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Something Sinister on the North Shore

Chicago gets two of its most famous nicknames from literature. Carl Sandburg deemed it the “city of broad shoulders,” while lifelong New Yorker A.J. Liebling tagged it the “Second City” in a 1952 New Yorker article. It’s a city that has given us or inspired novelists, poets, and journalists like Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Sandra Cisneros, Mike Royko, Margo Jefferson, Aleksandar Hemon, and more than a few other great books. It’s a shining example of a truly great, often terrible American city.

And then there are the Chicago suburbs. Everything around the city, all the way into Indiana and even up to Wisconsin, at some point or another has been labeled “Chicagoland.” These suburbs, more specifically the suburbs to the north of the city, have come to define what we see as the all-American suburbs in popular culture, for better — bucolic, quiet, safe — or worse — insular, bland, blindingly white.

When you think of the suburbs in American literature, your mind probably wanders first to John Cheever or John Updike or Richard Yates or John O’Hara — drunk WASPs along the east coast. The Chicago suburbs tend to enter the conversation when talking of 1980s movies, e.g., Risky Business or John Hughes’s famous “teen trilogy” of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But it’s the books about this collection of towns to the north of Chicago that set the stage for those movies.

“Glencoe is thirty miles up the lake from Chicago,” Rich Cohen writes in his memoir, Lake Effect. “It is a perfect town for a certain kind of dreamy kid, with just enough history to get your arms around.” Once you leave Chicago’s city limits, Glencoe is the fifth suburb you hit on your way north if you’re driving along the lake. Evanston, Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe; followed by Highland Park, Fort Sheridan, Lake Forest, and then Lake Bluff. Keep driving fifteen minutes north from there, past the Great Lakes Naval Base, and you’ll hit Waukegan, home of Ray Bradbury and the basis for Green Town, where he set Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer. Although it’s a few scant miles north of Lake Bluff, Waukegan traditionally isn’t considered part of the North Shore. Lake Bluff’s median income, like other neighborhoods in the North Shore, is well over 100,000 per household; Waukegan’s is 42,335. Every town on the North Shore, save for Evanston and Wilmette, count over 90% of their populations as white. Near half of Waukegan’s population is Hispanic, with almost 20% African-American, and 30% white. The towns considered part of the North Shore are consistently called “affluent,” while 13.9% of Waukegan residents fall below the poverty line. You’re either on one side of the tracks or the other.

In Bradbury’s autobiographical fiction, the stand-in for early 20 th century Waukegan was the all-American town; yet Bradbury didn’t shy away from commenting on the sinister aspects of the suburbs. A serial killer called the Lonely One stalks the residents of Green Town in Dandelion Wine (the chilling chapter was originally published in 1950 as “The Whole Town’s Sleeping”), while Something Wicked This Way Comes can be viewed as an allegory for growing up and realizing the world, the people you know, and the place where you live aren’t as innocent as you believed when you were a child. Bradbury, who was born in 1920 and whose family relocated to Arizona before his tenth birthday, was too young to know that Waukegan’s chief of police at the time was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and probably didn’t notice the town’s population grew nearly 75 percent between 1920 and 1930 as African-Americans moved to the area looking for manufacturing jobs. By the 1960s, those jobs started to dry up and the divisions between black and white, rich and poor became even larger — school and housing segregation pushed people into certain parts of town (the rich, mostly white citizens along the lake to the north; the poorer, black and Puerto Rican communities to the south). The “racial powder keg” exploded in the Waukegan riot of 1966. The things people tried to hide underneath Green Town finally came to the surface.

Hog Barbecuer for the World,School Segregator. Mower of Lawns,Player with Golf Clubs and the Nation’s Wife Swapper;Bigoted, snobbish, flaunting.Suburb of the White Collars…

So wrote “Carl Sandbag” in his poem, “Chicago Suburb” for Mad magazine in 1974. Around the time of the publication of the satirical poem, Dave Eggers was growing up Lake Forest. He’d famously go on to write about the experience of living in the suburb in his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. According to Eggers, his family was “white-trashy” for the town; he was surprised, during an audition interview for MTV’s The Real World, that anybody had heard of it. “I didn’t know any rich people,” Eggers claims in his book.

“Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world. Maybe it was,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a 1940 letter to his daughter a few decades before the Eggers would move there. Lake Forest, just like the rest of the area to the north of the city, slowly started to grow in the years after the Civil War. German farmers settled what would become Wilmette. Methodist ministers would buy the land that would become Lake Bluff in 1875. 24 years earlier in 1851, another group of Methodists bought land to the north and founded Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute. As an alternative, in 1857, rich Presbyterians came together for the founding of Lake Forest College. Soon enough, with the post-Civil War boom we today call the Gilded Age, secluded Lake Forest became a playground for the rich who could do their business in the city, but needed an escape. It was just the kind of place that Fitzgerald, who had fallen for Ginevra King, one of the more prominent young women from the Chicagoland area in the days leading up to the First World War, could obsess over.

A lesser-known author looked at the darker side of the supposedly tranquil Chicago suburbs. Judith Guest‘s 1976 novel Ordinary People (the source text for the film directed by Robert Redford) serves as a perfect regional depiction of the things happening behind the closed doors of nice houses (think Updike’s Couples and Judy Blume’s “adult” novel, Wifey), Later, writers like Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides), A.M. Homes (Music for Torching), and Karolina Waclawiak (The Invaders) would explore real suburban doom and gloom. Guest laid the groundwork for these later experiments.

Ordinary People describes a father who is trying to keep it all together after the death of his oldest son in a boating accident and the attempted suicide of his younger son. His suburban idyll was disrupted by “an unexpected July storm on Lake Michigan,” she writes:

He had left off being a perfectionist then, when he discovered that not promptly kept appointments, not a house circumspectly kept clean, not membership in Onwentsia, or the Lake Forest Golf and Country Club, or the Lawyer’s Club, not power, or knowledge, or goodness–not anything– cleared you through the terrifying office of chance; that it is chance and not perfection that rules the world.

Karen Hollander, the narrator in Kurt Anderson’s True Believers, is from Wilmette. In one passage, she talks of a place along the shore of the lake known as No Man’s Land, Illinois. An actual unincorporated area that “was the most urban, foreign-seeming place we could reach easily by bike,” for a kid in the early sixties. Anderson, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, says he knew of the city because of its high school, New Trier, which his own suburban high school emulated. While the story eventually moves on from Wilmette, Anderson perfectly captures the bored kids in the suburbs looking for things to entertain them, making their own fun. Running around during the Cold War years, pretending they’re spies and secret agents along the leafy streets of their hometown, getting their thrills from the part of town the narrator describes as the “sketchier” side of her little corner of the world — the underdeveloped area near the water. This part of Karen’s town is where you’ll find “the foundations of a couple of failed private clubs and casinos from the Depression and the charred remains of a Jazz Age roadhouse” dotting the landscape — cast away. Out of sight, out of mind is a major part of the suburban phenomenon. The suburbs were built on the idea of keeping people out, specifically poor, African-American, Jewish, and immigrant communities.

White flight away from cities is largely considered a post-war phenomenon, but the area where Anderson set his novel was shaping itself into an exclusive world for white and rich citizens even before the 20 th century. Kenilworth’s history is one of the best examples of this. Founded by businessman Joseph Sears in 1889, the village that today is considered by Forbes the fourth most affluent place to live in America, has an ordinance stating, “Large lots, high standards of construction, no alleys, and sales to Caucasians only.” As of the 2010 census, there are only seven black residents living among Kenilworth’s 2,153 residents. Jews weren’t welcome either. In 1959, according to Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism, the Anti-Defamation League reported, “The North Shore suburbs…are almost completely closed to Jews,” and that “Kenilworth’s hostility is so well known that the community is bypassed by real estate agents when serving prospective Jewish purchasers.” Jews weren’t admitted into the town until the 1970s.

There were alternatives, however. The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg’s bestselling 2013 family epic, takes place a little off the lake, away from the WASPs of Guest and Anderson’s novels, and peers into the life and times of Edie Middlestein. Her family made the move from the city to the suburbs sometime during the same post-war boom that saw countless American families leave behind the cramped apartments of the cities for the space, lawns, and backyards of the burbs. Attenberg’s novel struck a chord with me instantly as a native of the suburb where Edie’s family settled, Skokie, Illinois. Located just over the northwest shoulder of Chicago, Skokie isn’t a North Shore community. It rubs up against Evanston to the east and Wilmette to the north. Skokie, during the second-half of the 20th century, was known as “The World’s Largest Village.” A place that welcomed a large Jewish population who made it out of Europe alive after the Second World War, as well as a number of other immigrant and ethnic communities, including a 25.3 percent of its present-day population made up of people of Asian heritage according to the most recent census. A diverse city, especially compared to its neighbors to the east that stretch towards the north, Attenberg paints a picture of the promises the suburbs held, and continue to hold, to the people that move there, from the wealthy and established to immigrants and their American-born children. Early on in the book we see Edie’s family, a decade into their own suburban experience. There are some very minor cracks that, over time, grow into larger ones as Edie’s life progresses.

It’s film that has helped fix the area in the minds of most people as the quintessential suburbs. From Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 1978 and the Ordinary People adaptation two years later, both set in Lake Forest, to the boring house in Highland Park that Tom Cruise’s teenage character turns into a brothel in Risky Business, and John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, movies have helped solidify the Chicago suburbs as the American suburbs. Those films gave a very visual idea of what the suburbs are supposed to look like, the “rows of new “ranch-style houses either identical in design or with minor variations built into a basic plan, winding streets, neat lawns, two-car garages, infant trees, and bicycles and tricycles lining the sidewalks,” as sociologist Bennett Berger observed in “The Myth of Suburbia” for the Journal of Social Issues. A few decades after the post-war buildup of the suburbs, when living outside of cities had become more commonplace in America, the promises that suburbia held, the new way of living, a safer and more peaceful place for the “upwardly mobile” and “well educated” who “have a promising place in some organizational hierarchy,” as Bennett pointed out in the 1961 article, were starting to unravel. Books like Ordinary People and The Middlesteins show this; films often did not. In the cinematic version of the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, there are problems: teens can’t get the boy or girl they like to notice them, bullies bully, college looms on the horizon, parents seem totally oblivious, bills have to get paid, but all in all nothing too bad. Movies are there to sell fantasy, that everything is ultimately fine in the suburbs; books tell a different story. They tell you that marriages fall apart and habits consume people (The Middlesteins), security is just a myth (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), and that there’s a whole fascinating world beyond the city limits for kids just willing to go out on a limb and explore it (Lake Effect). The suburbs are an idea that you have to be willing to buy into. Once cracks start showing, you’re supposed to do your best to look away.

There’s an order to things once you make it out of the city, out to the wider spaces where the houses and people all look alike, an inherent dishonesty in the suburbs that somebody convinced America to look past long ago. The suburbs were supposed to be the reward for working so hard, for making it through. It was supposed to be paradise, the last place you needed to go in life, “You’ve reached your top and you just can’t get any higher,” as Ray Davies of The Kinks sings in “Shangri-La,” a song about his own country’s middle class in the years after the war. But as Cohen writes in Lake Effect, “What mattered to our parents could never matter to us. What mattered to us — a sense of style, of experience-collecting — seemed so simple and pure we were afraid to talk about it.” Things change; the facade slowly strips away and unveils the truth that no matter how well-kept or filled with smiling people, money, and good schools they may be, there’s something sinister about the suburbs.

Jason Diamond is the author of Searching for John Hughes. He’s the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and sports editor at Rolling Stone.

I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions

I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon’s recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is. it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any Комментарии и мнения владельцев, questions or suggestions let me know.

The Millions Guest Contributor: Author, Kaye Gibbons

I had the pleasure of making Kaye Gibbons’ acquaintance via email, and I have very quickly become a big fan. Aspiring writers and precocious readers could learn a lot from her. One of the more noteworthy events of Gibbons’ distinguished career was the selection of two of her books, Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman by Oprah Winfrey for her eponymous book club. I asked Gibbons how she looks back on this experience as a writer, and she was kind enough to send us the following reply:You’d asked how I felt about having two novels of mine on the Oprah Book Club. There’s so much to say about it that I’ll talk about it chronologically. Before the Oprah call, I was doing fine, amazing fine. But it didn’t start out that way. My advance for Ellen Foster was 1500. But I’ve always had a strong work ethic, and as I worked, as rights were sold and awards won, the money began to catch up to the blood and time I was putting into it. Unfortunately, being a rather eccentric, free-thinking woman in the South led others and eventually me to conclude that there had to be something pathological about me, and it wasn’t until two years ago that a twenty-year old diagnosis of bi-polar disorder was eradicated. Doctors made me feel forced to take drugs that took the edge off my creativity, but I’ve taken nothing in two years and haven’t ever felt and written better.My theory is that I want to write the best literature possible and have it read by as many people as possible. Living in NC, now half-time in NY, there’s a long tradition of writers helping one another, reading manuscripts, finding agents. Lee Smith introduced me to my agent, and then in 1997 I was able to pass that along when I read the first pages of Cold Mountain. Chuck [Charles Frazier] and I had had children at the same Montessori school for years and had been close friends. Things like that happen here all the time.But there’s still a great deal of intellectual isolation hereand that’s probably why I write and read as much as I do. The other day in the grocery store, an acquaintance asked me what’d I’d been writing since I finished Divining Women. When I told her I’d been reviewing books for Atlanta and Chicago, she asked, They let you review your own books? This is a strange occupation to have in Raleigh, not so much in Chapel Hill, where Alan Gurganus, Reynolds Price, and others live. But sometimes 20 miles feels very far away.So, with regard to Oprah, one thing her call did was to give what I do for a living a certain amount of validation. I’d been knighted by the French, won awards galore, sold about a million books, had a movie made, done 12 thirty-city book tours, but dealing with the perception that I was a local writer was often frustrating. I’d have an audience of 2000 in Michigan and then 30 in Raleigh, for example.What it took to manage it was self-esteem, and that generally comes from having a firm grasp of reality and what’s important, my children. A digression, because I anticipate someone mouthing about the Oprah money: I have a hard time tolerating the starving artist in the garret whining about how a writer writes a brilliant book that the publisher won’t promote and that no one is reading. It’s easier to be a victim than take action, write a better book, listen to an editor’s input, find a new publisher. I truly believe, because I’ve seen it, that if a brilliant manuscript exists, that if that writer has had enough gall, brains, energy, etc. to write it that he or she can get it to the right people. When a person sends me something that deserves publishing, I see it through the process. But ninety-nine percent of what I’m sent just isn’t good. A writer has to be a superb editor, and wishing a book good doesn’t make it so. When someone sends me something drowning in cliches, I tell them that language is to use, not to take easy advantage of. When Oprah called and said she wanted to put the two novels on her show, I was nervous about it diminishing my literary reputation, which sounds pompous to say. When she held A Virtuous Woman up and said, America, you’ve wanted a love story, well, here it is, I thought, Well, here we go.But, you see, her selling, what now, about three million books that month, didn’t change the basic nature of the novels or me. When Jonathan Franzen started running his mouth about the maudlin trash or whatever he said about her choices, I smiled and remembered that the first novel, Ellen Foster, is taught all over the world beside The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. When it was finished, in 1986, it was sent to and read by Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Gordon Lish, John Barth, and other people who, over the years, became dear to me. The whole Franzen thing got sort of tedious, and I didn’t have the time to get dragged into it.What someone like a Franzen doesn’t see was how poor I was growing up, a surreal state of poverty, and then that small advance, and how I worked my way up to financial security. I’m finally making now what many, many first, very young writers are getting, and I think it damages the soul. I finally have a house that doesn’t have something hanging off in disrepair. There’s the whole attitude now in music and writing of, I’m 21, Where’s my Big Deal? So, even though the Oprah thing seemed to come out of the blue, it had been earned. I think I’d have felt a little ridiculous if it hadn’t been. I used a lot of the money establishing a library at a local children’s home, which my daughters and I still maintain. We sat down and wrote checks, making decisions together about where the money went. Anything I put away personally was completely eradicated, gone, during a horrible divorce two years later. So, I found myself back at the beginning financially, having been reamed. But I’ve got this work ethic, and I’ve got the post-Oprah, broadened visibility. It’ll be okay. My daughter wasn’t able to go to college in NY, stayed here because of the financial drain of the divorce, but it remains, we will all be okay.I admire Oprah, enormously. As for the book club, she’s getting it done, getting people in bookstores. If there’s the criticism that the books she selects have taken on a certain sameness, well, so what? She’s not picked Danielle Steele, for crying out loud. I know for a fact, given the hundreds of letters, that people are reading, because of her, who haven’t read before.Let me tell you that when I got a letter from a mother who said her daughter’s impression of her totally changed when she saw her mother sitting down, reading a book at night in bed, how very proud this woman was, it is hard to say anything critical about the Oprah Book Club.The problem is that it is hard, to impossible, for people who live around books, who read them, own them, who have, like me, about 4000 books in the bedroom, to even process the notion that houses exist where there are no books except the ones the kids bring home from school. That’s a deplorable, elitist attitude. When I was house-shopping, I looked at about fifty upper middle-class houses, and only in a couple did I see more than a handful of books. I started asking the real estate agent if the sellers had hidden the books, thinking they were clutter.I have two younger teenagers, and I can tell you that seeing them reading anything is a blessing. I don’t go over and demand that they upgrade. And for those 350 kids who use the library Oprah made possible day in and day out because the public library in their town will not trust them to check out and bring back books, they’d wonder what all the snobbish hoopla was about. They’re able to do their homework better, their grades have improved, and that money was funneled directly from Oprah.I felt nothing but honored by the whole process, and only wish that I’d been in better emotional and physical shape at the time. I was 75 pounds heavier, weight that drugs I didn’t need had put on me, and I felt run down and a little thick in the head. But that was then. This is now. I’m the person I used to be before my marriage went to hell, and I’m nothing but glad that the Oprah thing is a part of my experience. If nothing else, local ladies who stop me in the grocery store don’t talk to me like I’m having to sell books out of the back of my car.I think anybody who wants to be successful at this whole ordeal of publishing has to take a certain amount of responsibility that I see so many people abdicating in favor of bitter comparisons. Language is a gift, and to be able to use language to make a living is one of the most joyful enterprises I can imagine. I try to take that joy and make what I’m writing a better book every time I edit it. I work 18-hour days. It is a long, lonely, spiritually hazardous occupation. But the joy I feel in putting even two words together in something of an original way has nothing to do with money or movies, nothing external. I think that people buy and read my books, regardless of Oprah, because I’ve always studied everything I’ve read, even packaging on the mascara I just bought, and tried to figure out why a particular word was chosen. You can get in a habit of alert, concentrated reading that comes back when the writing begins. I’ve learned to be honest with myself and cut what sucks.Kaye Gibbons lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her books include Charms for Easy Life, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, A Cure for Dreams, and Sights Unseen, as well as the titles mentioned above. Her latest novel, Divining Women will come out April 14th. And make sure to check out her cool new website, ThanksThanks to Will Femia for allowing my self-promotion to extend to MSNBC’s Weblog Central. For those that are blog-fans, it is always a must-read.

Best Movie Jumpscares

Don’t you love when a movie revs up the tension and gets you to the edge of your seat, right before suddenly scaring the pants off you?

That said, there is a difference between a startle and a jumpscare. Startles can happen with a sudden burst of music, an unexpected special effect, or any fast movement.

Jumpscares, however, are more nuanced, and a bit of an art form. The best directors and filmmakers know how to execute them so they don’t feel like cheap suckerpunches, but rather highly satisfying scares that are well-earned by the setting, narrative, and characters.

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This list names some of the best jumpscares for your next movie night. Just try not to spill your popcorn everywhere.

Repulsion (1965)

Jumpscare Moment: Reflections

Director: Roman Polanski Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux Rating: Not Rated Rotten Tomatoes: 95% Where To Watch: Fandango, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV

Believe it or not, there was a time when audiences weren’t expecting to see someone revealed in a mirror. Repulsion was one of the first films to utilize this jumpscare technique.

In this scene, you watch as the closet door slowly swings shut, only to show a man standing in the background.

By modern standards, the scariest part is the musical sting accompanying the sudden reveal. At the time, though, this was a new and exciting way to make the audience jump.

Jaws (1975)

Jumpscare Moment: You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

Director: Steven Spielberg Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss Rating: PG Rotten Tomatoes: 98% Where To Watch: HBOMax, Fandango, Vudu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, Apple TV

Jaws may not be a horror movie—in fact, most of it sits firmly in the action category—but there is a certain amount of tension every time someone hits the water.

By now, the audience is well aware of the shark’s capabilities. When it suddenly surfaces for the chum, Brody isn’t the only one feeling like he may have bitten off more than he can chew.

Carrie (1976)

Jumpscare Moment: Need A Hand?

Director: Brian De Palma Starring: Sissy Spacek, John Travolta Rating: R Rotten Tomatoes: 93% Where To Watch: Fandango, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV

Carrie focuses on the eponymous protagonist, a bullied teenager who discovers she possesses telekinetic abilities.

Her story is ultimately a tragic one, but she manages to take revenge on some of the people who made her life a living hell on her way out.

When one of the few survivors visits her grave at the end of the film, she finds that death may not be the end for Carrie.

Tremors (1990)

Jumpscare Moment: The Early Worm

Director: Ron Underwood Starring: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward Rating: PG-13 Rotten Tomatoes: 86% Where To Watch: Fandango, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV

The special effects and the dialogue may seem hokey, but if you walked into this movie without knowing what to expect, seeing an enormous and hideous sandworm suddenly erupt from the ground would do more than just startle you.

Only the first encounter counts as a jumpscare, but it sure is an effective one.

The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)

Jumpscare Moment: The Great Escape

Director: Jonathan Demme Starring: Jodie Foster, Sir Anthony Hopkins Rating: R Rotten Tomatoes: 96% Where To Watch: Fandango, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV

For most of the movie, the audience has grown somewhat comfortable with the idea of Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

While his mannerisms and lack of blinking are unsettling, his cooperation with the authorities and overall pleasant demeanor lull viewers into a false sense of security.

That security is then ripped to shreds when Lecter makes his move. His grisly escape leaves no doubt to his savage brutality.

The Ring (2002)

Jumpscare Moment: Samara’s Reveal

Director: Gore Verbinski Starring: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson Rating: R Rotten Tomatoes: 71% Where To Watch: Fandango, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV

This jumpscare involves a movie within a movie.

After viewing a mysterious tape, every viewer dies. While the audience gets some idea of the horrors involved, you don’t know what’s on the tape for some time.

That tension compounds until, finally, the audience is privy to the cursed footage. This reveal is another example of well-earned jumpscares: it doesn’t feel cheap, and the build-up is fantastic.

Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)

Jumpscare Moment: Skeletons In The Attic

Director: Takashi Shimizu Starring: Megumi Okina, Misaki Ito Rating: R Rotten Tomatoes: 63% Where To Watch: Fandango, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV

This film is filled with jumpscares, but the most effective one takes place near the beginning of the movie.

A new tenant moves into a house with his wife and ailing, elderly mother. His wife begins the process of moving in and starts cleaning.

After a few strange sounds in the attic, she opens up a closet and climbs up to see what’s causing them.

That peek into the unknown is a long, tense moment for the audience, culminating in a jumpscare worthy of nightmares.

Sinister (2012)

Jumpscare Moment: Lawn Work

Director: Scott Derrickson Starring: Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio Rating: R Rotten Tomatoes: 63% Where To Watch: Fandango, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV

Throughout this movie, the main character frequently finds himself watching found footage reels of innocuously-named home movies.

Each one is actually named after the type of incident that befalls the previous residents of the house. However, most of the films are tense and horrifying, rather than suddenly scary.

The “Lawn Work” reel breaks that trend, after making the audience speculate exactly what the cameraperson will do with that lawn mower.

The Conjuring (2013)

Jumpscare Moment: The Sound Of Two Hands Clapping

Director: James Wan Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson Rating: R Rotten Tomatoes: 86% Where To Watch: HBOMax, Fandango, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV

This claustrophobic scene sees the protagonist trapped in a cellar. Sounds Echo from shadowy corners, and objects move without warning.

The tension ratchets up when a ball rolls across the screen, and the lightbulb bursts.

Though none of the actions on their own are particularly threatening, watching a woman struggle to light a match and look around, only for two hands to appear and clap, is sure to make you jump.


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Horror, action, thriller, and sometimes pandemic movies alike are often guilty of cheap tricks to frighten audiences, then slapping the jumpscares label on them.

Sudden music changes, split-second reveals, or loud sounds might startle, but they don’t evoke real fear or tension.

Masterfully done, jumpscares feel like worthwhile payoffs after a tense and well-designed road. It’s truly the stamp-mark to a good scary movie. Whether a movie’s chock full of them, or planted with just one or two, they can leave a lasting impression long after the final credits roll.

Lawn mower tape sinister

The most effective tool Sinister had going for it, beyond those creepy, fleeting glimpses of primary boogeyman Bughuul, was its soundtrack, which was a compilation of composer Christopher Young’s score as well as a collection of strange and experimental tracks from different avant garde groups. Like a lot of other Sinister fans, I was left a little underwhelmed by the official soundtrack release, which only showcased Young’s score and left all the other, more memorable tracks on the cutting room floor. Because of this, I assembled my own complete soundtrack, plugging those avant garde tracks back into the existing soundtrack in the order in which they were used. Sinister director Scott Derrickson did such a good job of combining Young’s score, the soundtrack, and the sound design that all of it is nearly indecipherable from one another. However, some tracks, like Levantation, Sinister, Pollock Type Pain, Don’t Worry Daddy, I’ll Make You Famous, and The Eater of Children don’t appear at all (though the latter may be layered over the finale use of Blood Swamp. very hard to tell.)

Below is a large portion of those different avant garde tracks.- including their track titles, the artists who did them, and at which points they are used in the film.

Family Hanging Out ’11 / BBQ ’79Artist: UlverSong: Silence Teaches You How To Sing

Different parts of this 24-minute track are used twice: the first time is when the family is being hung from a tree branch in their own backyard, and the second is when the family is burned in their garage. The BBQ ’79 portion of the song contains the infamous and wailing vocalizations.

Pool Party ’66Artist: JudgehydrogenSong: A Body of Water

A family is tied to lawn chairs and pulled into a pool one by one.

Sleepy Time ’96Artist: Aghast Song: Sacrifice

Each family member slowly has his/her throat cut.


Any number of critics and theorists have associated the contemporary horror film (horror films released since, roughly, the 1960s or 1970s) with the phenomenon of postmodernism, though the details and implications of this association have been described in widely varying, even contradictory, terms. Concentrating on the 1980s, for example, Kim Newman sees contemporary horror as informed by a turn toward campy teen comedy in a bid to produce pure entertainment, thus losing the ability of earlier horror films to address in a productive way the fears and anxieties of their day (288–293). Indeed, for him, some of the most interesting postmodern horror occurs in films such as those by the Coen Brothers that are not horror films proper, but simply borrow motifs from horror film. Producing an almost diametrically opposed vision of the postmodern horror film, Tania Modleski, though finding little of political value in contemporary horror for her own particular feminist perspective, does see the postmodern horror film as having a political charge—resulting precisely from its refusal to deliver mere entertainment, disrupting expected narrative codes and challenging viewers to re-examine their ideas and beliefs. Modleski finds the postmodern in these films’ propensity for open-ended narratives, minimal plot developments, and the unappealing characters that defy audience identification.

I would argue that Newman and Modleski are both right and both wrong. Clearly, postmodern horror does deliver entertainment and pleasure, as Newman notes. Just as clearly, postmodern horror is often disturbing—and in ways that have as much to do with breaking the rules of conventional Hollywood narrative as with the dark content. The contradiction, I think, comes from the fact that Newman and Modleski both seem to regard the comforts of entertainment and pleasure as residing in polar opposition to the estrangement produced by challenging and disturbing texts, an opposition that postmodern horror film clearly demonstrates to be a false one. Indeed, if postmodern art in general tends to dissolve boundaries and oppositions, the one between entertainment and estrangement might ultimately be one of the most fundamental of the oppositions that postmodernism undermines. As a result, one might regard the postmodern horror film as a quintessential postmodern form.

This observation might, at first, seem a surprising one. Postmodern art is typically informed by a dissolution of boundaries, including the boundaries of genre, so that a given work of postmodern art can often participate in several genres at once. How, then, would genre films such as horror films epitomize the postmodern? The answer, I think, is twofold. First, horror films, especially from the 1980s forward, have not necessarily respected genre boundaries. They have, in fact, often drawn upon elements from other genres, including the Western, the crime thriller, and science fiction. In addition, while horror films do tend, more than most other films, to be highly conscious of their genre, its traditions, and its conventions, they often display this self-consciousness in a mode that can only be described as postmodern. Not only are horror films often constructed as pastiches of earlier films, but they often relate to these films in the mode described by Jameson as postmodern nostalgia and which, for him, is epitomized by the self-conscious borrowing from the conventions of film noir that mark neo-noir films such as Chinatown (1974). I would argue, however, that (at least by the 1980s), horror in general is at least as good an example of this effect, with most major horror films from that decade forward being intensely aware of their dialogue with the horror films that came before them.

Per Jameson’s reading, postmodernism has been a dominant force in American culture since roughly the 1970s. As a result, all horror film (and, indeed, all films) produced since that time are at least in some sense postmodern. My interest in this volume, however, is in films that overtly and self-consciously employ themes and techniques that can be identified as postmodern. I begin with an overview of a number of films that fall into this category, then proceed (as in the other volumes of this project) with a detailed critical discussion of six of the most important overtly postmodern horror films. It should be noted, however, that a number of the films included in other volumes of this project could have been included in this project, because (again) essentially all horror films produced from the 1970s forward are postmodern in one way or another.

Hitchcock and the Postmodern Slasher Film

In an influential essay, Linda Williams argues that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) can be regarded as the beginning point of postmodernism in film. No single film can literally be regarded as the “beginning” of such a large phenomenon, but Psycho is certainly an important marker of the rise of postmodernism. It is a film, for example, that was overtly marketed as unprecedented, but that in fact relies upon (and plays with) audience expectations (derived from their previous experience watching other films) in a very postmodern way, mercilessly leading audiences in one direction before veering off in another. Given that Psycho is also widely regarded as the founding work in the subgenre of slasher horror, then perhaps it should come as no surprise that slasher films have been at the forefront of postmodernism in horror. Psycho is discussed in detail in the volume of the Horror Film Project devoted to slasher films. For now, I would just like to note that one of the reasons why Psycho is such a crucial text in the development of the postmodern horror film has to do with the very postmodern way in which so many films that came after it consciously borrowed from it, in a mode of postmodern pastiche. Even aside from its own series of sequels, Psycho is clearly one of the most influential films in history, from the pastiches of it in the early work of Brian De Palma to the virtual shot-by-shot replication of it in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake. The influence of Psycho has been particularly strong in the slasher-film subgenre, to the extent that pastiches of Psycho constitute an important postmodern trend within that subgenre as a whole.

Of particular note here is the work of De Palma, many of whose early films were conscious pastiches of Hitchcock. As I have noted elsewhere,

The single characteristic of De Palma’s filmmaking that is best known and most commented upon by critics is his pastiche of Hitchcock in films such as Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), and Raising Cain (1992), all of which function fairly well as thrillers in their own right, but none of which can be properly understood without understanding the great extent to which they draw their thematic material (and even specific camera shots) from classic Hitchcock films, especially Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954),and Psycho. (Postmodern Hollywood 124–25)

Indeed, De Palma’s filmic dialogue with Hitchcock represents a paradigmatic example of pastiche in postmodern film, though it should also be noted that De Palma films such as Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978) draw more upon the horror-film genre in general than upon Hitchcock in particular. In addition, the early De Palma has often been seen as a paradigm of the postmodern in general, as when John Belton calls him the “most ‘postmodern’” of the filmmakers of the film-school generation (307) or when Jameson calls his films the “American equivalents” of French postmodernist films such as Jean-Jacques Beneix’s Diva (Signatures 55). In any case, De Palma’s recycling of images and motifs from Hitchcock demonstrates, perhaps more than any other single phenomenon, the way in which the object of representation in the artifacts of postmodern culture is often not reality, but other cultural artifacts.

De Palma’s overt pastiche of Hitchcock began with Sisters (1973), which draws particularly directly upon Psycho, with dashes of Rear Window and Rope also thrown in. Sisters is a violent slasher film whose slasher has a split personality: she is both herself and her sister, just as Norman Bates is both himself and his mother. In both cases, the fragmentation of the postmodern subject noted by Jameson is literalized in a particularly direct way. Sisters also includes some fascinating explorations of themes related to gender, so much so that Robin Wood has called this the “definitive feminist horror film” and argued that it is “among the most complete and rigorous analyses of the oppression of women under patriarchal culture in the whole of patriarchal cinema” (68).

In Obsession, De Palma continues his early pastiche of Hitchcock. For one thing, this film (like Sisters) includes a score by Bernard Herrmann, who had scored several of Hitchcock’s films, including Psycho. This score helps to create a very Hitchcockian atmosphere, as does the camerawork, which mirrors the famously intrusive camerawork of Vertigo in obvious ways that are clearly meant to call attention to themselves. In addition, the plot and themes of Obsession draw quite directly upon Vertigo, with its FOCUS on the simulated restoration of a lost love. And, of course, the obsession of the title leads to some dire results, which is why Obsession can be considered a horror film, though in this case the film suddenly supplies a happy ending, complete with a final Hitchcockian stylistic flourish.

Of De Palma’s “Hitchcock” films, Dressed to Kill (1980) probably draws upon Psycho the most directly and most extensively. Here, the film begins by showing us scenes from the life of frustrated housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), establishing an identification between the audience and this character much like the one engineered by Hitchcock in introducing us to Marion Crane in the opening segments of Psycho. Then, like Marion, Kate is shockingly and brutally murdered only a third of the way into the film—in a pastiche so overt that she is even slashed to death by a male psycho dressed as a woman. In the case of Dressed to Kill, however,the killer is Kate’s psychiatrist, whose problematic sexual identity causes his/her feminine side murderously to emerge whenever the masculine side feels sexually attracted to a woman. Once again, then, we have the theme of split personality/psychic fragmentation, as in Psycho. On the other hand, Dressed to Kill also deviates from and goes beyond Psycho in some interesting ways. Unlike Van Sant in his literal, but flat, remake, De Palma seems to know that, to achieve an emotional impact in the postmodern era, he needs to include much more graphic representations of sex and violence than Hitchcock had been able to do back in the Code days of 1960.

Of course, the ultimate example of a film constructed as a pastiche of Psycho is Van Sant’s reshooting of Psycho with exactly the same script, virtually the same camera setups and mise-en-scène, and the same musical score. The only major deviations include the decision to shoot the new Psycho in color and the necessity of using a different cast of actors, with Vince Vaughan and Anne Heche replacing Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in the key roles of Norman Bates and Marion Crane. The results are mixed, to say the least, but Van Sant’s film nevertheless represents a fascinating experiment. And “experiment” is the right word. Van Sant’s film has the flavor of a laboratory experiment and is emotionally quite flat, while Hitchcock’s was widely regarded as one of the most shocking and emotionally powerful films ever to have appeared in mainstream American cinema. No doubt part of this difference is simply due to the audience awareness that Van Sant was reproducing Hitchcock, making his Psycho a sort of postmodern simulation of a film rather than a film proper and giving it an almost campy aspect. And one could, of course, argue that, even using Hitchcock’s script and camera placements, Van Sant simply lacks the master’s flair. Similarly, one could argue that, atmospherically, the original black-and-white presentation was more effective than the color one, or that the acting in the original (the power of Perkins’s performance, in particular, is by now legendary) was simply better and more evocative than the acting in the remake. But surely Van Sant’s film would have differed from Hitchcock’s even if he had shot in black-and-white, even if he could somehow have reproduced the original performances exactly: audiences would still have inevitably read his film in dialogue with Hitchcock’s, forcing a different reception than the original film received. Indeed, even if, somehow, Van Sant could have found audiences that were entirely unaware of Hitchcock’s original, it clearly means something different to make precisely this film in 1998 than it did in 1960. For one thing, audiences in 1998 had seen lots of slasher films, virtually all of them far gorier than Psycho. For another, they had seen lots of films that derived their material from earlier films, especially from the works of recognized masters such as Hitchcock.

As the 1980s proceeded, the self-conscious imitation of predecessors in slasher films became more and more prominent, perhaps most visibly in the evolution of the great slasher franchises of the decade, in which each subsequent film engages so directly in dialogue with its predecessors, with Psycho in some sense looming over them all (especially Halloween). That phenomenon is discussed in more detail in the volume on Slasher Films of the Horror Film Project. For now let me simply note that this sort of franchising was a clear step toward the conversion of films such as those in the Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises to pure commodities, products that were manufactured and then marketed under brand names toward the primary goal of generating profits.[1]There were, of course, exceptions to this trend. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), for example, is a distinctive slasher film that seems, at first glance to have little in common with the mainstream slasher franchises of the previous decade. Those franchises featured larger-than-life killers that seemed supernatural in their dedication to murder, while Henry is a much more realistic film based loosely on the crimes of real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, or at least on the crimes he claimed to have committed (though most of his confessions turned out to be false). Michael Rooker stars as the titular Henry in a film that is widely regarded as a low-budget masterpiece. Henry is definitely chilling, though actually not as a violent as a brief description might make it appear. For one thing, most of Henry’s victims are shown after they are already dead, rather than while he is actually killing them. But that’s bad enough, especially given that such crimes really do occur and there really are people out there who kill arbitrarily and seemingly on a whim. Of course, the very arbitrariness of Henry’s killings means that the film has no real plot, but just wanders episodically from one killing to another. We do get some sympathetic backstory—which tends to make Henry (despite the fact that Rooker is really good at playing unlikeable) seem almost as much a victim as a villain. For example, the film includes the story of his childhood abuse at the hands of his mother, which was presumably crucial to his evolution into murder, but somehow he comes off through the film as just your regular average serial killer, trying to get by as best he can in a taxing profession. In particular, his crony Otis (Tom Towles) is a lot more despicable than is Henry, and Henry basically becomes a Hero when he kills Otis to save Otis’s sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) from being raped and murdered by her own brother. After all, Henry is rather fond of Becky, with whom he has begun a relationship. Then again, he then apparently kills Becky himself, just for the heck of it, so there is a final reminder that Henry is not your normal knight in shining armor.

Made in 1986, but not released until 1990 due to issues over its MPAA rating and to concerns over whether such a mixed-mode film could find a market, Henry displays a hybridity that still marks it as postmodern, however different it might be from the typical slasher film of the era. Indeed, Isabel Pinedo treats Henry as one of the key texts in her discussion of postmodern horror films (97–105). Pinedo, incidentally, regards recent horror films in general (produced since about 1968) to be a fundamentally postmodern phenomenon, though almost all of her central examples come from slasher films—The Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Thing (1982) are the main exceptions. Drawing especially on the work of Andrew Tudor, she argues that these films differ most obviously from classical horror films in their refusal of neat narrative closure (the defeat of the monster by the forces of human—generally male—normality and righteousness).

By the time of Wes Craven’s highly self-conscious New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996), the original slasher-movie franchise cycle had pretty much run out of steam. Craven, however, was able to rejuvenate the subgenre and to make it even more postmodern—by producing films that were essentially hip postmodern pastiches of earlier slasher films. New Nightmare was the seventh film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, though it was only the second to be directed by Craven, who had originated the series. As the title suggests, however, this film is a distinct departure that moves the franchise in a new, more self-consciously postmodern direction. It also includes the most engaging performance by star Heather Langenkamp, an actress known almost exclusively for her performances in this franchise as Nancy Thompson, the main target of supernatural slasher Freddy Krueger. Here, though fiction and reality completely merge in a postmodern stew as Langenkamp plays herself, now threatened once again as Krueger decides to emerge from the world of film into the world of reality, beginning with deadly attacks on special effects artists from his own films, including Langenkamp’s husband, whom Freddy kills early on. He then haunts her young son and generally makes a major nuisance of himself, all in conjunction with the work that Craven is doing on the script for a new Elm Street film. Craven plays himself in the film, while Robert Englund plays both himself and Krueger. New Nightmare sometimes descends into silliness and often doesn’t really make sense, but it still easily the cleverest film in the Elm Street franchise. Eventually, fiction eventually gets completely entangled with reality, and Heather herself can’t tell if she’s Heather or Nancy, John Saxon can’t tell if he’s Saxon or Donald Thompson, and Englund and Freddy get completely mixed up.

Scream, discussed below in detail, is marked by a more general awareness (and the awareness of its characters) of slasher movie conventions, which creates considerable humor, though the film manages to function as a legitimate slasher film nevertheless. Perhaps the next logical step in the evolution of postmodern slasher films, Scream operates on the assumption that its viewers will be familiar with slasher-movie conventions. Most of the characters within the film are slasher-film fans as well, though the central female target of this film’s slashers, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), declares early on that she doesn’t watch “that shit,” because it’s so predictable.

Scream was a major critical and commercial success—so much so that, even as it grew out of a sense of the exhaustion of slasher-film franchises, it became the founding work of an entire franchise of its own (not to mention the source of one of the most popular Halloween masks of all time, the Ghostface mask of the film’s slasher figure. Scream 2 (1997) ratchets the self-consciousness up a notch even from Scream by beginning as characters attend a screening of the film Stab, which is based on the “real-world” events that occurred in Scream. With an audience full of individuals in Ghostface suits, it is an easy matter for one of them to begin a murder binge right in the midst of the theater. He then proceeds to commit other murders as well, focusing on people whose names Echo the names of the victims in Scream, because (we will eventually learn) he is simply seeking attention, hoping eventually to be caught, then to become famous by presenting a Stab defense, arguing that he was driven to murder by the events depicted in the film. In short, the whole premise of this film is an ironic rejoinder to critics of the original Scream, who feared that it would trigger copycat murders in precisely this way. Poor Sidney Prescott (still played by Campbell), now away at college, is still the main target, but again survives and is again involved in killing not one, but two, spree killers, both the new Ghostface, and his “handler,” who turns out to be the mother of the killer from Scream, somewhat in the mode of the murderous Mrs. Voorhees in the original Friday the 13th. The media-fascinated Ghostface (aka “the freaky Tarantino film student”), meanwhile, is played by a young Timothy Olyphant, who is great fun to see in the role. Also hungry for media attention is Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), who had appeared briefly in the margins of Scream as the innocent man sent to prison for killing Sidney’s mother (played by Laurie Metcalf), based on Sidney’s testimony, which turned out to be inadvertently inaccurate. He’s now out, with the real killer revealed, and hoping to cash in on the experience with the help of the media. But perhaps the most notable presence in this impressive ensemble cast is Sarah Michelle Gellar, who here appears as sorority sister Casey “Cici” Cooper, killed off early on, having apparently not yet developed the deadly fighting skills that would soon haunt the vampires of Sunnydale.

Scream 3 (2000) was originally supposed to wrap up the Scream trilogy, bringing a conclusion to the series—until Scream 4 appeared in 2011, of course. Not quite as successful as the first two Scream films (critically or commercially), it was still a hit, and it’s still entertaining—and cranks up the turn toward postmodernism still another notch.[2] This one revolves around the production of the film Stab 3, whose participants are now being killed off by a new Ghostface slasher. This one again has an unusually interesting cast for a slasher film. Neve Campbell, Live Schreiber, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette return from earlier Scream films, now joined by such luminaries as Patrick Dempsey, Patrick Warburton, Lance Henriksen, Jenny McCarthy, Kelly Rutherford, and Emily Mortimer. (Campbell, though, has a reduced role, because she had now become a star and was busy with other commitments.) Best of all, though, is Parker Posey as Jennifer Jolie, the actress who is playing Gale Weathers in Stab 3. Much of this film inadvertently degenerates into the kind of conventional slasher film that is lampooned in the first two, even as it never takes itself seriously, sometimes to the point of making this one seem like an episode of Scooby-Doo. Posey, though, is terrific, playing her role as total farce, consistently over-acting (as perhaps befits a character who is an actress playing a media celebrity), often with hilarious results. The scene in which she slugs Dewey and then is slugged in turn by Weathers, is a highlight, as is the whole interaction between Jolie and Weathers. Also good is Jamie Kennedy’s appearance on videotape as a posthumous Randy Meeks, warning the others that “You are not dealing with a sequel. You are dealing with the concluding chapter of a trilogy.” There are other fun moments as well, as when Jay and Silent Bob make a walkthrough cameo, or when Carrie Fisher appears as a failed actress who is always being mistaken for Carrie Fisher, but who didn’t get the role of Princess Leia because she wouldn’t sleep with George Lucas. Roger Corman even appears as a studio executive. In general, the level of blood and violence is cut back a bit in the interest of suspense, not always successfully. All in all, maybe not as good as the first two Scream films, but that’s a pretty high standard. Compared to other slasher films, this one is still unusually good. In the end, Roman Bridger (Scott Foley), the director of Stab 3, is revealed to be Sidney’s long-lost half-brother, the abandoned (and thus bitter) product of their mother’s former days as a slutty minor actress in the horror films produced by Henriksen’s John Milton. Bridger is also revealed to have been the force orchestrating (“I’m a director. I direct.”) the killings of the earlier films. The tendency of the events of earlier films to unfold according to cinematic conventions is thus explained. His death, meanwhile, would seem to be the end of the Scream cycle. But slasher franchises have a way of going on despite everything.

Scream 4 (2012), the final feature film directed by Craven before his death, is a sort of reboot of the franchise, twelve years after the completion of the trilogy. Dewey and Gale and Sidney all return, but now they’re a decade older, while there’s a whole new generation of high-schoolers to be haunted by a Ghostface killer (many of whom are film buffs, especially devoted to the Stab franchise, which keeps chugging along). This one begins much like Scream, as Ghostface stalks a suburban home, but then it is revealed that this is the opening scene of Stab 6, cutting to two young women (played by Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell) who are watching the film at home. Paquin’s character complains about the film they are watching, dismissing it wearily as “self-aware postmodern meta shit,” but then Bell’s character stabs her, and the meta-ness steps up still another level, as we realize that these characters are in Stab 7. Then we cut to a scene involving two more young women being stalked by Ghostface, after which it is several minutes before we’re sure this is finally happening in Scream 4 itself and not in still another film-within-a-film. The Stab franchise, though, keeps coming up, and we learn, among other things, that the first Stab was directed by Robert Rodriguez. Mostly, it’s the usual hijinks, highlighted by an all-star cast of rising young actresses, including Marielle Jaffe, Hayden Panettiere, and Emma Roberts as potential victims, not to mention Allison Brie (as the shark-like agent of Sidney Prescott, now a well-known celebrity and successful author) and Marley Shelton (as the deputy of Dewey, who is now the sheriff of Woodsboro). This one has lots of twists and turns (so many that it becomes a sort of running joke), the central one of which is that the character played by Roberts (who is terrific, by the way) is actually the Ghostface killer in this one. Her plan is to frame one of her victims, then present herself as the sole surviving victim, then become famous via the internet. Indeed, there’s a great deal of awareness of internet culture here, and several of the young characters are trying to make a splash on-line, while the killer in one of the Stab films stalks his victims via Sidney, Dewey, and Gale triumph, of course, but this one does seem a bit tired. Still much more fun than the typical slasher film, but it’s not clear if this will trigger additional films in the future. One of the most striking things about the Scream franchise, incidentally, is the way it chronicles the evolution and growth of cellphone culture from 1996 to 2012. In Scream, such phones (referred to as “cellular phones”) are a clunky oddity. By Scream 4, the kids of the film live on their phones.

Craven’s death in 2015 would appear to have brought the Scream film franchise to an end, at least for a while. However, the franchise continued to move forward in the form of a television series that has aired on MTV since June of 2015, very much in the spirit of the film series, even if it does not always reach the same level of quality. For example, a character in the very first episode explains why a slasher-film television series could never work, indicating the high level of self-consciousness that informs the series. The series has featured a number of directors, including Leigh Janiak, the director of the highly interesting science fiction horror film Honeymoon (2014).

Meanwhile, the Scream sequels were not the only slasher films to show the influence of Scream. For example, in 1997, when 20-year-old Sarah Michelle Gellar was appearing in Scream 2 (and debuting in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), she also had a role in I Know What You Did Last Summer, scripted by Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Gellar gets knocked off pretty quickly in Scream 2, but had a larger role in I Know What You Did, actually surviving most of the film as a local beauty queen in a small fishing village in which she and three high-school buddies are stalked by a murderous fisherman they thought they had (mostly) accidentally killed in the summer after their high-school graduation. I Know was a hit, partly because of the attractive young cast that also features Jennifer Love Hewitt (as the Final Girl), Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze, Jr., whom Gellar would wed five years later. Anne Heche is also entertaining as a local countrified woman, who may be the scariest character in the film, just because she’s, well, countrified—and thus accustomed to killing stuff, apparently. Otherwise, it’s pretty pedestrian, but it’s easy to see why this film would be a hit with younger audiences, who might identify with the young characters.

Meanwhile, by 2000, when the Scream trilogy supposedly concluded, Keenen Ivory Wayans’s Scary Movie (2000) kicked the self-referential silliness up a notch with a sendup of recent horror movies (especially Scream), in the broad slapstick mode of spoofs like Airplane and Naked Gun. Of course, Scream is already so self-conscious and self-parodic that parodying it seems beside the point. (Scary Movie, incidentally, was the original working title of Scream.) Scary Movie itself is really a series of loosely connected skits and gags than an actual movie. And it’s definitely not scary. It’s all totally ridiculous, in fact, but some of the gags are pretty good fun, and it has spawned a popular franchise of such horror lampoons (Scary Movie 5 appeared in 2013), as well as inspiring spoofs of other popular genres, such as Epic Movie (2007), Meet the Spartans (2008), and Superhero Movie (2008).

In a completely different mode, Scott Glosserman’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) is a mockumentary in which a documentary film crew follows the slasher of the subtitle as he prepares for a big night of slashing. A forerunner to the later (and more successful) horror mocumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Behind the Mask exhibits a number of postmodern characteristics, including the fact that it takes place in a world in which previous slashers such as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddie Krueger are real—and frequently referenced as predecessors to Leslie Vernon. Ultimately, though, the film collapses into a relatively conventional slasher in the final sequences, as Vernon turns on the film crew and tries his best to do them in (but is thwarted because the young woman who is leading the crew is a virgin and thus of course able to defeat slashers).

Joseph Kahn’s Detention (2011) also goes beyond the Scream sequence in its self-referentiality. It’s all about the way the characters view reality via a series of assumptions and expectations derived from watching films, to the point that the distinction between fiction and reality is hopelessly blurred, if there is one at all. Basically, the teens of the town of Grizzly Lake are being stalked by a serial killer, to which they respond with strategies that are completely mediated by their own viewing of slasher films. And then they have to travel back in time to save the world. It’s a long story, and it doesn’t make much sense, but that doesn’t really matter, because the plot is just one long opportunity for self-reflexive cleverness. It’s called, as they say in the film itself, post-irony.

A much more successful postmodern riff on the slasher genre can be found in David Robert Mitchell’s stylish It Follows (2014). Here, a slasher-like figure of unexplained supernatural origins inexorably stalks targets who can only escape by having sex with someone and thus passing the curse on to that person. Among other things, It Follows mixes images from the past and the present, creating a sort of alternate reality in which the two commingle. And yet, amid what would seem to be a very postmodern collapse of historical periods, it manages to maintain a distinction between past and present (especially in its setting in Detroit) that provides a potentially powerful reminder that historical change can (and inevitably does) occur.

If It Follows thus points the way toward postmodern horror that escapes the political ineffectuality decried by Jameson, the same cannot be said for The Final Girls (2015), which seems to have no interest in politics. Instead, this film is an exercise in genre pastiche that addresses virtually every convention of the slasher subgenre as it that goes all Rose of Cairo and breaks down the boundary between “reality” and the world of the slasher film as a group of teens inadvertently get caught inside their favorite slasher film, where they have to fend off a Jason Voorhees–type killer. (They succeed, only to find themselves suddenly trapped in the sequel.) The Final Girls is an entertaining film with better-than-average performances, especially from Taissa Farmiga as the Final Girl; it is also a quintessential postmodern artifact, both in its lack of political energy and in its blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality.

In You Might Be the Killer (2018) postmodern self-consciousness in the slasher subgenre reaches another high point, riffing on virtually every staple of the slasher film in telling the story of an attack on a summer camp by a deadly killer. Camp counselor Sam Wescott (Fran Kranz), struggling to survive, seeks advice by phoning his friend Chuck (Alyson Hannigan), who works in a video store and just happens to be an expert on slasher films. She does keep him alive through most of the film—but also helps him to discover that it was he himself who was doing the killings, having been possessed by an evil mask. Ultimately, the curse of the mask is passed on to another killer, who promptly kills Sam. Then, two years later, Sam frantically calls Chuck again, having awakened to discover that he is not now dead, but undead. Funny at times, this one is a bit too contrived to really work as a horror film, but it does serve as a marker of just how familiar slasher-film conventions have become.

The extremity of cabin-in-the-woods and slasher films makes them ideal for spoofs of this type, though such films have inspired other forms of postmodern self-consciousness as well. Paramount here are the first two films of metal rocker Rob Zombie, who drew upon the extremity of predecessor films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) (as well as the whole phenomenon of 1970s Grindhouse films) in his inaugural film, House of 1000 Corpses (2003). Not only does this film draw upon the imagery of such predecessors, but it employs this imagery in a very postmodern mode, producing an unending spectacle of violence with little concern for narrative coherence. Its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects (2005), is slightly more conventional but equally dependent on its predecessors in film, even foregrounding the fascination of its family of gruesome redneck serial killers with Marx Brothers movies. It also includes a strange postmodern ending that involves a mock conversion of the killers (who have been mostly the victims, rather than perpetrators, of violence in this film) into romantic outlaws, allowing them to go down in a blaze of bullets in the mode of the protagonists of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Zombie would later attempt a resurrection of the Halloween slasher franchise with Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009), adding considerable original backstory for Michael Myers but continuing to draw significantly (and in a mode of postmodern self-consciousness) upon predecessor films in that franchise and in slasher films in general.

Finally, I might mention that Pinedo highlights both the recent horror film’s transgression of classical horror film conventions and its co-opting of science fiction and suspense-thriller generic codes and structures as indications of its postmodern nature (14). Except for the science fiction part, this description seems to apply in a particularly obvious way to slasher films, which might explain Pinedo’s special interest in that subgenre. I might note, however, that even slasher films have sometimes veered into overtly science-fictional territory as well. Some key science fiction films—such as Alien (1979) and The Terminator (1984)—might clearly be read as slasher films, for example, but here I have more in mind what one might describe as the grafting of science fiction elements onto the basic matrix of the slasher film. For example, Jason X (2001), the tenth film in the Friday the 13th franchise, takes super-slasher Jason Voorhees (now played, for the fourth time, by Kane Hodder) into the 25 th century—and into outer space, where humans now live after having ravaged the environment of earth to the point that the planet’s surface has become uninhabitable. This environmentalist motif, however, seems to be a mere narrative convenience, more an excuse for getting Jason into space than a political statement. Anyway, the film begins in the very near future, when Jason has been captured and is being studied by scientists because of his body’s amazing resilience and regenerative powers (which apparently don’t extend to his face, which is still one-eyed and all messed up). He of course escapes and wreaks havoc, but is finally cryogenically frozen by scientist Rowan LaFontaine (played by Lexa Doig, an actress who was then playing the title role in the science fiction television series Andromeda). In the process, however, LaFontaine also gets stabbed and frozen. Their two cryogenically-preserved bodies are then discovered by a mission from “Earth 2” (a distant planet that is now the main home of the human race), then resurrected and taken aboard a spaceship headed for Earth 2. Predictably, Jason once again wreaks havoc, and the attempts of the crew of the ship to blow him up and out into space (a technique used against the title monster in Alien as well) only land him in a high-tech robotic medical unit that repairs him and makes him stronger and more resilient than ever, even adding high-tech body armor and an improved hockey mask, thus creating a sort of super-hybrid of Jason and the Terminator. This new and improved Jason is eventually defeated (with the help of a sexbot reprogrammed to be a battlebot, no less) and apparently incinerated, though his new mask lands in a lake (again, of course) on planet Earth 2 below, raising the possibility of still another resurrection, because that’s the way the Friday the 13th franchise works. Indeed, as this film ends, two teenagers, seeing something fall into the lake, go to check it out. We suspect that they might be in big trouble. Jason X is bereft of truly interesting science fictional ideas, but it looks pretty good (partly thanks to its 14 million budget, still reasonably modest, but a far cry from the franchise’s humble beginnings), and the acting (by mostly Canadian actors) is a step above that in most Friday the 13th movies. It’s all a little extreme and over-the-top, and Jason’s famed resilience here becomes almost comical at times, while other aspects especially (the sexbot, played by sf veteran Lisa Ryder) introduce humor as well.

The most interesting thing about the film is its highly self-conscious attempt to create a slasher/science fiction hybrid. Indeed, postmodern hybridity rules the day in this film, which not only combines Jason with some new high-tech parts but even gives Jason some heroic qualities, essentially collapsing the boundary between good and evil. Granted, he is still a mindless and virtually unstoppable killing machine who wants to annihilate any living creature he comes across, but he’s also now a weird sort of superhero. One can easily imagine young audiences who would identify with him and cheer him on as he cuts a swathe through human society, especially in this one, where his victims are older, military-corporate authority types, rather than hapless teens. On the other hand, Doig, 28 when the film was released, could pass for about 19, allowing her character to substitute seamlessly for the usual Final Girl, though she’s definitely an intellectual upgrade over the Final Girls of most slasher films. Of course, the real stars of the slasher franchises of the 1980s had always been the slashers themselves: Freddie, Jason, and Michael Myers were what held their franchises together, not their victims or vanquishers. But the tendency literally to make Jason more sympathetic could definitely be seen as a postmodern turn. Incidentally, this tendency to take horror icons into outer space (preceded by science fiction slashers like Alien and Terminator) can also be seen in such films as Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) and Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997), so it’s nothing new here, though this one tries harder to at least look like a real sf movie.

The Turn to Comedy

Comedy has been an important element of the horror almost from the very beginning, with the Universal monster mashups of the 1940s representing a particularly prominent starting point for comedy—and one that clearly points toward the postmodern. Other comic highlights have occurred along the way as well, as in Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood (1959), a film so self-conscious of its own outrageousness that it can clearly be considered to be postmodern. Many of the 1970s films of Larry Cohen point toward the postmodern as well, hovering as they do on the edge of self-parodic comedy in their extremity. And, of course, Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974), discussed in the volume on Frankenstein films in The Horror Film Project, is one of the most successful horror comedies of all time.

1974 also saw the founding of Troma Entertainment, a company that has carved out a niche for itself as a maker of low-budget horror comedies so preposterously over-the-top that they can almost be considered a subgenre of their own. Films such as their Toxic Avenger series (beginning in 1984) have frequently found cult audiences–and have even launched the careers of a number of subsequently prominently actors, as when Marissa Tomei had tiny role in the original Toxic Avenger film. Troma’s films have thus paved the way for a number of other horror comedies by demonstrating that such films could indeed find an audience, no matter how tacky or outrageous.

If it was in the 1980s that Troma really hit its stride, then the same might be said for horror comedy in general. After all, one of the central cinematic events of the entire decade was the release of the original Ghostbusters in 1984. This film spawned an entire media franchise as well as a number of other ghost-related comedies; it has remained a central artifact of American popular culture since its original release and was rebooted (less successfully) in 2016.

The success of Ghostbusters certainly encouraged the production of other horror comedies. However, Ghostbusters was always more comedy than horror, and one might argue that the impact of something like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) was ultimately more important on horror film as a genre. This film turns to a kind of postmodern comedy-through-excess, though its comedy is further refined (and pushed even more toward the postmodern) in its even more influential first sequel (which is really more of a remake), Evil Dead II (1987). That latter film—with a nod to the other Evil Dead films as well—will be discussed in detail in the volume of The Horror Film Project on supernatural horror, a genre to which it serves as a sort of comic capstone. Comedy is also central to the effect of the third Evil Dead film (Armies of Darkness, 1992) and to Raimi’s later Drag Me to Hell (2009), a film that is discussed in detail later in this volume and a film that is conscious of its postmodern status in a number of ways.

If excess is the hallmark of the Evil Dead sequence, the early films of Peter Jackson deserve special mention as being among the most outrageous horror comedies ever made. Perhaps no director who didn’t work for Troma ever took so much delight in putting blood and gore on the screen than did the young Jackson in his first film Bad Taste (1987). Here, a group of earthlings do battle against a contingent of ugly ass (literally) aliens who have come to earth to harvest humans to use as meat for their intergalactic chain of fast food restaurants. This thing is mostly just silly, but it’s often hilarious—as when one character (played by Jackson himself) keeps having clumps of his brain fall out through that flap in the back of his skull, then grabs them and stuffs them back in. And the scene in which Derek is “born again” is a classic. Of sorts.

Jackson’s Braindead (1992, originally released in the U.S. as Dead Alive) is justifiably famous as one of the goriest movies ever made, and it is that. It’s also very funny: it’s zombie monster baby thingy is a horror comedy tour de force. Basically, the mother of protagonist Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) is bitten by an evil rat-monkey thing, causing her to become a zombie and to spread her zombiness to all with whom she comes into contact, creating a horde of zombies—though the creepiest and most horrible monster in the piece is Mrs. Cosgrove, who ultimately becomes a sort of giant queen of the zombies (though it turns out that she had been a murderous monster all along). Lionel and his new girlfriend Paquita (Diana Peñalver) manage to survive the onslaught and kill off the zombies in the biggest zombie battle bloodbath ever put on film. Jackson seems to have tried to imagine every possible way to dismember and destroy a human body and then to try to incorporate it into this film, though most of the zombies are simply chopped into bloody mincemeat with a lawnmower. It’s all pretty pointless entertainment, though it does have a great deal of visual flair.

Between the first two Evil Dead films, Re-Animator (1985)—discussed in the volume of this project on Frankenstein/Mad Scientist films—also provided evidence of the turn to postmodern comedy, a turn that would also be reflected in future films directly related to the Frankenstein motif, which has subsequently been used in a number of comic applications. One thinks here of Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker (1990), which is, in many ways a quite straightforward and simple variant on the Frankenstein story, injected with a powerful dose of postmodern craziness. Medical school castoff and would-be mad scientist Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz) makes a remote-controlled lawn mower for his pretty-but-chubby fiancée, Elizabeth Shelley (Patty Mullen), to give to her father for his birthday. Unfortunately, she’s apparently not real bright; demonstrating the mower at her dad’s birthday party, she accidentally mows herself and is chopped into “human salad.” Luckily, Franken is able to retrieve her head intact, then to blow up a gaggle of hookers by dosing them with super-crack, collecting the resulting carnage to assemble a new body for Elizabeth. He does a really good job, too, because the result comes out looking just like the head of gorgeous Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen sewn onto the body of … Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen (even if she is a bit mottled and purply)! Or, as the tag line goes, she has “all the right parts in all the right places.” However, she’s a little awkward, electrically charged, and super-strong. She also has the mind of a brain-damaged hooker (several hookers, actually), and when she hits the streets her other characteristics don’t bode well for her new customers. Lots of mayhem ensues. By the end, Elizabeth’s mind has been restored, but Jeffery’s body has been separated from his head by an angry pimp. So, turnabout being fair play, Elizabeth/Frankenhooker builds him a new body, using his notes, but his process only works on female body parts, so he ends up with a female body—and not a real good looking one, either. You can see why this one might be a cult hit, though, to tell the truth, it’s not really quite as much fun as it sounds.[3]

Inspired by some of the same grindhouse exploitation films that have been an important inspiration for Quentin Tarantino, Henenlotter has been making over-the-top horror comedies for a long time, including the Basket Case series and Brain Damage (1988), in addition to Frankenhooker (1990). But Bad Biology (2008), which dares to go where no horror film has gone before, may be the best of the lot. Here, a young woman named Jennifer (Charlee Danielson) has mutant genitals (including at least seven clitorises) that make her sexually insatiable—and also cause her to produce weird mutant babies within two hours of having sex. Though very attractive, she has a great deal of trouble finding a man who can satisfy her, especially as she has a tendency to get so carried away that she kills her partners during sex. Then, at last, she meets Batz (Anthony Sneed), a man whose mutant penis literally has a mind of its own—and that mind only wants one thing, making Batz (or at least his penis) seemingly the perfect match for Jennifer. The penis gets out of control, though, and goes on a mad rape spree before finally finishing off (in more ways than one) both Batz and Jennifer, while dying itself in the process. Never fear, though: Jennifer, though seemingly dying, quickly gives birth to a baby mutant penis that takes off in search of adventures of its own as the film ends. I know it sounds pretty awful, but it’s actually quite well made, with some excellent effects and cinematography. The acting is even pretty good, except for Sneed, who’s pretty bad, but that’s almost appropriate. Granted, this film is totally ridiculous, but it has some serious things to say about the rather repressed and artificial representation of sexuality in contemporary American film as a whole and horror film in particular, looking back to the freer, anything-goes mentality of early 1970s exploitation cinema.

In recent years, films such as Shaun of the Dead (2004)—discussed in the volume of the Horror Film Project on zombie films—and What We Do in the Shadows (2014)—discussed in the volume of the Horror Film Project on vampire films—have demonstrated the increasing potential of horror comedy in a postmodern age in which audiences can be expected to be quite familiar with the conventions of virtually every subgenre, opening up new comic potential in the subversion of those conventions.

The Cabin in the Woods

Among other things, the first two Evil Dead films pointed out the comic potential of the cabin-in-the-woods subgenre of horror film. And, given that this subgenre often intersects with the slasher subgenre, it is perhaps no surprise that cabin-in-the-woods comedy often has a distinctly postmodern tone. Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002)set the tone for this sort of comedy, with the highly self-conscious bodily destruction of its main characters—even the Final Girl, having seemingly escaped the main danger, is flattened by a truck in the end. But this one is mostly concerned with the effects of a super-powerful flesh-eating virus that attacks a group of college kids when they repair to a lakeside cabin for a little RR, including some extremely graphic depictions of the effect of the virus.

lawn, mower, tape, sinister, best

Eli Craig’s Tucker Dale vs. Evil (2010) isn’t quite as graphic as Cabin Fever, but it is generally funnier. Adding in a dose of hillbilly horror just for fun, this onemight just be the definitive cabin-in-the woods horror comedy. Its riffs on specific horror film motifs (such as Leatherface’s famous chainsaw dance) can be genuinely hilarious. It is discussed in the volume of the Horror Film Project devoted to hillbilly horror.

Not quite as funny, but more overtly postmodern, is The Cabin in the Woods (2012), directed by Drew Goddard, produced by Joss Whedon, and co-written by Whedon and Goddard. It shows much of the knowing postmodern coolness that was central to Whedon’s best-known work in the horror genre, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003)—on which Goddard served as a writer. Meanwhile, the film indicates its postmodern self-consciousness by taking its very title from one of the kinds of horror films in which it participates, indicating the way in which the trope of a group of young people encountering unimaginable horrors while staying in a remote cabin, had, by 2012, become something of a cliché. Here, Whedon and Goddard introduce a number of wrinkles (including a family of hillbilly zombies), then add an extra Lovecraftian touch by suggesting a sort of alternative universe in which those horrors are real—but are generated by a clandestine organization that generates those horrors as a sort of ritualistic substitute that helps to hold off ancient (and more unimaginable horrors) that lie in waiting, threatening to break through to the surface of the human world if those rituals are not performed. This film is discussed in considerably more detail below in this volume.

The cabin-in-the-woods film has continued to produce new specimens even so, though few have reached the heights of the three films just mentioned. In Jordan Rubin’s Zombeavers (2014), for example, three college girls go off to the remote cabin on the side of a lake for a fun-filled filled weekend, only to discover that the lake is inhabited by vicious beavers that have been turned into killer zombies thanks to toxic chemical spill in their lake. Surprisingly enough—for a film that depends on a ridiculous premise, buoyed by a great deal of gross-out humor and numerous “beaver” jokes so sophomoric that even the characters within the film complain about them—Zombeavers is quite entertaining, though partly because it illustrates the way in which ridiculous horror films are at the forefront of so-bad-they’re-good films.

Postmodern Horror in Other Subgenres

While the slasher film has been at the forefront of the production of postmodern horror films, films with an obvious postmodern inclination have appeared in virtually every subgenre of horror, especially beginning in the 1980s, though there are clearly postmodern elements in the way the Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s draw upon their Universal predecessors. There are also postmodern resonances in the way horror films such as How to Make a Monster (1958) and Frankenstein (1970) are actually about the making of horror films. But the engaged horror films of the 1970s, so admired by critics such as Robin Wood, would seem to represent a sort of last-ditch resistance to the onslaught of postmodernism, which then kicked into high gear in the Reaganite decade of the 1980s. Postmodern modern films in a variety of subgenres highlighted the horror film genre in the 1980s, including postmodern werewolf films, an homage to the horror comics of the 1950s, and a turn to postmodern horror in the vampire film.

Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981) was an important step toward the postmodern consciousness of 1980s horror films, not so much in its own style as in its intense self-consciousness concerning its participation in a long horror film tradition. For one thing, the film includes several scenes of characters watching The Wolf Man (1941) on TV. There are other clever references to the horror film tradition as well, one of the best of which involves the casting of John Carradine, who had played Dracula in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), as a werewolf who happens to be named “Erle Kenton.” The real Kenton, of course, was the director of the House of films and, more importantly, the director of the brilliant Island of Lost Souls (1932). Meanwhile, Patrick McNee plays Dr. George Waggner, a media pundit/psychiatrist, who also happens to be a leader of the werewolves, while the real George Waggner the director of The Wolf Man. This Waggner also runs a self-help retreat (somewhat along the lines of the famous Esalen Institute, founded in Big Sur 1962 and still in operation as of this writing) for werewolves that also allows the film to get in a number of digs at the booming California self-help industry. Anyway, The Howling is something of a departure in that its werewolves are less sympathetic and more frightening than usual (including the central motif of a secret conspiracy of werewolves).

1981 also saw the release of the even more postmodern An American Werewolf in London (1981), a stylish and entertaining film that displays a number of grisly, bloody moments, as well as a number of hilarious ones. (The scene of David Naughton prancing naked through the London Zoo with his genitals cupped modestly in his hands, having awakened there after a werewolf binge, is about as funny as it gets.) It also contains a number of self-conscious, postmodern moments of dialogue with the tradition of werewolf films, especially 1941’s The Wolf Man, while adding an unusual element in that, here, while victims of werewolf attacks who do not die still become werewolves, now victims who are killed become zombies, walking the earth as the undead as long as the werewolf’s bloodline continues. Despite the style (which includes particularly effective special effects in the werewolf transformations) and the humor, the film retains the traditional tragic aspect of werewolf films, as Naughton’s character gradually learns of his affliction and is eventually killed because of it.

Scariest Movie Scenes. Sinister (2012). The Lawnmower

Creepshow (1982) was written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, so it certainly has excellent horror movie credentials. And it’s actually quite an entertaining film, though it’s actually an anthology of five short films, all of which read a bit like episodes of the Tales from the Crypt television series. Which is not surprising, because Creepshow is first and foremost a tribute to the classic horror comics of the 1950s, especially the EC titles like the original Tales from the Crypt. Indeed, there are all sorts of gestures toward the comics, including a number of framing devices that make shots in the film look like frames in a comic. Indeed, the entire film can be characterized as a postmodern pastiche of 1950s horror comics. It’s all over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek, just like those original comics. funny than scary, it’s still a treat if you’re in the mood for some light entertainment. The emphasis is on the light, though, and there’s not much in the way of social commentary or serious exploration of ideas, even if the original comics practically caused a national scandal and clearly stood as a potentially subversive alternative to the conformist culture of the 1950s[4]. King, by the way, is a hoot in one segment as a dimwitted farmboy who encounters a meteor that falls on his farm, then contaminates him with “meteor shit.”

By the early 1980s, it was becoming almost de rigueur for horror films to drop in allusions to previous horror films, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the eponymous carnival exhibit of Tobe Hooper’s Funhouse (1981)—like most such funhouse exhibits—is a virtual compendium of motifs from horror films. Hooper, though, adds the additional touch of having his central “monster” hide his hideous facial deformity through most of the film by wearing a mask of Frankenstein’s monster and pretending that he is part of the shtick of the funhouse. And, of course, this monster turns out to have other things in common with Frankenstein’s monster as well, including a tendency to get into lots of trouble without really meaning any harm.

The self-conscious cool of The Lost Boys brought postmodernism to the vampire film in 1987. Filled with references to contemporary popular culture, this film seems to want to be critical of consumerism, but is itself a glossy consumerist artifact. One of the major effects of this film, then, is to demonstrate the difficulty of getting outside the ideology of consumerist capitalism, a difficulty that Jameson has seen as central to postmodernism. This film is discussed in detail later in this volume.

Found-Footage Horror

The huge success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999 made found-footage horror a major turn-of-the-millennium phenomenon, though that film itself in many ways remains the most important example of that phenomenon. Even prominent critic Roger Ebert (normally not a huge fan of the horror genre) gave The Blair Witch Project a full four-star rating, calling it “extraordinarily effective.” One could, of course, consider the found-footage motif a mere postmodern boundary-blurring gimmick, though it works pretty well here. We never really see the witch, just indirect evidence of her presence. What we mostly see is the growing terror experienced by the students as they become lost in the woods, then gradually encounter this evidence, making this more a “psychological horror” film than a “witchcraft” film, and it’s a pretty good one, even if it’s not quite as good as its reputation might indicate. A slicker, studio-produced sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was released in 2000, but was much less successful than the original, and a second planned sequel was scrapped.

Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007) was perhaps the most direct heir to The Blair Witch Project as a found-footage horror film. Here, a young couple become convinced that their home is haunted, so they set up cameras to try to produce evidence of the haunting. What’s left of that evidence (after the presence, which turns out to be an evil demon, possesses the woman and kills the man) is the film that we see. This approach is surprisingly effective, so much so that the film, made for roughly 15,000 grossed nearly 200 million in worldwide box office. It also became the founding film of what is now a six-film franchise, though none of the sequels were as effective as the original.

The J. J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield (2008) took found-footage horror into the realm of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. The film generated quite a bit of buzz when it was released, largely because of the echoes of 9/11 that run through the film. And those echoes do add considerably to what is otherwise a fairly unremarkable effort. It’s sort of Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project. In the film, young Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving for a big new job in Japan as the “vice-president of something,” though he doesn’t really seem very vice-presidential. His group of improbably attractive young friends then gather for a going-away party, which is being documented on video. Then something attacks New York. It’s a giant tentacled monster from somewhere (maybe the ocean depths, maybe another planet, maybe a scientific experiment gone wrong—we never find out). It is also aided by an army of smaller spidery-crabby things. And it’s all caught on the shaky hand-held camera from the party, until finally the camera and the people are buried beneath rubble. Apparently, the humans eventually won the battle, though, because the camera was later found so we could have this movie. In my view, the handheld camera, which is supposed to add authenticity, seems here like more of a contrivance, thus achieving the opposite effect of the one intended. After all, it seems highly unlikely that anyone (especially an amateur) would capture this much good footage on a handheld camera. That this thing is still very cinematic does, though, say something about the collapse of the boundary between images and reality in the postmodern world. Though Cloverfield was a hit, it actually grossed less than The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, despite its 25 million budget.

The 2011 Canadian film Grave Encounters (directed by the “Vicious Brothers”—Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz) is a relatively undistinguished effort, but it is worth mentioning here because it ratchets up the postmodern self-consciousness of the found-footage genre. Here, we are treated to the found footage from an ill-fated episode of a reality television series (also called Grave Encounters), during the filming of which the entire crew of the series disappeared. This series—very much in the mode of the American series Ghost Hunters and others that were popular at the time—features a group of paranormal investigators who go to various supposedly haunted spots to try to gather evidence of paranormal activity. In the episode featured in the film, they go to a particularly creepy locale, the long-closed “Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital” (the footage in the film was actually shot at the defunct Riverview Hospital, a mental institute in Coquitlam, British Columbia). Long rumored to be haunted after having been the site of various gruesome events, the hospital is a perfect location for spookiness, making Grave Encounters a sort of reality-show version of the much better horror film Session 9 (2001), which also takes place in an abandoned and haunted psychiatric hospital. Much of the “unedited” footage of Grave Encounters involves behind-the-scenes shots that make it clear that the film crew members, led by the show’s host, Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), are perfectly willing to fake evidence of paranormal encounters in order to attract more viewers to their show—but then, of course, real supernatural forces descend upon them. The members of the crew are picked off one by one—until nothing is left except the videotape they shot (with no explanation of why the supernatural forces that did them in allowed the tape to survive).

The Major Postmodernists Do Horror

No discussion of postmodern horror would be complete without an acknowledgement of how many of the leading postmodernist directors have worked in the horror genre, suggesting the growing convergence of horror and postmodernism from the 1980s forward. For example, De Palma continued to produce horror thrillers in the Hitchcock mode in the 1980s, with his Body Double (1984) serving as a highlight of the decade. This time De Palma most obviously draws from Rear Window, but with both Psycho and Vertigo thrown in as well. De Palma even goes to the extent of casting a young Melanie Griffith in a key role, vaguely alluding to the casting of her mother, Tippi Hedren, in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). But now De Palma is not just performing a pastiche of Hitchcock: he’s performing a pastiche of De Palma performing a pastiche of Hitchcock. Body Double is also explicitly a film making films, featuring an actor who is engaged, in fact, in making a horror film entitled Vampire’s Kiss. Meanwhile, Body Double is shot through with all sorts of reminders of its own artificiality, including the title metaphor, which is reiterated in one final scene from the filming of Vampire’s Kiss, during which an actress is replaced by a body double—in a murder scene in a shower, no less. Actually, though, this particular shower scene is less reminiscent of Psycho than of De Palma’s own Dressed to Kill, with a side glance at the shower scene in De Palma’s Blow Out, which is essentially a slasher film.

Other key postmodernist filmmakers of the 1980s engaged in horror films as well. For example, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which includes strong horror elements, is also one of the central films discussed by Jameson as exemplary cultural products of the postmodern era in his seminal work Postmodernism (1991). It has been widely cited as postmodern, in fact, largely because ofits refusal to identify its historical setting, freely mixing images that appear to derive from different historical periods. Amid a concerted critique of small-town America via its representation of the lurid events that take place beneath the superficial tranquility of the town of Lumberton, Blue Velvet presents us with Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, in what might just be his greatest role), one of the scariest characters in American film; his crowd of demented minions are also just as scary (and as weird) as anything in any horror film, period. (Kim Newman includes Blue Velvet on his list of “Weirdo Horror Films” in Nightmare Movies.) What Lynch’s films represent is declaredly not reality but other representations of reality, while at the same time suggesting that those representations might be misleading—which explains why they are sometimes so confusing to viewers who attempt to interpret them as being “about” the real world. Thus, the superficial tranquility of Lumberton—with its blooming flowers, singing birds, white picket fences, and friendly firemen—is quite transparently derived from nostalgic clichés of the American 1950s, with a look reminiscent more of a Disneyworld town than any real town that ever existed in the 1950s or any other time. Horror lurks beneath this Disneyfied façade, however.

Many of Lynch’s other films are liberally laced with horror-film elements, from the monstrous baby of Eraserhead (1977), to the sinister supernatural killer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), to the nightmarish figure behind Winkie’s in Mulholland Drive (2001). All of Lynch’s films are rightly considered to be postmodern as well, including a consistent tendency to blur boundaries between different time periods and between fantasy and reality. Lynch, as perhaps the most avant-garde of America’s leading postmodernist directors, thus serves as a key indicator of the way in which one consequence of the collapse of conventional hierarchies in postmodern culture is the adoption of horror-film themes and images even by the most artistically-respected directors.

Another important postmodernist filmmaker who has extensively engaged with the horror genre is Tim Burton, whose Beetlejuice (1988) is really a sequence of images that spoof various horror motifs, with only the most tenuous narrative thread connecting them. In the film, a husband and wife are killed in an auto accident and find that, by the rules of the afterlife, their ghosts are required to remain in their former house for a period of 125 years before moving on. That, in itself, does not seem so bad, until the house is bought by a horrid family that makes life there unpleasant. So the ghosts try to frighten away the new inhabitants, with the help (sort of) of the outrageous Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a professional bio-exorcist who specializes in getting rid of living humans who are causing problems for the dead. In any case, the real story of Beetlejuice is not the plot, but the sequence of superb sight gags that help it to turn the horror/ghost story genre into an opportunity for high visual comedy, highlighted by the over-the-top performance of Keaton as the preposterous-looking, sex-obsessed title character. If Beetlejuice turns the horror story into comedy, it also subverts the boundaries of genre in that, like Burton’s earlier Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), it at first appears to be a children’s film, but actually contains a great deal of adult material. For example, many of the jokes in the film involve allusions to other films—including horror films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Exorcist (1973)—that many children would probably not recognize. There is also a darkly pessimistic undertone to the film’s representation of the afterlife that is hardly typical of children’s film. Here, the afterlife turns out to involve not an escape from life’s troubles and worries but, if anything, an intensification of them. In particular, the afterworld itself is a bureaucratic tangle of waiting rooms, offices, and endless paperwork, simply extending (and perhaps even intensifying) the routinization that penetrates everyday life under late capitalism. In Beetlejuice, the postmodern inability to imagine a better utopian future is extended to the ultimate, beyond the historical world to an afterlife of eternal, regimented tedium.

Burton’s horror films are rather lighthearted, but they still have some dark arteries. And they are almost like slide-shows, fragmented streams of images, and in this sense might be said to employ avant-garde montage techniques. Yet the actual content of these images streams is derived almost exclusively from pop cultural materials, signaling their participation in the phenomenon of postmodernism. Typical here is the decidedly strange Edward Scissorhands (1990), a film that brings new meaning to the notion that postmodern film typically involves frequent cuts. Edward Scissorhands, which I discuss in detail elsewhere, isessentially a postmodern retelling of the Frankenstein story (Postmodern Hollywood 30–33). Italso looks back to Burton’s Vincent (1982) by casting horror icon Vincent Price as a mysterious Frankensteinian inventor who creates an artificial man (the title character, played by Johnny Depp) dies before completing the project, leaving the man with scissors for hands, somewhat in the mode of Freddy Krueger. Significant misadventures ensue when Edward Scissorhands wanders into the human suburb below, inadvertently causing a great deal of havoc, as his great Frankensteinian predecessor had done.

Though directed by Henry Selick, the utterly delightful The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) could clearly be described as Burtonesque, partly because it is based on a concept originated by Burton and partly because Burton served as a producer for the film and clearly influenced its visual style. Nightmare is a unique stop-motion animated musical that I have discussed in some detail elsewhere (Disney 119–122). The plot basically involves the efforts of the horror-film inhabitants of Halloween Town to take over Christmas, as well as their own holiday. This one again, though is all about the images, with the plot serving merely as an excuse to produce one startling image (and one rousing musical number, under the guidance of Danny Elfman) after another. Ultimately, order is restored, and the inhabitants of Halloween Town decide to stick to the holiday they know best. Meanwhile, the fact that Halloween Town is obviously so much more interesting than the pristine Christmas Town serves as a sort of advertisement for the vitality of horror film and its gruesome imagery. Incidentally, the film was made in conjunction with Burton’s former employers at Disney, which released the film to theaters under its Touchstone Pictures label (normally reserved for films aimed at adult viewers) because it felt that the look and subject matter of the film were too dark and scary to carry the Disney brand name. Over the years, though, Nightmare has become a cult favorite and has been embraced by Disney as its own.

Finally, I might note that all of Quentin Tarantino’s films are liberally laced with nods to earlier films and genres of a kind that resembles the postmodern nostalgia described by Jameson in relation to neo-noir and other postmodern films. Film noir, the French New Wave, Hong Kong martial arts films, and Westerns (both American and Spaghetti) are frequently referenced in Tarantino’s films, for example. Tarantino was also particularly influenced by the bloody and violent “grindhouse” films of the 1970s, a fact he openly acknowledges in Death Proof (2007) an extended pastiche of grindhouse exploitation horror, thus bringing Tarantino’s postmodern pastiche overtly into the realm of horror (though early films such as the Kill Bill sequence had often veered into horror territory as well). Death Proof, as were so many of the original grindhouse films, was shown as part of a double feature, along with Robert Rodriquez’s Planet Terror, a revved-up postmodern zombie film.


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[1] Paul Wells tellingly refers to this phenomenon as the “McDonaldisation” of the slasher film (93–97).

[2] Valerie Wee has suggested that the trilogy as a whole ultimately moves beyond postmodernism into the realm of what she calls “hyperpostmodernism.” Wee acknowledges the identification by numerous scholars of the Scream films with postmodernism, but goes further to suggest that “the Scream franchise is distinctive, and it represents a later stage in postmodernism’s evolution, with a significant number of Scream‘s postmodern elements signaling an advanced or heightened stage of postmodernism” (47)

[3] One might also compare here Tim Burton’s transformation of the Frankenstein story into the stuff of (rather dark, but quite funny) children’s animated film in Frankenweenie, a film that was released in 2012 but has its roots in a short made by Burton back in 1984, just as horror comedy was getting its postmodern footing.

[4] This “scandal” was highlighted by the critique of horror comics and the like as a threat to the moral fiber of America’s youth contained in Dr. Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent. This scandal led to the establishment of the industry self-censorship of the Comics Code Authority and to the virtual extinction of horror comics for many years.For more on the scandal, see Hajdu.

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