Thursday, 5 December 2013

How is the family represented in American horror films of the 1970s? Part 1

This is my dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of BA Film Studies with Video Production and Creative Writing at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College back in 2005. I will publish it in 6 parts over the next few weeks.

Firstly I would like to thank Dr Colette Balmain for all her help and guidance throughout the preparation of the dissertation.  Also I would like to thank all of the other staff at BCUC for their support and knowledge.
Part 1: Introduction

‘Horror films now suggest that the horror is not among us, but rather part of us, caused by us…’ (Polan, 1984, p.202). 

During the 1970s horror films radically changed from those that had come before, along with drastic changes in society and American films in general.  The Vietnam war, civil rights, Nixon, Watergate and feminism all left unmistakable footprints on society and consequently the films of the era, most noticeably in the horror genre.  Films including Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) not only pushed the boundaries of taste but also brought the horror to ‘our living rooms and backyard.’ (Muir, 2002, p.213), and, as a result were banned on video in the UK for over thirty years in the former three films cases. 

The family plays a central role in the American horror films of the 1970s and its destruction is often the subject.  The representation of the family ranges from progressive, in for example George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), to reactionary in many others including Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). 

These next few posts will show how the representation of the family in American horror of the 1970s moved from a relatively progressive beginning to the decade with such films as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), to a generally far more reactionary view of the family by the end of the decade with films such as Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978). 

Key films from the previous decade are Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Hitchcock’s films, not even just Psycho (1960), seem to have had an important influence on many of the horror films of the 1970s including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978), as Molly Haskell (1974, p.349) points out, ‘the blonde […] must be punished […] he [Hitchcock] submits his heroines to excruciating ordeals, long trips through terror in which they may be raped, violated by birds, killed.’ 

In addition to this, the rural and urban locations of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) respectively seem to have lead to many of the settings of the 1970s horror films, for example a farmhouse in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the urban family home in The Exorcist (1973).  ‘Romero and Polanski redefine the monstrous…and situate horror in the everyday world of contemporary America’  (Waller, 1987, p.4).  Before the 1960s, horror came from elsewhere, Transylvania or Europe, not from rural and urban America.

The horror films from the 1960s also began moving the family to the central subject of the horror, as in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) where ‘the idea of the family is perhaps more harshly assaulted than any other… Family ties actually become dangerous in the film’ (Dillard, 1987, p.28).  The father of the nuclear family is shown as weak, the young lovers useless, a sister killed by her brother and a mother killed by her daughter, perhaps the first of the terrible children that became so popular in films like Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976).

Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is extremely significant, not only for having the family to be the central subject of the horror film and having the most recognisably urban location, but also because ‘we can see […] the radical beginning of patriarchal failure: of paternity refused, denied, abandoned, hated…’ (Sobchack, 1987, p.185), a theme echoed in many of the 1970s horror films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and the monstrous children sub-genre.

The next post will consist of Chapter 1: Monstrous Families. This will look at two films in detail, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977).  Using Charles Derry’s essay ‘More Dark Dreams: Some Notes on the Recent Horror Film’ and John Kenneth Muir’s book, ‘Horror Films of the 1970s’, as well as other theorists, this chapter will show the ways The Hills Have Eyes (1977) is a critique of the bourgeois family. This chapter will also demonstrate, using the theories of Tony Williams in his book ‘Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film’, and Robin Wood’s article ‘Return of the Repressed’ in Film Comment, how a Marxist reading of these films reveal them to be about class and capitalism.  Finally, in this chapter it will be demonstrated, again using Muir’s book, and also with reference to Wood’s ‘An Introduction to the American Horror Film’, how the family is positioned as monstrous whether bourgeois or proletariat.

In Chapter 2: The Rape-Revenge Films, the focus will again be on two films, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978).  Using the books of Williams and Muir, this chapter will demonstrate how Craven again critiques the bourgeois family in his earlier film, showing it to be repressed and hypocritical.   Then, with reference to Robin Wood and Barbara Creed, this chapter will analyse I Spit on Your Grave (1978) from a feminist perspective to show it as an attack on independent women and also a critique of the family.

Chapter 3: Monstrous Children, will look at William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976).  Using Vivian Sobchack’s essay ‘Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange’ and Marsha Kinder and Beverle Houston’s essay ‘Seeing is Believing: The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now’ this chapter will begin by looking at the ways the child is represented as evil in these films.  With reference to Wood’s article ‘Return of the Repressed’ this chapter will then question how the family is regarded as innocent in The Omen (1976), despite the evil child.  Finally, using Williams’ book and also Barbara Creed’s chapter on The Exorcist (1973) in her book, ‘The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis’, this chapter will conclude by demonstrating how the family is represented as the cause of the evil children.

Chapter 4: Monstrous Parents, will focus primarily on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).  With reference to Wood’s essay ‘Returning the Look: Eyes of a Stranger’ and his online article ‘What Lies Beneath’ this chapter will demonstrate how with the introduction of the ‘stalker’ cycle of films, the monster became a father figure.  Finally, using Creed’s essays on Alien (1979) this chapter will demonstrate how the mother became the monster in films such as Alien (1979), but was also represented in a progressive way in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978).
Click here for part 2 on Monstrous Families.
Click here for part 3 on Rape Revenge films.
Part 4 on Monstrous children is here.
Part 5 on Monstrous Parents is here.
Part 6 on my conclusions is here.