Theatricality in the Horror Film
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A study of monstrous theatricality in scary movies


As is well known, the horror film generally presents a situation where normality is threatened by a monster. From this premise, this book argues that scary movies often create their terrifying effects stylistically and structurally through a radical break with the realism of normality in the form of monstrous theatricality. Theatricality in the horror film expresses itself in many ways. First and foremost, it comes across in the physical performance of monstrosity; the over-the-top performance of a chainsaw-wielding serial killer who performs his nefarious acts to terrify both his victims within the film and the audience in the cinema. Theatrical artifice can also appear as a stagy cemetery with broken-down tombstones and twisted, gnarly trees, or through the use of violently aberrant filmic techniques, or in the oppressive claustrophobia of a single-room setting reminiscent of classical drama. All these are examples of the cinematic theatricality of horror. Any performative element of a film that flaunts its ‘difference’ from what is deemed realistic or normal on screen might qualify as an instance of theatrical artifice, creating an intense affect in the audience. The artificiality of the frightening spectacle is at the heart of the dark pleasures of horror.


The ultimate goal of ‘Theatricality in the Horror Film’ is to suggest that the theatricality of horror cinema echoes the genre’s roots in ancient tragedy. Like Greek tragedy, horror cinema allows spectators to confront their deepest fears within the safe space of the auditorium, thus affording the audience a cathartic experience. In addition to catharsis, the horror film’s dichotomy between the stable status quo of normality and the shockingly disruptive moment of horror also rehearses tragedy’s genealogy famously articulated by Nietzsche: the terrifying carnal pleasures of Dionysian excess formalized through a dialectic confrontation with the static Apollonian principles of order, civility and normality. Tragic theatricality, this book contends, is the essence of horror cinema.


1. Introduction: Of Monsters and Monstration; 2. Horror, Realism and Theatricality; 3. The Theatricality of Monstrous Villainy in Film Adaptations of Horror Plays; 4. The Theatre as Locus Horribilis: Staging the Paradox of Tragic Horror; 5. The Theatricality of Horror: Characters, Unities and Styles; 6. Conclusion: The Theatricality of Horror Spectatorship; Bibliography; Index.

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A study of monstrous theatricality in scary movies


As is well known, the horror film generally presents a situation where normality is threatened by a monster. From this premise, this book argues that scary movies often create their terrifying effects stylistically and structurally through a radical break with the realism of normality in the form of monstrous theatricality. Theatricality in the horror film expresses itself in many ways. First and foremost, it comes across in the physical performance of monstrosity; the over-the-top performance of a chainsaw-wielding serial killer who performs his nefarious acts to terrify both his victims within the film and the audience in the cinema. Theatrical artifice can also appear as a stagy cemetery with broken-down tombstones and twisted, gnarly trees, or through the use of violently aberrant filmic techniques, or in the oppressive claustrophobia of a single-room setting reminiscent of classical drama. All these are examples of the cinematic theatricality of horror. Any performative element of a film that flaunts its ‘difference’ from what is deemed realistic or normal on screen might qualify as an instance of theatrical artifice, creating an intense affect in the audience. The artificiality of the frightening spectacle is at the heart of the dark pleasures of horror.


The ultimate goal of ‘Theatricality in the Horror Film’ is to suggest that the theatricality of horror cinema echoes the genre’s roots in ancient tragedy. Like Greek tragedy, horror cinema allows spectators to confront their deepest fears within the safe space of the auditorium, thus affording the audience a cathartic experience. In addition to catharsis, the horror film’s dichotomy between the stable status quo of normality and the shockingly disruptive moment of horror also rehearses tragedy’s genealogy famously articulated by Nietzsche: the terrifying carnal pleasures of Dionysian excess formalized through a dialectic confrontation with the static Apollonian principles of order, civility and normality. Tragic theatricality, this book contends, is the essence of horror cinema.


1. Introduction: Of Monsters and Monstration; 2. Horror, Realism and Theatricality; 3. The Theatricality of Monstrous Villainy in Film Adaptations of Horror Plays; 4. The Theatre as Locus Horribilis: Staging the Paradox of Tragic Horror; 5. The Theatricality of Horror: Characters, Unities and Styles; 6. Conclusion: The Theatricality of Horror Spectatorship; Bibliography; Index.

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Theatricality in the Horror Film
Theatricality in the Horror Film
A Brief Study on the Dark Pleasures of Screen Artifice
André Loiselle
Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company
www.anthempress.com
This edition first published in UK and USA 2020
by ANTHEM PRESS
75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK
or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK
and
244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA
Copyright © André Loiselle 2020
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Library of Congress Control Number: 2019949651
ISBN-13: 978-1-78527-128-1 (Hbk)
ISBN-10: 1-78527-128-8 (Hbk)
This title is also available as an e-book.
CONTENTS
List of Illustrations
1. Introduction: Of Monsters and Monstration
2. Horror, Realism and Theatricality
3. The Theatricality of Monstrous Villainy in Film Adaptations of Horror Plays
4. The Theater as Locus Horribilis: Staging the Paradox of Tragic Horror
5. The Theatricality of Horror: Characters, Unities and Styles
6. Conclusion: The Theatricality of Horror Spectatorship
Bibliography
Index
ILLUSTRATIONS
1.1 Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates dressed up as Mother in Psycho
2.1 The stills that close Night of the Living Dead evoke actual horrors outside the parameters of the scary movie
2.2 Michael Rooker as a Brandoesque rebel in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
3.1 Robert Englund as Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
3.2 The Villain in full theatrical view compared to the victim’s close-up in Murder in the Red Barn
3.3 Juxtaposed shots of outdoors normality and indoors satanical madness in Brimstone and Treacle
3.4 Rhoda’s abnormal doll-like plastic perfection in The Bad Seed
4.1 The gory spectacle of murder staged by the Golem in The Limehouse Golem
4.2 The final shot of The Gallows
5.1 Theatrical crucifixion in The Silence of the Lambs
5.2 The righteously vengeful Punch in Dolls (1987)
5.3 From normality to horror in Event Horizon (1997)
5.4 The influential stylistic artifice of The House of Usher (1960)
5.5 The theatricality of torture in Torture Chamber (2013)
5.6 Montage and viral gossip create the monster in Cry_Wolf (2005)
6.1 The terrified audience of Paranormal Activity
Chapter 1
INTRODUCTION: OF MONSTERS AND MONSTRATION
Let us begin this brief study on theatricality in the horror film with a question on etymology and syntagmatics, 1 however pedantic it might seem. If, as Robin Wood has famously suggested, the horror film can be summarized as “normality is threatened by the monster” (Wood 1979 , 14), then how does the syntagma “monster” signify its threatening difference from the syntagma “normality”? While there are many definitions of what a monster is, including Jacques Derrida’s statement that “a monster is a species for which we do not yet have a name” (Derrida & Weber 1995 , 386), etymologically the term is specifically related to the notion of being put on display. Derived from the Latin monstrare , the word “monster” connotes the state of being shown. The term is also associated to monere , “to warn”: the monster is a warning sign of impending disaster (Huet 2000 , 87). The term “monster” therefore is recognizable as a signifier of threatening ostentation that brazenly challenges “normality,” which, by definition, is unremarkable, banal and commonplace. As Ernest Mathijs puts it, “ostentation certainly characterizes every monster role” (Mathijs 2012 , 139). The monster stands out in all its spectacular abnormality before the appalled gaze of the “normal” observer who sees it as an omen of terrible things to come. The monster is often a weird creature from some strange land. But it does not have to be. It might be an ordinary person, an everyday object or merely a vague impression. Whatever it is, however, the monster ostentatiously appears at some critical point in the film as an aberrant display that threatens mundane reality . Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) might look perfectly normal through most of Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock). But at the climatic moment of horror, he emerges as the grotesquely bewigged embodiment of abnormality, shocking everyone on screen and in the cinema ( Figure 1.1 ).


Figure 1.1 Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates dressed up as Mother in Psycho.

The term “monster” is also a close relative of the narratological term “monstration, ” used primarily by historians of early cinema, such as André Gaudreault, to explain cinema’s relationship to the theater, and its departure from it. In his book Du littéraire au filmique: Système du récit (1988), Gaudreault argues that film creates its meaning through a combination of two broad techniques: monstration, or showing in a continuous shot, and narration, or the juxtaposition of shots through editing. Monstration is the aspect of cinema that links it most directly to theater. In fact, what Gaudreault calls profilmic monstration “is the equivalent on film of the monstrative work performed on stage” (Gaudreault 1988 , 121). 2 Although certain types of filmographic monstration, like variable framing, differ from traditional theatrical staging, monstration on stage and in film share the notion of the unity of time and space. But, unlike the theater, Gaudreault continues, film can escape the limits of monstration through narration or montage, which allows it to move freely across time and space. Gaudreault writes,

Although filmographic monstration […] can detach itself from profilmic monstration , although it can become autonomous and add a discursive layer to the profilmic, it is still nailed to the hic et nunc of the enunciation […] It is impossible for filmographic monstration to achieve what is so simple for the filmographic narrator: namely, to move instantaneously ( time ) from one place ( space ) to another. (123, emphasis in the original)
Monstration, therefore, is the aspect of film that can most readily be labeled “theatrical,” for it is the aspect of the cinematic text that achieves its effects primarily through a straightforward showing within the unity of time and space of a scene. Given the close relation between monster and monstration , and given that monstration is an instance of the theatrical within the cinematic, it follows that the presence of the monster in the horror film is likely to operate as an instance of monstrative theatricality. In other words, the emergence of the monster in the horror film interrupts the narrative flow of the film as theatrical monstration disrupts the straightforward telling of the normal characters’ stories and imposes the terrifying regime of showing on the spectator, who is suddenly trapped in the here and now of the horrifying spectacle from which there is no easy narrative escape.
This moment of monstrous monstration on film corresponds to a process of stylistic transformation that dates back to at least the stage precursor of the horror film: the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. In their book Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (2002), Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson argue that horror plays performed at Paris’s Théâtre du Grand-Guignol from the late nineteenth century to the theater’s closure in the early 1960s generally oscillated in style between naturalism and melodrama. The former would prevail during most of the drama, as the “normal” story would unfold, until the “moment of horror” when the tone would switch drastically to melodramatic dread. “It is at these moments that any pretense of naturalism is finally abandoned and the full force of stylized melodrama is brought to bear on the performance,” say Hand and Wilson. The moment of horror represents, through stylistic shift, “a journey which leads from bourgeois security to mortal danger, from the rational to the insane, from—in effect—Naturalism to Melodrama” (Hand and Wilson 2002 , 37–38). In this book, I will argue that a similar shift operates in the horror film. At moments of horror, the scary movie replicates the theatricality of stylized melodrama, breaking with the naturalism or realism of narrative normality. In Chapters 2 and 3 , I will further discuss the ramifications of the term “melodrama” for the study of theatricality in the horror film.
Theatricality in the horror film expresses itself in many ways. First and foremost, it comes across in the physical performance of monstrosity, where its size and broad histrionics often stunningly clash with discreetly diminutive normality. But it also manifests itself through the depiction of the sites of horror—the locus horribilis . Several horror films actually use the theater as a creepy setting whose artifice is conducive to terror. But even in seemingly “normal” environments, at the moment of horror, space can become a monstrous theatrical spectacle. Similarly, radical stylistic departures through discontinuous editing or aberrant cinematography, as well as the ostentatious personification of the monster’s victims, and the oppressive spatiotemporal limitations of the scary situation function as shocking devices that contrast drastically with “cinematic normality.” In the following chapters, I propose to explore these various incarnations of theatricality within the cinematic world of the horror film to provide an alternative way of interpreting the effects of the audiovisual tale of terror.
I claim “alternative” because the reading of horror I propose here differs markedly from conventional approaches to the genre. Over the past 40 years, the critical discourse around the horror film has tended to focus on four general areas: (1) the subconscious appeal of the genre (Creed 1993 ; Wood 1979 ); (2) cognitive responses to monstrosity (Carroll 1990 ; Grodal 1997 ); (3) the effects of the genre’s gendered narrative on audiences, especially female spectators (Cherry 2002 ; Clover 1992 ; Linda Williams 1984 ; Pinedo 1997 ); and (4) the relationship between the monster and specific cultural, social and historical contexts (Benshoff 2002 ; Skal 1993 ; Wood 1979 ). But little work has been done on the way in which horror creates its effects stylistically through a radical break with the realism of normality in the form of monstrous theatricality. This book argues that theatricality is at the core of the cinematic tale of terror and is crucial in the creation of horror effects on screen.
To carry out this argument, it is important to have a clear understanding of certain key concepts, in particular, “horror” and “theatricality.” Let’s start with “horror.” Although theorists like Noel Carroll ( 1990 , 15) draw a distinction between horror stories and tales of terror (the former showing a supernatural monster, the latter featuring a human villain), I see both genres as belonging to a single mode typified by two basic elements. The first, as has already been discussed, is the presence of a threatening display. The threatening presence (supernatural monster or human villain) is not merely a character driven by greed, lust or anger (for mere greed, lust and anger are the stuff of crime thrillers, not horror). Rather, the character or object is perceived as a force that cannot be reasoned with. The victims cannot simply offer money or sex in exchange for their safety. For example, in an early scene from Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (1986, Tom McLoughlin), as Jason (C. J. Graham) prepares to impale two unfortunate camp counselors, Darren (Tony Goldwyn) and Lizbeth (Nancy McLoughlin), the latter offers the masked killer cash and her American Express card in exchange for her life. Jason ignores her plea and proceeds to drive a spear through her face. A shot of a few dollar bills and the credit card floating in a muddy puddle after Lizbeth’s gruesome murder underscores that the monster has no interest in such mundane objects. Even when sexual desire might seem to underlie the villain’s behavior, as in sadistic slashers like Maniac (1980, William Lustig) or psychological thrillers like Split (2016, M. Night Shyamalan), simple intercourse is never the fiend’s primary goal. There is always a more pressing urge to assert the singularity of a self-absorbed obsession, be it insatiable voracity, compulsive revenge, irrational envy, blind hatred or some other insane fixation. The monster’s motivations always transcend “normal” material or physical needs. As such, the monster evokes George Bataille’s notion of Evil, which exists for its own sake (Bataille 1973 , 18). Even in the rare instances where the monster is eventually revealed to be benevolent and humane, monstrous actions defy “normal” justifications: as when Dr. Frankenstein’s forlorn creature (Boris Karloff) unwittingly drowns a little girl by throwing her in a pond the same way he had thrown flowers.
The other essential element of horror is best described by the Latin phrase David Cronenberg has cited as the source of all terror: Timor mortis conturbat mea —the fear of death disturbs me (Morris 1994 , 58–59). The horror film and the tale of terror are characterized by an engagement with the fear of painful death at the hands of monsters and villains. This is what distinguishes the tale of terror and the horror film from other narrative forms that might also exhibit villains, but whose threatening function is seriously downplayed. Comedies often feature wicked characters (think of films ranging from The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming) to the Scary Movie series (2000–2013)). But in such works, the spectator never fears for the life of the protagonists. In the true horror film (no matter how schlocky and over-the-top), the audience is intended to vicariously experience the “normal” characters’ fear of painful death. So, for there to be terror and horror there must be an ostentatiously threatening display that causes deathly fear.
A simplistic understanding of my argument so far might lead one to mention titles like The Haunting (1963, Robert Wise) as a counterexample, since literal monsters and villains are never seen in that and other similar ghost films. Yet, anyone who pays attention to the techniques used in The Haunting will immediately notice that the threatening presence is displayed in a most ostentatious way through a frightening combination of extreme camera angles, expressionistic lights and shadows, material and visual special effects and menacing sounds. The fact that the threat might be imaginary is not irrelevant to my argument. In fact, this supports my contention that horror resides in the excessive display of aberrance that clashes audiovisually with the generic signs of normality that comprise most of the story. The danger might not be actual, but the theatrical moments of horror nevertheless materialize from the perception of an abnormal threat that causes unbearable dread.
Let us now examine the concept of theatricality, a term that has multiple connotations (see, for instance, Davis and Postlewait 2003 ). Patrice Pavis’s definition from his Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts and Analysis (1998) offers a useful starting point: “Theatricality is that which is specifically theatrical, in performance or in the dramatic text […] [where] theatrical means the specific form of theatre enunciation, the movement of the words, the dual nature of the enunciator (character/actor) and his utterances […] [and] the artificiality of performance (representation)” (Pavis 1998 , 395–97). This summary of theatricality contains two essential points: first, its reference to words enunciated in the movement of the actor as character and, second, the artificiality of the performance. While the former (words spoken by actors) is one of the fundamental similarities between theater and narrative cinema that differentiate them from other forms like the novel, the latter (the artificiality of representation) seems to be one of the main contrasts between stage and screen performances, with the latter generally leaning toward realism rather than artifice . But in fact, artificiality is central to the horror film as it precipitates the onslaught against the realism of normality at the moment of horror when theatricality threatens cinematic conventions of transparency.
As such, my use of the term “theatricality” differs from the connotations that scholars like Elizabeth Burns ( 1972 ) and Richard Schechner ( 1977 ) give to the word by relating it to notions of ritual in everyday life where artifice is not necessarily foregrounded. Nor do I follow Josette Féral’s distinction between performance and theatricality as the former exposing and undoing the codes of the latter (Féral 1982 , 178). I also use theatricality in a narrower sense than Samuel Weber does in his influential book Theatricality as Medium (2004). For Weber, “theatricality is defined as a problematic process of placing, framing, situating rather than as a process of representation” (Weber 2004 , 315). While Weber’s argument is useful in demonstrating the relevance of theatricality in contemporary media studies—where framing and situating are the essential conditions for any audience to become involved in the witnessing of any event being mediated—I find the definition too broad to benefit my reading of the horror film. Therefore, in what follows I will utilize the term more specifically as a practice that draws attention to its artificiality in contrast to the realism of normality.
This definition of theatricality must be further refined by introducing Timothy Corrigan’s notion of “cinematic theatricality” (Corrigan 1999 , 62–66). This concept serves to acknowledge that while some cinematic practices recall theatrical modes of expression, theatricality on film is never identical to theatricality on stage because of the live presence of the actor in the theater. When I refer to theatricality in the horror film I thus imply “cinematic theatricality,” which suggests that cinema recalls the artifice of theatrical performance without reproducing its live character. Theatricality, in the context of this study, thus refers to moments where the emergence of artifice or ostentatiousness collides, either stylistically or narratively, with inconspicuous cinematic realism. The very appearance on screen of a stage with poor players strutting upon it declaiming ghastly passages from some gory Elizabethan tragedy is often enough to break with the realism of the normal world outside the theatrical space. But beyond that, the over-the-top performance of a chainsaw-wielding serial killer, the looming Gothic architecture of a gloomy castle in ruins, the use of violently aberrant filmic techniques, or the oppressive claustrophobia of a single-room setting reminiscent of classical drama, all these are also examples of “cinematic theatricality.” Indeed, any performative element of a film that flaunts its difference from what is considered realistic or normal on screen might qualify as an instance of theatrical artifice, creating an intense affect in the audience; for the artificiality of the horrific spectacle is at the heart of the dark pleasures of horror cinema. As Isabel Cristina Pinedo argues, “awareness of artifice, then, is not a flaw but an essential ingredient of recreational terror” (Pinedo 1997 , 55). The relationship between realism and theatricality in the cinematic tale of terror will be explored at more length in the next chapter. In that section, I will examine horror films where the use of an explicitly realist style, as in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), allows for a clear distinction between the realm of normality and the eruption of monstrosity, which triggers moments of highly pleasurable artifice.
In Chapter 3 , I will focus on the depiction of the monstrous villains on screen. But rather than casting an overly wide net that would vainly attempt to capture the whole of horror cinema, in this early phase of my argument I will concentrate on horror films that have been adapted from stage thrillers. By comparing theater and film versions of the same villains, I will be able to zero in on the main characteristics of monstrous theatricality that have been transferred from stage to screen. This heuristic strategy will allow me to highlight the core aspects of stage monstrosity that horror cinema appropriates and, later in the book, to extend my discussion to a wider range of films. In Chapter 4 , I will move away from adaptations of plays per se and examine instead films that are set in and around theaters. The films examined in that section, ranging from the early Peter Lorre vehicle Mad Love (1935, Karl Freund) and Douglas Hickox’s cult classic Theatre of Blood (1973) to the Neo-Victorian Gothic thriller The Limehouse Golem (2016, Juan Carlos Medina), use the theater as the ideal setting to expose the horror film’s deep structural connection to classical tragedy.
Of course, the large majority of horror films are not set in theaters. Nevertheless, I argue that much of horror cinema still displays theatricality in its character construction, spatiotemporal restrictions, narrowly focused action and stylistic composition. Chapter 5 articulates this argument in detail, demonstrating through several examples that the content and form of cinematic tales of terror reflect the theatricality of the genre even in films that, on the surface, seem to have absolutely nothing to do with theater. Finally, in Chapter 6 , the audience takes centre stage. In that chapter, I examine how spectators, especially those who are enthusiastically vocal in their response to gory spectacles, contribute to the theatricality of horror. I suggest that these ostentatious reactions to horror films are not merely spontaneous expressions of fear and delight. Rather, those boisterous horror fans are consciously active participants in the viewing experience of the film, engaging in a theatrical event where what happens in the audience is as purposeful, directed and meaningful as what is happening on screen.
The ultimate goal of this study is to suggest that the theatricality of horror cinema echoes the genre’s roots in ancient tragedy. Like Greek tragedy, horror cinema allows spectators to confront their deepest fears within the safe space of the auditorium. Stephen King, among many others, has recognized this link between horror and tragedy. In their description of contemporary American horror fiction, Tony Magistrale and Michael A. Morrison convey King’s opinion that the horror tale provides the audience

with an opportunity to gain profound insights into its fears and, by extension, to acquire an array of coping skills. For King, horror art is essentially a moral medium: it teaches us behavior to avoid, illustrates survival mechanisms worthy of emulation, and extols the virtues inherent in experiencing personal tragedy without being overwhelmed by it. King would have us understand that classical tragedy and horror art are related. (Magistrale and Morrison 1996 , 3)
In addition to the cathartic process suggested in this quote, the horror film’s dichotomy between the stable status quo of normality and the shockingly disruptive moment of horror also rehearses tragedy’s genealogy famously articulated by Nietzsche ( 1872 ): the terrifying carnal pleasures of Dionysian excess formalized through a dialectic confrontation with the static Apollonian principles of order, civility and normality. Or as King himself puts it in his essay on the topic, Danse Macabre (1980): “the horror tale generally details the outbreak of some Dionysian madness in an Apollonian existence” (King 1980 , 368). Tragic theatricality, this book suggests, is thus the essence of horror cinema.

1 Here I use the term “syntagmatics” to refer to the horizontal succession of syntagma, as signifying units that acquire meaning through their mutual relationship along a linear signifying chain. See, for instance, Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), especially chapter 5 .
2 All translations are my own.
Chapter 2
HORROR, REALISM AND THEATRICALITY
Before proceeding with my argument on theatricality in horror cinema, it is important to address the fact that many horror films adopt a realistic style to depict terrifying actions performed by ordinary people in commonplace settings, seemingly rejecting ostentatious artifice. From Roberta and Michael Findlay’s psycho-voyeur experiment, Take Me Naked (1966), to M. Night Shyamalan’s gerontophobic The Visit (2015), cinematic tales of terror often rely on documentary realism to create unsettling worst-case scenarios where normality suddenly becomes petrifyingly bizarre. Perhaps the most notorious example of this trend is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986, John McNaughton), which at the time of its release “was marketed as an authentic account of the serial killer due to its social realist tendencies and faux documentary style” (Aston 2018 , 118). On the face of it, the film does appear to be straightforwardly documenting, from a coldly detached perspective, the actions of the eponymous murderer, played by the disconcertingly appealing Michael Rooker. Shot on location in and around Chicago in 1985, Henry avoids the over-the-top histrionics of masked killers common to contemporary slashers of the 1980s. Rather, it presents a slice-of-life narrative which drearily follows Henry as he hangs out with his roommates, brother and sister Otis (Tom Towles) and Becky (Tracy Arnold), or proceeds to randomly kill strangers. However, as Jon Nelson Wagner and Tracy Biga MacLean point out in Television at the Movies: Cinematic and Critical Responses to American Broadcasting (2008), Henry is a carefully constructed text that “draws on melodrama, role playing, and serial form, despite the trappings of gritty cinematic realism” (155).
Indeed, Henry is surprisingly reliant on artifice to create the horrifying effects behind its realist surface. Most noticeably from the beginning of the film, the soundtrack brazenly draws attention to itself as it underscores Henry’s homicidal deeds. In the first several minutes of the film, interspersed among shots of Henry eating in a diner, driving his car or working as a bug exterminator, images of his victims are accompanied by hauntingly menacing music and sound effects that stylistically isolate tableaus of slain bodies from the documentary depiction of Henry’s mundane existence. Visually, some of the killings strikingly depart from gritty realism, sometimes verging on slapstick comedy, as when Henry and Otis kill a man by hysterically stabbing him and smashing a TV over his head. Realism is further destabilized in the scene where Otis and Henry watch a video of one of their more brutal killings. As Otis replays the tape in extreme slow-motion, the eerily distorted television image and the unnerving non-diegetic music work together to shatter any pretense of observational documentary aesthetics and displace the viewing experience toward the artifice of self-referential spectatorship. Realism is finally thrown out the window completely when, as Becky stabs her brother in the eye after he tried to rape her, a combination of prosthetic special effects and Psycho -like screeching music turn Henry into a typical 1980s slasher. Therefore, even a putatively realist horror film like Henry still contains multiple elements of theatricality that emerge at moments of horror. In what follows, I will clarify my understanding of the contrast between realism and artifice, using as examples “realist horror films” that integrate elements of theatricality within their otherwise dispassionately observational viewpoint to create their terrifying effects.
My understanding of realism in film is influenced to a large extent by the theories that French critic André Bazin expounded in the numerous essays he published in the 1940s and 1950s. According to Bazin, the essential realism of cinema emerges first from the “ontology of the photographic image” (Bazin 2005, vol. 1, 9), that is, the ability of the camera to record the real world with minimal human intervention. For Bazin,

only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. (14)
This ontological link to the real exists in all live-action films, “no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be” (14). However, the motion pictures that are most worthy of Bazin’s attention are those that aspire to fulfill cinema’s realistic potential, allowing the camera to capture reality as it unfolds before it with only the most subtle of manipulations on the part of the filmmaker; giving the spectators the time and space to observe the materiality of the sensory world and decide for themselves what to make of what they see and hear.
The epitome of realist cinema for Bazin can be found in the Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and 1950s that present a seemingly uneventful slice-of-life in a demoralizing postwar setting, revealing through attentive candor and artistic understatement fundamental truths about the struggles of ordinary men and women living in a real environment. Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (1948) is a perfect example of this. Cowritten by Cesare Zavattini, whose dream was “to make a whole film out of ninety minutes in the life of a man to whom nothing happens” (Bazin 2005, vol. 2, 82), Ladri di biciclette famously revolves around the banal story of everyman Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) who, in the company of his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), spends a day searching for his stolen bicycle, which he needs for work. In the end, out of desperation, Antonio himself resorts to stealing another man’s bicycle. The power of this film for Bazin is that De Sica manages to present a deeply engaging narrative without resorting to any ostentatiously dramatic artifice. “The marvelous aesthetic paradox of this film is that it has the relentless quality of tragedy while nothing happens in it except by chance” (68).
For Bazin, realism in film is in great part a matter of style—a style that uses long takes and deep-focus photography in the service of reality. As has often been pointed out by film theorists like Gregory Currie, “the style called long-take, deep-focus style —a style which writers like Bazin have argued is inherently realistic—extends the possibilities for realism in film; it enhances our ability to detect spatial and temporal properties of the fiction by using the capacity we have to detect those properties of things in the real world” (Currie 1995 , 107). Thus, realism is a style that presents objects and situations on screen in a way that replicates how spectators perceive their surroundings in reality. As such, it is the spectators’ impression that reality is revealed to them in a familiar way, through certain cinematic techniques, that creates a sense of realism in film. In his recent reconsideration of Bazin’s theories, Maurizio Guercini explains how realist film techniques, which appear to show the world as we generally perceive it, trigger in the spectator a spontaneous belief in cinema’s ability to reproduce reality through a seeming ontological connection to the actual objects it displays: “la croyance spontanée du spectateur dans la réalité de l’image provoque une sorte de mécanisme psychique de réalisation ontologique, qui accorde à l’image cette part d’être dont elle est structurellement dépourvue mais qu’elle sollicite en vertu de sa propre genèse technique” (Guercini 2017 , 93). The impression of reality created by certain films thus results from the spectators’ recognition that the filmmaker is showing the world on film as it is generally experienced and understood through everyday perception. This is what Bazin implies when he writes “the importance of depth of focus and the fixed camera in the films of Orson Welles and William Wyler springs from a reluctance to fragment things arbitrarily and a desire instead to show an image that is uniformly understandable and that compels the spectator to make his own mind” (Bazin 2005, vol. 1, 92).
Film techniques that produce an impression of spatial and temporal reality compel the spectators to spontaneously make up their minds about the realistic character of the film. In other words, if a film uses techniques that do not seem to interfere with the spatiotemporal continuity of the material world as we perceive it in our everyday life, then it is deemed to be a “realist” film. Realist cinema, therefore, foregrounds its apparent ontological connection to material reality by eliminating all ostentatious signs of a separation between the real and its recording. Conversely, the more the stylistic choices of the filmmaker seem to break this perceived ontological connection between the image and the real, the less realistic the film will appear to the spectator (Guercini 2017 , 92). For instance, Eisensteinian montage, which overtly fragments time and fractures space, shatters the impression of a direct link between the object and its image, and as such goes against notions of realism. Bazin was highly critical of such styles and techniques, which obscure the realist purpose of cinema, hence his “famous prohibition against montage” (Jeong 2011 , 179). He also always “asserted the essentially ‘realistic’ nature of film in opposition, for example, to the artifice and ‘expressionism’ of the German film of the 1920s” (Braudy 2002 , 32).
Not surprisingly, Bazin saw a fundamental difference between realism on film and realism on stage, which is always fundamentally artificial. “There is no such thing as a ‘slice of life’ in the theater,” he wrote. The mere fact of showing “reality” on stage immediately “removes it from everyday existence” (Bazin 2005, vol. 1, 89). Bazin did not necessarily reject film adaptions of plays. He insisted, however, that such films must make the artifice of their source a central element of their aesthetic strategy; as Laurence Olivier does in his version of Shakespeare’s Henry V (1944) by opening the film on a prologue that sets up what will follow as a performance of the play at The Globe in 1600, thus “not pretending to make us forget the conventions of the theater. On the contrary he affirms them” (Bazin 2005, vol. 1, 87). In their analysis of Bazinian identification in film, Andreas Spiegl and Fiona Elliot remind us that

when Bazin expects a film to present him with the ‘theatrical quality of the drama’ what he in fact is looking for is that the circumstances under which such transformations can take place should be—if not visible—then at least palpable or “comprehensible” on the cinema screen too. In our investigation of these issues the term “theatrical” and “theatricality” may be taken as shorthand for the transformation of the “subject” into a “figure” and the transformation of an everyday space into a stage. (Spiegl and Elliot 2001, 39)

By “figure” Spiegl and Elliot mean a character whose artifice is made manifest on screen, as opposed to a “subject” who is interpreted by the spectator at least to a certain extent as a “real person.” The next chapter will further explore the construction of such figures in horror films that were adapted from stage plays. For now, we shall focus briefly on George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead , which offers a good example of the distinction between realist “subjects,” who are perceived as actual people, and theatrical “figures” that are clearly artificial and meant to perform a symbolic function rather than incarnating realistic personalities.
From Ben (Duane Jones) the pragmatic survivor and Harry (Karl Hardman) the reactionary family man to Harry’s resentfully submissive wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) the petrified young woman who just witnessed the violent death of brother Johnny (Russell Streiner), the handful of characters who are trapped in a small farmhouse trying to counter the onslaught from flesh-eating ghouls appear as actual human beings, subjects with fears, hopes, prejudices and aspirations. The ghouls, on the other hand, with their eerily slow pace, uncannily drifting gait and blank faces made up to look like rotting cadavers, are purposefully devoid of subjectivity. They appear as mindless figures, whose role in the film is to serve as a terrifying omen of horrible things to come: the imminent destruction of civil society. From the beginning of the film, Romero signals that Night of the Living Dead will oscillate between subjects and figures, between realism and theatricality.
In The Cinema of George A. Romero (2015), Tony Williams describes the opening scene of the film, when Barbara and Johnny visit their father’s grave. At first, brother and sister are observed bitterly bickering, the way hostile siblings might appear in a realist docudrama on toxic family dynamics. Johnny acerbically teases Barbara about being scared of what seems to be a vagrant walking in the cemetery, while she scornfully scolds her exasperating younger brother for his juvenile behavior.

Barbara’s passive-aggressive hold on her brother and her moralistic criticisms of his infrequent church attendance clearly represent revenge for her humiliation by the sadistic games he played on her in early childhood. Although she comments, “Stop it. You’re acting like a child,” she also falls into childhood fears as well as having feelings of shame concerning family responsibility towards the stumbling man Johnny taunts. However, as she appears to be just about to apologise for her brother’s regressive behaviour the man attacks her. At this point of the film, camera angles and movement become more destabilised with canted shots and shaky handheld movements prominent during the assault and chase scenes. The style abruptly changes from a documentary realist approach […] towards the dangerous visual instability associated with crime and horror genres. (Williams 2015 , 30)
While Bazin might have appreciated the first few moments of Night of the Living Dead (if he had lived long enough to see the film in 1968), since they reproduce the modes of perception of everyday reality, he would have likely been critical of the expressionistic camerawork and fragmented editing that depict the ghoul’s attack against Barbara, for these techniques weaken the perceived ontological connection between the real and its image. But for our purposes, this shift from realism to the stylistic excesses of horror functions perfectly to juxtapose the theatricality of the ghouls, as the figurative embodiment of an apocalyptic threat against humanity, and the realistic response of ordinary subjects faced with catastrophic circumstances.
It is crucial to note that arguably the most disturbing moment in Night of the Living Dead has nothing to do with the flesh-eating figures. At the end of the film, when morning comes and Ben alone has managed to survive the ghoul outbreak, a sheriff’s posse arrives on the site shooting zombies left and right. The sheriff (George Kosana) notices movement in the farmhouse and orders one of his deputies to kill whatever it is. It turns out to be Ben, who succumbs immediately from a shot “right between the eyes.” What follows is a moment of documentary dread, which shifts the meaning of the film from “recreational terror” (Pinedo 1997 ) toward the terrifying political reality of the late 1960s in the United States ( Figure 2.1 ). As Kendall R. Phillips writes,

The film’s final moments, as the closing credits roll, consist of a series of grainy still photographs of the disposal of Ben’s body on a bonfire filled with the now dead living dead. The sequence is made all the more disturbing as the photographs seem so realistic, reminiscent of the innumerable newspaper photographs from the war in Vietnam and domestic civil unrest. (Phillips 2005 , 98)
These realist stills potentially affect the spectators much more deeply than the zombies, who are ultimately more amusing than scary; this is an important distinction between documentary realism and theatricality.
While the artifice of horror is thrilling it is ultimately far less disturbing than the realism of some documentary material; which is why those of us who love horror generally prefer this genre over the deeply upsetting actuality of many documentaries. For horror film spectators only pretend to be scared. As Bazin observes, “those who love to go to the Grand Guignol play at being frightened but hold on at the very height of the horror to a delicious awareness of being fooled” (Bazin 2005, vol. 1, 113). Writing about Stephen King’s oeuvre, Douglas E. Winter observes along similar lines that “the function of realism in horror fiction has always been paradoxical. We have noted that horror fiction serves as a means of escape for its readers, suppressing the very real and often overpowering horrors of everyday life in favor of surreal, exotic, and visionary realms” (Winter 1984 , 99). The same applies to the horror film, in which “realism” is a paradoxical device that screams “this is real and could happen to you,” at the same time as it explicitly draws attention to the blatant artifice of the tale.


Figure 2.1 The stills that close Night of the Living Dead evoke actual horrors outside the parameters of the scary movie.

It could be argued the horror film that was most obviously influenced by Bazinian realism is the seminal mockumentary The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez). The film claims to present actual footage recovered following the disappearance of three students trying to make a documentary on the elusive Blair Witch. As Peter Turner writes in his book-length analysis of the film, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were

vitally influenced by the various international new wave movements of cinematic history such as Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave […] Neo-realism challenged the traditional ways of actors performing their roles by attempting to cast people who would “be” rather than “act” the parts. Attempts to get the actors to be scared rather than to act scared can clearly be seen in the filmmaking techniques employed by directors Myrick and Sánchez. Although the non-professional actors may not simply be the filmmaker characters of the narrative, they are to an extent “being” scared as opposed to acting scared thanks to the real directors’ method techniques. (Turner 2015 , 34–35)
Like De Sica, who hired nonactors Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola to be Antonio and Bruno rather than merely acting the parts of a father and his son, Myrick and Sánchez also hired novice performers Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams to become the three doomed film students. However, Myrick and Sánchez went further than De Sica by actually abusing their actors to create a greater sense of verisimilitude. To ensure that the actors did not only appear exhausted and scared, but were actually on the verge of nervous breakdown, the filmmakers endeavored to overexert, harass and frighten their cast: “They really slept in the woods at night and experienced the cold and hunger. The production team also kept them walking long distances during the day and kept them awake at night by scaring them” (77).
In addition to relying on the authentic actions and reactions of nonprofessional performers to generate an impression of reality in spectators, Blair Witch also reproduces a documentary aesthetic of immediacy and technical imperfection, which has often been used to create a sense of authenticity in found-footage horror films dating as far back as Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust , released in 1980 (Heller-Nicholas 2014 , 25). The whole film is comprised of the students’ amateurish 16-mm recording of their failed attempts to find the Blair Witch, and the increasingly disturbing phenomena that they experience as they come closer to the object of their project. The clever “found-footage” gimmick, which spawned a prolific subgenre, allowed Myrick and Sánchez to produce an extremely cheap film where the lack of aesthetic quality is not a flaw, but an integral part of the narrative. By avoiding the sleek look of Hollywood movies, the filmmakers succeeded in bringing to the forefront the ontological connection between the footage and the reality it claims to depict, “deceiving the viewer into thinking they are watching the actual found footage of three disappeared students” (33).
However, the filmmakers’ insistence on creating a sense of raw, unadulterated realism, with excessively unstable camera work, fragmented editing and prolonged direct address, paradoxically draws attention to the cinematic apparatus, exposing the constructedness of the entire enterprise. As James Keller observes,

The film draws attention to its own fictionality and artifice at the same time that it seeks to convince the audience of the verity of the events depicted and the legitimacy of the Blair Witch legend. This contrast is accomplished through the use of unsteady and ill-aimed camera shots as well as complete blackouts, all of which draw attention to the camera as a limited and limiting artistic medium as opposed to a window on reality. The audience becomes hyperconscious of the camera’s presence, not because of the artful, well-designed images, but because there are so few of them. (Keller 2004 , 56)
This paradox applies to most instances of found-footage horror . In her book on the subgenre, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (2014), Alexandra Heller-Nicholas explains,

on one hand, the formal construction of these films encourages a sense of verisimilitude and suggests that what is being shown is raw, unprocessed “reality.” At the same time, however, it does this by making it impossible to forget that we are watching a film: If the shaky camera and the regular glitches in sound and vision fail to remind us of this, then the appearance of, and references to, filmmaking technologies in many of these films makes it inescapable. (Heller-Nicholas 2014 , 24)
The same is true of faux-snuff films like Fred Vogel’s August Underground (2001), in which extremely low-resolution video footage shows the tremendously violent and gory assaults perpetrated by serial killer Peter (Vogel) and his camera-wielding accomplice (Allen Peters). Vogel’s prototype of torture porn adopts an aesthetics of extreme realism, where “characters are ‘ordinary’ people, the violence unpredictable, ugly, brutal and thoroughly degrading” (Aston 2018 , 122).

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