June 30, 2009

Hackademia: Paul Waldman and Matt Hills (Respect for Horror?)

In Hackademia, we spotlight academic work across the disciplines that hacks and slashes its way to the bloody, gory truth about zombies!

On June 16th, Paul Waldman at The American Prospect posted an online essay entitled "The Left and the Living Dead". In this piece, Waldman suggests that the despite all the reasons that zombie fiction would normally fade away, the zombie zeitgeist remains viable because there is a progressive Liberal core underneath the extreme violence and metaphors for death expressed in zombie films.

The interpretation of Liberal ideology in zombie films is not a new idea, as Waldman notes, but he sums it up nicely when he writes, "Surviving the tide of zombies requires community and mutual responsibility. What could be more progressive than that?"

Although Waldman glances over what I feel are the equally conservative values as well as anti-progressive racial and misogynistic values present in zombie films, I agree that a signfiicant aspect of zombie films is an underlying Liberal philosophy. With that being said, I wish Waldman were a little more progressive in his own view of zombie fans. Waldman begins his article by suggesting that while ghosts, vampires, and werewolves can be and have been presented in highbrow or upper-middle highbrow art, "there are no highbrow zombie movies or novels, and admitting you love them [zombies] amounts to a declaration that your tastes are unrefined."

I find this aside fairly insulting in the way he blankets a whole group of horror fans in broad strokes. Maybe it depends on his definition of zombie? Sure, there are not many gut-munching art films out there, but many consider the people in Les Revenants to be zombies, and that movie's pretty high-brow. What about Soavi's Dellamorte, Dellamore? It's full of splatter and nudity, but you can't watch that movie and not come away feeling it's reaching for more artful, abstract themes.

I guess I'm more offended at the suggestion that those who are fans of zombies don't care for "refined" film, as if it's impossible to do both. As if people don't have a variety of compex tastes. It's this kind of pigeonholing of horror fans that was one of the reasons I never went back to University for a PhD. I wanted to work in the study of genres, especially of cult and exploitation films, but I often felt that even the most open-minded scholars of popular culture feel the material is not worth examining on principle. Even worse, when scholars and writers do examine these works for their cultural significance, there is still apparently a desire to denigrate those who enjoy the subject matter -- as if the only way to enjoy a cult or exploitation film is from an academic level that "betters" the subject matter by virtue of its analytical approach.

One of the few horror scholars I've read who approaches horror fans with respect is Matt Hills. In his book The Pleasures of Horror (London: Continuum, 2005), he writes that too often scholars approach the study of horror and horror fans as a problem that needs to be solved through academic study:
I would argue that some horror scholarship (though by no means all) has viewed horror’s pleasures as a kind of problem in need of explanation because it has prematurely accepted common-sense, hegemonic accounts of the genre. As represented in the Western news media, horror is frequently depicted as a source of mimetic infection, or of moral pollution . . . . But while critics such as Martin Barker, Julian Petley, David Buckingham (1996) and David Gauntlett (1995 and 2001) have worked to contest mass media narratives of horror’s ‘effects’ on audiences, work on the pleasures of horror seems to have unwittingly adopted media discourses surrounding horror via its willingness to view horror’s pleasures as a puzzle, conundrum or a ‘problem’ in need of further study. Horror’s pleasures have been defined, conservatively, as ‘aberrant’ in sectors of contemporary culture other than academia, with this symbolic equation then implicitly or explicitly taken up in studies of the genre . . . . (Hills 3)
Here, Hills suggests that the approach to take to horror is not to "solve" the problem of why people seek pleasure in horror or "trash" cinema. Instead, we should approach the pleasure of horror not from the question of "Why do people enjoy horror" but the question of where the pleasure comes from and how it is expressed. Too often, the former view of exploring why people enjoy horror leads to arguments that do not separate horror fans from the mentally ill; there is an implicit suggestion that watching horror films will either: (a) ‘corrupt and deprave’ or (b) ‘desensitize’ viewers (Hills 5).

So, I would recommend everyone read Waldman's article, but keep in mind that his description of zombie fans is generally reductive and offhandedly insulting. Waldman's take on zombie films and progressive ideology is not as progressive in its approach to why horror fans may enjoy zombie films.