Story posted October 20, 2011
A decade ago, Aviva Briefel had to make a small, ironic decision. Should she or shouldn't she teach her afternoon class? The title of the course was the Horror Film in Context. The date was September 11, 2001.
"It was the second week of class," recalls Briefel, "and I had already talked to students about why it is important to think about fear. But what does it mean to teach a class on horror when there is horror unfolding before you in the real world?"
Briefel held class. During that agonizing afternoon, as images of collapsing towers shocked the American psyche, Briefel and her class began what would be a long conversation about fear and terror. In the ensuing weeks, as the dust settled, they questioned whether a genre characterized by 1950s monsters, psychos, and attacking aliens could withstand the impact of a nationally traumatic event like 9/11.
Many film critics predicted the death of the horror film, arguing that the American public was eager to wipe away images of real-life terror, death and destruction. But quite the reverse has occurred.
A decade later, notes Briefel "these films now pervade the box office, attracting A-list talent and earning award nods, while at the same time becoming darker, more disturbing, and increasingly apocalyptic. It is significant that many of them retell stories of 9/11 through visual narratives of horror."
Briefels comments and insights are part of an important new book of essays, Horror after 9/11: World of Fear, Cinema of Terror (University of Texas Press, 2011). The volume, which Briefel co-edited with writer-activist Sam J. Miller, examines the thriving afterlife of horror films. It includes 11 essays by scholars writing on topics including psychological horror, political violence, "torture porn," and apocalyptic terror.
"People tend to dismiss horror and terror films as non-conducive to real thinking or scholarship," says Briefel, "but in fact, a lot of ideas about culture are generated and processed in these mediums."
Several essays focus on the horror film's unique ability to represent recent national trauma and political turmoil, including the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Iraq War and revelation of tortures committed at Abu Ghraib.
In Matt Reeves' 2008 film Cloverfield, for instance, giant monsters take over New York, sending people screaming from crashing skyscrapers. Real-life parallels with 9/11 are inescapable, but Briefel suggests the interpretation goes much deeper.
"You could view that film as an invasion allegory about monsters from elsewhere destroying our way of life," says Briefel. "Or a critique of the way we respond to that threat and to how our response generates more destruction.
"There's often this sense of not knowing the enemy, of not knowing exactly who we should identify with onscreen, or what we should be doing as spectators. I think that is very salient in a post-9/11 world."
The authors argue that the horror genre has emerged as a "rare protected space in which to critique the tone and content of public discourse."
"Because they take place in universes where the fundamental rules of our own reality no longer apply-the dead do not stay dead, skyscraper-sized monsters crawl out of the Hudson River, vampires fall in love with humans-these products of popular culture allow us to examine ... the entire Western way of life," Briefel and Miller write.
One distinguishing feature of horror is its physiological effect on viewers, who involuntarily gasp, shiver, and scream as their worst nightmares unfold onscreen.
"It's a genre that works on you at a visceral level," says Briefel, "it is named for its effect on you, horror. You have to be involved in what's happening, it's not just passive."
Its participatory nature can open up deeply personal reflection. "We have to think about our own involvement in narratives of aggression and terror," observes Briefel. "Why are we watching violence? And whom are we identifying with?"
Briefel, who is an associate professor of English who specializes in Victorian literature, also has written widely about horror. She says she developed the framework for the essays contained in Horror after 9/11 to offer a new model for understanding horror as an allegorical genre.
"There have been studies of how 9/11 has had an impact on literature, but this is the first book that looks at the intersection of horror and terror," Briefel notes. "The horror genre we associate with film is populated with monsters and zombies. We must now look at it with the idea of terror as well, a word that has come to symbolize life in a post-9/11 culture."