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Horror after 9/11

[ Film and Media Studies ]

Horror after 9/11

World of Fear, Cinema of Terror

Edited by Aviva Briefel and Sam J. Miller

The first major exploration of the horror film genre through the lens of 9/11 and the subsequent transformation of American and global society.

November 2011

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Hardcover

6 x 9 | 273 pp. | 32 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-72662-8

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 273 pp. | 32 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-74758-6

Horror films have exploded in popularity since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, many of them breaking box-office records and generating broad public discourse. These films have attracted A-list talent and earned award nods, while at the same time becoming darker, more disturbing, and increasingly apocalyptic. Why has horror suddenly become more popular, and what does this say about us? What do specific horror films and trends convey about American society in the wake of events so horrific that many pundits initially predicted the death of the genre? How could American audiences, after tasting real horror, want to consume images of violence on screen?

Horror after 9/11 represents the first major exploration of the horror genre through the lens of 9/11 and the subsequent transformation of American and global society. Films discussed include the Twilight saga; the Saw series; Hostel; Cloverfield; 28 Days Later; remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes; and many more. The contributors analyze recent trends in the horror genre, including the rise of 'torture porn,' the big-budget remakes of classic horror films, the reinvention of traditional monsters such as vampires and zombies, and a new awareness of visual technologies as sites of horror in themselves. The essays examine the allegorical role that the horror film has held in the last ten years, and the ways that it has been translating and reinterpreting the discourses and images of terror into its own cinematic language.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction (Aviva Briefel and Sam J. Miller)
  • Part One. Why Horror?
  • Chapter 1. Black Screens, Lost Bodies: The Cinematic Apparatus of 9/11 Horror (Laura Frost)
  • Chapter 2. Let's Roll: Hollywood Takes on 9/11 (Elisabeth Ford)
  • Chapter 3. Transforming Horror: David Cronenberg's Cinematic Gestures after 9/11 (Adam Lowenstein)
  • Part Two. Horror Looks at Itself
  • Chapter 4. Caught on Tape? The Politics of Video in the New Torture Film (Catherine Zimmer)
  • Chapter 5. Cutting into Concepts of "Reflectionist" Cinema? The Saw Franchise and Puzzles of Post-9/11 Horror (Matt Hills)
  • Chapter 6. The Host versus Cloverfield (Homay King)
  • Chapter 7. "Shop 'Til You Drop!": Consumerism and Horror (Aviva Briefel)
  • Part Three. Horror in Action
  • Chapter 8. Historicizing the Bush Years: Politics, Horror Film, and Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend (Steffen Hantke)
  • Chapter 9. "I Am the Devil and I'm Here to Do the Devil's Work": Rob Zombie, George W. Bush, and the Limits of American Freedom (Linnie Blake)
  • Chapter 10. "Forever Family" Values: Twilight and the Modern Mormon Vampire (Travis Sutton and Harry M. Benshoff)
  • Chapter 11. Assimilation and the Queer Monster (Sam J. Miller)
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Selected Filmography
  • Contributors
  • Index

This collection of essays examines the thriving afterlife of horror, a genre whose obituary many critics composed following the events of September 11, 2001. In the darkened-tower issue of the New Yorker, Anthony Lane wrote that the day presented "circumstances that Hollywood should no longer try to match." How could American audiences, after tasting real horror, want to consume images of violence on-screen? The omnipresent posttraumatic response of "It was like a movie" seemed to herald the death of a genre that would either remind viewers of catastrophes they wanted to forget or pale in comparison to the terrors of the real thing. Some critics, on the other hand, viewed horror as the perfect medium for re-presenting 9/11 and its aftermath. An October 23, 2001, article from the New York Times tried to imagine the forms that horror films would take to adapt to the new global context: "The horror movie is just sitting there waiting to deal with this. . . . It is one of the most versatile genres out there, a universal solvent of virtually any news issue. And it is now perfectly positioned to cop some serious attitude, to play a role where it's not simply a date movie but going further back, to the 1950's, where you have the horror movie as metaphor." Indeed, the horror genre has experienced a dramatic resurgence over the last decade, both from major and independent studios. These films now pervade the box office, attracting A-list talent and earning award nods, while at the same time becoming darker, more disturbing, and increasingly apocalyptic. It is significant that many of them retell stories of 9/11 through visual narratives of horror.

The essays in Horror after 9/11 examine the allegorical role that the horror film has played in the last ten years. They analyze metaphorical representations of concrete events like the destruction of the World Trade Center, the Iraq War, and the tortures perpetuated at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers; the rise of new subgenres such as "torture porn"; big-budget remakes of classic horror films, as well as the reinvention of traditional monsters (e.g., vampires, B-movie creatures, and zombies); and the new awareness of visual technologies as sites of horror in themselves. Through these various perspectives, we hope to provide new models for interpreting the horror film as an allegorical genre, a "meaning machine"—to borrow Judith Halberstam's term for gothic monsters—that transfigures the "real" into the representational.

In the Clinton years, our national atrocities and military interventions (Somalia, Kosovo) were far away and easy for Americans to overlook, resulting in a lack of urgency in the public debate. The horror genre during this period partook of this national apathy. In fact, in the late 1990s, horror films had largely fallen off the cultural map. The ones that reached theaters were characterized by disengagement and psychological introversion, retreading the fundamental tropes of the genre (imperiled overprivileged teens, predictable monsters, and even more predictable situations). Prime examples are I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997) and its sequels, Urban Legend (Jamie Blanks, 1998) and its sequels, Dracula 2000 (Patrick Lussier, 2000), Jason X (James Isaac, 2001), and so on. One of the biggest horror successes of the period, Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), was a parody, self-reflexively calling out the clichés of the genre to subvert and then reaffirm them, and its popularity was largely due to just how stagnant and predictable the genre had become. Perhaps in response to Scream, other horror examples from this period steered clear of generic conventions. The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999), for example, went for a distinctly introspective personal-crisis narrative that had more in common with the suburban drama American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) than with other horror films of the period. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sénchez, 1999) followed a cinema verité aesthetic, rejecting the pyrotechnics that had defined much of the genre. Both of these films shifted their attention from broad political questions to the domain of personal psychology.

If in the late 1990s there seemed to be little at stake in public discourse—one of our greatest concerns was the president's marital fidelity—9/11 ushered in a period that would be framed by the government and the media as one in which the fundamentals of our society and our very existence were threatened ("They hate our freedom"), and in which every government and individual would have to pick a side ("You're either with us or with the terrorists"). Whereas before September 11 it was acceptable to refer to the president as a dim-witted draft dodger whose wealth and connections helped him steal an election (this was the entire premise of the Comedy Central sitcom That's My Bush! [Trey Parker and Matt Stone, 2001]), afterward critique and reflexivity were suddenly unacceptable. Susan Sarandon was pilloried for making a peace sign at the 2003 Oscars. Right-wing smear campaigns were launched against Danny Glover for stating that the United States was in no moral position to judge the terrorists because it was the greatest "purveyor of violence" around the world. Pop-country singers the Dixie Chicks were demonized for making mildly critical remarks about the president, with radio stations refusing to play their music and concert attendance dropping dramatically. Two separate wars were being waged; the Patriot Act had granted the executive branch the power to tap our phones and restrict our speech, and immigrants of color were subject to new discriminatory policies. Yet to criticize any of this while in the public eye became career suicide, due in large part to the echo chamber of cable news.

In a context where we could not openly process the horror we were experiencing, the horror genre emerged as a rare protected space in which to critique the tone and content of public discourse. Because they take place in universes where the fundamental rules of our own reality no longer apply—the dead do not stay dead, skyscraper-sized monsters crawl out of the Hudson River, vampires fall in love with humans—these products of popular culture allow us to examine the consequences not only of specific oppressive acts funded by our tax dollars, but also of the entire Western way of life. To list only a few, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) features critiques of vivisection, Bong Joon-ho's The Host (2006) takes on environmental practices, and the Saw franchise (2004–2010) addresses American apathy and self-satisfaction. Under the mask afforded by their genre, these and other films often generate narratives that are frighteningly timely. As Stephen Prince predicts, "The most significant long-term influence of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and of the Iraq War that followed, is likely to be found in the provision of new templates for genre filmmaking. The influence here is potentially long-term because the imprinting can be relatively subliminal in ways that do not conflict with or compromise genre appeal and therefore posing less of a threat to box office returns."

In the past few years, a number of books—three of which were written or edited by contributors to this volume—have focused on the horror film's ability to represent national trauma, even though the genre is "rarely considered 'serious' enough to portray traumatic history." Among these is Adam Lowenstein's influential Shocking Representation, which examines horror's engagement with trauma in contexts ranging from the Holocaust, to Hiroshima, to 9/11. Linnie Blake's The Wounds of Nations begins with the compelling premises that "horror cinema exists at the conjunction of cultural analysis and cultural policy," and that it can "actively discourage an easy acceptance of cohesive, homogenising narratives of identity, national or otherwise, promoting instead a form of encoded/decoded engagement with traumatic events," which Blake explores in a spectrum of global horror films. Although they do not focus on trauma per se, Steffen Hantke's American Horror Film and Ian Conrich's Horror Zone both feature essays that address the genre's depiction of recent terrors. Hantke's anthology takes up the scholarly assumption that the horror film has undergone an identity crisis in the last several years; the various pieces examine the implications of this crisis in the new millennium, while "taking inventory of the American horror film at a time of great political turmoil." Despite this American focus, many of the essays examine the horror genre in a transnational context. For its part, Conrich's collection sets plot aside to look at structures that complement the horror genre: amusement park rides, DVD commentaries, websites, costume and set design, and so forth. A number of the essays in his anthology also discuss the various forms of trauma that the horror film has had to address in its many permutations.

Horror after 9/11 takes these scholarly works—and many others—as starting points for its analysis of the genre in a post-9/11 context. Although we recognize that ours is a work in progress, as horror continues to be produced at a dynamic rate, we believe that the decade that has passed since 9/11 offers a useful point of retrospection. Our objective is not to create a homogenous narrative about the genre, suggesting that "post-9/11 horror" is a cohesive category, but rather to appreciate the multiplicity of forms it has taken, and the complexity of stories it has generated about a date that has become coterminous with terror itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the essays do not focus specifically on the day itself; instead, they focus on the events' aftershocks, both at home and abroad.

One of the main objectives of this anthology is to challenge and dissect the concept of allegory as it applies to the horror film. We have come to expect that a monster is never just a monster, but rather a metaphor that translates real anxieties into more or less palatable forms. According to a 2005 article from the Nation, "Every generation gets the movie monster it deserves. The Depression spawned Frankenstein and Dracula—a victim of modernity and a figment of predatory, shape-shifting capitalism. The nuclear age begat mammoth mutants; the chaotic 1970s produced super psycho-killers; the feminist era inspired hyper-macho crazies and the ultimate patriarchal cannibal, Hannibal Lecter. For reasons that have much to do with the rise of Fortress America, our current creature of choice is the invader from space." While this is a seductive model for understanding the horror film's relationship to the real, its direct-ratio approach to the genre is overly formulaic. The article goes on to examine the rise of science fiction and zombie films—such as Steven Spielberg's remake of War of the Worlds and George Romero's Land of the Dead, both released in 2005—as indicative of a growing fear of invasion, but it does not question what it means to create such associations. Must we interpret every zombie, vampire, or alien from a specific era in the same way? Moreover, how can we reconcile the tangible presence of the monster with its often-spectral allegorical meaning? In his instrumental essay on the gothic genre "The Dialectic of Fear," Franco Moretti argues that monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein's creature must be seen in concrete as well as metaphorical forms: "In the literature of terror . . . the metaphor is no longer a metaphor: it is a character as real as the others. . . . The monster lives. Frankenstein's first moment of terror arises precisely in the face of this fact: a metaphor gets up and walks." Treating the monster as a sign that transparently gives way to an ulterior meaning is to overlook the monster's material presence, which is as crucial to the horror film as it is to gothic literature. The essays in this volume consciously seek to address the allegorical and concrete manifestations of the monsters that have taken over film screens since 9/11.

It is particularly crucial to consider the dual nature of the monster given that 9/11 has itself been described as an "event" that encompasses both the literal and the symbolic. It represents the very real deaths and destruction that took place on that day and in its aftermath, as well as the day's resounding symbolic import. As Marc Redfield writes, "The event called September 11 or 9/11 was as real as death, but its traumatic force seems nonetheless inseparable from a certain ghostliness, not just because the attacks did more than merely literal damage (that would be true of any event causing cultural trauma) but because the symbolic damage done seems spectral—not unreal by any means, but not simply 'real' either." His reference to the ghostly (informed, perhaps, by the Tribute in Light that towered over Manhattan in the months following 9/11) evokes the relationship between the concreteness of undeniable events and their metaphorical import. The tension inherent in this duality is apparent in the frequency with which critics acknowledge—even if only parenthetically—the unmistakable impact that 9/11 had on real individuals, before going on to explore its symbolic significance. While this tendency can be read as the product of guilty impulses, acknowledgment that suffering and abstraction do not always mix, it also confirms the insistent duality (it's never just a death, or a symbol, but always both) of the events. The horror film monster reminds us of this duality through its own doubled nature as killing and meaning machine.

The particular context of 9/11 also demands a critical rethinking of allegory because it scrambles the relationship between the real and the imaginary. The cinematic resonance of the destruction of the towers provides a bleak version of life imitating art; in Slavoj Zizek's words, "That is the rationale of the often-mentioned association of the attacks with Hollywood disaster movies: the unthinkable which happened was the object of fantasy, so that, in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and that was the biggest surprise." Zizek goes on to discuss the ever-dizzying aspects of this reversal in terms of Hollywood's growing role in shaping reality: after 9/11, the Pentagon commissioned film directors to imagine "possible scenarios for terrorist attacks and how to fight them," while the White House encouraged the film industry to create products that would get "the right ideological message across not only to Americans, but also to the Hollywood public around the globe." The faith that cinematic representation could rewrite the real was also apparent in the smaller-scale operations of filmmakers who edited the towers out of films such as Serendipity (Peter Chelsom, 2001), Zoolander (Ben Stiller, 2001), and Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002), all of which, produced before 9/11, included the World Trade Center in the New York skyline. This strange impulse to alleviate trauma through a technological repetition compulsion conveys the fantasy or nightmare that the towers "were never there to begin with." Under these new circumstances, it becomes difficult—perhaps even impossible—to treat allegory as a one-way representational process.

We thus need new models through which to reconsider the complex relationship between the real and the allegorical in a post-9/11 context. Lowenstein offers one effective strategy in Shocking Representation, when he asks us to think of the relationship between horror and real trauma in terms of an "allegorical moment," "a shocking collision of film, spectator, and history where registers of bodily space and historical time are disrupted, confronted, and intertwined." Lowenstein adds to this paradigm in a recent essay, emphasizing the importance of spectatorship in understanding allegory: "The allegorical moment, like any theorized act of spectatorship, can only represent a horizon of possibilities for potential viewer reactions. No physiological sensors or strategic interviews or questionnaire results can ever tell the whole story about a matter as complicated and idiosyncratic as how exactly spectators interact with a film." This model, with its attention to a multiplicity of intersections both on- and off-screen, allows for a more nuanced interpretation of the factors that contribute to political allegory, going beyond a unidirectional transformation of the real into its metaphorical counterpart. Each of the essays in Horror after 9/11 devises its own strategy for addressing the many valences of allegory.

We borrow the title for the first part of the anthology—"Why Horror?"—from Noël Carroll's oft-cited question about why individuals would "find pleasure in what by nature is distressful and unpleasant." In this case, we use the same question to examine why the genre seems particularly suited to address global, national, and personal trauma after 9/11. Chapter 1, Laura Frost's "Black Screens, Lost Bodies," takes up the issue of visibility as it applies to media and cinematic representations of the terrorist attacks. Frost contrasts the elision of images of death and violence effected in realistic films such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Paul Greengrass's United 93 (2006) to the visually graphic reimagining of the events found in the horror films Mulberry Street (Jim Mickle, 2006) and Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008). By juxtaposing these two representational strategies, she argues for horror's status as a "genre that thrives on what is repressed elsewhere." In the next chapter, "Let's Roll," Elisabeth Ford also examines Greengrass's film, arguing that its "aesthetics of cinematic dispassion" are enabled by conventions drawn from the "body genres" of horror, pornography, and melodrama. Ford contends that the over-the-top Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Snakes on a Plane (David R. Ellis and Lex Halaby, 2006) exposes the fictionality of films that seek to establish a transparent relationship to the real. The section concludes with Adam Lowenstein's "Transforming Horror," which discusses David Cronenberg's post-9/11 thrillers, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). According to Lowenstein, these films deploy tropes from the director's earlier horror films, including Shivers (1975) and The Brood (1979), to develop a new visual vocabulary for representing the "conjuncture of violence and globalized geopolitics."

The second part of the volume closes in on moments in which "Horror Looks at Itself" and reflects on its own themes, technologies, and cultural status. Catherine Zimmer's "Caught on Tape?" examines the role of surveillance in torture porn, a subgenre that flourished after September 11 and in the wake of Abu Ghraib. Zimmer discusses the methods through which the Saw films (and others in this category) deploy torture and surveillance as mutually reinforcing mechanisms of power. By juxtaposing this popular franchise with Michael Haneke's art-house films—most notably Caché (2005)—Zimmer contends that surveillance can also destabilize relations based on visuality and violence. Matt Hills revisits the Saw films in his "Cutting into Concepts of 'Reflectionist' Cinema?," focusing on the relationship they claim to the real. He makes the compelling case that these films subvert the one-to-one ratio we often expect of allegory; through their use of "traps," the Saw movies "circle thematically around contemporary political controversies, without quite being 'about' them." Homay King's succinctly titled "The Host versus Cloverfield" also posits that horror conventions often avoid a straightforwardly referential relationship to "true" events. She analyzes these creature features through their condensation of "multiple historical traumas into aggregate, globally resonant visual forms," a strategy that informs us about the representational politics of the horror film more generally. Finally, Aviva Briefel's "Shop 'Til You Drop!" traces the intertextual flashbacks to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1979) performed by horror films seeking to establish an adversarial relationship to post-9/11 politics. A number of films from the last decade, including 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004), Land of the Dead (Romero, 2005), and The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007), reference the blissful scenes of "free shopping" from Romero's 1979 film to try to reconcile their dual status as popular commodities and agents of cultural critique.

"Horror in Action," the last section of the volume, features four case studies of how horror films negotiate the growing conservatism of post-9/11 America. Steffen Hantke analyzes Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend (2007) as a "key text of the final period of the Bush years," one whose plot and visual aesthetics herald a return to Cold War–style suspicion and values. The next chapter, Linnie Blake's "'I Am the Devil and I'm Here to Do the Devil's Work," reads Rob Zombie's "hillbilly horror" as a cinematic response to the stifling patriotism of the American War on Terror. The films House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil's Rejects (2005) reference 1970s backwoods horror to challenge xenophobic modes of nationalism. In their "'Forever Family' Values," Travis Sutton and Harry M. Benshoff take on the conservative reinvention of the vampire in the novel and film versions of Twilight (2005 and 2008, respectively). Drawing from Mormonism, the extremely popular franchise transforms the sexually polymorphous figure of the vampire into a heteronormative icon of monogamy and chastity. The section and volume end with a manifesto of sorts: Sam J. Miller's "Assimilation and the Queer Monster." Miller explores the disappearance of the queer monster (à la Norman Bates from Psycho [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960] or Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs [Jonathan Demme, 1991]) in a conservative political climate marked by the normalization of the gay and lesbian movement. He mourns and calls for the return of a monster that, historically, has provided a site of identification for radical queer audiences and that has the potential to radicalize horror cinema itself.

Susan Willis describes post-9/11 America as being "in a popular genre hyperdrive, churning out formulaic fictions in a frenzied attempt to determine who we are and what we're doing. Our historical moment is like a cineplex where every genre is playing simultaneously." This collection is interested in the crucial role that the popular genre of horror has played in this climate of self-evaluation and—in many cases—self-deception. In the process, Horror after 9/11 attempts to tease out the relationship between horror (as a set of generic conventions) and terror (as the catalyst and response to 9/11); the first tends to be associated with the fictional realm and the other with the real. And yet, as Geoffrey Galt Harpham reminds us, "Terror is a feature of the symbolic order, the vast mesh of representations and narratives both official and unofficial, public and private, in which a culture works out its sense of itself. . . . Terror may or may not be itself symbolic, but its effects are registered in the symbolic domain." For the past decade, the horror film has been translating and reinterpreting the discourses and images of terror into its own cinematic language. These translations are multifarious, unpredictable, and constantly developing, as the open-ended title of our collection suggests. In the coming years, artists, audiences, and critics will continue to rely on horror films as we struggle to put a shape and a face on our most existential fears, so we can drag them out into the sunlight.

Aviva Briefel is Associate Professor of English at Bowdoin College. She is the author of The Deceivers: Art Forgery and Identity in the Nineteenth Century.

Sam J. Miller is a writer, community organizer, and independent scholar. His work has been published in journals such as The Minnesota Review, Fiction International, Washington Square, Gargoyle, and The Rumpus.

"Just reading Horror after 9/11 evokes a rush of memories relating to the trauma, the terror, and embodied fear that was experienced that day, bringing into focus just how thoroughly filmmaking has been impacted by 9/11. By widening the scope of analysis beyond the immediate repercussions of terrorism and emphasizing the correlation of global events with cultural production, this book provides a welcome and necessary contribution to film and cultural studies."
―Emily Lauren Putnam, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts