CAPTURING THE FEAR OF THE "FOLK"
Horror films, as a broad genre, are defined primarily by the emotions they evoke in audiences: anxiety, disgust, dread, and fear. These emotions are evoked both by a specific threat (be it natural or supernatural) and by general film atmosphere (e.g., scene composition, music/sound design, editing). Most horror films focused on “witchcraft” present a threat that typically falls into one of two camps: the supernatural threat of people using magic malevolently, or the more natural threat of people using the guise of investigating witchcraft for panic, power, profit, or sadistic pleasure. In the latter, the real horror comes from the cruelty humans inflict on each other, sometimes from “best” of all intentions.
Without giving too much away, the The VVitch (2015) involves a bit of both. The writer/director Robert Eggers grew up in New England and wanted to create “an archetypal New England horror story” that would channel the folkloric influences from his childhood (“The VVitch: A primal folklore” DVD featurette). It follows a family that belongs to a sect of Puritans who were extreme even for that period (circa 1630s). The family lives an isolated and pious life, with their ardent faith put to the test when they experience a series of tragic, dire misfortunes. Viewers watch the family struggle against supernatural threats from without and all-to-natural threats from within. The family’s struggle for survival mixes with their fundamentalist religious views to cause, in the words of actor Anya Taylor-Joy, “a deterioration of a family” (DVD featurette).
Eggers prioritized accuracy as much as possible in ways normally unheard of in small budget films. For example, the set designers hired experts on period architecture and woodwork to reconstruct historically accurate colonial houses (DVD featurette). Even the official title involved a period-appropriate spelling (i.e., “VVitch” rather than the modern “Witch”; DVD audio commentary with Eggers). At the story level, Eggers conducted extensive research into New England and European folkloric stereotypes about witchcraft, often drawing dialogue specifically from historical records of witch trials. Eggers wanted to demonstrate how these beliefs, misguided as they were by fundamentalist anti-Pagan propaganda, influenced Puritan immigrants’ daily lives. Further, Eggers wanted to understand how the horrors of the New England/European witch hunts could happen (“Salem Panel Q & A” DVD bonus). This is a question that has captured the academic curiosity of many anthropologists, historians, psychologists, and sociologists – particularly those researchers who endeavor to use this knowledge to shed light on more recent U.S. “witch hunts” such as the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings in the 1950s and the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s.
Thus, there are many ways to unpack this film. A good starting point is to center it within the film genre of “folk horror.” Although the generic category is still in its academic infancy, the canonical films scholars use as genre anchor points come from Britain’s 1970s-era cinema: Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971; dir. Piers Haggard), Cry of the Banshee (1970; dir. Gordon Hessler), The Wicker Man (1973; dir. Robin Hardy), and Witchfinder General (1968; dir. Michael Reeves). As is the case with most genre work, debates rage concerning which films fit within the category, and indeed what characteristics make up the category. Thus far, the key elements focus on films that 1) place a key emphasis on the landscape as part of the narrative, 2) convey a sense of isolation for the characters, 3) involve individuals that endorse “skewed moral beliefs” (at least from the perspective of the main character and/or the audience), and 4) have some type of supernatural activity rooted in folklore as a key plot point.
There are many U.S. and British films that involve several (though not all) of these elements, produced from the 1970s onward, such as The Devils (1971; dir. Ken Russell), The Children of the Corn (1984; dir. Fritz Kiersch), The Blair Witch Project (1999; dirs. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez), and more recently Midsommar (2019; dir. Ari Aster). Further, the films that fit this genre are not restricted to Anglo-Saxon and Western European influenced folklore. Severin Films is releasing a collectors set including films from across the globe that involve these key elements of “folk horror,” which is being preceded by an award-winning documentary on the festival circuit. The interest in this genre transcends film, with music projects being categorized under the “folk horror” label as well.
Based on these criteria, The VVitch (2015) fits the “folk horror” genre label perfectly. Regarding landscape, actor Anya Taylor-Joy argues that “The setting is a character in itself, a very important character” (“The VVitch: A primal folklore” DVD featurette). Further, director Robert Eggers notes that they designed everything in the film such that nature could “be this overwhelming force” of which the audience was always aware (audio commentary and “Salem Panel Q & A” DVD bonus). In terms of isolation, it is important to note that the family chooses to exile itself from its Puritan community at the beginning of the movie, something that becomes a contentious decision later in the film. Additionally, Anya Taylor-Joy argues that it is easy to imagine a family “losing their heads” being surrounded by dark forests and sheltered in an isolated farmhouse daily, with each other as their only social contacts (“The VVitch: A primal folklore”). The skewed moral beliefs component hinges upon the audience’s reaction to 1600s Puritan beliefs, which Eggers describes as “so exotic and strange for us” (“The VVitch: A primal folklore”). Ultimately, the family’s fears of malevolent magic are validated by a few supernatural events tied directly into folklore from both New England and Western European stereotypes of witchcraft (as the final title card of the film claims).
I could write several papers on the social and psychological nuances in this film. For now, I will focus on the “folk horror” component of skewed moral beliefs because it is something that is a key aspect both of this film and of other notable folk horror films. For modern audiences, the Puritan beliefs seem anachronistic and “fundamentalist” (i.e., rigid). However, it is important to remember that stereotypical beliefs about “witchcraft” and demonic forces were commonplace as real of an explanation for negative experiences such as famine, drought, and premature death, as modern scientific explanations are to most of us. Indeed, many stereotypic beliefs about the harm witches could inflict involved survival concerns (e.g., illness; the sustainability of crops and livestock) and the potential for creating future generations (e.g., reproductive ability; miscarriage and sudden infant death; see the Malleus Maleficarum), concerns that evolutionary psychologists argue are key motivators across cultures throughout human history. As such, it makes sense that the perceived threat of witchcraft would be prominent in Puritans’ daily lives.
Further, their supreme deity allowed such malevolent things to occur, perhaps because they did something to deserve it or because of some other reason unbeknownst to them. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21 KJV) – as simple as that. Beyond using these beliefs to make sense of their own misfortunes, these individuals also responded to belief systems different than their own as an existential threat, both to their own worldview and to the systemic power structure. Psychologists of religion/spirituality have found that this ideological-threat-to-prejudice connection occurs to this day. Given the power of this connection to explain fear and aggression towards “the other” in our modern privileged society, it is reasonable to assume such power was intensified when a blighted crop or diseased livestock could be the difference between life and death for a family or community. Any scapegoat would provide a small measure of comfort – or at least a presumed explanation – for the suffering that devout people experience when every moment of every day is organized around the whims of an active, judgmental deity. Such tensions help us understand some of the ideological struggles that occur in other folk horror films, both from the protagonists’ community and even that of the “antagonists” (e.g., The Wicker Man). Are the beliefs of either side really that different, at least as far as the psychological needs being fulfilled? So, when wielding your judgmental gavel toward beliefs and customs of “provincial folk” that seem superstitious, show a bit of cultural humility. After all, we all have our “folk devils” that stand outside the metaphorical light of our hearths, helping us make sense of this crazy thing called life. The problem is when we immediately assume that we are unequivocally right and anyone who disagrees immediately becomes wrong without room for debate. Then, we can become the devils.
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Hood, R. W., Hill, P. C., & Williamson, W. P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
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Kramer, H., & Sprenger, J. (1971; trans. M. Summers). The malleus maleficarum. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Levack, B. P. (Ed.). (2013). The Oxford handbook of witchcraft in early modern Europe and colonial America. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
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Scovell, A. (2017). Folk horror: Hours dreadful and things strange. Auteur Publishing.
"OH HAI, RIFF-CULTURE": BONDING AND "BAD" MOVIES
Let’s get one thing clear – I love ‘bad’ movies. I’m not talking about films with poor production quality or ones that are unanimously panned by critic and audiences alike. There are plenty of films that I have turned off in the middle, and no amount of fermented beverages could make me suffer through them. I’m talking about ones that, despite their numerous flaws, draw me in with a type of morbid curiosity. Try as I might, I can’t look away. There is an endearing, earnest charm about the films that keeps me hooked.
Of course, these films are not for everyone. They are an acquired taste; one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. However, I’m certainly not alone. Back in 1988, a show started that gave public validation to those who were addicted to the celluloid margins, those enthusiastic viewers who reveled in the glorious badness of ‘bad’ movies. This show was Minneapolis-based Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). The show focused on a host (first Joel Hodgson, then Mike Nelson) who was marooned on a satellite and forced to watch horrible movies. In each iteration, the host suffered through the films with robotic friends; their sarcastic running commentary (i.e., riffing) helped make the films bearable. Indeed, it was this commentary that also made the films enjoyable for the show’s audience. I have fond memories of watching MST3K in high school, and again when the re-runs of the show started streaming on Netflix (Sleep? Who needs sleep?!). Of course, the show has been crowd-funded back into production, and the original contributors have also created their own companies: RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic. In true modern cinematic fashion, the revelry continues…for many, many iterations.
But why do people like me enjoy these films? Why would I take an entire day to walk a 6-mile pilgrimage around San Francisco (My legs were sore for days!) to find filming locations tied to The Room (2003), a film that widely is considered one of the “greatest” bad movies ever made (see the autobiography of actor Greg Sestero)? Research suggests there are many reasons why people love ‘bad’ movies. Some people love the irony of loving something considered ‘bad’ by mainstream audiences, whereas others honestly appreciate aspects of these films that violate cinematic norms. In a sea of repetition, these films buck the trend and stand out; they are memorable, even if for all the wrong reasons.
I can see aspects of my interests in both motives, but there is something missing. My fondest memories of watching ‘bad’ films involve some of my oldest and best friends. We laughed, we groaned, and we drank an excessive amount of Mountain Dew together. Indulge me as I co-opt a common reference to poet John Donne: just as no person “is an island,” few (if any) fans of these films exist in solitude. The hosts of MST3K kept their sanity by watching the films with their friends, and so do many of us. Laughter often bonds people together, forging a common identity through experience. Watching ‘bad’ movies together simply is one way to make shared memories and satisfy our need for belonging. If you don’t dig it, I’m sure you’ve got something else you are a fan of that fulfills the same needs. If you do dig it, welcome aboard our satellite! Remember, it’s not about the film being “good” or “bad”; the only cinematic sin here is to be un-memorable. Really…just relax.
Barefoot, G. (2017). Trash cinema: The lure of the low. London, UK: Wallflower Press.
O'Toole, L. (1979). Whatever happened to trash? Film Comment, 15(5), 40-44.
Sarkhosh, K., & Menninghaus, W. (2016). Enjoying trash films: Underlying features, viewing stances, and experiential response dimensions. Poetics, 57, 40-54.
Sconce, J. (1995). ‘Trashing’ the academy: Taste, excess, and an emerging politics of cinematic style. Screen, 36(4), 371-393.
Sestero, G., & Bissell, T. (2017). The disaster artist: My life inside The Room, the greatest bad movie ever made. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
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Weiner, R. G., & Barba, S. E. (Eds.). In the peanut gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on film, fandom, technology and the culture of riffing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.
"DO YOUR PARENTS KNOW THAT YOU'RE RAMONES?!" OR: WE ACCEPT YOU; ONE OF US!
I first discovered the Ramones while in high school in the mid-90s, ironically around the time they disbanded. Thus, I never had the pleasure of seeing them in concert. Over the past few years, famed audio engineer Ed Stasium has been overseeing the 40th anniversary re-release of their first five albums, remastered from the original studio master tapes. Collectors can acquire special versions that include an LP version and several CDs that include a variety of demos, alternate versions, and a live show from that album’s era. I suppose those live albums get me a step closer but still cannot capture the high-intensity energy and musical ferocity that multiple writers have described characterized a Ramones performance. The audio alone certainly cannot convey the full measure of the rabid fan participation.
That is where the film Rock & Roll High School (1979) comes in. It was directed by Allan Arkush (with executive producer, the legendary Roger Corman), and it was just one of long line of zany high school comedy pictures that exploited parental fears about juvenile delinquency, though in this case, the metaphorical tongue was planted firmly in cheek. Like many youth-oriented exploitation/drive-in films, they also integrated popular music into the soundtrack and worked in live performances into the films themselves whenever possible (e.g., “rocksploitation” and Rock Around the Clock, 1956, dir. Fred F. Sears). Just another way to get teenagers into the theater, spending their allowance on tickets and maybe even tie-in merchandise like records (that’s right, vinyl LPs, before they were retro!). Some film scholars have tracked the influence of 50s “rocksploitation” films to the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964; dir. Richard Lester). Interesting trivia: Arkush cited A Hard Day’s Night as a major influence on his film and noted that they filmed portions at the same locations as Rock Around the Clock (2010 Shout! Factory release commentary track).
One of my favorite parts of Rock & Roll High School is the concert sequence toward the latter half that is a blast. Aside from the key cast members, most of the audience are actual Ramones fans. According to director Arkush, they “staged a live, marathon show at the Roxy Theater that consisted of 22 hours of nonstop Ramones playing” so that they could get all the coverage they needed of the band and audience to work around their main characters’ scenes (pg. 9 in the DVD booklet for Shout! Factory’s 2010 “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” edition)! I challenge anyone who enjoys the Ramones to watch this footage and NOT sing along. It gets especially hard when they start putting the words on the screen. Of course, that could just be me (apologies in advance to anyone who sits near me in the theater during this film). This is the closest I’ll ever come to seeing the Ramones in concert, so I relish this segment every time I watch the film and sometimes listen to the soundtrack just to sing along to the concert medley.
Why do I love these moments so much? Why were fans willing to stand around for hours listening to the Ramones play their set repeatedly during filming? Why are there still yearly concerts to mark Joey Ramone’s birthday, often filled with many fans who, as Ritchie Ramone says, “weren’t even born when the Ramones were together ̶ but they still grew up listening to the Ramones, like they never went away. It’s crazy…but it’s great too” (pg. xvi, Ramone & Aaron, 2018). Why are there enough cover albums and Ramones-inspired bands to warrant their own genre (“Ramones-core”; one of my all-time favorites is The Huntingtons, and The Jasons do an amazing cover album that mixes Ramones music with Misfits lyrics).
Any of these questions likely have multiple answers. Without question, the Ramones have inspired loyalty from multiple generations of fans, and each individual fan could provide a litany of reasons for their passion. For me, it comes down to one of my favorite lines from their song “Pinhead.” They open the song with a chant adapted from the classic Pre-Code era horror film Freaks (1932; dir. Tod Browning): “Gabba gabba, We accept you, We accept you, One of us.” Although this chant was only one of numerous anthems for enthusiastic fans, it is one that I believe embodies the relationship between the band and their fanbase. In an interview included in 40th Anniversary remaster for Leave Home booklet, the Ramones’ co-manager Danny Fields noted, “Everyone in the band grew up as an outsider…But mainly and most of all, they always loved their fans. The fans were #1, who, consequently, felt vindicated, energized, and loved…That was because the Ramones felt like teenage rock ‘n’ roll fans themselves. The music and the show made them them: we are them, and they are us. It was important to establish that unity…That’s the way the Ramones wanted it to be: we are participating in an event that’s bigger than all of us, and we are all equally important. We just happen to be the band” (2017, p. 3-7).
We all have a fundamental need to belong; it hurts to feel left out, devalued, or lonely and we strive to find ways to feel socially connected. For individuals on the fringes of the popular mainstream ̶ the freaks, nerds, wallflowers, etc. ̶ music can soothe this pain and offer an alternative source of belonging. Psychologists, sociologists, and cultural studies researchers have found that fan identities and other subcultures help us do that. These affiliations allow us to affirm our individual interests and personalities while also finding likeminded others, so we are not alone in a crowd. Hanging out in these spaces and engaging in collective activities, such as singing and dancing along at concerts, give us a sense that we are part of something that transcends our individual experiences – something that bonds us and gives us shared meaning. Indeed, some of these ideas purposely are reflected in the film, such as in the “I Want You Around” scene (Arkush, Finnell, & Whitley audio commentary, 2010).
So, to all you old school Rock and Roll High School fans, welcome back to Vince Lombardi High. We’ve missed you. The facilities are yours. To those of you who are discovering this film, and perhaps even the R.A.M.O.N.E.S., for the first time: We accept you, you’re one of us! Oh, and remember: Gabba Gabba Hey!
Corman, R., & Jerome, J. (1990). How I made a hundred movies in Hollywood and never lost a dime. New York, NY: Random House.
Denisoff, R. S., & Romanowski, W. (1990). Katzman's" Rock around the Clock:" A Pseudo-Event?. Journal of Popular Culture, 24(1), 65-78.
Doherty, T. (2002). Teenagers and teenpics: The juvenilization of American movies in the 1950s. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Gabriel, S., Naidu, E., Paravati, E., Morrison, C. D., & Gainey, K. (2020). Creating the sacred from the profane: Collective effervescence and everyday activities. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(1), 129-154.
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Keeler, J. R., Roth, E. A., Neuser, B. L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D. J. M., & Vianney, J. M. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: Bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 518. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00518
Ramone, R., & Aaron, P. (2018). I know better now: My life before, during, and after the Ramones. Milwaukee, WI: Backbeat Books.
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Widdicombe, S., & Wooffitt, R. (1990). 'Being' versus 'doing' Punk: On achieving authenticity as a member. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 9(4), 257-277.
EXORCISING THE DEMONS OF DESPAIR
In 1973, a film was released that shocked the U.S. – scared the Hell right out of it (or perhaps into it?). News reports described patrons fainting in theaters, theater janitors cleaning up vomit in the aisles, and four-hour lines just to purchase tickets. Both clergy and mental health workers reported an increase in claims of demonic possession. This film was The Exorcist (dir. William Friedkin), based on the best-selling eponymous novel by William Peter Blatty. There are some who argue that the popularity of The Exorcist, and the subsequent “satanic panic” in the U. S., was a unique cultural phenomenon that emerged from the tumultuous 1960s, characterized by sociopolitical unrest, numerous political assassinations, Cold War fears, and an extended conflict in Vietnam that showed the ever-increasing casualties daily on TV. Whereas some saw the film as dangerous, there were just as many who found its ending hopeful. Author Blatty saw the ending as a triumph of the forces of good via the priest’s loving sacrifice. Newsweek writer Kenneth L. Woodward, covering the film’s cultural phenomenon, argued that the film “seems to serve the psychic needs of its audience. At a time of moral confusion among the sophisticated, the film harks back to starkly fundamental questions of good and evil…it speaks to a basic moral need...” (1974, p. 66). Regardless, many film critics have understood the film as a product of its time, something that Woodward also noted when he described the film’s success as a fad that would ultimately dissipate.
However, The Exorcist was certainly not the first film of that era to broach the demonic. Just few years earlier, Rosemary’s Baby (1968; dir. Roman Polanski) had provided a cinematic embodiment of conservative U.S. fears both of increased secularism among the general populace and the paradoxical interest in the occult among counter-culture groups. A year later the country would be shocked by the sensational Tate-LaBianca murders, and the subsequent extended trial of the Charles Manson and his “family” (a cult whose members perpetrated the murders). In tandem with this trial, the Vietnam conflict continued to rage on, and then U.S. domestic politics became embroiled in Richard Nixon’s Watergate Scandal. Even the flower-child optimism of the “hippy” movement received grievous damage at the 1969 Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont Speedway Free Festival when members of the Hells’ Angels biker gang assaulted concert goers, leading to the death of at least one person (this concert, and its tragic end, was chronicled in the fascinating documentary Gimmie Shelter [1970; dir. Albert Maysles et al.]). As such it indeed seemed that the U.S., and perhaps the world, was embroiled in an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of the Divine and the Demonic. Perhaps it is fitting then that two years after The Exorcist another Hollywood film, The Omen (1976; dir. Richard Donner) would take the former film’s struggle for the human soul and shift it to global proportions as it began a trilogy of films focused on the birth and rise of the Antichrist.
The number of demon-focused films have ebbed and flowed since then. They may not always be popular, but they have never completely disappeared. Indeed, that brings us to the most recent entry, Demonic (2021; dir. Neill Blomkamp). Indeed, even before the 1960s there had been films about demons and devils, reaching as far back as early silent films like Georges Méliès’ The House of the Devil (1896) and D. W. Griffth’s The Sorrow of Satan (1922). Perhaps the genre’s longevity is because, as film scholar Paul Wells argues, “The prevailing archetype of the monster is the Devil...In many senses, the theological struggle between good and evil played out in the horror text…becomes a conceptual umbrella for struggles between law and order, the sacred and the profane, barbarism and civility, truth and lies (2000, p. 8).” The concept of a diabolical entity (or entities) is not unique to the Western, Judeo-Christian culture that Hollywood is embedded in. Indeed, these types of concepts exist cross-culturally, and thus tales that involve struggles against these hostile forces also exist, whether told around campfires, on paper, or on celluloid.
Why do these stories persist? What psychological and social functions do they serve? Perhaps the concept of infernal forces being at the core of calamities provides us an ultimate explanation for why “bad things happen to good people,” especially when these things violate any sense of justice or fairness that we hold dear. Perhaps the diabolical seems the only remaining explanation that we can use to make sense of truly senseless acts of violence and cruelty to which humans subject each other; people behave monstrously because there must be a monster inside them. The Devil made them do it. Further, the stories that focus on the supernatural struggle between the forces of good and evil, whether at the individual or global level, provide audiences with a sense that if “Evil” exists, so must “Good.” It becomes a comforting affirmation that even when things look bleak and hopeless, there is a benevolent force out there fighting for us. Ideally that force wins the current struggle, but even if it doesn’t, there is always the chance that eventually the malevolent will be crushed and the righteous rewarded.
It is probably all these explanations and more that provide stories of demonic entities cultural resilience; why the genre survives the individual exorcisms at the end of each film. Even if audience members personally do not hold beliefs that demonic (and by extension, celestial) forces literally exist, they can still take solace in the general idea that there is a cosmic balance that will ensure that everything evens out in the end. Even amid global crises, pandemics, wars, and rumors of wars, we can still hold on to that one key motivator that helps us persist in the face of adversity and to be the change we wish to see in our world. That motivator is hope, which can exorcise the demon despair, one that we all must fight at one time or another. Sometimes, despair seems all but inevitable in tumultuous times. Whatever balm you use to restore your hope, please apply it liberally. It will take all of us to make tomorrow better.
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SUPERMAN AND MORAL INSPIRATION: UP, UP, AND AWAY!
I love Superman. I have loved him since I was 12. One of my fondest Christmas Eve memories is getting Superman #75 (November 18th, 1992), the much anticipated “Death of Superman” issue, in all its black polybagged glory. I’m not sure what my parents paid for it, given they probably either had to stand in line to get it when it came out or deal with speculator-inflated prices afterward (I recall seeing copies of it in my local comic shop going for $30-50 in the weeks that followed – at least 10x its $2.99 cover price). I waffled for a few agonizing minutes on whether to ‘break the seal’ on the polybag. I’d heard the rumors that it would degrade the value, but I had to know how this icon of U.S. culture would meet his momentous “end.” He was the first man I ever saw fly, thanks to Richard Donner and Christopher Reeves. He made me believe that it was cool to be altruistic and stand firm in my convictions, even if such convictions were unpopular and belittled in the peer-pressure infused, identity-crisis minefield of adolescence. Just like Huey Lewis, Superman made me feel that it was “hip to be square.” Finally, my parents convinced me to open the bag. Immediately, I was struck by the cover of this special edition – it was designed like a headstone. I knew what was going to happen from the first page, yet I still found myself dreading the conclusion. For the next few months, I regularly went to the comic store to follow the unfolding “World Without a Superman” arc that is one of the best depictions of mourning that I’ve seen in comics – or any media for that matter. I eagerly awaited his triumphant return during “Reign of the Supermen”…no matter how many issues it took.
Why did I care so much about a fictitious character and the universe he inhabited? I was not the only one. Superman #75 is one of the best-selling comics of all time. Interestingly, there were many in the popular press who were more upset about the apparent “death” of this hero than those comic readers who had been reading Superman comics regularly. Several interviewers approached DC’s then-Superman editor Mike Carlin with hostility – “How dare you kill Superman?!” Why such a strong reaction?
Superman has a long history of influence in U. S. popular culture. Superman is one of only three superhero characters to have been in print continuously since their creation in the Golden Age (1938-1954) of comics; the other two are Wonder Woman and Batman. Indeed, most comics scholars argue that the Golden Age started with Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. Further, Superman has long been represented in media beyond comics, such as newspaper strips, radio, and film/TV serials. In fact, some historians have argued that his radio serial is responsible for alerting the public to the dangerous second coming of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1940s (see the wonderful YA comic adaptation by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Gurihiru). Finally, although the Superman (1978) film may not have been the first film based on comic book material, it was the first mainstream superhero film that gained both popular and critical acclaim, making the rest of Hollywood take notice that superhero narratives could be well-received by audiences and fall within their willing suspension of disbelief. Indeed, as the advertising campaign proclaimed, “You’ll believe a man can fly!”
This point is important: Superman – whether on film, radio, or in print – does more than just make people *believe* that someone could fly. He inspires people to be their best selves, something that all good heroes do in both fiction and real life. The attraction of his stories is less about wish fulfillment to be faster than a speeding bullet or stronger than a locomotive; it is more about standing up for the vulnerable, protecting the innocent, and making this world a just and inclusive place. Stories about heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, remind us that there is moral beauty in life. This beauty is made more poignant because they are humanized. They may have powers that go beyond what we can achieve literally, but they struggle with the same psychological and moral issues we all do. Their characterization makes them relatable to the rest of us in the real world, which is a key reason why their stories matter to us (see here and here for detailed psychological analyses of Superman). It wasn’t just Superman’s ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or turn back time by flying backwards around the Earth’s orbit that spoke to fans. It was his interpersonal connection to others, his compassion and his honest desire to make the world a better place that made him more than just an adopted refugee from Krypton – it made him a champion for the people and, above all, made him human.
Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2016). Hero worship: The elevation of the human spirit. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 46(2), 187-210.
Bowers, R. (2012). Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: The true story of how the iconic superhero battled the men of hate. National Geographic.
Fingeroth, D. (2004). Superman on the couch: What superheroes really tell us about ourselves and our society. Bloomsbury.
Fingeroth, D. (2007). Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, comics, and the creation of the superhero. Continuum.
Kinsella, E. L., Igou, E. R., & Ritchie, T. D. (2019). Heroism and the pursuit of a meaningful life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 59(4), 474-498.
Kinsella, E. L., Ritchie, T. D., & Igou, E. R. (2015). Lay perspectives on the social and psychological functions of heroes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 130. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00130
Pohling, R., & Diessner, R. (2016). Moral elevation and moral beauty: A review of the empirical literature. Review of General Psychology, 20(4), 412-425.
Rosenberg, R. S. (Ed.). (2013). Our superheroes, ourselves. Oxford University Press.
Exploiting Explosions, Excitement, and Nostalgia
A beautiful Texas day; a stereotypically beautiful couple out for a drive…in a muscle car, with vanity plates and an improbably large carburetor intake adorning the hood. The driver, who goes by the name of Billy Ray, alternates between kissing his girlfriend Carmen, taking sips from his road beer, and driving recklessly. Soon they arrive home and begin undressing; Carmen reminds him that he will not need the firearm tucked in his waistband (fortunately ̶ or unfortunately ̶ they avoid making all the obvious puns that likely pass through the audience’s minds). Their shenanigans are interrupted by a couple of heavies busting in and kidnapping Billy Ray at gunpoint. A hybrid helicopter/car chase ensues, complete with the car jumping a school bus (no, not a shark). It is about 20 minutes into the film when we finally get substantive plot. This is Action U.S.A.!
This film captures the pure spirit of 1980s direct-to-VHS action films, probably direct-to-VHS genre films in general. The plot and characterization take a back-seat to spectacle – over-the-top, excessive, ridiculous spectacle. In a word: exploitation. On the surface, this description sounds like an insult, but I argue that it is anything but. There has always been a place for spectacle in U.S. cinema, even in the most revered films (Ben Hur’s chariot race, anyone? Don’t even get me started on DeMille’s Biblical epics.). Whereas “Classical Hollywood” gave preference to plot over spectacle (without getting rid of it entirely), films on the margins of Hollywood threw caution to the wind and kept audiences begging for more. You want sex, violence, sordid drama, anything that would pique viewers’ curiosity and give them an emotional jolt? Step right up! The road shows, the drive-ins, the urban grindhouses, and later the ‘mom & pop’ independent video stores had you covered.
It is true that most of these films are not for everyone; indeed, some people enjoy receiving more emotional jolts (in terms of frequency and intensity) than others. Psychologists call this sensation-seeking, and several studies have demonstrated that an individual’s desire to seek new, intense sensations can predict their entertainment choices. That said, we all need a small jolt from time to time. This is probably one reason why many films have at least some spectacle in them, something that makes us laugh, scream, or gasp. Especially during times of uncertainty, we all need a little distraction from the real world. As famous actor and director Ron Howard said, “The way Disney movies, you know, bring out the child in all of us…so can exploitation” (Stapleton et al., 2011). Such is the power of spectacle.
But Action U.S.A. might do more than just dazzle us with spectacle and momentarily distract us from the real chaos of 2020. For those of us who fondly recall the VHS days, Action U.S.A. provides a us with a 1.21-gigawatt dose of nostalgia. It transports us back to our younger years, wandering through the labyrinth of movies crammed into our local video store surrounded by a deluge of ridiculous covers and eye-catching taglines (most of which were usually better than the films themselves). We would grab a couple of the tapes that promised the most amount of titillation we could get away with renting (assuming the proprietors actually cared about age restrictions) and then binge them, surrounded by friends and junk food. We all need a little nostalgia from time to time, especially during times of uncertainty and fear.
Whether you are a fan of action films or not, if you have a nostalgic soft spot for the VHS era you should give this film a watch. If that whets your appetite and you want more high-octane infusions of nostalgia, I also recommend the short film Kung Fury. We all do what we must to get through the pandemic; if these types of films are your audio/visual comfort food, embrace them and revel in the spectacle. Stay healthy, stay safe, wear your mask, and wash your hands!
Conway, J. C., & Rubin, A. M. (1991). Psychological predictors of television viewing motivation. Communication Research, 18(4), 443-463.
Greene, K., & Krcmar, M. (2005). Predicting exposure to and liking of media violence: A uses and gratifications approach. Communication Studies, 56(1), 71-93.
Goldstein, J. H. (ed.). (1998). Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hill, K. (2012). Action movie freak. Krause Publications. http://actionflickchick.com/superaction/
Hodge, T. (2015). VHS video cover art. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing.
Johnson, J. (director), & Mitchell, C. (producer). (2013). Rewind this! Orland Park, IL: IPF Productions. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2395970/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0
Juhl, J., Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2010). Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat. Journal of Research in Personality, 44(3), 309-314.
Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2008). A blast from the past: The terror management function of nostalgia. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(1), 132-140.
Schierman, M. J., & Rowland, G. L. (1985). Sensation-seeking and selection of entertainment. Personality and Individual Differences, 6(5), 599-603.
Stapleton, A. (director/producer), Frey, J., Frank, I., Barold, M., & Douglass, S. (producers). (2011). Corman’s world: Exploits of a Hollywood rebel. KOTB, LLC. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1185371/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0
“Let’s Do the Time Warp Again!”…and Again…and Again.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show often is considered the archetypal ‘cult film’ (or ‘midnight movie’). But what does that mean? Merriam-Webster provides several definitions of ‘cult,’ including “faddish devotion; also a group of persons showing such devotion.”
Scholars freely admit that the quest to provide an agreed-upon, simple definition for ‘cult film’ is about as easy as marching on the Black Gate of Mordor. However, a common theme is that one does not simply set out to make a ‘cult film’ – rather, an audience crowns the film with its cult status. The audience of devotees keep resurrecting the film long after it has finished its primary run. But the fans don’t just watch the film on their own; they want to celebrate their devotion with other likeminded people – people who ‘get it.’ Perhaps Stuart Samuels (1983) put it best when describing showings of these films as “a special event. It’s a show. It’s a party.” (p. 1)
In the case of Rocky Horror, it’s not just the pelvic thrusts that drive the fans insane. So what is it? Why do those of us who love it await the next public showing with so much antici--…--pation?
There are many reasons. For some it’s the homages to old, campy horror and sci-fi double-features. For others it’s the opportunity to dress up and celebrate thumbing our noses at rigid, ‘traditional’ sexual and gender norms. Others enjoy the collaborative experience of engaging in callouts with various alternative scripts. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
One thing I want to highlight is the sing-a-long aspect. Recent scientific research suggests that singing together not only makes us feel good, it can also make us feel bonded socially. It further solidifies a feeling of ‘us’ – we feel we are with people who understand and value us. In short, we belong. Ultimately, that’s what everyone wants. So, whether you are RHPS Virgin, Veteran, or Regular, join us for the ritual.
Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books (any of them)
Gabriel, S., Naidu, E., Paravati, E., Morrison, C. D., & Gainey, K. (2020). Creating the sacred from the profane: Collective effervescence and everyday activities. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(1), 129-154.
Hoberman, J., & Rosenbaum., J. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Harper.
Jancovich, M., Lázaro Reboll, A., Stringer, J., & Willis, A. (Eds.). (2003). Defining cult movies: The cultural politics of oppositional taste. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Keeler, J. R., Roth, E. A., Neuser, B. L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D. J. M., & Vianney, J. M. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: Bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 518. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00518
Kreutz, G. (2014). Does singing facilitate social bonding. Music & Medicine, 6(2), 51-60.
Mathijs, E., & Sexton, J. (2011). Cult cinema: An introduction. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Pearce, E., Launay, J., van Duijn, M., Rotkirch, A., David-Barrett, T., & Dunbar, R. I. (2016). Singing together or apart: The effect of competitive and cooperative singing on social bonding within and between sub-groups of a university Fraternity. Psychology of Music, 44(6), 1255-1273.
Samuels, S. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Collier Books.
Welch, G. F., Himonides, E., Saunders, J., Papageorgi, I., & Sarazin, M. (2014). Singing and social inclusion. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 803. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00803
The Esoteric Order of Lovecraft (and other strange curiosities)
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” H. P. Lovecraft (1927)
H. P. Lovecraft opens his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, with this thesis. It is the core of his approach to horror, what attracts some audience members and repels others. Lovecraft’s ultimate goal was to evoke a sense of overwhelming dread in his readers, an atmosphere of cosmic unease that what awaits humans in the deep, dark, unexplored places of the world (or beyond the reaches of outer space) cares little about us – and that is if we are lucky! More than likely, these Cyclopean horrors actively seek our demise because we make tasty snacks. In Lovecraft’s world, a glimpse of this knowledge, and the creatures that embody it, typically drives his protagonists insane. Only the fortunate characters are dispatched quickly; those that remain complete their remaining days in an asylum in Arkham, Massachusetts (a fictitious town created by Lovecraft).*
Lovecraft perhaps is one of the three U.S. horror writers that has had their works most frequently adapted into films (the others being Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King). That said, most people don’t recognize the name of Lovecraft or that they may be watching an adaptation of his work. There could be many reasons for this, but there are two that can be directly tied to human psychological processes. First, humans have a natural preference for patterns and predictability. These things help us make sense of the chaotic aspects of our environment that we have no control over. These preferences likely extend to the media we consume, which is why art that purposefully violates these preferences are jarring, labeled “experimental,” “abstract,” or “fringe,” often shunned by the mainstream and appealing only to niche audiences.
In the context of horror, the supernatural creatures that seem to be the most successful (i.e., popular and memorable) are the ones that have minimally-counterintuitive characteristics: They generally fit our categorical expectations but have just a few traits that violate these expectations to catch our attention and make them scary. For example, living humans must consume energy (i.e., food) to survive; vampires are humans who are undead and consume the blood of living humans to survive (similar creatures can be found cross-culturally; although they may not drink blood, they typically consume life-essence in some form). Supernatural creatures that possess too many atypical traits are often hard for individuals to visualize and ultimately remember. For Lovecraft, many of his creatures come from the far reaches of space or other dimensions, often defying full description. The descriptions Lovecraft’s narrators do provide thus only give the reader an approximation of what these creatures specifically look like; after that, the narrators die or are driven insane. Interestingly, the Lovecraftian creature that is most popular is one of the easiest to depict – the dreaded Cthulu, best described as a sea-monster with a humanoid body, wings, and an octopus head. I’m not going to even try to describe the non-Euclidian aspects of the Shoggoths, Yog-Sothoth, or Hastur the Unspeakable. Just the mere thought of attempting it makes my head foggy and the boarders of reality precariously thin…
The second aspect of Lovecraft’s writings that makes them an acquired taste is their focus on violating the general human need for meaning. Lovecraft often provided his general philosophy in letters to friends and fellow writers: human existence, with both its joy and suffering, has little meaning in the broader picture of the cosmos. Indeed, Lovecraft argued that the “cosmos is a mindless vortex; a seething ocean of blind forces, in which the greatest joy is unconsciousness and the greatest pain realization.” (1921/1965, p. 156). Given the general human desire for meaning, Lovecraft’s perspective understandably does not resonate with many people. Most horror narratives provide closure by having the monster/antagonist, the embodied threat to cultural values and meaning, defeated and thus the status quo is re-established, sometimes even strengthened. Lovecraft’s narratives typically refuse readers this comfort and thus make reading them much less enjoyable for those who desire such ideological and existential safety.
That said, people do differ in their ability to tolerate ambiguity and a lack of closure. Indeed, some may actively seek narratives that provoke these types of psychological threats if for no other reason than they enjoy the cognitive challenge. Maybe they appreciate the transgressive nature of art that willfully violates generic expectations and cultural norms more broadly. Whatever the reason, Lovecraft’s works have engendered a devoted fanbase who revel in the esoteric nature of his mythos. Lovecraft encouraged several fledgling horror and sci-fi writers, most of whom were his regular correspondence partners, to use mythos characters in their own stories, which helped carry on Lovecraft’s legacy long after his death in 1937. Today, it is common to see merchandise at horror, sci-fi, and comic conventions with the terrifying visage of Cthulu, and even cute and cuddly stuffed animal versions of this Great Old One. Every election cycle there is a new t-shirt or bumper sticker that proudly proclaims “Vote Cthulu – why choose the lesser of the evils?” There is an official Lovecraft appreciation society that creates a variety of media products, both adaptations and homages. There are table-top role-playing games and video games set in Lovecraft’s universe (“The Call of Cthulu” franchise). Many heavy metal bands have made songs referencing Lovecraft’s works, the most notable being Metallica (“Call of Ktulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be”). Finally, anyone who has watched a film in The Evil Dead series or the show Ash vs. The Evil Dead have been exposed to one of Lovecraft’s most iconic mythos elements – the Necronomicon.
The Necronomicon, as Lovecraft envisioned it, is a fictious book that contains forbidden information about his pantheon of other-worldly horrors and the means for summoning them. However, the notes he made about it in his works were so compelling to his readers that many wondered if it were real (he had some fun with this when answering fan correspondence). Eventually, various fans created versions of the Necronomicon (perhaps an early form of fanfic?). The most noted copy was published in 1977 and could be purchased in fine book retailers everywhere. I got my copy on Amazon (seriously).** Despite the dire warning in the book’s introduction, reading it did not shatter my sanity. No really, trust me! I’ve just checked with the Byakhee sitting next to me; it assures me that I am still quite in control of my faculties and that the weather in R’lyeh is wonderful this time of year. In fact, I’m going to take my next sabbatical there. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go back to reading my ancient, musty codex by candlelight.
Ia! Ia! Lovecraft fhtagn!
* If this sounds suspiciously like another asylum in Gotham City, that is not a coincidence. Learn more here.
**Neither The Normal Theater nor any of its affiliates endorse reading the Necronomicon or any other esoteric tomes one may find buried in ancient ruins, dark caves, or abandoned cabins in the woods. We do not accept any legal responsibility for any physical, psychological, spiritual, or property damage that may occur from the recitation of any passages therein.
Hood, B. M. (2009). Supersense: Why we believe in the unbelievable. San Francisco, CA: HaperOne.
Joshi, S. T. (1980). H.P. Lovecraft: Four decades of criticism. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
King, S. (1981). Danse macabre. New York, NY: Berkley Books.
Lovecraft, H. P. (1921/1965). Letter to the Gallomo (to Galpin, Lovecraft, Moe), October 6, 1921. In A. Derleth & D. Wandrel (Eds.), H. P. Lovecraft Selected Letters, I, (pp. 155-156). Sauk City, WI: Arkham House.
Lovecraft, H. P. (1927/2008). Supernatural horror in literature & other literary essays. Cabin John, MD: Wildside Press.
Norenzayan, A., Atran, S., Faulkner, J., & Schaller, M. (2006). Memory and mystery: the cultural selection of minimally counterintuitive narratives. Cognitive Science, 30(3), 531–553.
Proulx, T., & Heine, S. J. (2006). Death and black diamonds: Meaning, mortality, and the meaning maintenance model. Psychological Inquiry, 17(4), 309-318.
Proulx, T., Heine, S. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2010). When is the unfamiliar the uncanny? Meaning affirmation after exposure to absurdist literature, humor, and art. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(6), 817-829.
Webster, D. M., & Kruglanski, A. W. (1994). Individual differences in need for cognitive closure. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 67(6), 1049-1062.
Wesselmann, E. D. & Nairne, J. S. (2017). Natural supernaturalism: Why believe in magic and monsters? In T. Langley & L. S. Zubernis (Eds.), Supernatural psychology: Roads less traveled (pp. 289-305). New York, NY: Sterling.
Morbid Curiosity, Misinformation, and Cultural Hindsight
“This could happen in your town, to your children!” This dire warning was a key message presented in the advertising material for drug films like Reefer Madness (1936), as well as other films focused on “social hygiene” (i.e., teenage pregnancy and venereal disease) that were popular during the 1930s-1950s. These films dealt with topics considered taboo by mainstream filmmakers, who were beholden to the Production Code that dominated any film coming out of Hollywood. Thus, these films were the only way someone could see information on these relevant social issues taken straight from “today’s headlines.” The last thing anyone wanted to be was a “delinquent parent,” whose teenage child became involved with bad company and brought shame upon their family. The only reason why anyone would want to see these types of films were as preventative measures, right? The fact that these films usually involved at least an hour’s worth of salacious images, focused on people reveling in sin and vice, surely had nothing to do with high ticket sales. Right???
Films like Reefer Madness are often categorized as exploitation films, loosely defined as low-budget films that ran outside of mainstream Hollywood cinema and focused on sensational content (usually at the expense of coherent narrative structure and believable storylines). Many of these films walked a precarious line between giving audiences a glimpse at cultural taboos and violating local obscenity laws. One way that exploitation filmmakers avoided prosecution was by wrapping their sinful narratives up in a surface-level morality play. A heaping amount of celluloid sin was fine as long as the sinners were ultimately punished, and cultural mores reinforced. The presumed ‘moral’ and ‘educational’ nature of these films likely provided individual viewers a way to explain away any potential emotional discomfort or guilt they may experience because of a desire to watch content that would otherwise clash with their general moral values (what psychologists have often called cognitive dissonance). “It’s not that I want to see these sinful details; I need to see them to stay informed and be a responsible parent and citizen. I need to see the full wages of their sins be collected.” This civic-minded motive is certainly possible, but it is just as likely that viewers who claim this may be protesting a bit much.
The idea that people often have a weird attraction to the culturally forbidden is nothing new; one need look no further than common cultural myths. For example, Pandora opened the box; Adam and Eve ate the fruit; Orpheus looked back at Eurydice. Colloquially, people describe something they cannot look away from as a “train wreck” – a strong compulsion to stare at something they probably shouldn’t. What might be the psychological dynamics that underly this compulsion, this morbid curiosity? Perhaps people chafe at society’s attempts to reign in their personal agency, much as the stereotypical moody teenager shouts back to their parents “You can’t tell me what to do!” Psychologists have called the general form of this rebellious tendency reactance – something most of us exhibit to some level. Maybe it’s because when people try to avoid something they believe they shouldn’t see, know, or think, their very efforts to suppress this desire makes it come back with a vengeance (psychologists have studied the counter-productive effects of thought suppression, both as a general cognitive phenomenon and as an acute problem in various types of mental illness). Of course, it could simply be that when people perceive a threat, they often become hypervigilant to information about that threat in order to avoid (or at least minimize) potential harm. Most advertisements for drug and social hygiene films certainly highlighted the potential threats posed to one’s community by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll (or jazz, in the case of Reefer Madness).
In hindsight, it’s laughable that anyone could watch Reefer Madness (1936) and take their scare tactics seriously, unless of course they had little knowledge of the actual physiological effects of marijuana. This may have been the case in the 1930s and 40s when the film enjoyed its first run, but what about when it was re-discovered and enjoyed success in the 1970s? By then, cultural knowledge of marijuana contradicted the ludicrous depictions in the film. As such, the film was enjoyable more for ironic entertainment than because it satisfied the audience’s morbid curiosity. Film historians of cult films and ‘midnight movies’ have noted that Reefer Madness was popular in the 1970s mostly on college campuses, and it was common for audience members to enjoy marijuana before (or even during) the film showing! The psychological dynamics of ‘midnight movies’ and ironic viewing are fascinating as well, but I’ll save that discussion for another time…
Ayal, S., & Gino, F. (2012). Honest rationales for dishonest behavior. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil (pp. 149-166). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.
Havis, A. (2008). Cult films: Taboo and transgression. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Hoberman, J., & Rosenbaum, J. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Litman, J. A. (2005). Curiosity and the pleasures of learning: Wanting and liking new information. Cognition & Emotion, 19, 793-814.
Meyers, R. (2011). For one week only: The world of exploitation films. Guilford, CT: Emery Books.
Samuels, S. (1983). Midnight movies. New York, NY: Collier Books.
Schaefer, E. (1999). “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A history of exploitation films, 1919-1959. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Steindl, C., Jonas, E., Sittenthaler, S., Traut-Mattausch, E., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Understanding psychological reactance. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 223, 205-214. https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000222
Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 53, 5-13.
‘Tis the Season For Sleigh Bells, Screams, and Moral Outrage
Ah, slasher films. A type of horror film that is often maligned, even within a genre that is already culturally marginalized, but almost always a sure-fire bet to make money. They’ve come in and out of fashion over the past few decades, but much like their most popular antagonists the films are resurrected for a new sequel or remake every few years. As a “child of the ‘80s,” my first memories of horror films revolve around slasher films. Michael Myers (Halloween), Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th 2 onward) and Freddy Kruger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) were U.S. cultural icons, especially in October. There were even Atari, Commodore 64, and Nintendo games for these franchises! Additionally, at least one kid in my grade school Halloween parade dressed as one of these infamous icons every year.
What made these films so popular? Horror films, like all films, are constructed media products that reflect the sociocultural forces they emerge from. Film scholars who approach horror films from this perspective argue that the most effective examples of the genre are those that find the vulnerable areas of culture and attack with their life-threatening weapon of choice: whatever will provoke the most fear and dread in us (within reason, of course; audiences are still meant to enjoy the ride). One major shift in horror starting in the 1960s (with Psycho) was to change the source of horror from external threats (e.g., countries outside the U.S. or outer space) to ones that were homegrown, and the closer the threat was to cherished institutions and the family unit, the scarier. By the late 1970s and early 80s, most popular horror films chose this approach, and the slasher genre exploited it for all it was worth.
Both Black Christmas (1974) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) are model entries in the slasher genre. Black Christmas was most notable for both putting together some of the key elements that we now identify with slasher films (e.g., point-of-view shots used to indicate both the perspective of the killer and also keep up audience tension by keeping the killer’s identity a secret) and for making the young adult victims realistic and relatable. Director Bob Clark specifically wanted to inject social commentary on relevant gender issues (see bonus materials on the Shout Factory 2016 release of the film). These elements would be reinforced culturally in the critically and commercially successful Halloween (1978), a film directed by John Carpenter. These two films were soon followed by a hemorrhage of slasher films, many using various holidays to exploit viewers’ feelings of safety and nostalgia for the cultural practices surrounding these holidays by subverting them with danger and fear.
This subversion was perhaps too effective, with Silent Night, Deadly Night being the proverbial last straw. Upon its release, the film ignited a firestorm of moral outrage from concerned parents and various conservative activist groups. But why this film and not the previous entries? By the film’s release, 10 years after Black Christmas, the genre conventions were firmly established and this film delivered on the key aspects that both audiences and investors wanted from slasher films (i.e., sex and violence). Silent Night, Deadly Night‘s content could certainly be considered offensive, but did not differ significantly from other slasher films in the amount of violence and sex portrayed. Unlike most other contemporary slashers, however, this film focused on the killer’s backstory. Director Charles E. Sellier, Jr., viewed the film as a psychological study of the personal traumas and social pressures that might make someone a serial killer (see bonus materials on the Anchor Bay 2012 release of the film). Indeed, I found this portion of the film particularly disturbing as it depicts a young child experiencing repeated traumas of physical and psychological abuse.
However, it wasn’t the focus on the killer’s traumatic past that protestors cited as the reason for their moral outrage. Rather, they were incensed that filmmakers would dare sully the sanctity of the Christmas season and its beloved cultural icon, Santa Claus. Yes, the disturbed killer dispatches his victims while wearing a Santa suit.
It did not seem to matter that the killer was only dressed as Santa, rather than having the killer be Santa. Further, this was not the first slasher film to have their killer dressed as Santa (e.g., Christmas Evil (1980) and To All A Goodnight (1980)). The primary concern focused on the wide-spread advertising campaign that prominently displayed images of the killer in Santa attire, especially the film poster that featured a Santa-esque arm emerging from a chimney holding an axe. A barrage of angry phone calls and letters to the production company, letters to newspaper editors, theater picketing, and news interviews with concerned parents followed suit. [Several of these letters are archived on the Anchor Bay 2012 release of the film.] After only a few weeks, the film distribution company recalled the film. They re-released it later with a radically different advertising campaign – one that removed all explicit references to the killer resembling Kris Kringle. Of course, the campaign made full use of the previous controversy to entice potential viewers (i.e., “They tried to ban it! They didn’t want you to see it!”).
How can we understand the psychological dynamics of this societal reaction? Many of the protestors did not just want the advertising stopped, they wanted the film completely banned. This certainly seems contrary to a society that has enshrined free speech in the First Amendment. Two highlighted editorials explicitly preface their complaint with being in favor of free speech but drew their line at using Christmas and Santa Claus in slasher films. Why? The psychological core of censorship is the desire for protecting society, especially its most vulnerable members, and its cherished morals. Of course, moral values can differ across members of a society and form the core of many controversies (e.g., the “Culture Wars”). Moral outrage and the desire for censorship cuts across the political aisle – both conservative and liberal groups have spearheaded campaigns to censor various types of media. Who is offended all depends on the specific context of the contested text.
Many letters highlighted their motive to protect children, not just from seeing violent content but from having their view of Santa Claus tainted. One writer specifically referred to the film as “an invasion of children’s dreams and fantasies. It’s a form of child abuse.” This person’s complaint is perhaps a tad exaggerated but protecting children from harm has been a consistent thread throughout civil debates concerning media regulation and censorship. But some protestors’ concern went beyond children and extended to the holiday itself. One critic claimed the film “could kill the spirit of the season for good” and at least two other individuals argued this film violated an aspect of U.S. culture that was “sacred.”
I want to focus on the use of the authors’ use of the word “sacred.” Christmas as a holiday certainly holds religious significance for Christians, but the killer was not dressed as a religious figure like Jesus. The cultural figure of Santa is technically a secular symbol. Yet still, these authors seem to imbue Santa with a cultural and moral significance that one usually finds in religious concepts. Ideas of sacredness and purity are important components of how many cultures define morality and are often instilled into cherished cultural symbols (e.g., flags, scripture or other documents key to one’s worldview). When someone behaves in a way that violates something perceived as sacred or pure, people often respond by being morally, and sometimes physically, disgusted. Interestingly, several letter writers and critics described the film using words like “sleazy,” “repulsive,” sick,” “garbage,” “rotten” and a product “of a diseased mind.” All these words have links to psychological research on the physical and emotional reactions people have when they are disgusted by something or afraid of somehow being “contaminated” physically or morally.
Even though most people use concepts of purity and sacredness to some degree when judging moral issues, some focus more heavily on them than others (take an assessment of your own views here). For individuals who do not imbue Santa Claus with these elements, or who are not particularly focused on purity as an aspect of morality, they likely are not bothered by Silent Night, Deadly Night, at least any more than they would be by the content found in most slasher films. So, if you dig slasher films, or horror more broadly, it’s worth your while to experience one or both iconic films. Also, you’ll never think of the name “Billy” in the same way again.
Fisher, R., Lilie, S., Evans, C., Hollon, G., Sands, M., Depaul, D., ... & Hultgren, T. (1999). Political ideologies and support for censorship: Is it a question of whose ox is being gored? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(8), 1705-1731.
Haidt, J. (2008). Morality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(1), 65-72.
Hoffner, C., & Buchanan, M. (2002). Parents’ responses to television violence: The third-person perception, parental mediation, and support for censorship. Media Psychology, 4, 231-252.
Kelly, D. (2011). Yuck! The nature and moral significance of disgust. Cambridge, MA: Bradford.
Maddrey, J. (2004). Nightmares in red, white and blue: The evolution of the American horror film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.
Nowell, R. (2011). Blood money: A history of the first teen slasher film cycle. New York, NY: Continuum.
Rockoff, A. (2002). Going to pieces: The rise and fall of the slasher film, 1978-1986. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.
Schoell, W. (1985). Stay out of the shower: 25 years of shocker films beginning with “Psycho.” New York, NY: Dembner Books.
Tropiano, S. (2009). Obscene, indecent, immoral, and offensive: 100+ years of censored, banned, and controversial films. New York, NY: Limelight Editions.
Williams, T. (1996). Hearths of darkness: The family in the American horror film. Madison, WI: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
“Dreaming the Crow-Black Dream”*
“Victims, aren’t we all?”
Eric Draven, the main character of The Crow, delivers this line before exacting vengeance on one of the villains responsible for the violent death of him and his fiancé, Shelly. This line doesn’t just punctuate an intense cinematic moment, it cuts through the audience like an existential dagger.
I was 14 when I first saw The Crow, and it quickly became one of my favorite films. Over the next couple years, I became so enamored with the film that my room was soon covered with posters bearing the artwork and film images. I dressed up as Eric Draven three Halloweens in a row. I read the graphic novel source material multiple times a year. I worked with friends on various Crow-themed artistic endeavors, and bought an obscene amount of related merchandise. My first college paper and first speech were on The Crow’s transmedia franchise (I cosplayed Eric Draven in the speech). Later in life, I even commissioned a sketch of myself as the character from none other than the original artist James O’Barr!
There are many reasons why this film (and the other Crow films, comics, and novels) resonated with me and has made such an impact on my life. It wasn’t just because most of my wardrobe made it easy to cosplay the main character! Perhaps part of it was the idea that our emotional connections to loved ones can transcend this mortal coil – an extremely comforting thought when someone is struggling with grief, as I had through much of my young adult life. Perhaps it was my burgeoning interest in post-punk and gothic rock bands, such as Joy Division and The Cure – both of which provided aesthetic inspiration for the comic and the film. The correct answer is all of that and probably more.
I’m not the only one who became ensnared by the narrative universe of The Crow. The film has an international cult-following that goes strong to this day. I still see at least two or three Crow cos-players at every convention I attend. The initial film and comic created a franchise that involves three film sequels, multiple comic arcs, a TV show, a Crow-themed band called Trust Obey (that O’Barr contributed to), and has inspired fans worldwide to express their love for these works of art in various creative ways (one of my favorite examples is by The 69 Eyes, a gothic-rock band from Finland who recorded a song called “Brandon Lee”).
What is it about The Crow that speaks to so many people who have wildly different life experiences? Researchers suggest that successful fiction engages audiences emotionally, and having some aspect of the characters that audiences can identify with intensifies this effect. One need not have experienced the specific trauma faced by the characters to identify with them. In general, people can engage in perspective-taking and empathize with others – even fictional characters. Any perceived similarity between oneself and the character can intensify this experience. Most of us know what it’s like to lose someone we love, or to have some other traumatic event cut us to the quick and shatter our concept of normality. We feel viscerally the aching emptiness, the crushing despair, the existential terror of being in a situation that makes no sense. We rage at the unfairness of a seemingly uncaring world and we shiver at the icy, numbing solitude we feel, even when we are in a crowd. In other words, we don’t need to have direct experience with Eric’s specific circumstances to have at least a small understanding of the gravity of his pain.
One thing that viewers may resonate with is Eric’s sense of moral outrage at the cosmic injustice of his tragedy (this theme shows up continuously in the comic). When innocent people suffer tragedy, it violates the general concept of a ‘just world’: that people reap what they sew, the good are rewarded and the bad punished, etc. The idea of a just world can be existentially comforting and can provide a sense of meaning in a world that often seems capricious and even dangerous. However, when one is directly confronted with tragedy, the belief that there is a cosmic balance is shaken or even destroyed. People have a fundamental need for meaning and when that need is thwarted, it needs to be restored somehow. There are various ways that people can do that, and many times it is by making some type of spiritual or supernatural explanation. In the context of The Crow universe, innocent victims experience a horrible tragedy (“something so bad happens…”) and are then provided a supernatural avenue to come back from the grave and “set the wrong things right” – in these narratives that typically involves revenge (although the late-90s TV series provides an alternative perspective).
The actions and traits of main characters (sometimes called heroes or protagonists) can influence the degree to which we identify with and enjoy the narratives. However, many protagonists can behave in ways that we do not agree with and would condemn if the characters were real people. Eric Draven, as well as other protagonists in Crow-related stories, respond to their tragedy by seeking violent revenge on those responsible. Research suggests that when audiences enjoy narratives that involve morally ambiguous protagonists (“anti-heroes”), audiences are not enjoying the character’s morally questionable actions per se, but rather resonating with the character’s emotions and motivations that they find understandable. It is likely that audiences vicariously experience the character’s moral outrage and the revenge narrative re-establishes audiences’ sense of justice and cosmic meaning; like enjoying most anti-hero narratives, the fact that it occurs within a fictional environment makes it acceptable for us to enjoy the narrative even if we might otherwise condemn the actions if they occurred in reality.
Of course, not every Crow fan has experienced intense personal tragedy – there may be something else in the narrative they resonate with. Further, simply experiencing such a tragedy does not mean one will enjoy The Crow. Perhaps someone doesn’t like the moral ambiguity of Eric Draven’s actions, no matter how heinous the actions of the villains. Not everyone enjoys revenge narratives; for them, the fact that it is fiction does not provide sufficient license from them to enjoy the narrative. That’s perfectly fine. Those individuals likely will find their own narratives to give voice to their pain and make sense of their trauma. That’s what many Crow fans like myself have done with these stories; in them, we find some glimmer of light that helps illuminate the darkness of our traumas and we feel a little less alone. Maybe we even find a way to re-forge a bit of meaning from our shattered worldviews.
What many Crow fans ultimately focus on in this narrative is not the trauma of the protagonists, but rather the idea that one’s emotional connections to their loved ones endure beyond grief. Death does not erase our feelings for and memories of the loved ones who are no longer with us. Indeed, it is these feelings and memories that can help us weather the storm and emerge from the trauma, scarred but strengthened. James O’Barr states in his introduction to the 2010 special edition of The Crow graphic novel that his book ultimately “is a celebration of true love.” Indeed, the film ends with a voice-over of the little girl Sara asserting as similar point - that it is our continued love for the people no longer with us that keeps their memory alive.
*lyrics lovingly borrowed from “Burn” by The Cure
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GREASE is Still the Word
When I hear a song from Grease, I’m immediately transported back to high school. I remember parties on those warm summer nights in which the film was playing in the background. I recall school dances, singing along with my peers to songs about cruising around in the ‘ultramatic’ Greased Lightin’ and how we were born to do the hand jive. I get a warm, wistful feeling and conveniently forget the agonizing social awkwardness of those events: Will Sally say yes if I ask her to the dance? What if she dances with Johnny instead of me during [insert cheesy pop love song title]? For the blissful two minutes and 49 seconds of “You’re The One That I Want” I remember a time when I had fewer cares…and enough hair to run a switchblade comb through.
In short, I’m feeling nostalgic. Nostalgia certainly is nothing new - poets, painters, and philosophers have been musing about it for generations. Only within the last two decades have social scientists begun to understand this complex emotional experience. But what exactly is this feeling? The New Oxford Dictionary defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” Being nostalgic is a common experience – one that people experience throughout their lives. Further, nostalgia appears to be a cross-cultural phenomenon. The specific triggers may differ between people and places, but the feelings are similar. Nostalgia is a mixed-bag: we feel warm and fuzzy as we think of our old relationships, but we also feel the pangs of longing and loss for what once was.
Why would we want to be in this emotional state? What does feeling nostalgic do for us? Research demonstrates that nostalgia provides for us a sense of belonging and self-consistency throughout time. It reaffirms our sense of meaning in our experiences – even when the nostalgic memories involve a negative event, we are reminded of how both the good and the bad in our lives have shaped who we are today. Nostalgia inspires us to strive for our goals, to be optimistic about the future, knowing that no matter what comes are way we are rooted in a solid sense of self. We can weather the storms and still be ourselves. We will always have our memories.
Grease is a perfect example of this. Yes, there are many high points for the characters, but there are also plenty of slings and arrows of teenage strife. Many of us likely experienced some of these low points as well during our own trek through adolescence. Perhaps this is part of what makes the characters relatable, whether we were a greaser, a theater/band kid, a student council rep, an athlete, or an avid athletics fan (not to be confused with an athletic supporter).
Like these characters, we all found ourselves on the cusp of adulthood, wondering what we would become. What will our transition to adulthood be like, and will our friendships hold firm or dissolve? When on the cusp of a major life transition, like graduating high school (or college), these intimidating questions are in our minds after we cross the stage, turn our tassels, and toss our mortar board hats in the air. The film’s final song “We Go Together” seems to be an answer to the characters’ (and our) questions about the future. The characters respond to their anxiety by re-affirming their commitment to each other: “We’ll always be like one…we’re for each other…We’ll always be together.” They then embark on adulthood with optimism and a song on their lips. Roll credits.
In many ways, Grease is the cinematic embodiment of nostalgia. Frankie Valli’s lyrics in the opening theme take on a new layer within the context of nostalgia research. For viewers, Grease represents a time and a place; for them it’s got meaning and it’s the way they are feeling. Put another way, nostalgia “is the word.”
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Eric Wesselmann is a psychology professor. He is also a film buff and obtained a minor in Cinema Studies from ISU back in 2003. Since then he has maintained his film passions by regularly attending pop culture conventions (e.g., Horror Hound Weekend, Wizard World), spending way too much money on merch and autographs. He is a member of the WGLT Psych Geeks podcast, which comments on the interface between psychology and popular culture.