Nicola (Edinburgh, 1990)

She walked into the living room, her brown polyester school skirt hiked up above her waist. No knickers on. She twirled and did a little dance, proudly displaying her hairless cunt. As quickly as it happened she disappeared back into her room. Without as much as a shrug I went back to playing Super Mario on the Nintendo. Her ownership of such a device being my primary reason for visiting in the first place. After all, it was 1990 and compared to my Commodore 64 the Nintendo was pretty damned high-tech. Nicola was older than me, maybe that’s what older girls did. It was a passing thought before I went back to flattening Goombas.

Actually, to be precise, there were two Nicola’s during this time in my life; one of them lived below me in the grey Gorgie tenement building where I shared a small one bedroom flat with my mother, the other, at the end of the street. Neighbour Nicola didn’t like me, I was young and awkward and a constant target for bullies. Fuckin’ bitch! Ye daft wee hoor! Whut ye lookin at, eh? Wan a fuckin’ photie it’ll last longer! These were the words that echoed in my ears as I walked past them on the street daily. I was eight and they were twelve, at that age four years made a hell of a difference and I was terrified. Then this one Saturday I was going home to have soup for my lunch I’d probably been to North Merchiston Cemetery which I liked to go to as it was always quiet and I could climb a wall and see into the city farm. My goth stage was inevitable even by that age. But on this day instead of the usual juvenile insults from Neighbour Nicola, it was the main and primary Nicola who spoke to me and she invited me to go out and play with them in the street. They liked chap-door run. I didn’t, but I also didn’t have any friends so joined in anyway relishing the fact that I was in on a prank and the camaraderie felt when fleeing the scene of the crime. Neighbour Nicola was tall and a wee bit chubby and had a cheap perm, the sort you saw where it looked like every strand of her hair could snap off at any given moment. But to me she was older, she was already at secondary school and that instantly made her cool. She said she smoked too, but I never saw her do it. Despite her harsh words it was the other Nicola who was the leader, she had the air of a know-it-all and I believed that she did know it all. She went to one of the fanciest private schools in the city and wore her uniform with pride. In fact I only ever saw her in her uniform, never normal clothes. It was weird but I thought she was just showing off a bit. It was this horrible brown colour with a yellow shirt and she wore a matching head band, one of those ugly foamy ones that makes the sides of your head hurt, over her brown and meticulously straightened hair. She would wrap brown paper around her iron and actually iron her hair straight. I thought this was a very grown up thing to do, and admired her dedication. My unruly curls stuck out every which way kept at bay with a constant ponytail. There was no way my mum was going to let me iron my hair especially not after the time I got second degree burns by pulling a tube out of the washing machine. With an iron that close to my head I’d probably have ended up missing an ear.

The one time I saw Nicola not in her school uniform was when I slept over at her house. She wore one of those elaborate nighties that you see in M&S that are probably for old ladies. They have frilly collars and they go all the way down to the floor and sometimes they have tiny flowers all over them. I remember her room being pink and she had one of those raised beds with a desk underneath, I’d always wanted one of those. Sleeping high-up above the ground appealed to me. I’d seen a film called Cat’s Eye about a goblin that lived in the skirting boards that would come out at night and suck the breath out of you and I believed the further off the ground I was the better. I also made sure my cat slept on my bed as it was a cat in the film that killed the goblin and saved Drew Barrymore. I was jealous of Nicola, she had the perfect little girl’s room and she even had her own telly next to her bed. I felt like it put my new record player to shame, something I’d been immensely proud of at the time. We watched Purple Rain on the telly and I knew the songs as I had it on cassette tape but I didn’t really understand the film. The lyrics to Darling Nikki had been confusing me for years. I’d hoped Nicola could shed some light on the matter but she didn’t say anything about the songs. Instead she had an asthma attack. Then because of the asthma attack I got her tickets to see Disney on ice at Murrayfield the following day. Her dad couldn’t take her as she ended up in the hospital. I was excited but I knew my mum didn’t really want to take me, with hindsight it was because even with the free tickets she couldn’t really afford to take me, I still feel bad for begging her to buy me an overpriced light up Tinkerbell. Which I ended up playing with precisely once. I loved Disney although Alice in Wonderland gave me recurring nightmares. It was the blue caterpillar. Whooo… are…you? He asked over and over. I didn’t know. Scary little fucker. I’d recently been traumatised by a school visit to the Edinburgh Butterfly & Insect World where I’d had to touch a giant millipede so my relationship with bugs and butterflies was already fairly fragile by that point.

Once Nicola took me and Neighbour Nicola to her school, it was after the school was closed but we walked around anyway. She knew where everything was. I was worried we’d get in trouble, but she was wearing her uniform so I figured it would be okay. I couldn’t believe how fancy their gym looked, even just peering in from the outside. The gym at my school was small and decrepit and doubled as the theatre and assembly hall. Her school has its own separate theatre. I thought going to a posh private school would make you immediately more intelligent and I admired her for that. She told me once that I wouldn’t be able to go to a school like that though, that I wasn’t smart enough for the entry exams and that my twenty-seven year old single mother would never be able to afford the fees. I was confused as to how her elderly single father could afford it, but Nicola had 2 tellies and a Nintendo so I knew they must have some money.

Then there was Ajit, his parents owned the corner shop. Other kids called him a Paki which I thought was weird because he was from Scotland and his parents were from India. I’ve never rated the intelligence of children though and those words came directly from the mouths of their small-minded parents. Nicola befriended him too, he was very quiet and I hoped that if we were friends his parents would give me free ice lollies but they never did. Instead I still had to clamber around the scaffolding surrounding the tenements and scrounge together empty Irn-Bru bottles left by the builders until I had enough to trade-in for pocket change to buy sweets. A dangerous pastime for someone as clumsy as me, by that age I’d already managed to fall and crack my head open four times. I was born with wonky feet and even though I’d been to a clinic to learn how to walk straight I still had my moments. Ajit was a Hindu and I an Atheist. Nicola was a Catholic and she invited us to go to mass on Sunday. I think we went because she invited us and we looked up to her and didn’t really understand the full implications of what we were doing. It was a surreal experience. Catholic churches are intimidating places at the best of times, ornate and huge and there’s a lot of talking, so when the priest asked us to carry the sacramental wine and bread to the altar I felt like I couldn’t refuse. A little blasphemer who still had baked bean stains on her shirt and a near silent brown boy under the scrutiny of the elderly uptight congregation must have been a sight to behold. We never did go back again after that.

Nicola’s dad was a strange man. He seemed really old to me but he loved her and gave her everything that she wanted. I guess at the time I hadn’t given it much thought having been an only child with a single mother I’d always been a little uncomfortable around other people’s fathers, I didn’t have one of my own I wasn’t sure how to behave around them. I guess the assumption was that because her mother had died he’d coped by spoiling Nicola rotten. They lived in an equally tiny flat where she had the only bedroom and he slept on the sofa in the living room. It was a dark little flat on the ground floor that has back facing windows all the furniture in the living room looks old and grey. Again, because I had the only bedroom in my flat I didn’t question the fact that her father slept in the living room. It seemed like a fairly normal thing to do. Especially as so much money seemed to go on toys and games for Nicola.

On my ninth birthday we went out for lunch it was just Nicola, my mum and me. She showed up in her school uniform, I was used to this by now and had stopped thinking it odd, but my mum questioned about it her and Nicola mumbled and avoided eye contact and seemed uncomfortable. She was uncharacteristically quiet throughout and hid behind her razor straight bob. I didn’t really care because I had ice-cream with hot fudge sauce and I had a birthday and a friend.

Then one day my mum came to meet me after school, which was unusual. I generally walked home by myself or went to an after school club ran by a charity for kids whose single parents worked or went to university. In fact I even joined the chess club as it was the only non-sport related thing I could do that would mean I wouldn’t have to go to the after school club, which I hated with the burning passion of a thousand hells. It was populated with the most fucked up and socially awkward kids I’d ever met, it didn’t really dawn on me that I was one of those kids too. So there she was in the playground and then she was taking me to the police station and I didn’t understand what was going on. When we got there she started asking the policeman about Nicola. The policeman asked me about Nicola and her father too but I still didn’t understand what was going on. She was my only friend but she wasn’t who she said she was. Nicola wasn’t a twelve year old girl. Her name was Irene and she was a Polish woman who was thirty-seven years old. She’d done this before. Irene had a growth deficiency caused by complications with her asthma as a child. She would run away from home and pose as a lost child. Her father wasn’t her father, he was a lonely old man and they’d lived a lie. Pretending to the outside world that they were father and daughter. They’d never been anything other than nice to me. Afterwards my mum saw the man who pretended to be Nicola’s father in the street and she screamed and yelled at him. He was upset and started to cry and whether what he said was true or not he seemed to really believe that Nicola had been a child, he said that she had gone to school every day and he’d found her as a runaway and taken her in and loved her as a daughter. I always wondered where she went during the days and why he thought she went to private school if he wasn’t paying. I guess people will let themselves believe anything if they want to badly enough, it’s perhaps why I never questioned her sometimes bizarre behaviour. I just wanted a friend. It was all over the papers too causing a bit of a local scandal.

Neighbour Nicola went back to the name-calling and Ajit wasn’t allowed to see me after that. We moved less than a year later and I never knew what became of Nicola or her father.

This is a true story. I’ve changed some names and of course I’m sure my 22 year old memories make me somewhat of an unreliable narrator but I’ve checked the major details with my mum which she confirms to be true. I’ve often thought of this incident over the years and have never known what to do with it. I’ve toyed with the idea of seeing if I can research the story enough to make a doc or even turn it into a screenplay or a novel but it almost seems too personal and odd. I guess part of the reason I’ve decided to write it down now is that bizarre things seems to happen to me with frightening regularity and I wanted to just do something to record my memory of these events, I’m thinking of making it part of a series maybe. I’d appreciate any thoughts or input from anyone who has actually made it to the end of this especially as it’s my first time writing something autobiographical in a stream of consciousness sort of style.

Horrific and the Carnivalesque in
Contemporary Body Horror and the Early Films of Peter Jackson

In this essay I am going to examine a number of ideas concerning the horrific in the horror film genre, the notion
of the carnivalesque and how it is represented, and the roots of horror film and how they originated in various form of traditions such as the Theatre du Grand Guignol. I am going to look at a number of horror films, including the early films of Peter Jackson, specifically ‘Braindead’ as I feel that it
highlights clearly many of the theories I will be examining. I am going to draw upon a number of different articles which approach these ideas, including Barbara Creed’s article on the canivalesque and the body-monstrous as well as
work by Robin Wood, Julia Kristeva, and Andrew Tudor. I am going to examine various
theories concerning horror films and their appeal. Horror as a genre has often been looked down upon, it has been described as follows; ‘It is the lowbrow’s delight, the middlebrow’s camp and the highbrow’s trash.’ (Twitchell, p4). However, I am going to look at horror as a natural curiosity and as a topic
valid of discussion that had arisen in modern times due to the ongoing success of all things transgressive and abject that have arisen from a past of lawless carnival, rituals and the gory traditions of the Grand Guignol.

“As with much pornography,
contemporary formulaic horror sequences are so rife with misogyny, incest, rape and aggressive social behaviour that we are almost frightened to take it seriously.” (Twitchell, p5)

Horror has always been prevalent in our culture from as far back as any recordings have gone, you only have to look at the bible for examples of extreme torture and the horrific, and that is supposedly the greatest book ever written. In this essay I am going to examine the prevalence of horror and how it originated to form a basis for projecting societies repressions and how it works as a release from the normal social boundaries. From the earliest outlets of our natural curiosity with transgressive behaviour in the forms of carnival and pagan ritual. The
eye-poping scenes from Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ to ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’
(1979, Lucio Fulci) show that not much has changed over the years, but our outlets for expressing them have.

Robin Wood’s seminal article, ‘An Introduction to the American Horror Film’ puts a great amount of emphasis on
the the nature of repression, he writes that, ‘basic repression is universal, necessary and inescapable.” (Wood, p165) He then goes on to say,

“That which bourgeois ideology cannot recognise or accept but must deal with (as Barthes suggests in Mythologies) in one of two ways: either by rejecting and if possible annihilating it, or by rendering it safe and assimilating it, converting it as
far a possible into a replica of itself.” (Wood, p168)

This argument states then that
horror must be a by-product of how we render our repressed feelings and assimilate them onto the screen, into a book, into the theatre or by some other creative means. Perhaps the fact that our repressed urges have continued to become more and more socially unacceptable explains why we have taken such a
leap from the partaking in the events (as can be shown in the form of the carnival) to merely watching them from the safety of a cinema seat. It could be
said however that to a certain extent that in cinema we are returning to the gore filled ideas of the past, the rise in body-horror from the 1970’s and the increased ability to create graphic violence through the use of modern special effects has given us another socially acceptable way to view more extreme forms
of violence on the screen. These ideas have always been there, it was just the tendency
to show them off screen, now the body has become the centre piece for the horror genre once again.

I am going to begin with a brief
history of where out roots and fascinations in horror have some from, then progress to look at specific examples and relate them to contemporary theories of horror cinema and the representation of violence in our culture.

‘The concept of the
carnivalesque as a practise of symbolic inversion and transgression provides us
with a framework for the study of a range of cultural practises and political and social discourses.’ (Creed, p131)

The history of the carnival can be traced back to the pagan Celts. The film, ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973, Anthony Shaffer) shows a more traditional sense of the carnival in its pagan origins, many aspects of carnival are shown in this film, the sexual freedom, singing
and dancing, the masquerade, the overshadowing and repression of the christian
religion, their acts are described by Edward Woodward’s virginal, law abiding character as
“degeneracy”, something that can be easily associated with the carnivalesque traditions
of the ritualistic old religion shown in the film. The ancient Greeks would hold purification festivals in the spring where people would be flogged as a
way of purifying themselves of their sins, these traditions were then passed down to the Romans whose carnivalesque festival Lupercalia was celebrated with much debauchery, social order broke down as all citizens regardless of sex or social status cavorted in masks and elaborate costumes in a lawless and immoral manner. People would be lashed with the skin of sacrificed goats, especially
young brides as it was believed to promote fertility. Sadomasochism and
prostitution were commonplace during these festivities and the weeks following saw a period of recovery and sacrifice where an ox would be slaughtered on the
streets; their blood was believed to wash away the sins of the people. The catholics tried unsuccessfully to repress the tradition of carnival and
eventually integrated Lupercalia festival into its own calendar as a celebration of the purification of the Virgin Mary. In rome this festival became known as Carnivale which translates to ‘farewell to the flesh’ which was a reference to the fasting that took place over lent. The celebration of
Carnivale carried on for centuries and lasting up to several days continued to
be characterized by general anarchy and public lewdness generating a pervading sense of violence in the air. By the 17th century a more
sophisticated theatrical sensibility turned Carnivale into a baroque masquerade
in which the public wore elaborate masks and paraded the streets in Venice, traditional social conventions were momentarily forgotten and the abundance of
satyr costumes meant that the festival’s pagan traditions had not be completely
forgotten. This theatrical form of carnival became a custom in France and spread with French settlers to places such as New Orleans where the most famous carnival of today still takes place, Mardi Gras. The New Orleans Mardi Gras is
still a platform used by people for debauchery and exhibitionism, whilst women
flash their breasts and brightly coloured floats line the streets. However, having spoken to people who have experienced Mardi Gras there is an obvious
darker side to the festivities as people take the lawlessness to the extreme and muggings and indecent assaults take place as the streets run with alcohol
and piss, painting as mentioned above a clearer picture of what is described as
the air of violence which seems to follow the festivities.

“(Terry) Castle, as mentioned earlier, identifies ‘an aura of excitement and moral
danger’ surrounding masquerade, an atmosphere that is notably amendable to
horror. ‘Carnival,’ ‘revel,’ ‘romp,’ and so forth – like the contemporary usage ‘to party’ – carry both festive and illicit connotations, the latter stemming from an implied liberty, which can enable aberrant impulses and lead to the carnival of the perverse.” (Morgan p,133)

In her article Creed takes on
Bahktin’s ideas of the carnivalesque and the grotesque body and relates them to horror cinema. She writes about how many of the aspects of the carnival have
been displaced from the actual side shows and freak shows of the past and now appear in modern cinema. The kind of things that spring to mind when thinking about horror films are often similar to the idea of the carnival, the
bright colours and general anarchy, with the visual trickery and the disfigured
bodies of the human freak shows. Bakhtin writes that the carnival provides ‘temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established
order’, which is exactly what the horror film provides a contemporary audience
now that the carnival in the traditional sense has become morally questionable
and politically incorrect. The carnival promotes the outsiders and the anti-bourgeoisie and the horror movie provides and outlet from people to explore these elements, without guilt they are partaking in the ‘other’ by
viewing and not actually physically being involved in the carnage. This curiousness of the ‘other’ is expressed in the popularity and cult status of
the horror movie. The ‘other’ being what is against the norm, the elements of human nature which were once brought out by the carnival have now been
suppressed into a more voyeuristic medium.

“An explosion of freedom
involving laughter, mockery, dancing, masquerade and revelry, authority subverted and satirized with irony, never a bystander, you take part as a
spectator.” (http://www.english.uga.edu/~amitchel/4830_carnival.htm)

The carnival tradition took on
darker tones with the arise of the Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris which literally translates as ‘big puppet show’ as Guignol was a French puppet much
like Punch and Judy. It was established in 1897 by ex secretary to the police
commissioner, Oscar Metenier. The theatre had originally been built in 1786 as
a convent and kept many of the original features such as cherubs, pulpits and
gothic architecture. For many years it was one of Paris’ largest tourist attractions, drawing in audiences from all walks of life, rich and poor, petty criminal and royalty alike, came together to enjoy the famous horror plays that
were enacted there. The theatre was small and the audience was positioned
extremely close to the stage, this as well as the dark red lighting and the eerie musical accompaniment probably added to the gloom and impending air of horror. Each night six or seven one act plays would be performed ranging from sex farces to crime dramas but predominantly horror plays featuring gory set
pieces such as eye gouging and throat slitting. A resident doctor was even hired to deal with the people who would faint and vomit during the
performances. The Grand Guignol was a sophisticated exploitation of the audiences fears, desires and social taboos and even today the phrase grand guignol has become synonymous with over the top bloodletting and gore.

“At one performance, six
people passed out when an actress, whose eyeball was just gouged out, re-entered the stage, revealing a gooey, blood-encrusted hole in her skull.
Backstage, the actors themselves calculated their success according to the
evening’s faintings. During one play that ended with a realistic blood transfusion, a record was set: fifteen playgoers had lost consciousness.
Between sketches, the cobble-stoned alley outside the theatre was frequented by hyperventilating couples and vomiting individuals.” (http://www.amrep.org/past/caligari/caligari1.html)

Whether this was a publicity stunt or not remains to be seen, but undoubtedly it added to the fascination and the
popularity of the theatre. There is not such thing as bad publicity, I believe is the saying which may indeed run true. There were even reports of fainting in cinemas with the release of films such as ‘Psycho’ (1960, Alfred Hitchcock), ‘The Exorcist’ (1973, William Friedkin) and still today in our desensitised
culture films such as ‘Irreversible’ (2002, Gapar Noe) and ‘Trouble Every Day’
(2001, Claire Denis) caused supposed faintings and vomitings in the cinema
aisles due to the graphic scenes of sexual violece. Showing that perhaps the traditions of the Grand Guignol didn’t completely die away when it closed in 1962.

Films such as ‘Hellraiser’ (1987, Clive Barker) have brought these elements into modern horror cinema. Pinhead and his entourage of freakshow like cenobites declare “We have such sights to show you.” And they claim to be “explorers of the further reaches of experience.”
Showing with great detail horrific acts of mutilation and violence to the backdrop of carnival like music that echoes that of an organ grinder, if you
excuse the pun, in the literal sense. It is true that the appeal of the Grand Guignol and the carnivalesque has transferred itself onto our cinema screens in many shapes and forms. Clowns for example, are something which should be seen as harmless fun have often become the creatures of nightmares, there is even an
official name for a phobia of clowns, coulrophobia. Clowns seem on many levels
to represent anarchy, the personifications of unreason and a force of nature out of control. There seems to be a fine line between the grotesquely humorous and the terrifying. They are often used as a symbol for the carnival, promoting laughter and games for children, the idea itself seems harmless enough, even
fun. But much like the whole idea of the carnival there are much darker undertones and questionable moralities involved. The clown has been used as a symbol of danger within many horror films such as ‘It’ (1990, Tommy Lee
Wallace) in which a clown called Pennywise offers children balloons and “exploits
the circus’s enticement” (Morgan, p135) before murdering them in atrocious
ways. In ‘Carnival of Souls’ (1998, Adam Grossman) a young girl witnesses the
rape and murder of her mother at the hands of a paedophile clown and in ‘Funhouse’ (1981, Tobe Hooper) a group of teens are stalked and slashed in a
carnival funhouse. Even in real life the connotations of the clown have been jaded with horrific crimes such as those of John Wayne Gacy, who dressed as a clown and entertained at children’s hospitals as well as having killed over 30
people. By using the clown as an example of the kinds of horrific overtones that can be associated with the carnival, it becomes clear to see why so many modern horror films tap into the notion of the carnivalesque being frightening because it is something that we can all relate to on some level.

Peter Jackson is a native New
Zealand filmmaker most famous for his recent endeavour the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, his early films however are particularly relevant when discussing body
horror. He had produced a wide oeuvre of work ranging from the ridiculous (‘Meet the Feebles’) to the sublime (‘Heavenly Creatures’) to one of the biggest Hollywood franchises of all time with ‘Lord of the Rings’. The films
that have particular interest to me are ‘Bad Taste’ (1987), ‘Meet the Feebles’ (1989) and especially ‘Braindead’ (1992). All of these films prime examples of the carnivalesque in film as well as showing clear signs of the body monstrous,
grotesque humour and a number of the explanations that have been brought
forward for what represents the horrific in cinema.

‘Bad Taste’ was a number of years in the making, it was Jackson’s big break into cinema and it did exactly what it said on the tin, it is indeed bad taste and it employs many of the trademarks that Jackson was to employ further down the line, the use of grotesque humour and in camera effects being key in his later films as well as firmly establishing his as a new talent in the horror genre. Taking a new angle from
what had commonly been seen as a predominantly American genre, Jackson introduced a new generation of horror fans to New Zealand cinema at its best. The film has a distinct Monty Python appeal to it, with a low budget and a number of actors recurring as different characters, not to mention the sick and surreal sense of humour that oozes from every scene. Wood discusses the importance of ambivalence in the horror film, that being the idea of feeling
two conflicting emotions at the same time. In ‘Bad Taste’ this could be both horror and amusement at the sight of both extreme gore and the humour that is felt at the ridiculous manner in which the gore is represented and dealt with
by the central characters. After having just witnessed an alien being shot to pieces and his brains splattered on the ground, the following line “stick all the bits of brains in a plastic bag, Barry.” Exemplifies the idea of ambivalence, the confusion of not knowing what emotion to feel and the mixture of what is often two opposing emotions adds to the unique appeal of the horror
film. The revulsion that is felt by the viewer often adds to the compulsion to further viewing.

‘Bad Taste’ is unique in the sense that it is an entirely male cast, meaning that many common theories surrounding the horror film become null and void because the rely on gender conformities. ‘Bad Taste’ quite simply is the story of aliens landing on earth, and this time in a small New Zealand town not in a large US city, they
then kill off all the inhabitants of the town with the aim to ship the meat back to their home planet for food. The all male cast has resulted in what
Creed described as ‘couvade’ or man-as-mother, this is displayed in the scene
right at the very end of the film where Derek stows away on the aliens spaceship as it leaves earth. He and his trusty chainsaw, a homage perhaps to
‘A Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974, Tobe Hooper) plough through the roof above the alien leader’s head before Derek yells, “suck my spinning steel you shithead.” A direct reference to the phallic symbol of the chainsaw as it penetrates the alien’s body. Derek then emerges from within the alien after having just sawn him apart from the inside exclaiming, “I’m born again!” This symbolic form of penetration followed by a monstrous birth can be seen as a representation of men’s hysteria concerning the birth of a child, something in
itself that is bloody, messy and abject being that what was once on the inside
has now been brought to the outside. This relates to the carnivalesque idea of
‘world-turned-upside-down’ where something as natural as birth is completely inverted. This is typically shown as a change of gender role, shown most famously in the scene in ‘Alien’ (1979, Ridley Scott) where John Hurt’s character ‘gives birth’ to the alien creature. This is further inverted here in
‘Bad Taste’ as not only is the gender role changed but is in fact the monstrous alien that is giving birth to the man.

‘Bad Taste’ has an unconventional narrative in
the sense that its neither specifically a horror film or a sci-fi film, this may of course be due to Jackson’s inexperience when making the film, especially
the end of the film where the narrative completely disappears. The film mainly
relies of various visceral set pieces to both disgust and amuse. There are some
notable elements in the film however, its social commentary on man’s lack of
remorse when disposing of an unknown enemy and the assumption that any invader
would pose a threat (although this is indeed true of this story), yet again the
characters of both the monsters and the lead male characters raise little or no
empathy from the viewer, in fact you are encouraged to actively dislike the
bumbling imbeciles, specifically Derek (played by Jackson himself) who seems to
take pleasure in violence and drools at the sight of gore. The alien invasion
narrative is key to the horror genre, and ‘Bad Taste’ explores the idea of
aliens invading earth and replicating human beings in order to take over the
world. This can be seen in many classic alien invasion films such as ‘Invasion
of the Body Snatchers’ (1956, Don Siegel).

One of the most
striking scenes in ‘Bad Taste’ is when Derek awakens on the beach after falling onto the rocks from the cliff above. His skull gapes open and parts of his brains spill out into the ground, seemingly unperturbed he picks up the missing pieces and jams them into the cavity on the back of his head before using a top
hat as a means for keeping the wound closed. This hyper-unreality and conscious
use of extreme unreal is another example of how horror stems back to the carnivalesque, with its grotesque realism in the detail yet completely unrealistic in the sense that a head wound like that would obviously kill
someone, this element of fantasy adds to the nature of carnival displaced onto
film.

“In Powers of
Horror Kristeva argues that the constitution of the self is intimately
bound up with the constitution of a sense of stable subjectivity, coherent
speech, and the clean and proper body…Everything that threatens the subjects
identity as human is defined as abject.” (Creed, p149)

The
idea of boundaries is important to the horror film, Kristeva’s argument
surrounding the abject is highlighted in her acknowledgement of the difference
between the inside and the outside of the body. These boundaries are extrememly
important for maintaining what she describes as a ‘clean and proper body’, and
anything that threatens this does so by blurring these boundaries and
intertwining the inside with the outside. “Death is graphically signified as a
breakdown of body boundaries, a visible rendering incoherent of the orderly
structure of the body.” (Tudor, p29) Kristeva uses the example of the body extricating
waste and defiling elements as a way of staying alive and healthy.

“These
body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and
with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my
condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from
that border.” (Kristeva, p4).

These boundaries are
constantly being broken in the horror film, as shown in the scene from ‘Bad
Taste’ discussed above when Derek’s brains fall out of the back of his skull.
Kristeva describes these boundaries and the difference between what is inside
and outside as what makes us basically human and what differentiates life from
death. When in normal life when we feel nausea (her example of the skin on top
of milk is the classic example), it is the way in which our body deals with the
abject. In cinema however, these feelings are taken to a whole new level of
abjection as we are witness to all manner of broken down boundaries as the
mixing of the inside with the outside.

‘Meet the Feebles’ is
probably the film in which Jackson veers the furthest away from the horror
genre. Known amongst its cult following of fans as a ‘spluppet’ movie. The film
undoubtedly has many horrific elements to it but as a whole it is more of a
straightforward comedy and parody of the ‘Muppets’ television show. The film
centres around the puppet actors of the ‘Feebles Variety Hour’ and their drug
and debauchery fuelled lifestyle. There is the heroin addict Vietnam vet frog, the
sex crazed rabbit, the manager of the Feebles is a large walrus who is having
an affair with a cat and an elephant who is having a paternity suit filled
against him by a chicken!

“The dialectical transactions
between comedy and horror are manifested graphically in carnival, the surface
of which is festive, but which, given a slight shift in imagination, tracks off
into the treacherous and transgressive.” (Morgan, p132)

The main theme of a variety show is
the most obvious link to the carnival, as well as the films various song and
dace routines. Which include a fox singing about sodomy and the drugged up frog
murdering his assistant in a knife throwing act gone wrong. The puppets perform
all manner of debauched and vile acts, none more so than the character of the
paparazzi fly. In one scene shortly after Harry the rabbit contracts some kind
of venereal disease, we see the fly eaves dropping in the toilet where he
indulges in excrement. “mmm…Carrots,” he remarks, “not one of yours is it,
Harry?” in a scene that is almost equal in its excessive grossness as the
zombie dining sequence in ‘Braindead’.

“Whereas carnival
celebrated a temporary liberation from prevailing values and norms of
behaviour, the cinema of horror celebrates the complete destruction of all
values and accepted practises through the symbolic destruction of the body, the
symbolic counterpart of the social body.” (Creed, p149)

This can be seen in a
number of the characters in ‘Meet the Feebles’ most notably the rabbit Harry,
whom as I have mentioned is suspected of suffering from some kind of hideous,
wasting venereal disease, we see his body (or at least the body of the puppet)
disintegrating and transforming into a vomiting pus filled wretch. The drug
addled frog is also an example of the destruction of the body, although it is
self-inflicted we see the drooling mess of the puppet, oozing and weeping from
various crevices as he suffers from withdrawal. The use of the puppet again
harks back to the carnival tradition of puppet shows and Punch as Judy shows.
They also somewhat represent the kinds of displays seen on the floats if the
carnivals and Mardi Gras traditions that are still seen today. The brightly
coloured animals, both puppets and people in costumes are seen, as in the film,
aboard stages and on street parades.

The representation of
the infant, which is key to ‘Braindead’ as I will explain later is also
represented here in ‘Meet the Feebles’. This is something that is familiar to
the horror film and can be seen in films such as the unforgettable case of
‘Eraserhead’ (1977, David Lynch) or in the recent remake of ‘Dawn of the Dead’
(2004, Zack Snyder). The infant baby of the horror film is often monstrous and
deformed in some way, in this case the infant takes on the form of a baby that
is the product of a chicken as a mother and an elephant as a father, the baby
is show in the pram with a chickens body and the head of an elephant. The
extreme lengths in which ‘Meet the Feebles’ goes to in order to parody and
satirize the modern horror film and the darker underbelly of celebrity are
painfully obvious and also on occasions greatly amusing, however I find that
the film although a novel idea does not do Jackson justice as it is often crude
and offensive, but not in a good way as in both ‘Braindead’ and ‘Bad Taste’.

Braindead

‘Braindead’ is set in 1950’s New
Zealand and tells the story of Lionel, a young man whose life is devastated
after his overbearing mother is bitten by a rat monkey that then turns her and
various other inhabitants of the town into blood thirsty zombies. It has become
a common occurrence for modern horror films to incorporate the showing of the
violence in such graphic detail that boarders on relish as opposed to the more
traditional option of hinting and suggesting the violence. The fear of pain has
now replaced the fear of death, which was so prominent in the horror films of
the past. The film that pioneered the idea of showing onscreen violence was
‘American Werewolf in London’ (1981, John Landis) this was perhaps the first
film to show the metamorphosing body in all its glory as the central character
David turns into a werewolf under harsh light with little editing. Part of what
makes the pain so real in ‘American Werewolf’ is to do with the crushing and
stretching bone sound effects used to display onscreen a more visceral reality
as opposed to the old werewolf films of the 50’s. The film was hailed for its
special effects and Rick Baker received the first ever academy award for
make-up effects. The transformation sequence was unlike anything that had been
seen before. Transformation sequences in werewolf films had traditionally been
done with the use of lap dissolves. It had never been portrayed with such
emphasis on the pain of the transformation and the gruesome effect that it has
on the body. This is a common feature of
Jackson clearly displayed in ‘Braindead’ all of the gore is shown in all its
glory onscreen with in-camera effects as opposed to special effects trickery.

In recent years the body has become
the primary feature of the horror film, the “materiality of the body and the
visual display of its destruction.” (Creed, p128) is the central issue as
opposed to the mere threat of destruction that was common in the past. The body
is now seen as a physical material, which can be easily moulded and destroyed.
Increased levels of gore and graphic displays of violence are now more commonly
shown with relish and the destruction of the body is often and especially in
Jackson’s films with little compassion and with little evoked sympathy. With
many zombie films and with ‘Bad Taste’ and ‘Braindead’ (that has been described
in the journal ‘NZ film’ as having a plot that could make Freud wake up from
the dead screaming) there is a certain blasé quality to the death of an
individual, it become a mere body count of corpses. With a film such as
‘American Werewolf in London’ you as the audience really sympathise with the
character of David as he goes through his transformation and ultimate demise,
and although the murders he commits are made humorous by the various
decomposing corpses he visualises we still have an emotional connection to the
characters and we feel his remorse as well as amusement. In Jackson’s films
however, there is really no empathy towards the characters, Lionel and Paquita
are the heroes of the movie, yet I find it hard to relate to them on any more
than a base level and even then if either of them had been killed it would only
have raised the slightest emotion or trace of empathy. Even though I enjoy the
film greatly and find it very amusing it does display a nonchalant mass
destruction of the human body.

In Andrew Tudor’s
article ‘Unruly Bodies, Unquiet Minds’ he agues that although it is apparent in
modern horror that the ‘extreme gross fury visited upon the human body as it is
burst, blown up, broken, and ripped apart; as it disintegrates or
metamorphoses; as it is dismembered and dissected; as it is devoured from the
inside out.’ (Carroll, in Tudor, p26) it is something that has always appeared
in the horror movie, its whether it has been shown on camera that has changed
through time. It does not appear to be an entirely contemporary notion as can
be seen in the reaction to horror from the 50’s as opposed to the films of the
30’s. Tudor uses the example of The hammer update of ‘Frankenstein’ that was
released in the 50’s and how it was greeted with an onslaught of critical abuse
for it supposed relish on sordid detail. It is a common misconception that much
of the criticism for horror arised with the release of films such as ‘The
Exorcist’ and ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’, I believe that these films were
not so much ahead of their time in the depiction of violence but perhaps just
in the advances of special make-up effects. It is then a misconceived idea that
it is a recent occurrence for the relish of violence in cinema, especially when
you look at the traditions of the Grand Guignol theatre, violence and
degradation has existed in one form or another for the viewing pleasure or for
the actual partaking of the public, as it is in the carnival tradition.

“Images of bodily
dismemberment fracture our sense of bodily unity and, by extension, of the self
as a coherent whole. Images of bodily dismemberment represent a particularly
strong expression of the abject. Such images also point to the contemporary
horror film’s desire to explore all forms of material transgression, in
succumbing to the lure of abjection and the perverse pleasures of perversity.”
(Creed, P145)

Many elements of what Creed discusses are true of the idea of the
horrific, but it’s the use of the word ‘contemporary’ that I have a problem
with. Especially seen as she herself used the idea of the carnivalesque to
trace the popularity of the horror film. It is true that you wouldn’t have had
films such as ‘Braindead’ around fifty years ago or so, but that doesn’t mean
that this kind of extreme violence was not imbedded in our culture, it just
depends on the various forms in which it takes place.

The female body is also of particular
significance when discussing the modern horror movie, the carnival has always
projected the idea of inversion and the idea of ‘woman on top’. Women are often
assumed to be the victims within the horror genre but in certain instances she
becomes monstrous. The monstrous feminine usually takes on the form of a sexual
being as in the vampire film or as monstrous as the result of her treatment at
the hands of a man as in the rape revenge narrative or in films such as ‘Fatal
Attraction’ (1987, Adrain Lyne) where the woman is portrayed in typically
Freudian style as hysterical. The most obvious and monstrous action that a
woman can commit would be that of male castration, as seen in ‘Braindead’ with
both Void and Uncle Les at the hands of Lionel’s mother, Uncle’s Les’ last
words ironically being, “well girls, just as well someone around here has some
balls.”

“There have been many
castrating mother’s in cinema. But the one is ‘Braindead’ breaks all records.”
(Murat, NZ Film 49)

The mother in ‘Braindead’ is a
classic example of the female psychopath in the horror film, she is a
hyper-representation of the monstrous feminine. She clings obsessively to her
son and had previously murdered her husband and his lover after finding out
about the affair. In Creed’s article she describes the female psychopath as
sometimes being “ageing” with an “appearance (that) is usually disturbing in
that it suggests either a decaying or frustrated sexual desire.” (Creed, p148).
The mother had obviously repressed both her own sexual desire and was now
attempting to maintain a hold over Lionel by repressing his own desires and
affections towards Paquita. She is the perfect representation of the ‘archaic
mother’, and in the final scene she ingests Lionel back into the womb. The womb
is often a source of the grotesque within the horror film.

“Her monstrousness is not only
the result of an abusive mother, but is also, as Creed points out, defined
precisely in terms specific to her reproductive potential; that is, Nola is a
source of disgust because her ability to give birth parthenogenetically. Nola
herself draws attention to this in a scene in which she gives birth to one of
the mutant children. Her mouth covered with blood from licking her newborn
clean she articulates her husband’s and presumably the audience’s thoughts: ‘I
disgust you, I sicken you.’ The mother then is doubly horrific: she both causes
and is the monster.” (McLarty in Grant, p236)

As mentioned briefly above when
referencing the idea of the man-as-mother and the hysteria brought on by the
whole nature of pregnancy and birth being abject. The womb as shown in ‘The
Brood’ (1979, David Cronenberg) is often a symbol for the monstrous feminine
within the horror genre because it is something that is uniquely feminine and
also at times horrific because it can be responsible for producing the horrors
of the film. The representation of the womb is also a sign of the maternal
nature of the mother, bringing the horror into the family. In ‘Braindead’ the
character of the mother was extremely matriarchal and overbearing, her Freudian
relationship with her son Lionel and her desire to keep him away from any
outside influence by suffocating him is expressed by her literally taking him
back into her womb.

“You are watching a movie. On
one side of the cinematic divide, lies the stuff of horror – that delicious
feeling of tension and unease, of all the hairs on your back rising as one. On
the other side lies comedy – where any tension is laughed right out of your
system again, with each burst of laughter. And if there is a creature in horror
which demonstrates just how close those two states of tension and laughter can
be, that creature is the zombie.” (Pryor, p87)

Grotesque humour was another common
feature of the horror film which first came to light in ‘American Werewolf’,
John Landis actually had a difficult job getting the film financed due to the
fact that nobody could make up their minds whether it was supposed to be a
horror film or a comedy. The two however seem to work extremely well together.
Another prime example of this would be Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead’ films where the
comedy and the horror come in equal doses. Peter Jackson uses comedy to great
effect in ‘Bad Taste’, ‘Meet the Feebles’ and ‘Braindead’. “Like the grotesque
body of carnival the monstrous body of contemporary horror has become a source
of obscene humour.” (Creed, p134) ‘Braindead’ is perhaps the film that for
anyone who has seen it will be one of the first to come to mind when thinking
about obscene humour, the laugh out loud humour and the nauseating mix of gore
create something that is not easily forgotten and either loved or despised by
the viewer. Jackson does away with the irony and smart ass humour of popular
films such as ‘Scream’ (Wes Craven, 1996) and relies solely on pure excess and
slapstick humour which is often morally questionable and surreal. One scene
which often generates the most laughs in set in the graveyard when Lionel
attempts to dig up the corpse of him mother who then comes to life as a zombie
and attacks a gang of yobs. As the graveyard becomes over run by zombies the
priest emerges from his home, “stand back boy, this calls for divine
intervention,” he says to Lionel before lunging into some kung fu attack
against the zombies, “ I kick arse for the Lord!” he shouts before doing a
flying kick into one of the yob zombies. Religious figures have often been seen
as a salvation within the horror genre, films such as ‘The Exorcist’ (1973,
William Freidkin) and ‘The Omen’ (1976, Richard Donner) both show priests as
being key figures in the struggle against the evil in each film, relying on
their knowledge and divine power on earth to combat and resolve the
problem.

“The ultimate in abjection is
the corpse. The body protects itself from bodily wastes such as shit, blood
urine, and pus by ejecting these substances just as it expels food that, for
whatever reason, the subject finds loathsome. The body extricates itself from
them and from the place where they fall, so that it might continue to live.”
(Creed, p149)

The scene in ‘Braindead’ where
Lionel and his mother are having lunch with the representatives from the
W.L.W.L. (Wellington Ladies Welfare League) is a prime and nauseating example
of what is considered abject. This scene takes place shortly after Lionel’s
mother has been bitten by the rat monkey and is beginning to turn into a zombie
and literally fall apart. They are all eating custard, a substance that I find
completely vomit inducing in itself, when the bite wound spurt pus into one of
the fellow diners plate. He then enthuses about how the custard is just how
much he enjoys it; ‘…thick and creamy, just the way I like it!’ The mothers
body is slowly decomposing and halfway through desert her ear falls off and
lands into her plate of custard, she then attempts to eat the ear. The ultimate
in the abject would surely be the consumption of that which the body wishes to
expel. This also echoes the vomit eating scene from ‘Bad Taste’ where the
aliens take it in turn to slurp green lumpy vomit out of a bowl and when it
comes to Frank who is undercover as an alien he reluctantly but unexpectedly
begins to enjoy the vulgar meal. Jackson uses a number of scenes involving the
consumption of food to highlight the abject. Kristeva notes that there is a
relation to the inside and the outside of the body by what is expelled from
within. By crossing the boundaries Jackson creates a carnival of the abject as
the zombies bleed and eject various bodily fluids across the dining room table
and the food that is supposed to be ingested is mixed together with the blood
and pus that is supposed to be expelled blurring the link between what is
inside and what is outside of the body.

As mentioned in the quote above, to
Kristeva the corpse is the ultimate in the abject. This is also discussed by
Tudor in relation to his theory of the represenrtation of the ‘unruly body’ in
the form of the zombie.

“Modern zombies are entirely
out of control: cannibalistic automatons, with variously damaged and decaying
bodies, who lumber irresistibly in pursuit of the flesh of their living prey.
They have no suppressed identity to conflict with the metamorphosed surface; no
agonized recognition that they do terrible things when out of control; no sense
therefore of guilt and redemption. They are simply unruly bodies made
manifest.” (Tudor, p33)

The zombie is basically running on
basic instincts and desires, causing anarchy based on their lacking of control
and what makes us all basically human, a conscience and repression. They do not
discriminate against victims for any reason and merely aim to feed their desire
for human flesh. The zombies in ‘Braindead’ are the result of a virus spread by
an animal bite, taking the roots of the zombie away from the myths of voodoo
rituals as seen in films like ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ (1989, Wes Craven).
They still seem to retain certain elements from their original personalities,
similar to the zombies of ‘Return of the Living Dead’ some of them,
specifically Uncle Les retain the ability to talk. The fact that they retain
some of their original personalities may suggest some of their actions. The
nurse and the priest for example, both victims of a repressed bourgeois society
governed by religion, once all their feelings of guilt and redemption are
removed they become sex mad, even placing sex over their inbuilt zombie desire
to eat human flesh in the end scene where we are expecting them to attack
Lionel as he hangs from the ceiling, instead the embrace and immediately start
humping on the floor in the midst of the carnage. Sexual energy, according to
Wood is the primary example of what our culture repressed. The then result of
the zombie procreation is another example of the ‘terrible child’ as coined by
Wood. The scene in the film where Lionel takes the baby, named Selwyn to the
park. This displays what Creed describes as a “conversion form of hysteria
brought about by man’s terror at actually having to take up a feminine place as
‘mother’.” (Creed, p133)

“All cultures provide us with
categories, but because such classification systems necessarily give rise to
the possibility of anomalies, to category mixtures, to impurities, and because
anomalies pose dangers, all cultures also seek to defuse or distance such
threats.” (Tudor, p30)

Many theorists that have written on
the horror film have tried to classify the films according to various
categories and sub-categories. As the quote suggests where we try to
categorise, by default there will always be anomalies, something will always
deviate. Creed’s twelve faces of the body monstrous for example, or Andrew
Tudor’s threatened and threatening body representation chart. Each acknowledges
the fact that each category in not exclusive and that many or all could be
apparent in the same film, making it seem futile to have categorised the films
in the first place. It would seem to be more useful to use these categories as
guide lines for the kinds of things that can be present and for them to be less
constricting. With all the various elements that are in place within the horror
narrative any categorisation is difficult to gage and apply to specific films.
‘Braindead’ for example could quite possibly fit into almost every category
that is suggested by Creed and Tudor. The ‘metamorphosing, transforming body’,
‘the generative body’, ‘the infant body’, ‘the bleeding body’, ‘the dismembered
body’, ‘the disintegrating/exploding body’, ‘the body as living corpse’, ‘the
sexually deviant body’, ‘the maternal body’, and ‘the body of the archaic mother’,
are all apparent in ‘Braindead’ they all play a major part in the narrative of
the film and each of these ideas is interesting and relevant when discussing
the film. However, it becomes confusing to jump from one category to the other
and to take certain ideas from one and certain ideas from the other. If you
were for example to see Creed’s twelve face’s of the body monstrous as all
wearing some kind of mask, then when the mask is removed there is more
underneath. Her categories are all too specific and whilst relevant they fail
to completely realise how broad the genre really is. Tudor’s approach may seem simpler as he only
clearly defines four categories. But, in Creed’s approach, by not narrowing
down the categories there is less room to fully explore some of the ideas to
their full potential. However, this said the simplicity of the categories works
in its favour because then there is more that can be read into each film
instead of trying to categorize then so thoroughly.

As I have discussed in this essay
there are many elements which make a film horrific and these ideas are buried
deep within our culture, a culture that is steeped in history and with a
tradition for horror. As explained the nature of the things that appear in the
contemporary horror films of today can be traced back through a long tradition
of carnivalesque traditions in history. They have grown up with our culture and
have gone through various phases brought about by social changes and
technological advances. Horror cinema is often looked down upon as low brow and
proletariat. However, the popularity and the continued critical examination of
the genre shows that there is more to it than that. Transgressive behaviour is
inbuilt within us and we all need a means of venting it, the repressed society
that we live in needs someone like Peter Jackson to amuse, horrify us and to
make us feel sick.

Sweet Cicely

Feature Film

Horror/Navel-gazing Scottish Miserablism

“In a desolate, dystopian Scotland a lonely young girl happens upon a near-mute of a similar age with a troubling secret, following the disappearance of a local boy the two girls form an intense bond that throws their lives into chaos”.

Pet Food

Short

Horror/Comedy

“In the wake of the zombie apocalypse a woman takes the love for her cat to a whole new level”.