Panpopticon

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The things we do to ourselves

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Last Sunday, I watched a woman practically rub her lips off with steel wool, before cutting off what was left with a pair of scissors.

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Up until a few years ago, I almost never watched horror. Because I’m too easily manipulated – sitting next to me during a movie with jump scares is, according to the boyfriend, hugely entertaining. Because I don’t much enjoy being scared – the world is scary enough as it is, after all. Because, admittedly, I felt a bit smug about being the type of person who could simply not bear to watch horny teenagers get ripped to pieces.

Admittedly, the vulnerability to manipulation is a pain, especially since I know a little about cinema and can tell exactly how I’m being manipulated – not that it lessens the effect any. Still, most of these reasons are bullshit. After all, what’s the point of horror if not to scare? And if I was so pruriently disgusted by the slashing, why did I sometimes binge-read the elaborate plot summaries of movies like the ones from the Saw franchise?
I started writing for Schokkend Nieuws 2.5 year ago. Originally, the plan was that I would focus on the sci-fi and fantasy side, but I felt a little embarrassed working for a magazine that advertises itself as being first and foremost about horror without knowing much about the genre. Thus, I first dipped my toes in the bloody water, thinking a chronological approach would probably be safest.

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Gradually, I figured a few things out. One, that the really old movies, like for instance Island of Lost Souls (Kenton, 1932) may not be very scary, but that doesn’t mean they don’t often imply some really gruesome things. Two, that not all older movies will cut away when you expect them too: Les Yeux sans Visage (Franju, 1960) really stunned me by showing much, much more than I had anticipated. Three – and this is the one that surprised me most – I still can’t say that I enjoy horror, because that seems like the wrong word, but it has gradually become one of the genres that fascinate me most.

I have to credit Kier-La Janisse here, at the risk of sounding like a broken record. She writes so passionately about the films she loves, and describes her fascination for a certain type of horror film without once mentioning scares. More importantly, she writes about recognizing exaggerated versions of herself (and the other women in her life) in films. Bit by bit, I too have come to see the blood and gore as mere window dressing for the meaty themes below.

Take Excision (Bates, 2012), a recent film that screened at the Imagine Film Festival. The main character is Pauline, a self-diagnosed BPD case who is an outcast at school and whose dreams are grotesque, antiseptic visions linking blood and sex. She has a contentious relationship with her mother, who dearly wishes her daughter cared more about conforming to societal beauty standards and less about carving herself up. Her father seems to have resigned himself to being the butt of all jokes, and her sister has cystic fibrosis and needs a lung transplant.

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There’s quite a bit of blood in the film. Graphic imagery of scalpels cutting into skin and plenty of other things that made me temporarily pay attention to my knitting. The most horrifying thing about it, though? How well it evoked just how miserable it can be to be a teenage girl.

I recognized myself in Pauline. Not the erotic obsession with blood, nor (if I’m really honest) the affection for her little sister. But when I was a teenager I did walk around for a few years in beige clothing a few sizes to small. I walked ridiculously straight instead of hunching over, but the effect was the same: it was a defiant rejection of “normalcy”, a refusal to even try to assimilate.

It wasn’t until I watched Excision that I realized that maybe I dressed and moved in an unflattering way to make being unattractive feel like a decision instead of a curse.

Obviously there were other reasons. It was also – not to get too academic on you – a fairly transparent attempt to subtract myself from the male gaze, understandable considering I grew boobs when I was 11 and still very much a kid (an urge also exhibited by a side character in another film from the festival, American Mary). There was also the fairly ridiculous hope that if I made myself into ugly enough a duckling I stood a chance to emerge one day, after a summer break or a movie make-over, a blindingly gorgeous swan.

I don’t pretend to understand Pauline. I don’t even know whether my interpretation of her behavior is correct – it’s just a projection of my history on a suitable character. My point, however, is that the movie made me think more than many others I’ve seen recently. Despite the non-realistic genre and style, it felt personal.

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When I read Kier-La’s description of Cutting Moments (Buck, 1997) I vowed that this would go on the list of films I never ever wanted to watch. Little did I know she’d show the most notorious clip, in a darkened cinema I couldn’t escape from. When I saw the steel wool my stomach knotted up. When the main character started doing what I knew she was going to do, I looked down.

But then I snuck a look. And the rest of the clip, I kept alternating between looking away repulsed and being unable to resist a fascinated glimpse. I felt queasy when it was done, but also oddly triumphant. Like – and here I recognize again something Kier-La describes – I’d been put to the test and survived.

I still don’t know why I watch horror. I still need to steel myself before I do, and there are still films I do not ever want to see, whether they have redeeming artistic value (Saló) or not (The Human Centipede). But I think I’m starting to understand the pull these images can have, both because they often accompany tantalizing themes and ideas and because after each of these films (or clips) I felt like I’d experienced something new.

And so we go on. We worry at the scab. We probe the loose teeth with our tongue. We scratch at the itch even if we know the relief it offers will be short-lived. We do things that hurt, because after that the pain is just an impotent memory. We watch images that will haunt us, because once they are part of our lives we can’t remember what it was like before. (Also, clearly, we write long-winded, rambly posts analyzing how we feel. If the “we” is “me”, anyway).

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