Book Reviews

Humphries, Reynold, The American Horror Film. An Introduction

Humphries, Reynold, The American Horror Film. An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press, 2002. 216pp. (hardback and paperback).

In The American Horror Film: An Introduction, Reynold Humphries, focuses on both the psychoanalytic and political dimensions of horror films from the 30s to the present. True to his purpose, he opens by carefully defining repression for an introductory reader.

The psychoanalytic dimension of his study includes the primal repression of the child's unconscious, incestuous desire for the parent, "the instance of castration that is the realization of the Oedipus complex" as well as a "secondary form" in which images being expelled from the conscious, return ("the return of the repressed").

In terms of the political dimension, he means "not simply, as in Freud, a question of the superego preventing drives from creating social chaos," but the "unthinking submission of subjects to a patriarchy whose symbolic function is to shore up as 'natural' and 'rational' an economic system-capitalism-based on the survival of the fittest and the concomitant ideology of competition, success, and incessant rivalry."

The inability to recognize the desires of the other is linked with Lacan's mirror stage. Humphries calls particular attention to the importance of gender and class to this "natural order": women must be conditioned to accept the male right to wield power and class is placed in "parenthesis" by the capitalistic need to focus on individualism and private desires.

The horror films chosen for analysis in The American Horror Film "testify to a certain homogeneity in theme and outlook conducive to the psychoanalytical and ideological approach to class, gender and politics." Since the unconscious and ideology "function by inversion and disavowal," Humphries focuses on sub-texts, and conflictive and competing ideologies.

Part I deals with classic horror, beginning with films of the 30s (Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and ending with those from the 50s which reflect new surface issues, nuclear horror and Communism (Them! Invasions of the Body Snatchers, Creature from the Black Lagoon, I Bury the Living, and The Monolith Monsters) and a new market, teenagers (I was a Teenage Werewolf, I was a Teenage Frankenstein and How to Make a Monster).

Marx's link between vampirism and capitalism is evoked throughout the analyses in Part I as is capitalism's repression of the social in favour of the individual. Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, Hyde and other variants of aristocrats and/or scientists who remain sealed off by their remote setting or isolated laboratories from the masses represent ruthless aspects of capitalism "sucking life" from laborers. The efforts of these "exceptional individuals" result in alienated, fragmented objects/beings, a la Frankenstein's monster.

Although the "unbridled desires" of these and others must be repressed, Humphries points out they are often unwittingly perpetuated. Richard Corman's more "radical" films which end the first section, (A Bucket of Blood, and The Little Shop of Horrors and Wasp) show a dissatisfaction with patriarchy's handling of class and economics and women's objection to female roles, foreshadowing concerns of modern horror. Films by Val Hewton are also discussed.

Part II, which discusses films appearing after the 50s, opens with the emphatic statement that "one word can sum up the shift from classic horror to modern horror: Psycho." Hitchock's film, like many others of the modern era, still links horror to capitalistic patriarchy, but it focuses on the everyday world of the family as a seat of violence, violation, and death.

. In detailing causes and effects, Part II centers on "possession," both sexual and economic, (Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, etc.) by fathers and subsequently by mothers,-- as a defensive gesture--which turns upon consumption, commodification and its literalization, "cannibalism," in a capitalistic/jungle society where profit or success comes at the inevitably destruction (murder) of the other.

The upshot is pathological anxiety of social and psychic alienation--people become objects or the living dead and objects and real estate take on life-and aggression. Victims and those who victimize become one. Humphries examines imaginary solutions used to repress aggression: imaginary friends (The Shining), religion (Audrey Rose), other fictional exorcisms (slasher films), and consumption of images (opening of Scanners).

However, such solutions simply block real change. Like the innumerable murders and endless sequels in slasher films, complicity and repetition seem inevitable: "Social alienation has reached such a point that audiences rush back to see more killings oblivious to the fact that they are encouraging destruction of precisely those values…to which they unconsciously aspire." However, resistance exists. As Humphries argues, David Cronenberg, the most influential director of contemporary horror, like George Romero before him, strives toward some form of "genuine subjectivity." Other important directors discussed are Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and Larry Cohen, and Joe Dante.

Humphries' chapter in Part II on "Slashers, Serial Killers and the 'Final Girl' " is invaluable as an introduction to horror. It not only presents the author's major themes in a concise manner, it illustrates point of view as an integral part of a film's meaning. Other discussions that seem particularly rewarding are those on Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and on Cronenberg's films. Humphries encourages readers to delve further into issues important to horror by providing a useful filmography and bibliography.

The author's passion and respect for the horror film contributes to the energy and force of this study which leaves no doubt as to where he stands on issues or films. For example, his special fondness for the horror films of the 50s underlies his protest against the "deplorable" tendency to "downgrade" them by reducing them to "paramount" anxieties or transforming them into cult movies (akin to commodification). He uses his five case studies from the 50s as an occasion to voice his protest and argue his methodology more fully. In general, theory is only brought in when necessary to clarify, analysis prevails.

Humphries' extensive knowledge of the horror film and his fleeting allusions to hybrid genres, whets one's appetite for a slightly longer discussion of the subject, especially in light of the current emphasis on border crossings. Clearly, however, any investigation of horror as a genre in itself is demanding, one necessitating many omissions. Yet by including a discussion of contemporary genre mixing in the concluding chapter, he might help readers to explore more fully whether there is anything beyond Shayamalan's Unbreakable and The Six Sense to enlighten an otherwise dimming screen.

Barbara Nelson
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan
Fulbright Professor at the University of Bucharest