A Friday of the Living Dead Nightmare
Wherein a few brave souls watch entire horror-movie franchises in a twenty-four-hour period, risk their sanity, and suffer from total narrative dislocation, but maybe, too, remember what it’s like to be in love
Primary objective: to reexamine five representative horror-movie franchises released on the heels of horror cinema’s Golden Age (1968–1981), beginning with the first installments: Friday the 13th (released in 1980, dir. Sean S. Cunningham), Halloween (released in 1978, dir. John Carpenter), Hellraiser (released in 1987, dir. Clive Barker), A Nightmare on Elm Street (released in 1984, dir. Wes Craven), and Night of the Living Dead (released in 1968, dir. George A. Romero).
(1) To reexamine only horror-movie sequels that progress from the original to the last installment; this criterion necessarily excludes remakes and “reboots,” such as Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007), Marcus Nispel’s Friday the 13th (2009), or Samuel Bayer’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), among others.
(2) To reexamine horror-movie franchises comprising six sequels or more, three of which must have been widely released in theaters.
(3) To reexamine the franchises whole-cloth within a viewing period of twenty-four hours or less in the company of as many interested parties as possible.
It’s 8:45 p.m. on a hot night in June. I’m watching a scene from Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992), wherein Pinhead, the franchise’s S&M villain, stands upon an altar and addresses his victims. “I am the way,” he says, head tilted, and the stained glass behind him explodes. “Down the dark decades of your pain this will seem like a memory of heaven.”
This scene operates on a number of levels, but given that I’ve bound myself to watching all eight of the Hellraiser films, one after the next, over twenty-four hours, perhaps I’m primed to think so. Not only will Pinhead repeat these same words—“I am the way”—in Hellraiser: Deader (2005), but at the end of the fourth film (Hellraiser: Bloodline, 1996), he’ll proclaim to the cosmos that he is “forever.” “I cannot die,” he yells, before dissipating in the blackness of space.
But Pinhead hasn’t left me numb. Pinhead, rather, has me thinking.
Since what many would consider to be horror’s Golden Age, the thirteen years bridging the ’70s that heralded such classics as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Jaws, The Omen, Carrie, The Shining, and An American Werewolf in London, horror films boasting smarts and scares have become as infrequent as a sexually promiscuous teen girl’s chances of surviving one. This is due in large part to what happened in the ’80s, namely the serialization and commodification of horror films into franchises—franchisification, we might as well call it—which, parallel to the rise of the slasher film, signaled horror’s long decline into vacuous ignominy.
Save for independent ventures from a handful of countries (Funny Games  and Let the Right One In  come to mind, both of which found limited release in American theaters or were subsequently subjected to remaking for American audiences), no one—not the audiences who watch them, the critics who judge them, or the studios that make them—seems to take horror films seriously anymore.
Universal’s recent stoplighting of director Guillermo del Toro’s $150 million adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness speaks dejectedly to this very fact. With James Cameron slated to produce, Tom Cruise to star, and Lovecraft’s many-eyed Shoggoth creatures gestating in storyboard, the project was literally killed midflight, in spring 2011 while del Toro scouted locations in a helicopter near the Arctic Circle. “We were crewed up, and, frankly, I am as puzzled as most people are,” said del Toro. “One of the biggest, biggest points for me with this movie was the scope and the [R rating], going hand in hand.” And so, too, for Universal, which reportedly killed Madness due to corporate ambivalence at the prospect of sponsoring a big-budget “tentpole” horror film. One can only assume it didn’t help matters much that this film would be based on a relatively obscure 1936 novella by a WASPy New England recluse who was vilified for his racism and social snobbery, condemned by critics for his prolixity, his hokey dialects, and his grinding narrative machinery, but later rescued from ignominy by Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon, and the Modern Library. One glimpses the true terror of Lovecraft’s tales in their ubiquity, their totalitarian insistence—in the transformation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu cycle, about a race of alien intelligences that inhabits the far corners of the earth, into Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, a constellation of narratives that shares characters, themes, plot mechanisms, genetics of description.
The same can be said of the spawn of franchises that followed horror’s Golden Age. Specifically, I mean the Hellraiser, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Living Dead films, all of them franchises with six installments or more. Each of these horror franchises can and should be distinguished from horror series to the extent that they portray not a succession or continuum of horrors but a narrative cosmos that swarms and crawls with them—not to mention one that proves fascinating on the level of narrative itself, the relational dynamics of spectator and object, aesthetics, gender, politics.
It is this context in which I wish to reexamine horror-movie sequels. Which is to say, not as sequels, per se, but as visionary oeuvres that seek to establish uninterrupted dominion over all of those who sentence themselves to experiencing them.
Pinhead would have it on no other terms.
It’s Still Camp Crystal Lake to Him
Horror scares because of its rote repetition. The killer’s killed, then resurrected; the curse gets dodged, then passed along; the evil’s dispatched in a neon explosion, only to reincubate. This pattern is never more pronounced than when watching these movies back to back, as the trapped and hunted mania the characters experience starts to infect the viewer.
In Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay on that elusive brand of psychological terror that he dubs “the uncanny,” Herr Doktor writes that “everything which now strikes us as ‘uncanny’ fulfills the condition of stirring those vestiges of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression.” By “vestiges of animistic mental activity,” Freud means early human belief in the supernatural, which includes telepathy (or what Freud calls “the omnipotence of thoughts”). Freud also speaks to a “feeling of helplessness”—“involuntary repetition” is the name that he gives it. In particular, he cites an experience he had while “walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was strange to [him], on a hot summer afternoon.” Freud describes entering a seedy quarter, “the character of which could not long remain in doubt,” and, hastening to leave the street, he winds up back where he began. Hurrying “away once more,” he arrives in the street “yet a third time by devious paths in the same place,” and there steals over him “a feeling… which [he] can only describe as uncanny,” a sensation brought about by“involuntary return to the same situation.” He goes on to identify “involuntary repetition” as perhaps the hallmark of uncanny experience, wherein the familiar is made strange by dint of repeated encounters.
Horror films succeed in scaring via a combination of repression and repetition (one often fueled by the other). In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the collective repression of what the Springwood parents did to Freddy Krueger (a school janitor accused of torturing and murdering children, who escaped sentencing on a technical error, only to be burned alive by the justice-serving populace of his hometown) is passed like a genetic curse to their offspring, one that emerges from their children’s subconscious and kills them in their sleep.
Michael Myers from Halloween and Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th, each of whom wear masks (a William Shatner and a hockey mask, respectively), are both trapped and activated by repression. Jason relives the repressed trauma of drowning while a pair of his camp counselors screw in the bushes; for Michael, it’s the buried memory of murdering his sister after he witnesses her screwing her boyfriend. Both of these killers have failed to adjust. Their killing becomes mechanized, a knee-jerk response to the traumas they’re slave to.
In the sixth Friday film (Jason Lives, 1986), when a teen refers to Camp Crystal Lake by the name of “Camp Blood,” Tommy, standing by, offers his two cents about Jason: “No matter what you call it, it’s still Camp Crystal Lake to him.” Halloween’s resident bad shrink, Dr. Loomis, couldn’t diagnose Jason any better. Poor Jason Voorhees is trapped in a circuit. As he runs after teens with his knife brandished high, he flees from himself through the selfsame dark woods.
This same hall-of-mirrors effect operates in the mind of the viewer watching these films. Often the psychological rat-maze of the killer’s mind is transposed onto a specific geography, forcing a literal retread of the same ground again and again. Jason stalks his victims through the Crystal Lake woods to the same crackling of underbrush and the same distant cries of the nubiles at play, and the same harmonic sound effect I like to call the “ominous whisper-creep”—chi chi chi, ka ka ka. Michael stalks his prey through the pretty streets of Haddonfield (or the endless, sallow hallways of hospitals, jails, and other public institutions). In Freddy’s case, it’s his own house, a vertiginous, gothic dream labyrinth that recalls the work of M. C. Escher.
It’s also the dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams that the teenagers experience while fleeing from Freddy that add to our “experience of something… inescapable” pursuing the victim and viewer alike. This becomes a common trope across every one of the horror franchises: characters awaken into nestling realities, each one grimmer than the last.
Midway through my viewing notes, apparently during the Hellraiser films, I wrote that it’s “possible to look up at any given moment and realize you have absolutely no idea what is going on.” Watching the films collectively is like wandering through their streets and forests, or attempting to decipher their mazes and labyrinths. Their rambling, incoherent spaces are the natural extensions of Freud’s seedy quarter. They become terrifying when they cease to make sense, shepherding the viewer toward the same points of references, but in narrative contexts that render them strange. The viewer’s mind dissociates, losing track of where it’s been, or else remembers far too well and loses track of where it is.
There Was No Movie, There Was Only Her Life
The aggressive repetition of horror-movie franchises does more than remind us of our helplessness as viewers; franchised horror movies are aware of themselves as themselves, and they flaunt it.
The fifth Living Dead film by George A. Romero (Diary of the Dead, 2007) functions on the premise of a film-within-a-film. Toward the middle of the movie, there’s a scene in which its director—not Romero himself, but Jason Creed, a conscientious film student who documents the End-Times—is berated by his girlfriend, Debra, for refusing to give his camcorder a rest. “If it’s not on camera, it’s like it never happened, right?” she hisses at him righteously. But naggy Debra has her day. She edits the movie after Jason’s demise and throws her voice into the mix in postproduction. “God had changed the rules on us,” she voice-over-narrates the zombie apocalypse, “and, surprisingly, we were playing along.”
That Romero has changed the rules on us by insisting that the movie is an artifact of sorts should come as no surprise to you if you’ve seen even one of the six Living Dead films. Since the first one (Night of the Living Dead, 1968), Romero’s been building toward the meta-self-awareness that Diary flaunts. These films are obsessed with documents that point out the frail superstructures of their narratives: radio and TV reports that become a living record of the fabled zombie outbreak.
The Living Dead films aren’t alone in making a point of their artifact status. Every single franchise of the five that I watched has one or more films that refer to themselves. Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005) follows a gaggle of ill-fated teens addicted to the Pinhead-themed computer game Hellworld. Halloween: Resurrection (2002) charts the making of a Ghost Hunters–style TV show being filmed in Michael’s childhood home. In the Nightmare series, it’s the seventh film (New Nightmare, 1994), which unfolds through the perspective of the actress Heather Langenkamp—“Final Girl” Nancy in films one and three, and a “Final Girl” is just what she sounds like: the token female to survive—who must battle her way through a film-in-a-film whose plot is being dreamed up by director Wes Craven. Toward the end of the film, Heather finds Craven’s script and reads the following notation: “There was no movie. There was only her life.” Clearly, this is meant to be the worst horror of all.
Do the layers make you dizzy? This may be the point. Most of these ventures come in the final installment in a franchise, and a lot of the time they reek of understandable narrative desperation. How do you put an end to an infinite cycle? You expose it as a fabrication, while simultaneously extending the terrorizing hall-of-mirrors effect into “reality.”
But there’s more at work than playfulness or desperation in horror’s meta-ventures. There’s earnestness in them, a need to reflect on the reasons people watch horror in the first place. Like the schlocky-smart homages of Quentin Tarantino, these films are in love with films.
This love—or this need—wants a contrast, preferably to something with a slightly higher brow. In Funny Games (2007)—director Michael Haneke’s American remake of his Austrian feature of the same name—a family’s held hostage and tortured at length by a smug-looking couple of guys in golf outfits. One (Michael Pitt) whispers through the fourth wall, regarding the fate of the unlucky family, “I mean, what do you think? You think they stand a chance? You’re on their side, aren’t you? Who are you betting on?” Later, when his buddy takes a gun-blast to the chest, he hunts around the room, exclaiming, “Where’s the remote control? Where’s the fucking remote control?” Availing himself of said device, he proceeds to rewind the same film that we’re watching until he and his buddy are healthy again, back to their old sadistic tricks.
The scene means to make us explore our complicity in watching some very nasty stuff. Complicity, however, has been one of horror’s MOs since the so-called “killer’s POV” appeared in a 1960 U.K. art-house film called Peeping Tom. The killer stalks his victims through the “eyes” of the camera—an actual camera, in this case—and, by extension, the eyes of the audience.
This POV trick is much utilized in Halloween and Friday, and with it these films deepen our relationship with violence and terror by bringing them home, in the flesh, to our doorsteps. The POV watches a girl through her window. The POV jimmies the back door and enters. The POV finds the same girl unalone, with a shirtless young man who asks, “Care for a beer?” The POV watches the girl for a moment, cleansing herself in the wake of a tryst. The POV moves with great speed through the house, as if it’s had some revelation, and just as the young man turns back from the fridge with a cold beer sweating in his hand, the POV raises its knife into frame and drives it through the young man’s stomach. The POV watches with clinical interest as the young man expires, pinioned to the wall. The killer’s POV technique uncannily mirrors our own self-awareness, and in the space that opens up between what’s around us and what’s on the screen, we stand abject before ourselves, with nothing to do but reflect. Watching, from the vantage of the killers’ own skulls, their acts of severing and impaling, we, too, find ourselves prisoners of the mask that hides the face of the insane.
A Feminist Twist
Horror franchises’ relationship to violence doesn’t always outwardly have something to teach us. Throw gender into the works—specifically, the female gender—and the results seem less than thought-provoking. Indeed, you might begin to question why you watch these films at all.
In Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning (1985), there’s a killer’s POV shot of a woman lying nude on a blanket while her lover skips stones across calm Crystal Lake. Just before Jason cuts off her head with a pair of garden scissors, she looks up at “the camera” and sees him/us. This scene has the measured effect of a snuff film, or certain kinds of porno where the male form is omitted; the man is a penis, a cognitive blank space, an angry pair of grappling hands.
Horror films, of course, have never been friendly to women. Women, often attractive and oftener undressed, are subject to humiliations, tortures, and deaths unimaginable. They are skinned and ingested alive; stabbed through the chest lying naked in bed; rammed headfirst through TV screens; swung by the feet into trees unto death. Undeniably, there’s misogyny at work in a lot of these films, from Jason and Michael’s prey of choice—although plenty of men get it, too, in the end—to Freddy Krueger’s crass penchant for calling women “whores” and “bitches.” “Welcome to prime-time, bitch!” he says; “Bon appétit, bitch!” he says yet again; and, finally, “We’ll see, bitch. We’ll just see.”
Indeed, we will. But what, one wonders? In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey writes of the insidiousness of the “male gaze,” how when “a woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude,” or the degree to which the story resembles real life. As for Mulvey’s strategy for fighting the gaze, she hazards the theory that “analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it.”
Yet whether they’re the victims, killers (as in the first Friday the 13th, when Jason Voorhees’s mother kills to avenge the death of her son, eventually handing him the vengeance reins), or heroes in these films, women can dish it as well as receive it. Before the late ’90s and early 2000s, when women in horror and action films, mostly, started kicking ass in earnest (Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld films, Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil), there were the Final Girls and Scream Queens of the films here examined, knifing hearts and taking heads. In Halloweens I, II, VII, and VIII, it’s librarian-chic Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). “Michael!” she says, confronting The Shape in Halloween H2O: Twenty Years Later (1998), before she stabs him in the heart, crushes him with a van, and cuts his head off with an ax. In Nightmare, we get Final Girl Nancy, the hero at the center of I, III, and VII, who tells Freddy, “Fuck you!” before she belts him in the mouth. And in Friday it’s Alice, then Ginny, then Chris, then Trish, then Pam, then Megan, then Tina, then Rennie, then Jessica, then Rowan—deep breath!—who injure or kill or entrap Jason Voorhees in myriad resourceful ways. In the Hellraiser films parts I and II, and then inVI when she gets offed, we follow the more-assertive Kirsty (Ashley Laurence). Lost in the labyrinth of Hellraiser II, she reminds Pinhead’s crew they were once human beings. They shuffle mournfully in place, suddenly uncomfortable in all of that leather.
These women are frank, and reasonable, and battle-scarred, and empathetic. But they’re also strictly virginal, and hide their young bodies, and coo at the killers like surrogate mommies, and have “emotional intelligence,” which is not bad, per se, unless, as a woman, you’re expected to have it.
In Caryn James’s largely unfavorable New York Times review of Halloween: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), she cites the moment when little girl Jamie, Michael’s niece, takes on her uncle’s maniacal mantle as the “one effectively handled scene… which promises a sequel with a feminist twist.” She goes on to remark that “a feminist slasher is probably not what the pioneers of the women’s movement had in mind. But at least she’ll be different.”
And Jamie is different. She’s wearing a clown suit—the very same one that her uncle Mike wore on the night when he slaughtered his sister (her mother). She stands at the top of the stairs with dead eyes, holding a pair of scissors too big for her hand. When she raises them, we see the blood. Dr. Loomis yells out, “Nooo!”
This image of Jamie-at-large is confusing. Do we run for our lives or laugh at her clown suit? And this is a question we might ask of most of the movies that make up the franchises, while knowing they don’t have an answer—not yet. Just as Jamie is suspended in her role as the killer, so, too, are the women in all of these films. As fast as Freddy Krueger’s claw can sever the strap on a running girl’s nightgown, their roles are evolving along with the genre, speaking to each other down through the sequels.
There’s A Legend ’Round Here
One thing in these films, though, is rarely confusing. Despite the gore, the manipulative music, the pre-kill mouth-breathing, the ominous whisper-creep—or, a lot of the time, because of them—these movies are fun to watch. They are also, often, funny.
In Susan Sontag’s treatise “Notes on ‘Camp,’” she defines camp as “a certain mode of aestheticism” that acknowledges, in campy objects and artifacts, “a large element of artifice,” exaggeration, or outlandishness. She goes on to make a valuable distinction between “naive and deliberate camp”: the former “rests on innocence” and ventures “a seriousness that fails,” while the latter is “wholly conscious” of itself as camp, can be said to be “camping” or trying on camp, and is usually, according to Sontag, “less satisfying.”
A Nightmare on Elm Street is outwardly campy—the campiest of the five. It’s serious, yeah, but it’s also grotesque, in a silly, manic sort of way. Freddy’s a burn-unit case doing stand-up. The teens are walking archetypes—the jock, the nerd, the cheerleader, the stoner, the bookish girl with bangs—and often possess some special talent: karate, magic, drawing comics, sitting around and smoking weed. Most of the Nightmares came out in the ’80s, otherwise known as “the Me Generation.” All the teens are special flowers, tragically plucked before their time.
The recognition of camp and cultural touchstones across the franchises is best done in numbers. On one hand, of course, it’s a practical matter—the more people there, the more camp you’ll discover. On the other, however, you need people there. Otherwise, the camp’s not fun.
Watching the ’80s franchises en masse, a Mystery Science Theater effect takes over. The groans get more appreciative, the wiseass comments still more wise. You’d be hard put to seek out a figure more camp than Michael Myers’s Dr. Loomis, whose obsession with Michael gets more and more shrill as the franchise itself metastasizes until, in the fifth film (The Revenge of Michael Myers, 1989), he’s totally crazed, with pedophilic undercurrents. He looms above the bedside of Myers’s niece, a little girl of eight or so, and interrogates her ruthlessly, flapping his raincoat. Later on he runs through town, bearded, scarred, and leather-gloved, tearing the masks off of small trick-or-treaters to see if Jamie’s underneath.
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988) begins withanother kind of camp reference, a hark-round-the-campfire-style voice-over. “There’s a legend ’round here,” says the ominous voice. “A killer buried, but not dead…” Whereupon a clip-reel commences that shows the actions and avowals of a whole generation of those who’ve tried to kill off Jason, ending with Tommy from part VI (Jason Lives), who chains him under Crystal Lake. “People forget,” the voice-over continues. “He is down there… waiting.”
He is, and there’s a measure of comfort in this. In his book-length essay Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, ex-novelist and essayist David Shields makes a number of claims regarding the literary landscape in America, specifically concerning the fate and predominance of what he calls the “lyric essay.” Shields is provocative and means to be so. He claims the novel, like Jason, has died yet again. Antidotal to what Shields perceives to be the plodding linearity of novelistic forms—and by extension, we assume, other weary forms of narrative—Shields cites collage, or “literary mosaic,” wherein “momentum… derives not from the narrative but from the subtle, progressive buildup of thematic resonances.” Narrative, in Shields’s view, isn’t scarf-knitting, but weaving a web. “Webs look orderly, too,” Shields writes, “but unless you watch the spider weaving, you’ll never know where it started… You have to decide for yourself how to read its patterning, but if you pluck it at any point, the entire web will vibrate.”
On the outside, these films are sequential, like scarves—Jason gets killed, then killed again, then killed yet again, but he’s still “down there… waiting.” Yet if you were to read them as a web, like I do—as I did over sixty hours of viewing—then you might see Jason as I like to see him: ubiquitous, cosmic, legion, didactic, and, as he’s meant to be seen, terrifying. Horror franchises are more than just gory, and more than just silly, and more than just ceaseless. They’re more than just popcorn.
In his article “Looking for Someone,” Nick Paumgarten examines trends in dating and sex on the internet, and cites statistics from the website OKCupid on predictors of “longevity” among surveyed couples: “Of the 34,620 couples the site has analyzed, the casual first-date question whose shared answer was most likely to signal a shot at longevity (beyond the purview of OKCupid, anyway) was ‘Do you like horror movies?’”
Another question I should ask is: what more do you need to know? These films bring us closer, as friends and as lovers, as exalters of camp and believers in horror. Like Johnny Depp and Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, we keep one another from falling asleep. We stick it to the bloody finish. We clutch and knead each other’s arms like high-school sweethearts in the dark.
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