Sunday, 8 December 2013

How is the family represented in American horror films of the 1970s? Part 5

I have decided to post my dissertation on the representation of the family in American horror films of the 1970s in full over a series of posts. I hope that one day it may be of some vague use to someone somewhere somehow.

Part 1 of my dissertation on the representation of the family in American horror films of the 1970s is here. Part 2 on the monstrous families of films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes is here. Part 3 on those charming rape-revenge films of the 1970s is here. Part 4 on the monstrous children of films like The Exorcist and The Omen is here.

Part 5: Monstrous Parents

‘The horror film has obliquely moved from the representation of children as terrors to children as terrorized…’ (Sobchack, 1987, p.181)

In the later years of the decade, reactionary horror returned with a vengeance in films such as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Monstrous parents were not new to the horror films of the 1970s, as Brottman (1996, p.18) points out, ‘In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre… traditional values are refuted and negated by monstrous parent figures that destroy children.’ However the parent figures of the later films are generally reactionary representations as Robin Wood argues of Halloween (1978) and Barbara Creed argues of Alien (1979). Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is the story of Michael Myers and his attempts to kill babysitters on Halloween night. He has just returned from a long stay in a mental hospital for killing his sister many years previously. Scott’s Alien (1979) is the story of a group of people trying to survive a trip through space with a savage alien on board their space ship.
Halloween (1978) is seen by most to be the beginning of the ‘stalker’ film cycle as Vera Dika called it. She argued that ‘parents, teachers, psychiatrists, or policemen. In the stalker film […] these traditional authority figures have lost their power…’ (Dika, 1987, p.91). Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, is represented as being utterly powerless to stop Michael’s killing spree. The doctor is always behind Michael; he is shown inspecting a car and the clothes Michael has abandoned. He tells people ‘don’t underestimate him’ and ‘nobody listened’. There are numerous scenes of the doctor and the policeman searching houses and streets that Michael has already been to. In addition to this, the policeman does not even listen to the doctor the first time he warns him of the threat. The cop is also represented as a father who has no control over his daughter. In one scene his daughter is rude and disobedient towards him after she has put a cigarette out only moments before. In this scene the cop also blames children for the grave robbing and shoplifting that occurs around Halloween. Parents are also shown as being powerless later in the film where the little boy pulls out hidden comic books that his parents do not like him reading and the scene where a couple have a post-coital cigarette on one of the parent’s bed.

As a result of this powerlessness of parents, Williams (1996, p.211) argues ‘The monster now represents the return of a patriarchy violently punishing the younger generation.’ Michael is first seen in his hometown driving a police car as he watches the young women. The camera is in the back of the car behind the bars suggesting that Michael is punishing these young people, as the police should be doing. Michael also takes the traditional fatherly role of stopping the family dog from barking when he kills it. The girls in the film are shown as liberated in that they talk about, sleep with and ask boys to dance with the exception of Laurie, the final girl who survives because she is a virginal, traditional female who is a good babysitter, unlike her friends. At the climax of the film, it is Laurie who protects the two children and nearly kills Michael. In addition to this, Michael arranges a dead girls body in front of the gravestone of his sister suggesting that he has killed them both for having sex and that he represents the return of patriarchy and the death of female sexuality.

Similarly Wood (1987, p.80) argues ‘the monster… has become essentially a superego figure, avenging itself on liberated female sexuality or the sexual freedom of the young…’. Michael is always watching when bad things are happening; he is represented as an omnipresent and omniscient force. This is most clearly shown in the final shots of the empty house with the sound of Michael’s breathing over the top. He sees the boy at the start of the film getting dressed and leaving the house after having sex and the audience sees this through his eyes. Michael is also shown watching the house as the parents leave, suggesting he is waiting to take over their duties of oppressing the young. He is always in the background or foreground of the shots, depending on where the people he is watching are in the frame. If the young characters talk about sex, Michael appears, behind a bush or in a doorframe. He is often somewhere in the frame watching as they drink, smoke and have sex.

Sobchack (1987, p.184) notes that ‘Father is the synchronic repressed who, first powerfully absenting himself, returns to terrify the family in the contemporary horror film’. As a little boy, Michael stabs his naked sister with a large phallic knife suggesting incestuous desire. He is dressed in a clown suit and holds the knife demonstrating the corruption of innocence in that, his repressed sexuality has been awakened by seeing his sister have sex. The doctor describes Michael as ‘purely and simply evil’. He also says Michael ‘hasn’t spoken for fifteen years’ suggesting that he is full of repressed hatred and sexual thoughts that are confused in his mind, hence his wish to stab/penetrate people. ‘Michael’s body has attained maturity, his mind remains frozen in infantile fury…’ (Clover, 1996, p.76). The camera is often positioned behind Michael and the entire opening shot is from Michael’s point-of-view suggesting that the filmmaker wants the viewer to empathise with Michael and therefore confront their own repressed desires. Michael’s white mask even appears from complete darkness in one shot suggesting he represents repressed desires emerging from the unconscious mind. In addition to this, the little boy refers to his fear of the ‘boogeyman’ throughout the film, a fear that adults have repressed. However this fear returns with the return of Michael, the return of the repressed.

The alien in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) can also be seen as the return of the repressed. It has been argued that it represents male fears of female equality, male rape, castration, and male pregnancy. Creed (1993, p.23) argues ‘The unacceptable, monstrous aspect of woman is represented in two ways: Mother as an omnipresent archaic force linked to death and Mother as the cannibalistic creature represented through the alien as fetish-object.’ She describes the openings of the alien craft as vaginal and the tunnel in the film that leads to the room full of eggs is clearly meant to look organic and therefore represent the fallopian tubes leading to the ovary. In addition to this, the alien is phallicised with its protruding mouth, sharp pointy teeth and large phallic head. This shows the alien as a fetish object as it denies lack in the mother figure. The alien mother is also linked to death in that it lives to kill and even its blood is a defence mechanism that eats through the ship like acid.

In addition to this, the spaceship is also referred to as ‘Mother’ as this is what the ship’s computer is called by the crew. Creed (1996, p.50) argues by the end of the film ‘the “mother’s” body has become hostile; it contains the alien whose one purpose is to kill and devour all of Mother’s children’. At first the ship is represented as the mother as it wakes the crew from their sleep. The crewmembers are kept in little pods that are all connected to the ship in the centre. When they need to communicate with ‘Mother’, they individually enter a little room full of lights. The lights represent the undivided attention of ‘Mother’ to each of her ‘children’. However once the crew disconnect from the mother ship in a smaller vessel, they find the alien and bring it back with them onto the mother ship.

Creed (1993. p.23) writes of ‘Mother’ that she is ‘a treacherous figure who has been programmed to sacrifice the lives of the crew in the interests of the Company.’ This is shown in the scene where Ripley communicates with the computer and the screen reads ‘Crew Expendable’. It is also a female voice that informs Ripley of how long she has until the ship explodes. Like a baby in the womb, Ripley is represented as having no control over her environment at the end of the film when she shouts at ‘Mother’, ‘I’ve turned the cooling unit back on’.

Ripley is represented as a terrorised child as when she asks for help from Ash, the science officer and father figure, she says ‘any suggestions from you or Mother?’ This links them as parental figures of the crew, but they are both ultimately treacherous as Creed suggests. The scene where Ash closes the doors so Ripley cannot escape is the reassertion of male dominance in the ship. Ash is controlling the ship’s doors, and therefore also ‘Mother’ in a way, and he is attempting to control Ripley/woman. This scene links the control of women to pornography as when Ash attacks Ripley there are pictures of naked women on the wall behind him and he then tries to force her to choke on a pornographic magazine. It can even be suggested that the scene links pornography and violence towards women as it ends with Ash climaxing (spurting white liquid) after his attack on Ripley.

Wood argues that Ripley is monstrous and the whole film is reactionary because it plays as a male nightmare of female equality in the future. ‘Having destroyed the alien, Ripley can become completely “feminine”—soft and passive, her domesticated pussy safely asleep’ (Wood, 1984, p.199). Throughout the film she has shown little compassion for her crewmates and has even tried to take charge. However at the end, she is represented as a sleeping beauty in the stars, waiting to be rescued.

On the other hand, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) takes a far more progressive representation of the role of the mother in the family. ‘The active and increasingly resourceful heroine of Dawn…learns in the course of the film to free herself from male domination and all the social formations (marriage, traditional family, dependency) that support it’ (Wood, 2001). The title of the film appears on screen as the heroine is sleeping suggesting that women are the ‘dead’ that need to be woken. She starts the film completely dominated by men as seen in the first scenes at the television studio where her boyfriend tells her to be on the roof at nine and her boss argues with her about having the rescue stations on screen all the time. She takes the traditional maternal caring role in that she wants to make sure that people are safe. Later in the film the heroine dresses the wounds of Roger and we see her surrounded by clothes on the floor and skating round in circles, suggesting that she is trapped, frozen in the maternal, traditional female role.

However as the film progresses, so does the heroine. She is represented as liberated as when asked if one of the men is her boyfriend she replies ‘most of the time’ and when she is offered an abortion, she considers it, but ultimately rejects the idea. She wants to be treated as equal to the men and is clearly the first to realise the danger they are in. She tells them the mall is ‘a prison too’ and tries to not let them know she is suffering from morning sickness, saying ‘it’s my problem’. She learns to shoot and fly the helicopter, therefore taking control of her own life by using traditionally male dominated technology. She rejects the marriage proposal from her boyfriend, saying ‘not now’ and lies awake staring unhappily into nothing during their attempt at domestic bliss which amounts to their possessing of a bed, sofa, gun rack, plants and TV. It seems she is only really treated as an equal by the men after Roger is wounded and they let her run through the mall with them side-by side and armed with a gun.

These films featuring monstrous parent figures are generally far more reactionary than some of the other horror films in the earlier part of the decade. In particular the introduction of the ‘stalker’ cycle of films, of which Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Scott’s Alien (1979) can arguably both be considered a part, is the real beginning of the reassertion of patriarchal values that would continue in many of the horror films of the 1980s. However Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) is a more progressive text in that it negates traditional family values.

Back to part 2 on Monstrous Families.
Back to part 3 on Rape Revenge films.
Back to part 4 on Monstrous children is here.

Part 6 on my conclusions is here.