What does cinematic horror have to tell us about the horrors of history?
To speak of history’s horrors, or historical trauma, is to recognize events as wounds. Auschwitz. Hiroshima. Vietnam. These are names associated with specific places and occurrences, but they are also wounds in the fabric of culture and history that bleed through conventional confines of time and space. To speak of representing historical trauma is to ask questions as central to today’s cultural politics as they are resistant to definitive answers. What are the limits of representation? Do such limits exist? If so, what is the relation between art and these limits? If not, how do we navigate tensions between those who feel a certain traumatic event cannot be represented and those who feel the same event must be represented?
One major obstacle facing any response to such questions has been the tendency for theories of representation governing the study of trauma to constrict the intricate workings of the representations themselves. Certain horror films, which have been previously excluded from consideration as “serious” representations of historical trauma, actually provide the means to recast our understanding of cinema’s relation to history. In the spirit of this argument, I want to move now from theory to representation:
The son leads his mother through the thick darkness of a cemetery, narrowly avoiding the headstones in their path. His gait is lurching and uneven — he is dying. Or, more accurately, he is dying again, having been killed once already in the jungles of Vietnam as a young American soldier. Now, as his living dead life force ebbs, his body returns to its rightfully decomposed state. Skin peels, wounds bleed, eyes yellow. His mother clings to him, refusing to believe that he is truly dead. As the wailing police sirens drift closer, he stumbles and begins crawling toward his intended destination. He has led his mother to a grave he has dug for himself, complete with a self-fashioned headstone bearing the jagged inscription, “ANDY BROOKS 1951-1972.” He falls into the grave, desperately gathering the surrounding soil over himself, and gesturing for his mother to aid him with his burial. As the police arrive, the mother cries but finally capitulates, sprinkling dirt over her son’s mangled body. His hand reaches forward in one last spasm — perhaps some mixture of pain and gratitude — and then he is still. While his mother kisses his hand, a car explodes in the distance. The blast briefly illuminates the graveyard in the eerie glow of a war-torn jungle, closing the space between this death in the cemetery and the death in Vietnam.
This is an evocation of the conclusion to “Deathdream” (also known as “The Night Walk” and “Dead of Night”), a little-known Canadian horror film written by Alan Ormsby and directed by Bob Clark in 1972. It may seem puzzling or even disturbing to juxtapose a horror film with the weighty issues of Vietnam trauma, but it is here, in a film like “Deathdream,” that we catch a glimpse of what I will call an allegorical moment. For now, let me briefly define the allegorical moment as a shocking collision of film, spectator, and history where registers of bodily space and historical time are disrupted, confronted, and intertwined. These registers of space and time are distributed unevenly across the cinematic text, the film’s audience, and the historical context, so that in this sequence from “Deathdream,” for example, shock emanates from the intermingling of a number of sources. The film’s horrific images, sounds, and narrative combine with visceral spectator affect (terror, disgust, sympathy, sadness) to embody issues that characterize the historical trauma of the Vietnam War (gender, nation, generation, memory).
The allegorical moment’s complex process of embodiment, where film, spectator, and history compete and collaborate to produce forms of knowing not easily described by conventional delineations of bodily space and historical time, is distilled in “Deathdream” as the image of a living corpse. This paradoxical image of death in life, of neither life nor death, crystallizes the allegorical moment’s challenge to the binary oppositions that govern the study of trauma and its representation: melancholia/mourning, acting-out/working-through, historically irresponsible/historically responsible, and realism/modernism. Trauma studies, for all its interdisciplinary breadth and conceptual ambition, still tends to reproduce these oppositions rather than maintain (as the allegorical moment insists) a productive tension between them.
The allegorical moment in “Deathdream” conforms to neither the naïve verisimilitude of realism, nor to the self-conscious distantiation of modernism, just as its images seem to suggest both a mournful working-through of Vietnam trauma as well as its acting-out via melancholic repetition. Ultimately, the film throws into question the entire impulse to categorize representations of historical trauma according to the familiar binary oppositions. “Allegory” is derived from the Greek allos (“other”) and –agorein (“to speak publicly”), and this allegorical moment in “Deathdream” “speaks otherwise” by inviting us to unite shocking cinematic representation with the need to shock the very concept of representation in regard to historical trauma.
The films investigated in my book Shocking Representation — Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face” (1960), Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” (1960), Shindo Kaneto’s “Onibaba” (1964), Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” (1972), and David Cronenberg’s “Shivers” (1975) — are themselves shocking representations. They are shocking in the sense that they are examples of the modern horror film, a genre often dedicated to terrifying and/or disgusting its audience with displays of graphic carnage. Can there be a social importance, perhaps even an art, attached to this carnage? By taking horror films seriously as representations of historical trauma, we can see more clearly how much we have to learn about (and from) the art of the horror film.
Adam Lowenstein is professor of English and film studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has taught for nearly 20 years and will serve as senior fellow in the Humanities Center for two years beginning in the fall of 2017. He is the author of Dreaming of Cinema: Spectatorship, Surrealism, and the Age of Digital Media and Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film, from which this column is excerpted and adapted.