Discuss the relationship between the contemporary splatter/horror film and the content and aesthetic of Romantic art (late 18th/early 19th century).
The modern horror film is not the child of special effects wizardry, video games, Wes Craven and Stephen King, but has its roots 100 years before cinema began, back to the Romantics of the late 18th century. Hallmarked by anxiety, melancholy, and terror, Romanticism was a movement of an era in which science had replaced God with reason, superstition with logic, and the genius-artist was king.
Romanticism was an all encompassing and extremely rubbery term used to categorise every creative urge from narcistic excess to deism at a time of great upheaval in Europe in the second half of the 18th century. Appropriating Roccoco and Neo-classicism, it gave rise to the notion of the genius, most persistently in the arts, whether in music (Chopin, Beethoven), literature (Shelley), or painting (Blake, Goya). It was an age of Enlightenment buoyed by the rapid advances in science; a culture both at the alter of nature, and one demanding its control. Romanticism extolled the "truth of the imagination and the holiness of the hearts intentions, with a love of nature in the wild, and with the spiritual discovery of self." The artists quest was no less than the "eternal, the ideal, pure truth and beauty", to forge individualism, and they "saw art not just as product of taste or imitation, but as the spontaneous outpourings of transcendent genius". (1).
Romanticism (1789 to 1848) was a disparate term which did not spread from a single source, but took shape under the influence of upheaval all over Europe, the French Revolution and the British Industrial Revolution. (2). Their goal was a necessarily ambitious one - the "resurrection of the past and the invention of tradition" for myths of creation and recreation - by the likes of Faust, Prometheus, Frankenstein, Christ - were central to the Romantic imagination. "Romanticism responded to, and created, the shock of the new." It was a time when the ego was idealised and artists were encouraged to "grab destiny by the throat" (Beethoven). A new culture had to be born (3) and artists and writers chose themselves to do it.
Romanticism would also provide the inspiration for another art form, one which had not yet been invented; that of the cinema and its subsequent love of horror. Gothic, that particular strand of Romanticism was especially influential with its central thematics of the bizarre, sublime, terror, and fatalism. The Romantics had thrived on conflict or at least contrast: between every day reality and dreams, consciousness and subconsciousness, sensuality and reason, bourgeois and arts, society and the individual, crime and virtue, day and night, and good and evil. All these dynamics were made for film, particularly horror, the longest surviving of all genres.
Survival or at least re-incarnation is of course a central theme of many of horror greatest icons, for example Dracula. The fanged aristocrat has risen time and time again, from being described as a precursor to the rise of Fascism to the more debilitating blow of appearing in camp productions such as Vampire Circus (1972). In the original 1922 Nosferatu by F W Murnau, he was presented not as a seducer but an "incarnation of evil pestilence". (4) quite contrary to charismatic Bela Lugosi of Tod Brownings (the director of Freaks) original Dracula (1931), with its Victorian language of shadows, fangs, cape and dinner suit which heralded the Hollywood vision of the Vampire which continues today.
Todays vision of horror through, from the comic book culture to Stephen King compendiums, has come a long way since its more imperative origins of the 18th century. There was no self-mocking irony practised by the original Romantics - of Goya, Baudelaire, or Blake. These artists were genuinely championing a new way of seeing the world, or at least seeing their own art.
The best of them, Francisco Goya used all the trappings of Romanticism - tortures, shipwrecks, assassinations, giants, witches, the grotesque, the absurd, terrifying masks and a love of dwarfs. A celebrated court painter, his royal portraits were almost as grotesque in their features and psychological insight as his more personal works such as The Pilgrimage to San Isidore or Old Women which revelled in the repulsion. He would divide his time between the wealthy and disenfranchised. With a healthy dislike for Church, which he saw as responsible for the "sleep of reason" (5), and an obsession with asylums, Goya provides not only a canvas for agony and fear, but an overt bridge to todays horror themes of self-destruction and mutilation. His work Saturn devouring his Children could be used as a poster for Clive Barkers next film.
Goya devoutness to the twilight period of sleep and nightmares is central to many modern horror masterpieces such as Ingmar Bergmans The Hour of the Wolf or the Nightmare on Elm Street series. And there can be nothing more succinct in articulating this than his Caprices series. Between 1797 and 1799 Goya produced 80 satirical prints with titles such as The Sleep of Reason (where a man is surrounding by the king of horror motifs, bats). Reason and its loss is also central to one of his most famous paintings The Third of May 1808. Painted six years after the event, it shows the defenceless "everyman" being gunned down by soldiers where man becomes both victim and killer. The duality within every man is set by Goya - that of the potential for good and evil in this bullet-ridden slaughterhouse. (6). His work was in constant flux throughout his life although always leaning toward the Romantic, albeit with training in the classics. Deaf (after a bout of syphilis) and vulnerable to his irrational fears, Goya managed to continue up until his death with an honesty for cruelty unsurpassed in the 18th century. Indeed he was acting out his own therapy on his audience.
Therapy through art has long been a staple argument by artists and the horror genre is no exception, although the tables are definitely turned. For the price of a movie ticket, cinema goers can confront their most basic fears and unconscious desires while knowing they are still in complete control. It is shock therapy where you have the remote control. As pointed out by Kerry Hurley in Reading Like an Alien we enjoy watching aliens and axe-murders rend human victims from limb to limb, or watching human subjects undergo prolonged and obscene bodily metamorphoses, because this "enables us to acknowledge our own dread of the death , disease, mutilation and other transformations that may overtake us or our love ones" (7). In this respect, horror films owe a great debt to the Romantics - that struggle for "recognition of all that our civilisation represses and oppresses" (8). This identification is achieved as the monster serves as an expression of those desires, but at same time, society has allowed us to disown that monster as the other and at the end of the film, invariably the monster will be killed "and sent packing back to our subconscious again".
Some say Romanticism was itself born out of acknowledgment of this fear, a notion which was extolled at the time in Burkes Inquiry into the Origins of the Sublime, and continued by William Blake in his words "portions of eternity too great for the eye of man". (9) Indeed it was Blake, the man who said the "road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom", who proved to one of the archetypal members of the Romantic movement. In their best tradition, he saw himself as a visionary - to the extent where he did not need to paint images from reality but visions he had seen as a child. His illustrations, which accompanied much of his writings, included such Gothic pre-occupations as the pain and suffering caused by the Plaque and Famine.
Romanticism ranged from the mimetic (art copying nature) to expressive (interpreting nature). The arts moved to the psychological and supernatural and in the case of one of the great romantic icons, Eugene Delacroix, lifes excesses. The painters philosophy of life has often been summed up in his work, The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), a crowning example of the movements love of decadence in inertia. The subject of the painting would rather watch his people killed in front of him than fight. This contrast between inertia and action was one of the hallmarks for the painter who was said to be able to deliver what could not be seen, the soul. He also delivered subject matter which would latter resurface in the contemporary horror film - massacres, barbarity of man, violence, sexuality, restless energy, drama, and the glory of visceral gore.
Other major players in the early Romantic movement were Giambattista Piranesi with his paintings of prisons, both literal and psychological, and the Swiss painter Fuseli who was the "master of the sublime" (10). Obsessed with greatness, Fuselis works had to be inspired by the greats - Dante, Shakespeare (the Lady Macbeth series), Milton and Michelangelo. His work formed an anthology of Romantic themes - ghost, witches, giants, horses, but they all seem to come back to two major concerns: fear and sex communicated through dreams. His first public success was with The Nightmare, which featured a woman dreaming, a goblin on her bed and a horse head. Ken Russell would use an almost identical image for the poster promoting his film Gothic.
A cataclysm from a different perspective was also happening in England with the popularity of the landscape painting under the guise of being in awe of nature. Artists such as John Constable and Alexander Cozens were providing a stage for a form of nature which was always in flux. Deism had also allowed some room from the artist. Casper David Friedrich was a little more subtle with his religious symbolism but no less powerful such as with Monk by the Shore (1810) and Woman at the Window (1822). More demonstrative of the negative power of nature however was J M W Turner who pointed to an uncontrollable, dark, and frenetic world in such as Steamboat in a Snowstorm (1842) and Approach to Venice (1843). The Romantics awe of nature, of being overwhelmed by its infinity, and apparent demonic force was at the heart of this fear of the unknown. It is a current that underscores much of the contemporary horror genre from Ripleys voyage to find an Alien to Spielbergs Jaws.
The Romantics of course did not live in a vacuum. They borrowed heavily from what was around them, particularly literature, which gave modern cinema some of greatest successes such as Mary Shelleys Frankenstein, the ultimate example of mans folly at being the Creator. Although written by a woman, there are those, such as Marie-Helene Huet in Monstrous Imagination ,who argue romanticism was yet another male dominated bastion. "Romantic aesthetic reaffirmed the seductive power of the monstrous as aberration, and the creative role of the scientist, or the artist, as visible father. Imagination was reclaimed as a masculine attribute," Huet said.
She said for the Romantics, imagination was no longer the faculty to reproduce the images, but the power to create them. "Imagination did not imitate, it generated, and in doing so produced monstrous art. The notion of monstrosity that emerged shifted its emphasis from the maternal to the paternal but kept intact the key elements of singular progeny." The artistic process had become something akin to the "monstrous genetic" process: "striking resemblances, painted models, fatal passions, and creatures that were frightening for their deformities as for their perfection". "The vision of the romantic artist as creator borrowed a metaphor of creation from the theory that long ascribed the birth of monstrous progeny to the maternal imagination." (11)
As she points out the most monstrous of these births was that of the monster in Frankenstein, the ultimate intrication of the self. Heut argued that although the monster has no mother and Shelley has "worked to erase the paternal image", Frankenstein may be "the most forceful example of the tradition that associated monstrous births with the erasure of the legitimate fathers image." (12) This notion of art as an entity in itself, something to "give birth to" was articulated as a seed planted in Shelleys Preface of 1831. "I bid my monstrous progeny go forth and prosper. I have affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days." As pointed out by Huet the book and monster duplicate each other as her child, a work of creation, of art. Also raised was the forewarning of the dark side of science, the new man of modernity with the mind of a killer. The prototype of the mad scientist, with white lab coat, attempting to harness the uncontrollable power of nature, and one which will only bring doom to its creator.
Harold Bloom said the book "contains one of the most vivid versions we have of the Romantic mythology of the self". (13) Another aspect prevalent in Frankenstein and one which fascinated the Romantics was that of the art of portraiture. Founded on a resemblance between model and canvas, portraits emphasised both the "artificial quality of resemblance between nature and art and the distrust that necessarily accompanies all uncanny similarities" (14). Such technical proficiency in the artists hand as recreating nature of course goes part of the way to not only making a mockery of the Creator, but being the creator. On another level the monster is simple a mirror of our worst self, for we cannot escape ourselves as Dr Frankenstein found out. As stated by Nietzsche "whosoever runs with monsters, beware lest he become one; for when you peer into the abyss, the abyss peers into you."
The use of portraiture has both literal and metaphorical correlations with the modern horror film from the Portrait of Dorian Gray to the more abstract notion of a persons mirror image destroying him as in Dead Ringers (also a result of a monstrous birth). The latter film could be taken further as the twins spend their life developing innovative, but medieval-looking tools, to invade the female uterus, in effect attempting to explain with science the reason for their own isolation, another popular motif of the Romantic. Later barred from practising, brought on by an over indulgence of science (drugs), they are left to operate on themselves in a vain search for identity. The cruel undertones of all this is that while there is the love of self (a man and his identical image or twin), it eventually collapses in on itself as in the Myth of the Narcissus. However in Dead Ringers paralysis is equated with death, and death through science which is abject art at its bloodiest.
Its director David Cronenberg has long been enamoured by mans attempts to defy mortality. "Its the spectre of having a mind that feels it ought to be able to live for another 2000 years but having to watch the body that supports it, slowly age and die. Thats true horror for me," he said. (15) Or as noted by Mark Jancovich this has come at a time when it has become " increasingly difficult to distinguish the body from technology" particularly with developments such as spare part surgery, biological computers, artificial intelligence and gene-splicing. (16). Cronenberg also enjoys the ambiguous nature of good and evil - a popular pastime for the Romantics. "A villain in a bizarre, twisted way is always a Christ-like figure: you know he is going to die, and hes dying for your sins, for your rage, your craziness; he is doing it for you, so you dont have to do it," he said. (17) "Evil illuminates things partly because its cathartic". His need for carthasis afflicts most his work from the embryonic pod which bears The Fly to one twin operating on his identical brother in Dead Ringers. The use of the evil twin was also exploited in the splatter series Basket Case where the main character carried his surgically removed Siamese twin around in a basket.
The notion of the hidden demon within all of us has long been fruitful for the horror screenwriter;- from the many variances on the devil-child phenomenon (George A Romeros Night of the Living Dead (1968), William Friedkins The Exorcist (1974)) to births gone horribly wrong (Rosemarys Baby (1968) and Eraserhead (1977)) the list goes on. This ability to produce evil was most notably coupled with the extended notion of the self as all-empowering in Michael Powells Peeping Tom.. As much about the voyeurism of film-making as the protagonists, it is about a photographer obsessed with physical flaws. He is also a psychopath who kills his models (the pure female form) by using an extending spike affixed to his camera tripod. In Peeping Tom we see a film within a film, and to heighten the narcissism he has put a mirror on the camera, so the woman can see their glamorous selves being literally extinguished. His demise in this "gaze maze" (18) comes at the hands of the blind mother of a unglamorous woman he falls for. This fatalistic collapse into his psyche and eventual death is the only avenue for redemption on the part of the romantic. The only resolution afforded to them is through their own sacrifice, ending where it started, with the self.
Such romantic symbolism is high on the agenda of another British film-maker in Peter Greenaway. Trained as a painter, Greenaway love of asymmetry and elaborate storytelling was served in A Zedd and Two Noughts (1986). Again we go back to the notion of Siamese twins, of the inward looking self, being separated at birth but remaining as one spiritually. After a fantastical story of amputee hookers and decomposing wives, the twins dream of being sowed back together, before committing suicide before the cameras. More excruciating documents of the self can be found from the dion of narcissism, Andy Warhol, with his filmsSleep (1963) and Blow Job (1964). These voyeuristic leanings are at the heart of some of the best horror films, as is their fetishism. A master of both was Luis Bunuel, who set the pace with his Un Chien Andalou (1929) by turning the viewer on themself by slicing the eyeball of his female lead with a razor blade. Surrealism in horror would later resurface with the work of more contemporary directors, most notably that of American David Lynch, who provides a modern American Gothic, painting the underbelly of the national dream with films such as Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. Polish born Roman Polanski has also traded in the surreal.
Polanski, Lynch and Cronenberg remain the best purveyors of this horror legacy, the modern theatre of cruelty. The popularity of their films and others of the horror genre are testimony to the publics eternal want of horror in the modern cinema, one which has re-animated not just our internal monster but a love of Romanticism in all its cathartic gore and glory.
1. Beckett, Wendy (Sister), The Story of Painting, Dorling Kindersley, London, 1994.
2. Breskin, David, Inner Views, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1992,
3. Brosnan, John, The Primal Screen, Orbit Books, London, 1991,
4. Carroll, Noel, The Philosophy of Horror, Routledge, London, 1990.
5. Clark, Kenneth, The Romantic Rebellion, Southeby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1973
6. Chambers, Iain, The Aural Walk and Desiring Machines, "Migrancy, Culture, Identity", Routledge, London, 1994
7. Flynn, John L, Cinematic Vampires, McFarland and Company, North Carolina, 1992,
8. Huet, Marie-Helene, Monstrous Imagination, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1993
9. Hunter, Jack, Inside Terradome, Creation Books, London, 1995,
10. Hurley, Kerry, Reading Like an Alien, Posthuman Bodies (ed), Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, Indiana University Press, 1995.
11. Jancovich, Mark, Horror, B T Batsford, London, 1992
12. Porter, Roy (ed), Romanticism in National Context, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1988
13. Rosenblum, Robert, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, Thames and Hudson, London, 1975,
14. Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein, Everymans Library, London, 1921
15. Skal, David J, Hollywood Gothic, Andre Deutsch, London, 1992
16. Turner, George E Turner (ed), The Cinema of Adventure, Romance and Terror, ASC Press, USA, 1989,
17. William, Gwyn A, Goya, Penquin Books, London, 1976,
1. Porter, Roy (ed), Romanticism in National Context, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1988, 1,2,3,
4. Flynn, John L, Cinematic Vampires, McFarland and Company, North Carolina, 1992, 19
5,16. Jancovich, Mark, Horror, B T Batsford, London, 1992, 82,113
6. Beckett, Wendy (Sister), The Story of Painting, Dorling Kindersley, London, 1994, 251.
7,8. Hurley, Kerry, Reading Like an Alien, Posthuman Bodies (ed), Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, Indiana University Press, 1995, 205,207.
9,10. Clark, Kenneth, The Romantic Rebellion, Southeby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1973, 45,61
11,12,13,14. Huet, Marie-Helene, Monstrous Imagination, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1993,120,126,158,163
15,17. Breskin, David, Inner Views, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1992, 340,217
18. Hunter, Jack, Inside Terradome, Creation Books, London, 1995, 207
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