Maxwell Dean is a 27-year-old copywriter with an interest in cinema and social issues. Here he talks about how horror cinema and examples within the horror genre explore the concept of death and mortality.
No one can escape from death, whether you are rich or poor. As the 17th century dramatist James Shirley writes in his poem, Death the Leveller:
“And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.”
Perhaps this is why cinema that explores this concept can often have such a universal appeal.
Cinema, and, in particular, horror films, can allow us to explore themes of death and our fears within a self-controlled safety and comfort. Indeed, upon reflection, our reality is often scarier than a cinema experience.
If we take a closer look at such notorious films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), it could be argued that they simply reflect the time period in which they were made. To America, the loss of life during the Vietnam War and horrifying incidents like the Mai Lai Massacre were recent history upon the film’s initial release.
This social commentary within horror cinema has continued with such films as George A Romero’s Dawn of The Dead, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and more recently, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.
To further understand the appeal of this cinema it is also useful to go back to the medium’s verybeginning. In the 2000 documentary American Nightmare, Professor Tom Gunning of the University explains that when cinema was first invented it was received as a new symbol of immortality. Through it’s moving images people and snapshots of their lives were captured in time and could be played over and over again for the first time; death was, in so many words, no longer total.
Yet, at what at first seemed to promise immortality, as he puts it, ultimately delivered ghosts.
Ghosts also play an important role in The Devil’s Backbone. This lesser-known masterpiece, centred around an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, teaches us that our ghosts and death itself, can provide us with important lessons about ourselves. If approached from this viewpoint, we should not be scared of death. As the following quote in the opening sequence tells us:
“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber”
This message comes after a powerful opening visual sequence which recalls the scene of horror in Picasso’s Guernica, as a bomb falls from a plane above the orphanage. Through such depictions of horror and death, The Devil’s Backbone and films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre simply remind us that the only true ghosts can be find within our own history. It is our inability to learn from death and such tragedies as The Spanish Civil war which creates them.
Kent’s The Babadook is another film which explores these ideas, but within a more personal story of family grief and issues of mental health. It centres on a widowed mother in suburban Australia who is struggling to raise her child on her own. Here these concepts take the literal form of a frightening monster from a children’s book. Rather interestingly, the visual imagery of this monster harks back to the past and imagery of German Expressionist cinema, most notably The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
It is perhaps no coincidence that this particular film directly reflected the deep scars and fractured psyche left on the German population by the horrors and mass slaughter of WW1.
The ‘Great’ War’s battlefields were an obvious inspiration for Caligari’s images of twisted alleyways and oddly angled, man-made landscapes. The film’s writers, both former soldiers, had seen the horror of WW1’s bloody battlefields first hand and in so many words, faced and survived death itself.
In The Babadook the monster's power is only defeated when the mother faces her grief head on and learns to accept it as part of her life. With this I, for one, believe that the film sends a powerful message on challenging mental health stigma within our contemporary society. At the end of the day, no-one should be ashamed to have suicidal thoughts. We will all face challenging times in our lives.
Facing our fears and exploring concepts of death is a key part of being human.
Blog by Maxwell Dean written for the November 2017 theme #CMdeath