Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. By Jason Zinoman. Penguin. $25.95.
“Since horror movies tap into hidden anxieties, average audience members read them the same way that psychiatrists do dreams. The inexplicable sits next to the explicable in your nightmares. Questioning the logic may be beside the point.” This is the core of theater critic Jason Zinoman’s analysis in Shock Value, which starts in the ashes of what Zinoman calls “Old Horror,” whose day had passed by the 1970s: “Most of them [the old horror stars] were either dying (Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff) or fading in popularity (Vincent Price, Peter Cushing).” And never mind Bela Lugosi, who had died in 1956 after years of becoming a sad parody of himself – his time might as well never have existed (Zinoman barely mentions him).
What Zinoman does in Shock Value is chronicle the rise of auteur horror directors and discuss their films with the same sort of seriousness that critics typically bring to more-mainstream fare. In fact, Zinoman argues that horror is mainstream, that scenes such as “the operatic prom massacre in Carrie” are just as central to modern moviemaking as are less gory dramatic elements of non-horror films. Indeed, the line between horror and non-horror seems increasingly blurred, or at least did in the period on which this book focuses: “There was perhaps no more striking illustration of the artistic triumph of the New Horror genre than at the end of the decade, when Stanley Kubrick announced that he was going to make what he called ‘the ultimate horror film.’ …Critics did not call A Clockwork Orange a horror movie, even though it was one of the most violent and disturbing movies ever made. Since then, Hollywood had realized that horror sells.” Kubrick’s “ultimate” movie was The Shining, based on Stephen King’s novel about a writer going mad. Zinoman discusses the film and various reactions to it, but – and this is a significant weakness in Shock Value – he never weighs in on whether it is a good horror movie, or a good movie at all. It is one thing to be descriptive of The Shining as having “a mood of unease, a world of gapingly empty spaces, slow-paced scenes, and strange silences,” and quite another to say whether this accumulation of effects actually works, either in filmmaking terms or in those of the horror genre.
Zinoman traces a great deal of “New Horror” to King and the film directors who adapted his work. But King in turn was strongly influenced, Zinoman says, by H.P. Lovecraft, quoting King as saying that Lovecraft “wasn’t simply kidding around or trying to pick up a few extra bucks. …He meant it.” This is quite true, although it is a vast oversimplification of Lovecraft; but Zinoman accepts the oversimplification at face value and expands upon it in analyzing a variety of “New Horror” movies. Indeed, he says that “the greatest monsters of the decade, the ones dreamed up by [John] Carpenter and [Dan] O’Bannon in Halloween and Alien, had their roots in H.P. Lovecraft.”
It is a little hard to figure out where Zinoman himself comes down on the subject of the “New Horror,” since he generally prefers to quote others’ opinions rather than present his own. True, Zinoman says at one point that “it is undeniable that many adults like these movies not because they are good for them, but precisely because they aren’t,” and he makes the wry if scarcely original observation – elsewhere on the same page – that “if Hollywood in the 1970s taught us anything, it’s that trash actually gives us an appetite for bigger and better trash.” Yet although Zinoman finds at least some “New Horror” films trashy, he does not regard them, or the genre as a whole, as trash. He sees it as a legitimate form of filmmaking that developed far beyond what horror films had become in earlier decades. Indeed, Zinoman describes the 1970s as “the golden age of modern horror,” and while he notes that later films ratcheted up some of the themes of that decade into such fields as “torture porn,” he waxes nostalgic for a time before “the rise in stature of effects” replaced the necessary corner-cutting that creative directors turned into an advantage in the days before computer-generated imagery existed. Shock Value contains some intriguing descriptions, some fine quotations from directors and other involved in the horror genre, and enough inside information to interest fans of Night of the Living Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and many other now-famous (or notorious) genre films. It is not particularly revelatory of the underlying reasons for people’s fascination with horror and their changing tastes in it – Zinoman does discuss these matters, but largely in a superficial way. But even though horror draws on some psychologically very deep matters indeed (Lovecraftian horror is worth analyzing using Jung’s studies of archetypes), many horror films operate primarily on a superficial level; and on that level, Zinoman does a fine job explaining them and the people who made them and, in some cases, continue to do so.