I spent a rich afternoon yesterday reviewing Xavier Aldana Reyesâs excellent volume Body Gothic: Corporal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014). As happens, despite the 2,000 words I wrote, Iâm not done yet; thereâs still a matter to address: the limits of my own tolerance to the shocking primary sources analyzed in the book.
I completely agree with the main theses in the book: a) Gothic Studies scholars unfairly forget that this genre is as psychological as it is somatic and corporeal; b) all gothic is body gothic since it aims at eliciting bodily responses; c) current body gothic (he dates it back to 1984) manifests a âsustained questioning of the role of embodimentâ (18); d) we consume body gothic as the best strategy to contain our fears about the vulnerability of our bodies. Xavier argues all this by examining 1980s splatterpunk, body horror, new avant-pulp, the slaughterhouse novel and torture porn, using a wide range of authors and texts: from Clive Barkerâs short fiction (his Books of Blood) to Eli Rothâs Hostel film franchise, passing through pulp author Richard Laymon and Tom Sixâ film trilogy on The Human Centipede.
When I wrote my own dissertation on the monster, almost 20 years ago, I also used the argument that the task of the academic must not be hindered by a censorious, prejudiced attitude and that extreme horror, in all its varieties, must be included in Gothic Studies. Like Xavier, I made a point of stressing that critical judgement does not apply and that âtrashâ is not a relevant concept (fancy an anthropologist refusing to examine cannibalism). I must face, nonetheless, the vexing question of how far contemporary âshockâ cinema (no longer âhorrorâ cinema) will go in the representation of the total gross-out thanks, of course, to development of film special effects, both digital and prosthetic-based. Blood used to be a silly tomato-red in the old Hammer films, which is why it is laughable today (not so for contemporary audiences). I am squeamish and prone to nightmares but have managed to enjoy dozens of horror filmsâŠ in the safety of my home. Yet, Hostel (2005) marked a limit and I abandoned mid-way the bizarre Saw saga (2003-10). Actually, after seeing them I gave up gothic for science fiction. Now let me explain why.
Current body gothic, as Xavier argues, addresses our fears regarding the vulnerability of our bodies by paradoxically subjecting us to the vicarious experience of seeing other fragile bodies destroyed in the cruellest ways. Yes, fine. Actually, I am comforted by his idea that there is a logic behind the appalling sadism of the films. They are rightly called âtorture pornâ: porn goes straight to sex, these films use plot as an flimsy excuse for torture. Now, torture as seen, for instance, in Katherine Bigelowâs Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the film on the hunting of Osama Bin Laden, is ugly and inhumane but somehow bearable as part of a larger plot. In 1980s body horror the camera learned not to look away but in 2000s torture porn it has learned to grip the spectator by the scruff of our neck and force us to look. And I cannot do that anymore: the realistic detail has become ultra-realistic and, thus, unbearable (I imagined Xavier taking notes with all due academic care and I wondered how he did itâŠ).
Itâs ironic that I am now, at 48, invoking the same arguments that I myself had to put up with 20 years ago. Gothic horror is a misogynistic, homophobic genre but I answered back that I found in it strong women characters capable of fighting back. Still, I found myself criticizing Xavier for not passing judgement on these filmsâ dubious gender politics. What is, arguably, making them worse is the general disempowerment of all victims, men and women. Unlike the old-fashioned kind, these stories offer no comfort, preaching that the world is a terrifying place in which random violence just happens. Instead of helping audiences face this inescapable truth todayâs body gothic is, rather, gloating over it.
Itâs also harder than ever not to stoop down to consider the sick imagination of some gothic âartistsâ. Yes, yes, Mary Shelley, Charles Maturin or Matthew Lewis were also criticized and they are classics today. Yet, Xavierâs comments on the trilogy by Dutch director and screenwriter Tom Six, The Human Centipede (2009, 2011; the third instalment is in production) gave me the kind of shiver one feels in the presence of the profoundly disturbed (I mean SixâŠ). Xavier sticks to his impeccable academic prose even in a plot summary that gave me tachycardia: a mad German surgeon kidnaps young tourists whom he mutilates in order to stitch their mouths and rectums to each other, thus creating the centipede of the title. Gasp, and deep sigh.
Thankfully, the sane IMDB spectators rate Dixâ film only 4â5 out of 10. Annoyed reviewers abound: one reports the film as â100% medically inaccurateâ, another simply wonders âWhy?â. The man who titles his review âAfter watching it I wanted to kill myselfâ, remarks that (original capitalised text): âPeople will say it’s an original idea, but OF COURSE IT IS. It’s never been done before because NO ONE HAS THOUGHT OF SOMETHING AS SICK AS THIS YET.â The late Roger Ebertâs magnificent review offers, exceptionally, no rating: âIs the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars donât shine.â
After calling Dix a âdark artistâ for taking his films seriously, Ebert grants that the film is âtrue to its genreâ and âdelivers what its audiences presumably expectâ. These audiences are the most demanding midnight movie fans and I am quite familiar with them, having attended the Sitges horror film festival a few times: theyâre mostly nice, harmless people, out with friends for a night of fun. Often, they receive gross films like The Human Centipede with hilarity, both at the expense of the whacky content and at the screenwriterâs devious mind. Still the question remains: âwhy?â, accompanied by my very deep dread of men thinking of ghastly plots like this and enjoying them alone at home.
All in all, then, I can only praise Xavierâs Body Gothic for his very, very brave approach to texts that for many people, including quite a big number in Gothic Studies, are intolerable. His theses are very useful to illuminate what the extreme texts of contemporary horror, in particular film, mean, for they do mean much of interest and relevance in our contemporary view of the body. I hope I find in his forthcoming volume on affect and the corporeal model of viewership answers to the questions I raise here, though I realise that only a titanic, perhaps collective effort, can succeed in finding an answer to the main question ââwhy?â
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