[On June 16th, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock premiered his new film Psycho in New York. So to celebrate that anniversary, this week I’ll contextualize Psycho and other horror films, leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on your own spooky story studying!]
On different visions of morality in horror films, and whether they matter.
There’s an easy and somewhat stereotypical, although certainly not inaccurate, way to read the morality or lessons of horror films: to emphasize how they seem consistently to punish characters, and especially female characters, who are too sexually promiscuous, drink or do drugs, or otherwise act in immoral ways; and how they seem to reward characters, especially the “final girl,” who are not only tough and resourceful but also virgins and otherwise resistant to such immoral temptations. Film scholar Carol Clover reiterates but also to a degree challenges those interpretations in her seminal Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992); Clover agrees with arguments about the “final girl,” but makes the case that by asking viewers to identify with this female character, the films are indeed pushing our communal perspectives on gender in provocative new directions.
It’s important to add, however, that whether conventional slasher films are reiterating or challenging traditional moralities, they’re certainly not prioritizing those moral purposes—jump scares and gory deaths are much higher on the list of priorities. On the other hand, one of the most successful and influential horror series of the last decade, the Saw films (which began with 2004’s Saw and continued annually through the 7th and supposedly final installment, 2010’s Saw 3D; but subsequently an 8th was released in 2017 and a 9th is on the way), has made its world’s and killer’s moral philosophy and objectives central to the series’ purposes. The films’ villain, John Kramer, generally known only as Jigsaw, has been called a “deranged philanthropist,” as his puzzles and tortures are generally designed to test, alter, and ultimately strengthen his victims’ identities and beliefs (if they survive, of course). That is, not only is it possible to find moral messages in both the films and which characters do and do not survive in them, but deciphering and living up to that morality becomes the means by which those characters can survive their tortures.
That’s the films and the characters—but what about the audience? It’s long been assumed (and I would generally agree) that audiences look to horror films not only to be scared (a universal human desire) but also to enjoy the unique and gory deaths (a more troubling argument, but again one I would generally support). So it’d be fair, and important, to ask whether that remains the case for Saw’s audiences—whether, that is, they’re in fact rooting not for characters to survive and grow, but instead to fail and be killed in Jigsaw’s inventive ways. And if most or even many of them are, whether that response—and its contribution to the series’ popularity and box office success and thus its ability to continue across seven years and movies—renders the films’ sense of morality irrelevant (it would certainly make it ironic at the very least). To put it bluntly: it seems to make a big difference whether we see the Saw films as distinct in the inventiveness of their tortures/deaths or the morality of their killer. As with any post and topic, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Next horror story studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other horror films or stories you’d highlight for the weekend post?
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