Sam Johnstone

The Grotesque & the Banal

My friend J. and I are suckers for horror movies. We get together every so often to watch movies, and usually end up on something campy, violent and gross. This isn’t something I would have ever predicted for myself, because growing I had a hair trigger imagination, and anything even remotely frightening would cause me to lose sleep for weeks. I couldn’t even watch trailers for movies. But over time I learned the difference between a scary movie and a horror movie, and I learned that I actually really love the latter. The reason I can like horror and hate the sensation of fear is that horror works on an entirely separate system of psychological pulleys.

In a 1997 interview with Charlie Rose, David Foster Wallace discusses at length the work and approach of David Lynch, and unpacks the idea of what makes something Lynchian. He describes it as “something unbelievably grotesque existing in this kind of union with the unbelievably banal”, and goes on the provide examples of situations within Lynch’s films where the morbid, dangerous and abhorrent are presented and accepted on screen with the same casualness and familiarity as the menial events of day to day life. While David Lynch is very upfront about this kind of juxtaposition in his work, I think it’s a mistake to brand it as a characteristic of David Lynch as an auteur because I think fundamentally that the marriage between the grotesque and the banal is the thematic core of horror as a genre in general.

Last night for example, J. and I watched the Purge. It’s not a great movie, but it has a compelling premise. That for one night a year all crime is made legal (and is in fact encouraged), so that the remainder of the year the underlying societal tensions that would otherwise come to a head do not rise to the surface. An idea similarly explored by Battle Royale, the Hunger Games, and most other Big Brother dystopian movies. A government mandated program exploits graphic violence as a means to keep peace in society. It’s a very Roman idea. The Purge disappoints in its second act, where it mistakes itself for a home invasion thriller, instead of a dystopian satirical horror about a society where abject violence is supported, encouraged and most crucially, treated as a mundane component of modern life. Where we juxtapose the passive-aggressive pleasantries of waspy suburbia with the unbelievable grotesqueness of violence.

A great example of this horror framework is Sion Sono’s 2001 cult film Suicide Club. A film about a version of Japanese society where mass suicide has become a fad, and kids around the country are trying to outdo each other by using fatal self-harm as social currency. I think of it as successful because I can so clearly recall that feeling in my own adolescence of wanting to do things that were exhilarating, taboo and dangerous for the acceptance of my peers. It’s reality tweaked to the point where it starts to look frightening. A phenomenon we accept as a fundamental part of growing up, mutated into something challenging and frightening to think about.

I know that this only speaks to a small subset of horror movies. Most are about creating a scenario where violence itself is the showpiece. While I don’t get as much out of these types of movies, I think they are implementing the same affect, albeit one step further removed. Because the idea of a horror movie itself is so established, that going to a theatre to watch one is no abnormal action. So the juxtaposition between the banal and the grotesque isn’t happening on the screen, it’s happening in the theatre instead. The more transparently visceral the film, the more curious it becomes that we sit, laugh and squeal at the events unfolding before us. And that films like Cannibal Holocaust, Snuff and the Blair Witch Project are made more tantalizing by the urban legends that surround them, and that our enjoyment of them becomes more taboo, exhilarating and ultimately perverse.

The horror I watch and appreciate is the type of horror that understands the juxtaposition between the grotesque and the ordinary, and uses it to force the audience to confront a very crucial idea: That the acceptance of violence as a part of ordinary life is more horrifying than any individual act of violence itself.