White Trash Horror
Cabin Fever puts two social groups together, the rural underclass and the educated. the youth led, rich guys. That’s why it’s interesting to academics. Generally though, it’s not an interesting film for me anyway, I kinda hated it when I saw it.
‘White Trash’ refers to long standing myths about certain social and sexual groups. They get served up as monstrous representations in the horror film. What is monstrous is very much open for change in American Cinema concerning time spans. It is almost as if the monster in the American film embody fears that are current at the time. Frankenstein for example represents monstrous sexuality. In the 60s, it changes, in the 70s, it changes. In the present day, we have all kinds of post 9/11 traumas. But there are long-standing myths about the American population that carry on. The monster in American film represents something as otherness. Peter Hutchings goes over this well in Horror. The horror in America represents something that may upset social norms concerning sexuality, socially or ethnically, etc. After 9/11, there have been quite a few Islamo-monsters, but in Dawn of the Dead there is a Mosque at the beginning. In the absence of Islamophobia in film, there is instead ‘white-trash’. The white trash are the people on Jerry Springer, the uneducated deep south, just like the people on Jeremy Kyle. The white trash is doubly coded though, as they sometimes represent social groups that Hollywood dare not represent. As well as always changing, it is depicted differently (the monster as other). This says whether America is in a time of instability, or not. It’s the way the monster is punished at the end that dictates this. The monster is often left unpunished if America is in a state of turmoil. This goes for Texas Chainsaw Massacre (74) where Leatherface is seen triumphantly swinging his chainsaw at the end. The protagonist at the end is also quite mad, like her torturers.
We are going to Outline a theory of the monster as Other. Then use 1970s horror as a case-study. As a way of conclusion, we will look at new categories of the monster as ‘other’. We will use the 1970s as a case study because it was one period where America was in a situation of political and social turmoil. Another reason we are doing this is because Cabin Fever has no Islamophobia, but there is a recalling of 1970s horror. Wrong Turn, House of Wax, etc, all come back to the 70s. Cabin Fever uses the same sound track as Last House on the Left. There are also plenty of 70s horror remakes, The Hills Have Eyes being better than the original. What does this say about America?
Robin Wood, who died a couple of weeks ago was a great theorist who wrote Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan. His philosophy is to try and understand the contradictory nature of American horror. It both disgusts and appeals. He uses a nice analogy of watching through cupped hands. Beyond the gore and blood, or the physicality of it, Robin Wood goes deeper. He says, ‘it’s not the content of the film that attracts and appals, it is what the horror film and the monster represent.’ These can be contradictory sexual and social norms. He also says that the horror film is ‘the return of the repressed’. Freud argued that everything in our suppressed infantile imagination reappears in a monstrous form, for example, in our stories that we make when we are adults. We are both attracted by the horror film and appalled by them.
Hollywood’s most famous monsters are the ones that break the most rules and taboos. We are thus appalled by them at the same times because they throw up a a number of contradictory emotions. Wood goes further though and argues that ‘in society, we live under various regimes of repression. One is the ‘basic versus surplus repression’. The reason is, is because the monster smashes their way through the levels of repression is our daily lives. Basic repression comes from Freud and his writings on ‘the child’s mind’. He says ‘that in order for society to function, there has to be a basic level of repression that governs us to do useful things.’ The child is always governed by the ultimate of antagonists, which is, I’m not quite sure, have to research that. As a child, we have a lot of violent and sexual urges that must be repressed in order for us to lead meaningful lives. There is also surplus repression that comes from Marxist theorists, mainly the ‘Frankfurt School’ of Marxists, and especially Herbert Marcuse. He wrote ‘One Dimensional Man’, which is about the work methods of capitalism seeping into our bodies. The surplus layers of repression are there to ensure that we are good-male-white-middle-class-consumers. That’s annoying, really annoying. Society comes in and further represses our desires, our body and mentality. We cannot switch off from this once it’s been installed without a lot of help. But where can we get this help? American culture by and large is pretty banal and meaningless. A hell of a lot of people hates their jobs, and in their free time, they just consume meaningless things, like horoscopes. This is all in order to keep the machine running. The horror film’s outlaw status exposes the tensions in our capitalist driven society. A level where repressions slip is in the American horror film. That is why we are attracted to these films. The monster in every horror film represents some subversive force according to Wood.
The monster comes under ‘excessive sexual energy’, which is bountiful in the horror film. In the 50s, America was experiencing a population slump. So what happened? Women were represented as domestic-lustrous beings in advertising and the newspapers. Think how the vampire has been portrayed through the years concerning sexual energy. In a male dominated society, women become the key, says Robin Wood. What he notes is that since 1960 and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, women have been depicted as aggressive, violated, or smothering. The horror film is thus a good mirror, according to Wood, to what society thinks of women. The Last House on the Left has depictions of characters who are working class, just like Frankenstein, who was the first one to be dressed in industrial boots and overalls. Shameless was only popular because it allowed middle-classes to laugh at working-classes from up north. The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a kid who says ‘don’t touch me or I’ll get my dad on you, he’s a lawyer’. The guy kills him anyway. The monsters are thus the things that threaten the middle-classes.
There is a long-standing history, that goes back to the 1930s, in which ethnicity is portrayed as monstrous. Dawn of the Dead (the original) has this, as there are clear monstrous groups. 1970s horror contained features that had never been seen before. There are ‘self reflective shocks’; Vietnam, Race Riots, Urban Unrest, Political Corruption, Economic Instability, etc.
1970s American horror shifted towards an emphasis on the American monster. Before the 70s, monstrousness had always been external, as it resided overseas, or in the hands of foreigners. It brought horror back home to the south. What we had in the 70s were duel images of the American self. It was seen both as a rural zone of comfort, and also a monstrous low carb. The Waltons came out at the same time as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, very duel.
The rural south is becoming the dominant image in America, and Annalee Newitz has seen this in her book White Trash: Race and Class in America. She goes over the difference between ‘plain-folk’ who are the uneducated people who are quite nice, like the Waltons, and then there are the aggressive bunch who will blow you away if you step on their land. White Trash is definitely becoming a big thing on Failblog and the internet that is normally referred to as Red Neck. Male sexuality in White Trash is normally choked, while the women are abundant. One of the traits of white trash these days is eugenics and exploitation. All of the studies of ‘back in the day’ were The Happy Folk (1912) The Happy Hickories (1918) The Mongol Virginians (1926) said that the people who lived in the country were of a different ethnicity. What a threat. Concerning Temporal Incongruity, Cabin Fever does just this. Technology always sarcomes to nature. There are also threats to the middle-class.
It was pretty clear that Sarah Palin’s campaign was becoming much about ‘folksy southern charm’ rather than about politics. Ironically, the term ‘hockey mum’ was reversed by the tabloids into ‘hooker mum’, telling us something about the plain-folk that America has, and how they’re all whores. There then stripping contests where the Strippers were dressed Sarah Palin. Beverly Hillbillies depicted the struck-gold hillbillies as unable to get rid of their habits, which was quite funny. Cabin Fever seems to be serene at first, but it turns out to be full of shit and viruses that will kill the shit out of people. It plays around with the ‘White-Trash’ way of things, but it is not fully. There are many sexualised shots of the grotesque; where the girl has an infection all over her back, and when the guy has blood all over his hand after he tries to masturbate his girlfriend. But is this movie about ‘women’ as monsters rather than white-trash? It could be about alternative sexuality, other cultures/ideologies, the Proletariat ‘The proletariat has been colonized by bourgeois ideology’. Class is still high on the British horror scale, but not with America, as Rob Zombie’s Halloween didn’t carry on the ‘class’ theme that the original had. These don’t mean anything unless you know about Surplus repression. Basic repression is the repression of the child’s urges. The man with the frying pan is an example who didn’t have these urges stomped out of him by the time that he had grown up. He had 170 frying pans on his wall that he had sex with. His mother had confused the two terms of frying pan and ‘whore’, which explained why he couldn’t get off to anything apart from frying pans. Surplus repression is where society channels our energies to constructive things for the greater good. There is no such thing as ‘You Time’ in this society, according to this theory, as people are totally defined by their work. Does surplus repression extend to other sections of society? Yes it does. The Frankfurt Manifesto was made by snobby professors who said that every aspect of our leisure time was dominated by our surplus repression. For the guy working at the factory, the music that he buys has the same repetitions that he has at work. The same with the housewife, in that they always go for horoscopes and that kind of thing. Basic repression makes us adult human beings, but Surplus Repression causes us to be capitalist middle-class guys etc, who consume loads of stuff, making the guys who know this stuff richer and able to buy bigger iMacs.
Cabin Fever’s virus is an unseen threat, as well is Islam. George Bush once said ‘We are dealing with the enemy within’. Spooks, 24 thrive on these enemies.Violence in the Sacred by Girard describes the most terrible scenario in Yugoslavia where old neighbouring villages hacked each other down one day in one huge massacre. In ritual society, women are normally seen a sacrificial victims when there is a crisis. The role of the law forbids this in Western society. What if we had no law one day? We’d probably all kill each other, eventually. Trouble on the Texan Border is a free ebook that you can download that has Reno Girard talk about it. He’s an awesome guy.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has the two white Americas together in a van. The white-trash guy burns the photo ritualistically, like voodoo people would. The tanned skin also discriminates the guy against the whiter skinned middle-class, which happens in India a lot.
America has expressed its Islamophobia cautiously post 9/11.
The monster is white-trash is, what Douglas Donovan describes as ‘whiter than white’, more like vanilla, why is this? There is an emphasis on the documentary style of the 1970s because there were plenty of documentaries back in the 70s which were full of horrendous images. Ritualistic societies always go for the scape goat in which twins normally get the rough end of the stick. Features of the 70s are; the monster as normality, an empathy towards the monster as other, an unconventional film style, a cynicism towards the forces of law and order, an ambiguous resolution (the feel bad ending, which normally means that America is in a bad state). The Last House on the Left is the film that sums all of these up.