perhaps this is why I find him such an anodyne predator, scarier as an idea than when moving through the film.
Ultimately, the book doesn’t justify itself as encomium to the sordid morass of gore-driven media. Zinoman says the onscreen atrocities are “sexy,” fun, even good for us. Really? The prose is seductive—who could resist the invitation to revel in “bouncing boobs and bubbling blood”? But his case for the morality of this—namely, that it awakens the viewer to some transcendental, sacred aspect of violence—is far more doubtful.
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In their confrontational stance toward their audiences, the New Horror directors thought the most effective horror situates the viewers as voyeurs or makes them identify with killer rather than victim, thus implicating them in the violence. As some would have it, the films allow us to sublimate cravings for mayhem and rebellion. Society has always needed some way to expiate the destructive impulses of the communal id, and horror movies are just the latest outlet.
That thesis has an air of plausibility, but Zinoman tries to support it with an absurd reading of films like “Last House on the Left.” He argues that Wes Craven “humanizes” the savages who rape, mutilate, and murder two teenage girls: “When the family of misfits enters the well-appointed house of [one victim’s parents], they immediately sense the limitations of their class. They don’t know proper etiquette at the dinner table. They are uncomfortable. Craven generates a sneaky sympathy for the killers.” No, he doesn’t. The murders are so unspeakable that even had this been Craven’s intention, it would have been impossible.
Zinoman’s analysis strays into cheerleading, applauding the directors’ audacity and his own ability to stomach it. Many pages are devoted more to articulating a kind of moralistic transgression, ascribing to these films seriousness of purpose simply because of their commitment to such sick material. Consider his take on “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”: “The killers … are the real heart of this intense movie. They are cannibals and maniacs but also victims themselves. Laid off from their jobs at the slaughterhouse … they are casualties of technological innovation, country folk left behind in the modern world.” This is balderdash, and his strained solicitude for the monsters contradicts his insistence that these films work because they force us to confront unintelligible evil.
In a companion piece on Slate entitled “Gore is Good,” Zinoman laments the lingering embarrassment among older purveyors of horror like Stephen King, who aspired to elevate the genre, chiding them: “Times have changed. … The gross-out industry invents new and more explicit ways to destroy the human body every year.” He extends smacking condescension to their film-critic counterparts, those “delicate souls who cringe at the vulgarity of on-screen violence.” But isn’t this revulsion instructive as a natural human reaction, something more than closed-mindedness? Zinoman wants to show us that gore has a much deeper, more ambitious, and creatively fruitful role to play in horror, but he can’t get out of his own way long enough to give pause to those who would dismiss it as “vile crap.”
Indeed, he is such a reflexive partisan of gore that one swiftly tires of the book. It’s not that there’s nothing captivating about “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Carrie,” or “The Exorcist”—some of his other candidates I would confidently call trash—but too often he zeroes in on their ugliest moments to the exclusion of the qualities that made them enduring. For instance, he praises “The Exorcist” because “its fury and profanity were a revelation, loosening the standards for obscenity for the next generation” and because “The sexualizing of a twelve-year-old girl pushed taboos” and “hit you over the head with brutalizing special effects.” Some of these films do have something to offer; the best of them are still popular and influential for artistic reasons, even as the worst live on because the public appetite for filth has only increased over time. But in making the case for their legacy Zinoman again strains credulity, drawing a direct line from New Horror to films as far afield as Oscar winners like “The Hurt Locker.”
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While my concern with the worst of the genre’s excesses may brand me one of the “delicate souls” Zinoman derides, I too have something of a horror bug, which is why I wish he had made a better case for why these movies are worth watching. They were a product of and response to social trauma, but they ultimately hit somewhere deeper—the real-world referents hasten our fall into the primal elements of the psyche, such as childhood vulnerability, disgust for one’s own body, or the doomed flight from mortality. “Trauma,” from the Greek to wound or pierce, is an apt word: even as we protect ourselves from the confusion of the modern world by a web of dulled habit, there is an itch to break through it, to penetrate that thin veil between order and chaos. Somehow these films, in part because of their brutality and open sadism, give us that experience. That’s why the viewer vacillates between the repellent and the enjoyable, between “can’t bear to watch” and “can’t look away.”
Movies of the 1980s and ’90s, perhaps in harmony with their more carefree eras, played horror for self-aware irony, inspiring more laughs than cold sweats—most successfully in the “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Gremlins,” and “Scream” franchises, and the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” television series. After 9/11 pundits declared the “end of irony,” and in the realm of horror films, if nowhere else, they were right. The past decade saw the rise of “torture porn” and a return to realistic, micro-budget stuff like “The Blair Witch Project,” “Saw,” “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity.” Even though the book inspires eye-rolling, eyebrow-raising, and exasperation, it serves at least one good purpose: We’ll never be rid of these movies, so it’s worth exploring how they ripple through pop culture. Apparently they accomplish something necessary but ineffable in the youthful psyche, a sort of punishing boot camp from which we emerge fortified. We are now at least familiar with our nightmares, though they remain as chilling as ever.
Unfortunately, Zinoman thwarts his own purpose and winds up being doubly wrong. Because he heaps too much praise on ’70s horror, he underestimates the contemporary renaissance of the genre, lamenting the new crop that aims for a crossover audience as “bloodier than ever but less inventive and thus less shocking.” Perhaps a natural conclusion for him, thinking that after his heroes obliterated every cinematic taboo the genre sputters and stalls. The new audience isn’t complacent, however, but hungrier than ever for horror—another example of the truism that these films both reflect and channel the anxieties of their time. Perhaps Zinoman’s iron stomach leads him to dismiss as too “respectable” new films that still spawn the nightmares haunting many an American moviegoer. They still deliver the potent fear we’re after, but Zinoman’s decades in the darkness have left him inured, chasing after the goosebumps he’s no longer capable of experiencing. But at least he can still feel a certain fright in his own shameless, insatiable love of horror.
Noelle Daly is associate editor of The American Interest.