Friday, October 31, 2014

“Shock Value”: Shock and Awe on Halloween Night

Be afraid, be very afraid . . .  the witching hour approaches! Here in L.A. there are multiple ways to celebrate. If you’re the arty type, perhaps you showed up at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art dressed as your favorite painting, then checked out an exhibit called “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s” before dancing the night away. The funky Ace Hotel downtown offered a screening of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween, followed by the live performance of a band called Slasher Flicks. (Its website is well worth a gander.) In many a suburban neighborhood, residents who make their living on film crews enjoyed scaring the local kids with home-grown haunted houses. Guaranteed: a creepy good time.  

Or you could stay indoors and read Shock Value: How A Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares,Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. This well-researched 2011 study by New York Times writer Jason Zinoman admirably explains how the scary movies of the 1970s differed from what had come before. Hollywood horror used to mean Boris Karloff as a misunderstood Frankenstein monster, or else Roger Corman directing Vincent Price in an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. In other words, costume drama with psychological underpinnings and a soupçon of the supernatural. Zinoman argues that by the seventies horror flicks had become both more realistic and more ambiguous, anchored by a wholly unknowable monster. He begins his book, aptly enough, with a quote from Wes Craven: “The first monster that an audience has to be scared of is the filmmaker. They have to feel in the presence of someone not confined by the normal rules of propriety and decency.”

In each of his chapters, Zinoman focuses on a key horror film of the era, tracing its origins and implications. There’s Rosemary’s Baby, of course, and Night of the Living Dead, followed by Last House on the Left, The Exorcist, Carrie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Alien. Zinoman proves especially acute when discussing Carpenter’s Halloween, which spawned scores of imitations after it proved that “cheap horror could be big business.” He has high praise for Halloween’s stripped-down piano score and for its much-imitated bravura opening tracking shot, in which we see through the killer’s eyes as he zeroes in on his prey. Zinoman claims that Michael Myers represents a radically new kind of monster: “The monster has traditionally been a stand-in for some anxiety, political, social, or cultural. But Myers doesn’t reveal anything. He wears a mask, but there is nothing of importance under it.” In the original Halloween (in contrast to its later follow-ups), Myers’ actions cannot be explained. Instead he’s a blank, a bogeyman. This fits with Zinoman’s thesis that “the central message of the New Horror is that there is no message. The world does not make sense. Evil exists, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

One of Michael Myers’ most distinctive characteristics is that he does relatively little:  “Michael Myers doesn’t jump into the screen, and while he certainly attacks with a variety of knives, he is at his most threatening standing still, just looking.” Zinoman quotes Carpenter himself on the source of  this inspiration: “There was a movie called The Innocents made in the sixties where ghosts were standing across a pond, just looking. Doing nothing but looking.” I too saw The Innocents back in the day. This Deborah Kerr film, directed by Jack  Clayton, was based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. It terrified me then, and I haven’t dared watch it since.

I wish Jason Zinoman, and everyone, a happily haunted Halloween.


  1. I hope you had a creepy and wonderful Halloween. My October was full of cinematic horror and culminated in seven more horror movies with some friends while the little ones came to the door trick or treating. Shock Value sounds like a fine read - I am a big fan of that core shift in horror that came with the 70's. Oh, and one other thing, Ms. G...


  2. Hey, thanks for the bootiul wish, Mr. C. My Halloween night was spent with some little ones of whom I'm very fond. Alas, the preceding hours were spent at a major metropolitan hospital where someone I love was fading away. Talk about horror! (PS You'll really like the Zinoman book.)