In an era dominated by racial tension, economic stratification, and the dissolution of the family, American horror films of the Seventies represented an anxiety toward societal norms and preexisting mores and thus, they confronted these dilemmas by literally changing the face of the Other. Genre anxiety has given rise to the shifting of the Other from a foreign source of horror to an internal source of identity. Communities, whether they are racial, ethnic, or cultural ones, are joined via exploitation cinema in their ability to build a rapport with the Monster because they view themselves as possessing similar qualities of Otherness. In this essay, I will analyze the appeal of low-brow cinema to the so-called outsiders and minorities. First, we will look at the transformation of conceptualizations of the Other, as Robin Wood outlines in “An Introduction to the American Horror Film” and how her analysis applies to the young fans of exploitation horror. Next, I will relate blaxploitation to Wood’s text and its connection to the black community’s notion of identity in a period dominated by racism.
“[I]t is the horror film that responds in the most clear-cut and direct way, because central to it is the actual dramatization of the dual concept, the repressed/the other, in the figure of the monster,” writes Robin Wood (171). Wood’s interpretation of the horror film evolves around the idea of the Other—a repressed element of society that is perceived as a threat external to the culture. This concept has long been tied to psychoanalysis and identified with repressed ideas concerning sexuality. While the Other is something to be feared by society, particularly the bourgeoisie; it is also a source of attraction, as humans are drawn to exotic, rebellious ideas that may be discouraged by the moral majority. “The ‘ideal’…is as close as possible to an automaton in whom both sexual and intellectual energy have been reduced to a minimum,” as we are instructed to constrain ourselves to monogamous, heterosexual relationships and encouraged not to question this standard of behavior (Wood, 169). Because the repressed fear and desire Otherness at the same time, the horror film becomes an ideal outlet for these conflicting feelings—we can get close to the Monster without actually becoming one.
Wood traces the history of the Other in American horror films, as it transforms from a foreign threat to an internal one. Horror films of the Thirties seemed to proclaim that “horror exists, but is un-American”—as unnamed islands and other continents became the playground of the Other’s immorality (Wood, 183). Two decades later, science fiction horror invaded the cinemas, as the Other was labeled as otherworldly. The parallels between sci-fi invasion scenarios and Cold War paranoia are rather obvious, as Americans on and off screen were looking to the sky for doomsday. What distinguishes these films from contemporary American horror is the proximity of the Other—it not only becomes American but it becomes an element of our own mind/body. In particular, the concept of the picturesque American family is torn down by horror of the Seventies.
American horror adopted exploitation as its new manner of presenting the Other, leading to a popular following of distinct social groups rather than mainstream audiences. Films that gained a bizarre fan base were often shunned by conservative Americans, further widening the social gap between the youth and their parents. Wood illuminates, “[t]he horror film has consistently been one of the most popular and, at the same time, the most disreputable of Hollywood genres” (173). In George Lipsitz’ piece “Genre Anxiety and Racial Representation in 1970’s Cinema,” genre anxiety is defined as “the intrusion of social tremors into cinematic representations in such a way as to render traditional genre icons unsatisfying and incomplete” (216). Exploitation films of the Seventies coincide with this idea, as typical representations of the American family were inconsistent with the reality many teenagers were experiencing. Divorce, war, and sexual freedom were redefining the American experience for younger generations, while this change was ignored by society at large, especially through Hollywood portrayals of the family. Representative of this era and this reformed attitude toward the Other are Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Last House on the Left. All three of these movies challenged the status quo and demanded a reanalysis of what it means to be an American family, as well as what it means to be the Other. Due to its confrontational style, exploitation cinema upsets the Hollywood conventions of the horror film, allowing the marginalized members of society to identify themselves with not only fans of the genre but with the Other itself.
In Massacre, the “travellers [sic] represent normality, and the slaughterhouse family represents the threatening Monster” (Bould 99). Yet, these two families are distinctly juxtaposed to highlight the universality of a will to survive and a need for consumption. In other words, economic and social conditions developed by American choices breed the Monster and thus, the Other is nourished by our own selfish desires. Mark Bould’s work entitled “Apocalypse Here and Now: Making Sense of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” considers the voyage of the teenage group to be an example of “the ugliness and savage heart of the American Dream” (103). Bogged down by a lack of energy (gasoline), the teenagers are ensnared by their own dependency on raw goods. Similarly, the slaughterhouse family converts them into raw material for consumption and ultimately livelihood.
Wes Craven’s first two films shocked audiences with their candid viciousness, but also demonstrated the fragility of American ideals and genre conventions. Like Massacre, Last House also compares two families: a clan of hippy psychos and a happily married couple and their beautiful teenage daughter. The brutality of the killers is clear from the beginning of the film; however, the brutality of the family is slowly teased out as they are confronted with the tragedy of their daughter’s rape and death. After surviving The Last House on the Left, viewers question whether the film was placed in the “horror” genre for the murder of the teenage girls or rather for the methodical torture the avenging parents unleash. Craven snatches Otherness from the typical “bad guys” and places it into the hands of the typical “good guys”—the ideal family.
The Hills Have Eyes is yet another example of a family dichotomy: the rugged, deformed family living in the desert hills and the “normal,” church-going family of the mobile home. Also similar to Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes emphasizes survival and self-destruction. The group of mutants has survived through military testing and extreme conditions, resulting in deformations that render them unable to associate with forms of normalcy. Left to fend for themselves in the hills, they are forced to feed off of road kill—in this case, the all-American family who supports the society that created the mutants’ Otherness. In a time when the United States Military’s legitimacy was in question, The Hills Have Eyes displays genre anxiety by attempting “to create engagement and investment among audiences by inserting contemporary social concerns into a familiar genre,” as worded by Lipsitz in reference to Blacula (218).
Perhaps the most readily identifiable source of genre anxiety and the evolution of the Other is blaxploitation cinema, in particular Blacula, the most popular of the original blaxploitation films. Lipsitz reads the text as a “spasm of genre anxiety”—displaying “the conflict between the conservative continuity reinforced by the persistence of generic forms and the ceaseless pattern of social change that makes almost all generic representations seem inadequate and obsolete” (218). The thread that binds all exploitation horror is the idea of identity—filmic representation of the Other becomes the place to seek identification. Harry M. Benshoff’s piece “Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?” explores “ethnicity and race as culturally and socially constructed” entities that build identity with the Other. Frantz Fanon, popular writer on the psychology of colonization and race, insists that the identity of a black man is not defined by himself; rather, the identity is etched in the hate of others. As Fanon declares in Black Skin, White Mask, using Alfred Adler’s psychological approach, “[t]he Negro is comparison”(211). Blaxploitation films are often structured around conflict between white and black—separating the races and their generic forms of cinema only by comparison. The title of Blacula itself implies comparison, as it is undeniably linked to the very European and very white Dracula. Without the popularity of Count Dracula, the character of Blacula would not be as strong of a symbol for the literal and metaphorical enslavement of African Americans (i.e. “[t]he black man’s plight as a victim of white vampirism) (Benshoff, 35). It is because “the count takes away the prince’s African name and gives him a European one very much like his own, transforming Prince Mamuwalde into ‘Blacula’” that we are sympathetic to the film’s Monster rather than its many stock white characters (Lipsitz, 218).
The Other is not only a figure for black men to identify with in Blacula, it also legitimizes the social circumstances of the black community as a reaction to white oppression. For the Other is now a victim; it is not just an internal source of horror but a sympathetic one. “[T]he audience is expected to cheer” on Blacula’s deconstruction of the modern white society that differs very little from the societies of the 17th and 18th centuries participating in the slave trade. This process of social translation of Otherness is referred to in Albert Memmi’s work The Colonizer and the Colonized, in which he describes how the Colonized become the Colonizers they feared. As a consequence of applying the Otherness to the black man, he shall avenge himself and destroy the real Monster: “the racist agents of normality”; but he will then prove himself to be the monstrous Other that white men feared (Benshoff, 37). Blacula’s “aggression in present-day African-America is tied to the destructive legacy of the slave trade” and therefore, he cannot be blamed for the Monster he has become (Medovoi, 7). Blaxploitation provided a ticket for black identity, as the communal experience of the theatre unified their anxiety in a turbulent era.
People ultimately seek ways to break free from the chains of social construction, from the tethering taboos of sexuality, and, in the end, seek reconciliation with the Other. Whether it be through confronting Otherness in the backyard or in oneself, or even justifying Otherness, exploitation cinema vents anxieties formulated from repression and oppression From Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Blacula, staples of the genre are reformed to represent the volatile nature of the family and of race in the Seventies. The American horror film maps the quest for identity among individuals who feel that Hollywood conventions fail to represent their story. The appeal of Otherness in the horror film entices social outcasts and minority groups, so that they can reassure their identity as “something else” or “something different” from the status quo.
Benshoff, Harry M. “Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?” Cinema Journal. Vol. 39, No. 2. (Winter) 2000, pp. 31-50.
Bould, Mark. “Apocalypse Here and Now; Making Sense of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” in Gary D. Rhodes (Ed). Horror at the Drive-In: Essays in Popular Americana. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland Publishing, 2001, pp. 97-112.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Mask. Grove Press: New York, 1952.
Lipsitz, George. “Genre Anxiety and Racial Representation in 1970s Cinema.” In Nick Browne (Ed.) ReFiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History. Berkeley: UC Press, 1998.
Medovoi, Leerom. “Theorizing historicity, or the many meanings of Blacula.” Screen. Vol. 39. (Spring) 1998, pp.1-21.
Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in Barry Keith Grant (Ed). Planks of Reason: essays on the Horror Film. London: Scarecrow Press, 1984, pp. 164-199.