Horror Film and Affect
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Horror Film and Affect

Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership

Xavier Aldana Reyes

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eBook - ePub

Horror Film and Affect

Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership

Xavier Aldana Reyes

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About This Book

This book brings together various theoretical approaches to Horror that have received consistent academic attention since the 1990s – abjection, disgust, cognition, phenomenology, pain studies – to make a significant contribution to the study of fictional moving images of mutilation and the ways in which human bodies are affected by those on the screen on three levels: representationally, emotionally and somatically. Aldana Reyes reads Horror viewership as eminently carnal, and seeks to articulate the need for an alternative model that understands the experience of feeling under corporeal threat as the genre's main descriptor. Using recent, post-millennial examples throughout, the book also offers case studies of key films such as Hostel, [REC], Martyrs or Ginger Snaps, and considers contemporary Horror strands such as found footage or 3D Horror.

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1 Representation

It could be argued that psychoanalysis, in its various incarnations, has kept the body at the centre of its theories. From Freud’s work on the unconscious and the formation of the ego to Lacan’s thinking about the acquisition of language or the mirror phase, the body – as constitutive of the speaking subject, in its role within the realm of the symbolic – has been significant to its major thinkers, albeit sometimes only obliquely.1 However, because psychoanalysis is invested in totemic understandings of, for example, psychosexual development and is often connected to abstract notions related to the mind or to social-organisational principles, it has been perceived as an “acorporeal” critical approach within the context of Cultural and, more specifically, Film Studies. Whilst it was, at one point, the favoured methodology in the Humanities, recent work has, unsurprisingly, aimed to recuperate it.2 Whilst psychoanalysis, as a discipline, continues to be used and studied, there has been a major drive towards the application of poststructuralist theories that celebrate plurality and the significance of the specificity of the individual to the analysis of cultural texts. Among these, the work of Deleuze and Guattari, especially their powerful challenge to Freud in Anti-Oedipus (1977), has contributed to the perception of psychoanalysis as potentially outdated and even ahistorical.3 Although this has naturally translated into Horror Studies, with recent publications unpacking the benefits of alternative approaches like phenomenology, critics in the field still borrow from psychoanalysis.4
In this chapter, my intention is not to make claims about the validity and the corporeal nature of psychoanalysis but to show how one of its main applications to Horror, the notion of abjection as defined by Julia Kristeva (1982) and developed by Barbara Creed (1986; 1993) has become crucial to the genre and its interest in issues of corporeal representation. More particularly, my focus is on the ways in which the abject female body has laid at the heart of debates that have both legitimised the study of Horror and complicated its construction of female villains as disgusting through a focus on their excessive corporeality. Turning to the maternal body, I suggest it is possible to recast it as a representational zone of affect because of its transgression of the inner/outside body dichotomy, rather than, as has been argued, because it is inherently linked to any universal forms of detachment and rejection of the mother on the part of the child. In essence, what I propose in this chapter, beyond establishing a new understanding of abjection as fearful disgust, is that representation can be usefully rethought by focusing on the disturbance of corporeal boundaries. Since these boundaries are strongly culturally and socially inflected, emphasising the ways in which the female body is portrayed in specific films becomes necessary to ascertain how the latter continues to be articulated as a source of fear.
This first step towards considering the relevance of the body to Horror and to affect engages with the way in which certain corporeal images – the most widely discussed being the abject female body – can arouse feelings in audiences because of commonly shared ideas of what may constitute a disgusting, undesirable or disruptive body, or because of the foregrounding of certain bodily discharges connected to femininity, such as menstruating blood. Whilst the specific conclusions I reach may not strictly apply to other forms of horrific representation (since the abject female body, maternal or otherwise, is neither the sole nor the principal source of horror in Horror), the backbone of my argument may be extrapolated: besides acting as the catalyst for the type of more instinctive reactions connected to the vicarious experience of imagined pain, the body can be a source of affect at a representational level when it dares to transgress the neatly delineated boundaries of inside and outside.
I begin this chapter by considering Creed’s application of Kristeva’s abjection to the realm of Horror and showing how some of her more general thoughts on the female body fail to account for the ways in which corporeal affect is actually mobilised. A case study of Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000) allows me to analyse the difference between a film’s use of gender at an explicit thematic level and the way in which a much less gendered body could be said to elicit affect. In this chapter, I also challenge the primacy of the maternal body as principal guide or indicator of abjection. I focus on the problems that such an essentialising model proposes to illustrate how reductive readings of Horror’s exploitation of the maternal body ignore its nature as a disturbing genre more interested in affecting the viewer.5 More generally, my consideration of fearful disgust as a possible alternative through which to understand the impact of images of abjection helps me illustrate how abjection can be distanced from its more universal and archetypal implications and appropriated for Affect Studies. I illustrate this through a case study of a film that very explicitly abuses the female body and abounds with images of abjection, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008). As I will show, the film’s affective work is not necessarily connected to the thematic one, even if both can feed off each other.

Gender, Abjection and the Limitations of the Monstrous-Feminine Model

Gender has been one of the most important and productive areas of debate in Horror Studies since the 1980s, when Horror started gathering critical momentum.6 Not only did it help shift interest towards an until then much-maligned genre, in some cases it even purported to present it as potentially radical. For example, Stephen Neale argued that the monster in Horror is produced by male fear of castration and that, by displaying the misconception that women are castrated, it potentially lays bare the problems of the patriarchal order (1980, 44–55). Similarly, in her influential article, “When the Woman Looks”, film scholar Linda Williams invested the act of looking at monsters on the part of female characters (and, by extension, viewers) with a subversive and dangerous power that explained its compulsive punishment and repression on the screen.7 Basing her reading on a masochistic-sadistic model that relied on psychoanalysis, Williams was already laying the groundwork for the potential application of this discipline to studies seeking to discuss the politics of gender representation. Although some publications in the mid-to-second half of the 1990s would avoid psychoanalysis completely (most notably those by Judith Halberstam (1995) and Rhona J. Berenstein (1996)), two canonical works, Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws (1992) and Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine (1993), would do much to institute it as a key approach in the analysis of the female body in Horror.8
Clover’s rethinking of Laura Mulvey’s (1975) argument about the cinematic identification of viewers with the sadistic male gaze depended on principles that are effectively Freudian. Her ground-breaking proposition that the pleasures of identification with the often androgynous final girl of the slasher film are premised on the adoption of a masochistic viewing position inevitably takes us back to pre-Oedipal stages. Similarly, Creed’s own theorisation of the monstrous-feminine develops from Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytically-inflected work on abjection.9 Both studies focus on the female body and draw from psychoanalysis in order to articulate their arguments. Not only are they an important indication that, as I suggested in the introduction, the body has remained at the heart of the major debates on the purpose and workings of Horror, but they also, crucially, point towards the ways in which representations of the transgressed onscreen body continue to generate affect by (ab)using its vulnerability. Since my focus in this chapter remains corporeal representation, I centre primarily on Creed’s theses in order to assess their validity to the possible construction of viewing affect through representational channels. I will, however, turn to Clover later in this study when I consider the role of viewer positioning in Chapter 3.
Barbara Creed’s hypothesis, at least initially, is simple enough: female monsters abound in popular culture and, especially, in Horror. Purporting to investigate the neglected figure of the woman-as-monster (instead of the more commonly investigated woman-as-victim), Creed proposes the term “monstrous-feminine” to refer to her, as it emphasises the fact that gender and sexuality are essential to the construction of her monstrosity.10 She proposes that the monstrous-feminine is a “phantasy” of castration created by the male and therefore directly linked to sexual desire.11 As a result, monstrous-feminine figures are either femmes castratrices, castrating mothers or figures who incorporate (when they do not symbolise) the image of the vagina dentata. Her other main contention is that, when represented as a monster, Horror often exploits woman’s “mothering and reproductive functions” (1993, 7). Since this is a key and complex aspect of Creed’s theory, I will devote a separate section to it later in this chapter and focus, first, on the ways in which the monstrous-feminine body is seen as a source of abjection.
According to Kristeva, abjection’s social work is to separate out the human from the non-human and demarcate the boundaries between the fully and the partially constituted subject. As a dark “revolt […] of being”, the abject is “opposed to I” and “settles me within the fragile texture of a desire for meaning […] [It] draws me towards the place where meaning collapses” (1982, 1–2). Although Kristeva’s subsequent discussion of food muddles things somewhat, her proposition that the corpse is upsetting and a form of abjection because it does not, like the encephalogram, “signify” death (instead, it shows death, what is “permanently thrust aside in order to live”) is significant (3, italics in the original). The former allows for reflection or acceptance, whilst images of abjection (the corpse, a “wound with blood and pus”, or, if applied to the olfactory sense, “the sickly, acrid smell of […] decay”) puts one “at the border of [their] condition as living being[s]” and “disturbs identity, system and order” (3–4). In a long list, Kristeva proposes a number of possible examples of abjection that is perhaps too inclusive and does not seem to compare reasonably with the image of the corpse or the workings of abjection as she has previously described them. Here, abjection is “[w]hat does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a saviour” (4). Her attempt to further define the term does not do much to delineate its boundaries, something which is only complicated by her use of poetic language. Abjection, thus, effectively becomes anything “immoral, sinister, scheming and shady: a terror that disassembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you” (4).
The most comprehensive and viscerally-inflected definition of abjection, which is the one that interests me most in this study, has been provided by Rina Arya, who describes it as “a complex theoretical concept and a pervasive cultural code” which is also:
a vital and determinative process in the formation of the subject. On a psychic level (in the sense of psychoanalysis), the experience of abjection both endangers and protects the individual: endangers in that it threatens the boundaries of the self and also reminds us of our animal origins, and protects us because we are able to expel the abject through various means. For Kristeva, abjection originates as a psychic process but it affects all aspects of social and cultural life.
(Arya 2014, 2)
The abject, that which endangers the self, is expelled (abjected) and thus its threat reduced or contained. Abjection has been seen to originate in the infantile rejection of the mother’s body, an important, yet problematic, point that is developed in some detail below in relation to Creed’s own application of the concept to her study of the monstrous-feminine. Despite its obvious challenge to the stability of the subject, or perhaps because of it, the abject cannot be objectified: it is neither object nor subject itself, but has properties of the two; it lies “at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable” (Kristeva 1982, 18).12 This means that the abject is similar but other, an “other” (Arya 2014, 4), in fact, which lives within ourselves and must be rejected in order to protect the borders that constitute us: “[i]t is something rejected from which ones does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object” (Kristeva 1982, 4). As we can see, abjection and the abject are incredibly complex and very abstract notions that are highly speculative and poetically described. Unsurprisingly, they have been applied to a number of disciplines and studies, but the approach that concerns me here, due to its influence and the durability of her arguments, is Creed’s own use of Kristeva.
Creed’s notion of the monstrous-feminine draws mainly on three aspects of abjection: its preoccupation with borders, the nature of the feminine body and, crucially, the mother-child relationship, as I will show later. For Creed, Horror illustrates the work of abjection representationally, by featuring a host of images of abjection that include, predominantly, the corpse (partial or full) and bodily wastes (“blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears and putrefying flesh” (1993, 10)). The latter substances, especially because blood can be associated with menstruation, are often connected to the monstrous-feminine, a figure which also encapsulates, by its very nature, the crossing of borders and categories.13 In psychoanalytic terms, she threatens the stability of the symbolic order by breaking a clearly defined border between what constitutes the proper or clean body and the polluted or improper one.14 Creed, pace Kristeva, acknowledges the role of ritual and religion in the delimitation of what constitutes these borders and, thus, the formulation of the abject female body. For her, constructions of the monstrous-feminine in modern Horror have a grounding in ancient religion and, especially, in what it considers abominable, that is, “sexual immorality and perversion; corporeal alteration, decay and death; human sacrifice; murder; the corpse; bodily wastes; the feminine body and incest” (Creed 1993, 9). It is not surprising, then, she argues, that cannibalism, the abominable and living corpse or bodily disfigurement are recurring images in this genre.
The basis for her readings of films such as The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979), The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983) or Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) is that, thematically, they are always primarily about the “exploration of female monstrousness and the inability of the male order to control the woman...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Horror Film and Affect
APA 6 Citation
Reyes, X. A. (2016). Horror Film and Affect (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1633120/horror-film-and-affect-towards-a-corporeal-model-of-viewership-pdf (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Reyes, Xavier Aldana. (2016) 2016. Horror Film and Affect. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1633120/horror-film-and-affect-towards-a-corporeal-model-of-viewership-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Reyes, X. A. (2016) Horror Film and Affect. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1633120/horror-film-and-affect-towards-a-corporeal-model-of-viewership-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Reyes, Xavier Aldana. Horror Film and Affect. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.