Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Horror and its hidden layers - David Skal’s The Monster Show

“Tod Browning lay in his grave eating malted milk balls,” goes the opening sentence of a particularly gripping chapter in David J Skal’s book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. What is happening here isn’t as otherworldly as that bald sentence makes it sound, but it is freakish and scary in its own way. The year was 1901 and young Browning – employed with a travelling carnival in the American heartland – was playing the part of the Hypnotic Living Corpse; the trick involved being “buried” in full view of gawking spectators and then spending up to 48 hours underground, in a wooden coffin with a hidden ventilation system and nourishment.

Among the lessons from this anecdote, one is that the public’s fascination with morbidity can always be relied on to sell tickets; another is that individual experiences of this sort have had a far-reaching effect on popular culture. Tod the Living Corpse would later become a film director and helm two of the most influential horror movies ever made, the 1931 version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and the viscerally disturbing Freaks (1932), with its cast of actual deformed carnival performers. All the time Browning had spent six feet under was “conducive to thought”, he told an interviewer once. Perhaps he passed his lonely subterranean hours thinking of a future where he might terrify large groups of people without having to himself undergo such discomfort. And perhaps it was natural for him to find his calling in cinema, where a director can be a puppet-master, pulling the strings from behind a curtain, watching his audience squirm in their seats (or as Alfred Hitchcock once said of his fondness for manipulating viewers’ emotions, “I play them like an organ”).

It is understandable enough that horror as a genre is not for all tastes. What’s more bemusing is that so many people regard it as something inferior and disreputable – as frivolous escapism – despite the fact that fear is one of the profoundest and most fundamental of human emotions (going back to the oldest folk-tales like the one about a group of primitive people being terrified by the mouth of a deep cave because they had never known the darkness of night-time). Skal’s book, with its many fascinating stories, is a study of a century of horror in American culture – mainly in film, but also in other media such as photography, painting, television and pulp literature. It is about horror as a reflection of social currents or states of mind; a mirror – or an antidote – to a prevailing zeitgeist. As the author points out, it is no coincidence that one of America’s worst years of the century, the Depression-afflicted 1931, was also the best ever for monster movies (the Lugosi Dracula, the Boris Karloff Frankenstein, Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde among other films).

The talking points in this book include things that have often come up in popular-film studies: for instance, the Godzilla monster as an embodiment of nuclear-age paranoia (the creature is a byproduct of radioactive waste, and it is of course Japanese in its origin). But there are others I hadn’t thought so closely about, despite having been a long-time fan of horror films. Contemplating the effect of World War One on horror in popular culture, Skal observes that “modern warfare had introduced new and previously unimaginable approaches to destroying or brutally reordering the human body” – and this found echoes in the Surrealist artists’ preoccupation with deformity and disfigurement, as well as in films like the Lon Chaney-starrer The Phantom of the Opera and the 1922 Nosferatu, with its rodent-like vampire and pestilential, plague-like images. The climactic scene of Abel Gance’s 1937 anti-war film J’Accuse
a montage of the ruined faces of real WWI soldiers – is notable in this respect: as Skal notes, these disfigured men, seen in unsparing close-up, could easily be the living models for the masks worn by actors like Chaney and Karloff in horror films. “As an unintentional revelation of horror’s major subtext in the Twenties and Thirties, [Gance’s film] is breathtaking.”

Equally engrossing is the chapter about the effects of the birth-control pill – which helped engender the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s – and the drug Thalidomide, which was safely prescribed to pregnant women but had horrific consequences and resulted in thousands of birth defects. These events found resonance in books and films about monstrous children, despairing parents and the idea that reproduction can happen independently of sexual intercourse: works such as Village of the Damned, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, David Lynch’s Eraserhead and David Cronenberg’s The Brood, even the iconic scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien where a male cosmonaut violently “gives birth” when an alien embryo bursts through his chest.

Reading The Monster Show made me think about concealed layers of meaning in our own horror movies. The recent Ek thi Daayan, for instance, can be read as the story of a man who, from his childhood days, has had a long-suppressed fear of women; now, as he sets about trying to consolidate a romantic relationship, the fear surfaces again and he seems beset by witches and unsure who to trust**. Similarly, the atmospheric 13B – in which a man realises that events in his house seem to be mimicking the plot of a new TV drama his family has become addicted to – can be seen as a comment on the seductive power of television and how media affects our self-perception. A variant, perhaps, on the famous scene in the 1982 film Poltergeist where a little girl is made captive, literally, by a TV set.

But what of earlier, more apparently simple-minded horror films? The possibilities, if you start thinking about them, are endless. In the Raj Kumar Kohli classic Jaani Dushman, a long-time personal favourite, a hirsute, long-fanged beast terrorizes a village, abducting and killing young girls on their wedding day. Given this theme, and a final scene where three macho heroes confront the monster in a den, the film could well be read as a parable about a conservative society’s fear that its young women might be seduced, their honour “compromised”, before they have been married and safely co-opted into the system. The somewhat confused structure of the film leaves a question dangling in the end though: was the werewolf just a controlling patriarch with an abundance of chest hair? Or was he a saviour, trying to yank a regressive society out of the dark ages - and were the real villains the Sunil Dutt and Shatrughan Sinha characters, who went sauntering home, phallic guns slung over their shoulders, to their little women once it was all over? Go on, discuss.

P.S. a nod of gratitude to the erudite Just Mohit, who so thoughtfully gifted me Skal’s book. I hope to write more about it sometime, because it contains much else of interest.


** What made Ek thi Daayan an interesting test case for me was that I could identify the exact moment when the film started to become a disappointment: it is (minor spoiler alert) the point where we get “objective” evidence that one of the characters really IS a witch. Before this happens, it is possible to view the whole story as a fever-dream suffered by the Emraan Hashmi character, who may be an unreliable narrator. Much of the tension comes from our wondering just how disturbed he is: does he have deep-rooted problems with women, which manifest themselves in “accidents” that cause injury to his female assistants, or sudden attacks on women with long “chhottis”? There is even a scene where a psychiatrist offers credible “rational” explanations for everything that has happened so far. Once the film reveals its supernatural hand, it loses some of its psychological dimensions and turns its leading man into a generic action hero. But this doesn't mean that the subtext becomes invalid.

1 comment:

  1. Radhika Oltikar1:13 AM, June 07, 2014

    Thought-provoking. And so agree with you about Ek thi daayan. I recall saying to my husband that the film would have been so much more interesting if the daayan wasn't actually a daayan.