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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October 29, 2014: AmericanSpooking: The Birds and Psycho

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On defamiliarization, horror, and prejudice.
In his essay “Art as Technique,” pioneering Russian Formalist theorist Viktor Shklovsky (whom I never imagined I’d be discussing in this space, but I am an AmericanStudier and I contain multitudes) developed the concept of “defamiliarization”: the idea that one of art’s central goals and effects is to make us look at the world around us, and particularly those things with which we are most familiar, in a new and unfamiliar light. Such defamiliarizations can have many different tones and effects, including positive ones like opening our minds and inspiring new ideas; but it seems to me that one of their chief consistent effects is likely to be horror. After all, the familiar is often (even usually) the comfortable, and to be jarred out of that familiarity and comfort, whatever the long-term necessity and benefits, can be a terrifying thing.
Steven King, by all accounts one of the modern masters of horror, seems well aware of that fact, having turned such familiar objects as dogs and cars into sources of primal terror. And Alfred Hitchcock, one of the 20th century’s such masters (and, yes, a Brit, but he set many of his films, including today’s two, in the U.S.), certainly was as well, as illustrated by one of his silliest yet also one of his scariest films: The Birds (1963). The film’s heroine Melanie, played by the inimitable Tippi Hedren, asks her boyfriend, “Mitch, do seagulls normally act this way?”; it’s a ridiculous line, but at the same time it nicely sums up the source of the film’s horror: we’re always surrounded by birds of one kind or another, and there are few ideas more terrifying than the notion that such accepted and generally harmless parts of our world could suddenly become constant threats. I defy anyone to watch Hitchcock’s film and not look askance at the next pigeon you come across.
The Birds was Hitchcock’s second consecutive horror film, following on what was then and likely remains his biggest hit: Psycho (1960). Psycho relies for its horror more on a combination of slow-burn suspense and surprising and very famous jump scares than defamiliarization, with one crucial exception: the ending, and its relevation of the killer’s true identity and motivations. If that ending is meant to be the most terrifying part of all—and the film’s marketing campaign suggested as much very clearly—then there’s no way around it: the defamiliarization of gender and sexuality that accompanies the revelation of Norman Bates’ cross-dressing is presented as something fundamentally frightening, not only connected to Norman’s murderous ways but indeed the titular psychosis that produced them. That is, while those murderous birds are clearly deviating from their familiar behaviors, I would argue that Bates is presented as deviant in his normal behaviors—and that his gender and sexual deviancy represents, again, the film’s culminating and most shocking, and thus troubling and prejudiced, horror.
Next AmericanSpooking tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spooky films (or other texts) you'd highlight?

1 comment:

  1. Horror has always worked best when it focuses on the mundane and usual as what is truly terrifying. I don't mean suburbia, but, well yes I do. While many of the newer innovations of the genre's narrative takes horror into a new direction of terror without motive, such as Saw, Hostel, and You're Next, many of the original stories that provoke terror stick with what is typical in society. This allows the audience to engage in the fear as more than spectator, but possible victim. There was nothing special about the people in The Birds, other than location, nor where the bickering couple in King's short story Children of the Corn so dissimilar when they happened to stop in the wrong town. What makes these stand out are how unlikely the victims appear, allowing the audience to remember that they could be next.
    Horror sometimes jumps out of this and into the world of the spectacular, American Horror Story current season, is horrifying not that I can engage in it but that I am subjected to a world that is so far removed from any I would ever know that even the act of watching is terrifying. There's a lovely voyeurism to this season that allows the viewer to become horrified in not only the subject matter, but possibly even themselves (myself) as someone who "can't look away" when I've been taught culturally (and directly by my mother) to "stop staring at people". It's reminiscent of Palahnuik's Invisible Monsters.
    Classic horror seemed to take this mixture of the supernatural and natural world. While it's possible (probable, absolutely true) that a person would never meet a vampire, they could be preyed upon by one in power over them. It's highly unlikely that I need to worry of my husband bringing a man back to life and reeking havoc on me and my life. But we all suffer for the mistakes of loved ones (except me, my husband is perfect - 9 year anniversary today!) Horror has always been my favorite genre as it illustrates that what we fear isn't what's out there, it's what's in us. (oh, damn, that was smart, high-five to me!)