Dreading the White Picket Fences:
Enter the House
Viewing pleasure, as well as the possibility of later analysis of various horror narratives, is often directly or indirectly, but always closely, related to the issue of setting and space as a defining category needed for a more complete understanding of the genre. In many ways, gothic/horror spaces are the linchpin connecting and unifying the various elements (and sometimes stereotypes), but only rarely are these spaces theoretically exposed as the source and cause of some type of cultural and social anxiety (being the premise for a later genre related articulation). This article proposes the reading and tracing of a particular type of space – the American suburb – and its role in and contribution to the articulation of social anxieties through the horror slasher subgenre. The analysis will delineate the required historical and theoretical context preceding the birth of the suburban space as depicted in horror films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Elements including the idealized space of the home, the post-WWII inherited position of women within domestic spaces, the questions of repressed sexuality leading to the creation of the suburban monstrous, together with the final act of violent (feminine and nonfeminine) rebellion will be addressed in the attempt to form a connecting theoretical arc between spatial issues and a specific segment of horror genre production.
Through a successful marriage between political pressure articulated through the introduction of favorable loans for single-family houses, the passing of a G.I. Bill with a mortgage program for veterans, and the adequately stimulated building industry, the initial number of 142,000 built housing units in the suburbs, as stated by Nicolaides and Wiese, in the following two years jumped to a million built units, additionally rising to an impressive 1.9 million units by the end of the 1940s (257). By targeting the existing middle class, and facilitating its expansion, the suburban space slowly but surely transformed from a living arrangement into a badge of honor, a symbolic mark of a specific way of living and belonging to a particular social stratum well defined not only by the simple opposition to the remaining social classes but also (if not exclusively) by the consumerist culture closely evolving around this phenomena. A well-planned marketing campaign directed towards WWII veterans relied on the success of discursively connecting the idea of the security of home, the warmth of the family, and a promising post-war future with the general idea of what post-war suburbia should be. In other words, a political and economic decision space was defined, precisely mapped out, and equipped with all the prerequisites necessary for the subsequent transformation into place. A possible analysis of the numerous marketing campaigns from the period directly connected to the construction of the project are so explicit and forceful that the previously mentioned theoretical act of the subjective creation of place through a unique interaction with space defined by Tuan becomes obsolete. A further interaction with place would be achieved, and the additional inscription of memories, emotions, and meaning would occur, but the initial interpretative path had already been set. The process entails constructing the idea of place – artificially superimposing it on the defined space.
Monsters in the Kitchen
The aforementioned notions such as the position of women or the forcefully imposed spatial narrative, among other things, serve only as the outline of a system of values and a structure deeply interwoven within a much larger national and social fabric. Nevertheless, they clearly indicate a fault in that fabric, a kind of breach. What is interesting to notice is the positioning and the later reaction of the suburbia located horror genre, which develops in a strong and meaningful way during the last few decades of the twentieth century. In the attempt to define the point of origin of the horror element and the parallel dichotomy of the spatial dimension, we need to take a step back to the initial transformation from space to place.
In this respect, we could claim that the frustrations of the female living (or walking) dead are articulated through and with the aid of monstrous characters best representing their anxieties of confinement. For example, the character of Michael Myers (Tony Moran) was imprisoned in the asylum under medical surveillance for fifteen years, during which he never uttered a word. Moreover, his catatonic condition and comatose behavior is described as a state of neurogenic motor immobility and behavioral abnormality manifested by stupor – for he remains in one position for a long period of time – with his motor activity nearly nonexistent, closely resembling that of a woman who is repressed and oppressed within the patriarchal home. Additionally, in the same way that his catatonia is merely a conscious act while he dreams of his freedom and waits for the right moment to escape, so too are women’s roles in accordance with social norms as they wait for the right moment to finally act: “I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at the wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall, looking at…this night inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret silent alarm to trigger him off” (Carpenter and Hill). Here, the screenwriters parallel the behavior of the monster with that of the bored housewife.
Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) – the main character/villain of the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise – is yet another example of an imprisoned character in more ways than one. Firstly, he is a monstrous product/prisoner of an extremely dysfunctional and unthinkable “family.” According to the lore presented throughout the series of films, he bears the genes of a hundred maniacs who had raped his nun mother while she was working in the asylum. Freddy is also a prisoner of dreams, the only place where he can take action as an undead unable to exist in the real world. Additionally, it appears that he can only function when dreamed up by characters who are prone to severe anxiety, such as the anxiety experienced by women as the result of repressing the enormous psychic strains of confinement within their domestic roles.
Thus, both monsters are in the state of quiescence, hunting and representing imprisoned women. For example, in virtually all of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, regardless of their current location, the victims are pulled into Freddy’s house as if forced to experience the anxiety of entrapment within, something that is also felt by housewives as well as the main protagonist. This feeling is intensified by an aesthetic inversion of the initially safe space of the home. Instead of, as stated by Bachelard, “protecting the dreamer” and allowing one “to dream in peace” (6), the house now becomes a morbid sight of boarded up windows, slashed curtains, damp walls stained with dirt and blood, floors that on various occasions turn into sticky surfaces preventing the victim’s movements, and labyrinthine hallways that lead to the basement maze. It is this symbolic revelation of the real nature of suburban domesticity/place that marks the birth and the advancement of the monstrous. Paradoxically, although the house entraps the victim, it liberates the monstrous, which immensely expands its interior and thus provides itself with a place of its own, unlimited in proportion. In other words, the limitations of a suburban home are being breached from within.
The basement, into which the victims regularly descend, becomes what Bachelard would call an “ultra-cellar” (20-22). Inside this underground maze laced with heating ducts, the pipes drip and the steam bursts out of valves under heavy pressure, suggesting the outburst of the monstrous conceived in anxiety and finding its outlet by reaping those who cannot break out of the foundations of the suburban home, out of norms that have shaped suburban families and suburbia itself into a site of oppression and control. In addition, Bachelard claims that the basement serves as the unconscious of the dreamer (19), but to whom does this unconscious of buried madness belong? Interestingly, the emergence of Freddy in many instances coincides with the moment when the main protagonist – almost always female – experiences severe pressure of entrapment either within the place of home and/or close domestic surroundings or within her own body. In fact, one could even claim that the monstrous is a part of her own subconsciousness, the utterances left to fester within for so long that have now arisen in the most deviant form.
In a later scene, Rick tells her: “Alice, you got to learn to stand up for yourself. You know, fight back. Fight! Like that! You see it’s all in your mind. You see yourself doing something, your body reacts and does it” (Craven et al., Dream Master). Having in mind that she already did see herself confronting her father, her daydreams indirectly serve as the invitation to a fiercer dream, a nightmare in the form of Freddy Krueger, personifying and articulating anxiety and anger that have been building up inside of her. This reading is additionally suggested by the answer she gives to her friend Kristen (Tuesday Knight) who asks her: “How do you know so much about dreams?" Alice responds: "When it’s all you have, you kind of become an expert" (Craven et al., Dream Master). The gap between dreamland and reality or, in Rick’s words, between seeing oneself and reacting, is soon to be bridged. It is no wonder then that Kristen in the nightmare, prior to her death, encounters a small girl named Alice building a sandcastle which, intriguingly, consists of high walls and a house-lookalike structure on top as if symbolizing a home with strong foundations. The sandcastle-house soon explodes revealing Freddy at its center; meanwhile, the little girl Alice had disappeared.
TOMMY: Coming over tonight?
LAURIE: Same time, same place.
TOMMY: Can we make Jake-O-Lanterns?
TOMMY: And watch the monster movies?
TOMMY: Will you read to me? Can we make popcorn?
LAURIE: Sure, sure, sure. (Carpenter and Hill)
In other words, at the very beginning of the film, Laurie already has numerous obligations to fulfill, both motherly and those related to school as the books she carries suggest. Her docility and inclination to dutifulness, combined with her low self-esteem – since she is well aware that her smartness marks her as unfeminine and therefore undesirable, as she later states in the conversation with her friend Annie (Nancy Kyes) – lead to repression of her desires, one of which is certainly the need for physical intimacy. This repression is indicated by numerous elements in the film such as the song she repeatedly sings when she is introduced not only to the viewer but also to Michael’s threatening gaze hiding behind the suburban door: “I wish I had you all alone. Just the two of us. I would hold you close to me. So close to me” (Carpenter and Hill). Interestingly enough, it is in this exact moment – Michael's gaze – when Laurie turns her back to the camera and is walking away down the street while singing the song that Michael, having left his house, emerges in front of the screen and the monstrous begins to permeate suburbia. On a metaphorical level then, the departure of an overly responsible Laurie gives way to the monstrous presence.
The Final Monster
The process of comparison and possible identification between the heroine and the monster is both intricate and multilayered. Once the breaking down of the suburban norms begins, and the advance of the monstrous becomes apparently unstoppable, the interpretive lines between repressed female characters and the brute force of the monstrous become increasingly blurred. A similar notion can be found in the work of Linda Williams who, relying on Laura Mulvey’s influential article on visual pleasure and the issue of the dominant male gaze, claims that the monster and the woman have a similar status within patriarchal structures of seeing. Both are the exhibitionist-objects of cinematic spectacle and both represent the threat of castration in the eyes of a traumatized male spectator: the woman by her lack of penis, the monster by his sexual difference: either he is symbolically castrated and pathetically lacking or he is overly endowed and potent (Williams 20).
In the horror film of the 1980s, the superfluous characteristics of the monster are not necessarily biological deformations as they had been in the classic horror film, but can be recognized in the phallic-like weapon always personal and always functioning as the extension of his body. For example, Michael in Halloween uses a large knife while in the opening scene of A Nightmare on Elm Street we see Freddy Krueger constructing his four-razor glove, easily construed as an overly phallic symbol and used in nearly every murder scene to pierce, cut or dismember human bodies, constantly clawing against surfaces and producing the penetrative sound of a looming castrating or rape threat. The monster then is “a freak with impossible and threatening appetites that suggest a frightening potency precisely where the normal male would perceive a lack” (Williams 20). Although she shares the male fear of the monster’s freakishness, the woman also recognizes this freakishness as similar to her own difference, claims Williams. Moreover, she too had been constituted as the object of the male gaze. Consequently, she sees in the monster a distorted reflection of her own image, a form in the mirror patriarchal structures held up to her. Indeed, many are the scenes in which Freddy appears in the mirror as the heroine’s own reflection, pulling her into his world or bursting out at her in fragments, symbolizing her shattered identity. For example, in a scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street when Nancy is lying in a bath with her knees apart, Freddy’s four-razor glove emerges from her crotch as if she is growing or giving birth to a murderous overly phallic organ. At the same time, her naked body together with the monstrous razor glove is displayed before the objectifying gaze of the spectator, merging them and transforming them into a single spectacle.
ALICE: Where is he?
JACOB: Inside you… where he hides.
ALICE: What do you mean?
JACOB: Where he hides out. Inside. That’s how he found me.
ALICE: But how?
JACOB: He says it’s easy because he knows you so well. (Craven et al., The Dream Child).
At that point, Alice’s body begins to transform as Freddy’s emerges from within her. The scene is certainly spectacular as Alice attempts to regain control and separate the shared body. Her face becomes utterly deformed as she struggles to pull Freddy’s head out of her own and ultimately face it. The act of returning the look and gazing back into the monster’s eyes would for a woman, claims Stephen Heath, only serve to entrap her further within the patriarchal structures of seeing (92). Even though this might be true for the classic horror films, the heroine of the late twentieth century not only gazes back into the eyes of the monster and refuses the mirror-trap, she manages to overpower it.
Carol J. Clover recognizes this female protagonist as the "Final Girl," a girl who after being chased, tortured, and wounded by the killer, fights back and survives as opposed to most other characters in the narrative. The Final Girl and the monster supplement each other in yet another way, claims Clover. Just as the killer is not fully masculine, so the Final Girl is not fully feminine (Clover 86). In other words, the monsters possess some female characteristics. Michael’s middle name "Audrey" is typically a feminine name. Furthermore, whenever he kills, he wears a mask of blank expression with a motionless mouth, behind which a woman’s face could easily be hiding, especially because he remains silent throughout the film, preventing the viewer from recognizing his voice as belonging to either sex. Krueger on the other hand, frequently literally changes sex when in his victims’ dreams. He also collects souls within his body, some of which are female. Both, at the end of the films, are symbolically castrated, deprived of their phallic-like weapons. The Final Girl, on the other hand, is boyish, claims Clover. Her intelligence, resourcefulness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters set her apart from the other girls. She grapples with the killer energetically and convincingly. Her un-femininity is also signaled by her exercise of the “active gaze” reserved for males, she is courageous enough to confront the killer face to face (Clover 82-86).
Most of these heroines are representations of angelic young women attempting to live virgin-like lives in accordance with patriarchal norms. It is only when the monstrous appears – which as we mentioned earlier is a manifestation of rebellion from patriarchal society externalized an embodied – that their “masculine” skills are activated or gained. In this regard, the monster has a crucial role in reconstruction/development of the heroines' identities, for it serves as an instrument for the depolarization of gender stereotypes. At this junction in the narrative, the heroine is forced to choose whether she will remain a passive object and die or become an active agent and save herself by fighting back.
There is still, however, one final confrontation, for Michael is alive. As they struggle, this time with bare hands, she manages to pull his mask off and for the first time look into his eyes, proving in the end that she is able to literally face her fears. Although Dr. Loomis steps in and shoots Michael several times until he finally falls off the balcony, his body disappears as soon as they avert their eyes. Instead of the closure, the viewer is presented with a series of shots: the hallway, the living room, the bedroom, the stairway, the house where Laurie had been babysitting, then the house in which Annie and Lynda had been killed, finally ending with Michael’s own home. Even though the places are empty, in the background the viewer can hear Michael’s breathing, which suggests that all of these domestic locations conceal his presence, or in other words, that suburbia remains under constant threat as the monstrous waits to arise again when the pressure is too much to handle.
The American suburban space, therefore, at least when the potentially restrictive historical context is being replaced by the explicit horror narrative, is being denied its fulfillment and transition into an emotionally and rationally idealized place. The much sought after American dream and the concurring place – defined by the meticulous compilation of material wealth, status symbols, racially selective neighboring, together with a set of implied gender roles – unavoidably crumbles under the ruthless and exposing narratives of the horror genre. Each attempt to complete the preconceived notion of place is now being confronted with its inevitable deconstruction, while the already existing values are now being replaced by a once repressed and now emerging entity, inevitably articulated through and by the monstrous. The still persisting idyllic and utopian setting of the suburban space/place remains a coveted system of values, but the transformational struggle and the accompanying breach indicates a highly unstable system of cultural and political meaning, prone to perpetual artificial reconstruction in the attempt to conform to the needs of the American social imaginarium.
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