THE BODY AND THE BODIES: AGAINST UNIVERSALISM (IN AFFECT THEORY AND IN HORROR FILM)

I have read with great pleasure Xavier Aldana Reyes’s new volume, Horror Film and Affect: Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership (Routledge). I’m very proud to see how he is fast progressing into being a truly first-rank academic, as it is always delightful for a teacher to see how someone who used to sit in her classes is now producing such excellent academic work. As happens, my review of Xavi’s previous book, Body Horror, has just been published, long after I actually wrote (see: https://atlantisjournal.org/index.php/atlantis/article/view/359). This time, however, rather than write a review (the book is outstanding, believe me) I’ll delve into my disagreements with Xavi’s theorisation of the body in Horror (capitalized to mean the genre).

The model of viewership he offers is not just corporeal but, to be precise, corporeal-affective. As he puts it, “corporeal threat is by far the most common affective experience in Horror and (…) a more rounded understanding of how Horror seeks to make the viewer experience fear is necessary” (16). Certainly, I couldn’t agree more: basically, when we see Horror films, we fear for our bodies because, as Xavi (sorry, I can’t call him Aldana Reyes) argues very well, we connect with the threatened bodies on the screen through ‘somatic empathy’ (itself generated by ‘sensation mimicry’). We do not really feel identified with the characters (actually in many cases we may feel no sympathy at all) but we appear to feel with our bodies, as if these were their bodies. Correcting a generalized impression, Xavi argues that the Horror film viewer is not a sadist but a masochist, although here’s my first disagreement: hearing viewers very vocally demand that this or that is perpetrated on a victim’s body in the cinemas of Sitges during the popular fantastic film festival, I doubt very much that all viewers are masochists. Let’s suppose for the sake of argumentation that these bullies are just 5% of the audience and that they are not the intended target audience of the filmmakers. Even so, the risk exists to activate affects that go in the sadistic direction.

Sorry, but I know besides that this kind of reaction is much more common among men when watching female bodies under attack in Horror films than among women seeing male bodies destroyed (women are generally more empathetic). Xavi’s volume, however, is very clear regarding why he will not consider gender: “Arguing for the continued need for studies that highlight gendered representations, I propose instead that the body in Horror, as far as its affective powers are concerned (and here I mean their capacity to scare and horrify, not to titillate sexually, which is not a general intention of most Horror) is largely ungendered” (16). But how do you separate the horror from the sexual titillation, if only in that hypothetical 5%? I absolutely agree with Xavi that the feminist/psychoanalytical approach used by Barbara Creed in her seminal The Monstrous Feminine (1993)–based on Julia Kristeva’s notions of the abject as discussed in Powers of Horror (1982)–is not useful to illuminate how Horror film works. I praise Xavi for his demolition job and for cutting the Gordian knot: very obviously, when you’re seeing films like The Thing the fear you experience has nothing to do with “the primacy of the maternal body as principal guide or indicator of abjection” (29). It has everything to do, in contrast, with the state of special effects in the year that film was made, 1982, and with director John Carpenter’s skills in mixing image, sound, music, etc. Xavi, therefore, proposes that we liberate Kristeva’s abjection from the “psychoanalytical remit” (44), and re-conceptualize it as ‘fearful disgust’, which can be felt by any human being –any body.

Thus, he observes: “Because my approach entails a de-gendering of images of abjection, this means that the nature of affect needs to be theorised regardless of the gender or sexuality of the viewer and characters, and rather in terms of viewers’ acquaintance, tolerance and enjoyment of images of abjection” (71). Fair enough. Or is it? Accepting the importance of the cultural factors associated with the production and enjoyment of Horror films, but refusing to produce sociological analysis, Xavi stresses that his study is “theoretical and wishes to look at the way Horror ideally affects viewers” (98, my emphasis). This is where I begin to object, and quite strongly.

Affect Theory cannot be pinned down with precision for it is rather quite a heterogeneous collection of conflicting currents. However, at the core of the area there seems to be a staunch belief that the universal body exists in the same way the body exists for Medicine. This is propounded on the basis of the neuro-scientific foundation on which Affect Theory rests. I have, however, very serious doubts that the body exists in the sense intended here.

Surely, we are all one singular body and at the same time part of the universal body, a construction without which Medicine could not work. This science relies on the assumption that all human bodies function in exactly the same way, which is why, naturally, its techniques (from medication to surgery) are universally valid. That must be also the reason why every time I visit a new doctor and see them look at my body without caring who I am, I feel so confused. Anyway, I digress. Affect Theory, and generally speaking, neurology and the ever expanding neuro-sciences, are also applying the universalist view to the delicate connection between brain and mind. You can see by my recent posts that the study of this connection is slowly creeping into the Humanities, with, arguably, little resistance. This is, I believe, due to our low self-esteem and to the generalized belief that ‘scientists know best’. This new fashion is, however something that I dispute. As doctors know, Medicine is not mathematics and bodies respond differently both to disease and to treatment. If the condition of your heart and your clogging arteries is cultural (i.e. directly connected to your consumption of the toxic food on offer in your society), what is the ground to believe that affect is not also conditioned by culture? Meaning, in short, that I don’t believe that a theoretical model of corporeal-affective viewership can ignore particular bodies.

This is not, by the way, sociology but Cultural Studies and, in particular, Reception Studies (and Theory, if you wish). As Xavi points out, one inconvenient of studying Horror film viewers in a laboratory situation is that the ‘artificial’ environment conditions their response. Fair enough: visit the Sitges film festival. There you’ll notice a few interesting things. One is the age of audiences–you always find veterans who never lose their taste for Horror but the viewers are predominantly young (16-35). Also, let’s be frank about this, of the type colloquially called ‘nerd’, which, yes, does call for some kind of sociological study. Among them, the presence of girls has been growing in recent decades and it is now not much lower than the presence of boys. Young women are certainly enjoying Horror films in a way unthinkable for, say, the generation born in the 1940s; you certainly don’t see groups of nattily dressed elderly ladies queuing at the Sitges cinemas. If you asked the viewers why they enjoy Horror, you would get many incoherent answers, which is why academic theorisation is absolutely necessary. In this sense, my impression is that curiosity possibly plays a bigger role than we assume. Without leaving culture and personal identity aside at all, quite the opposite. Much less gender.

As I read Horror Film and Affect, I found myself considering whether I wanted to see some of the most extreme films analyzed there. As I have already noted here, Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) meant the end of my interest in Gothic Studies, as my ‘somatic empathy’ was too high to allow for any kind of enjoyment (also I totally rejected being academically complicit in the success of a film based on torture). Yet, reading about Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008), which appears to be far more graphic in its depiction of torture than Hostel, I felt dominated by curiosity (academic or personal, I’m not sure). Funnily, my husband already had this notorious film in his list of Horror films to see. I don’t think, however, that my curiosity will overcome my somatic empathy. I’ll rely, then, on his report…

Now, this somatic empathy is an emotion provoked by the affects that participate in Horror films’ effectiveness but also a cultural factor–a crucial one. It is what has made us reject the use of (legal?) torture universally, beyond our beliefs in human rights. It turns out, in the end, that the ideal body that enjoys seeing Horror film is by no means universal: not only because somatic empathy is absolutely personal (as personal as the taste for, I don’t know, strawberry ice cream) but also because Horror film itself is the product of particular cultures. Yes, I respond to the startle effects (or shocks) of Japanese Horror cinema but its codes are very alien to me–and I wish I had never seen Audition. I marvel that my favourite startle effect (the face hugger jumping out of the egg in Alien) works every time I see it, whether I see the complete film or the isolated scene. But fancy showing that to a member of an Amazonian tribe who has never seen a Horror film. Yes, she would be shocked, but not at all in the same way I am–her shock might be massive or she would burst laughing, I’m not sure.

Sorry to use my own personal experience, but it’s the only one I know. I love Horror films which suggest there is something else beyond humanity, whether this is the Devil or an alien monster, a supernatural or a natural threat. I realize, however, that I feel increasingly repelled by the Horror films in which evil is caused by a sadistic person–usually a man. When I presented my first paper ever, back in 1994, this dealt with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), technically a thriller and not Horror, as the victims are killed off-screen (yes, Xavi, I agree). The feminists in the audience were horrified that I had enjoyed a film in which women were so savagely victimized; but, of course, the question was that you could not see this and I was (still am) fascinated by Clarice. As Hannibal Lecter moved, on, however, the franchise lost all its appeal for me, since it became a series about a guy hurting people. And I reject this… particularly if the victim is a woman. I have walked out of a cinema only once, my body totally overwhelmed by Steven Spielberg’s ultra-realistic depiction of the Normandy landing in Saving Private Ryan. I have, however, left my husband alone on the sofa countless times whenever the Horror film we had chosen to see together eventually focused on cruelty against female bodies. Xavi avoids the issue of rape, which, as any woman will tell you, does make you very much aware that you’re a different kind of viewer from a man. No way I could watch Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002), which might not be even Horror for a male viewer but is certainly Horror for a female one.

Let me focus on pain to finish. Xavi points out that “pain is normally either cast out or eradicated from public view” (176) and I’m wondering very seriously whether the fast advances in the special effects in Horror films (and in general in any film in which bodies are destroyed) has to do with this. I was watching a documentary on the Holy Grail on TV which argued that Saint Lawrence might have brought the relic with him to Huesca. The churches in this city abound in images of his martyrdom: the poor guy was… grilled. In public. Not only martyrdom but also other public events of bodily destruction come to mind: the spectacle provided by Roman arenas, Medieval executions (think William Wallace…). We have hidden the public spectacle of the broken body out of sight, as we hide disease and even surgery (how does a surgeon react to contemporary Horror film effects, I wonder?). And it might well be that, like Saint Thomas, we need to see in order to believe. We hear torture victims describe their ordeal and automatically we ask ourselves ‘but what was it really like?’. If porn satisfies our curiosity about how people engage in sex, then 21st century Horror film most likely satisfies a similar curiosity about how bodies are broken in pain. I’m writing this on the day yet another terrorist attack (this time in Istanbul’s airport) has caused a terrible massacre–bodies unseen on TV. The more we fear pain, in short, the more we need to face it vicariously and this is the urge that Horror film is satisfying. If you are already in pain or if this curiosity has never arisen, or is already satisfied, then there is no need for Horror movies.

I have many other questions to ask: after how many Horror films does an aficionado start losing the edge?; are the affects generated by Horror film different depending on the situation in which the viewer is placed? (alone/in company, at home/in a cinema, at night/at day); how do actors feel seeing their bodies used in this horrific way?; who provides the main innovations: directors or FX artists?; what about sound and music?

A theory, logically, is a proposition (a hypothesis) that needs to be tested and Horror Film and Affect is transparent about this: the volume is an invitation to go and ask. Forget psychoanalysis, ask filmmakers and everyone involved in Horror films how they pull the strings (and who they’re thinking of when they envision their terrible images). I’m sure that the more we ask, the more blurred the universal body will become and the more visible particular bodies will be.

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