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Horror and the American Family

Yesterday I posted a blog asking for your favorite horror movies.  Well, blacknumber1 gave an excellent list and I would like to discuss three of these classic films with you and then hear your thoughts.  They are: The Shinning, Poltergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  I would like to present these three films under the banner of a common theme:  Horror and The American Family.

The Shining is one of the original destruction of the American family horror films.  The father is a drunk and failure and while the parents' relationship unravels to the point of violence, insanity, and murder, the child crawls away into a scary inner world within himself.  When everything spins out of control the dad gets wasted and goes hooking up with some ghost hussy.  Then, when this sad, washed up, want-to-be writer (ouch-is that too close to home for you, too?)  has backed himself into a corner where the ghosts of the past (literally and figuratively) make him have to admit that his son has a gift much more powerful than his own he snaps and tries to take them all out with an axe.  In the end the family structure is obliterated.  In the film version the father becomes one with his obsessions,  but not before killing Holloran, the only hope of a suragate father figure.  

Next is Poltergeist.  This film, directed by Tobe Hooper, is really one of the ultimate slaps in the face to the American Dream.   The setting is the most idyllic American suburbia you could imagine.  What happens?  Well, the little girl gets stuck in the television, (sound familiar?-only today it’s iPads and x-boxes).  When they discover her missing they immediately check the pool, not only an actual killer of children but a metaphor for American extravagance.  Of course a tree falls on the house, endangering the little boy (a tree is a phallic symbol of American male youth, think of Tom Sawyer climbing a tree, while at the same time a tree falling on the house is a real life nightmare of the American family).  Then, often forgotten, the teenage girl runs away.  She just can’t take the strangeness and leaves.  There is this incredible shot of her with her hands to her ears screaming, “What is going on around here?”   Of course it ends with the over achieving father realizing he has built his dream home on a cemetery, the idea being, I assume, that all of America is a burial ground of Natives.  Interestingly enough, Stanley Kubrick has his Overlook Motel set on an Indian burial ground (Stephen King does not).  So in some ways the death of the American family, from these two classic horror films, is, at least in part, because of America’s history of genocide and violence. 

Speaking of Tobe Hooper we come to the classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Now, as I said in my blog yesterday, this film has been awarded a permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art.  If anyone has any ideas what elevated this film to the state of art I'd love to hear them. The film begins with a trip to a cemetery to see if a family plot has been desecrated- so we see how all three of these very different tales of horror have the desecration of graves as a common theme among them.  It then goes onto a road movie where young men and women try to make a bond amongst themselves to become a new family unit, evoking a hippy, communal sense of post nuclear family desperation.  Then we meet the Brown family, who are the epitome of the old school American Family.  They are a tight knit group who has been on the same land for generations.  They have an older patriarch, who even though he has become useless in his old age is still respected and honored.  There is the bungling youngster, Thomas, or as he has become affectionately known, Leather Face.  Who can forget the scene where after these irksome teenagers invaded their family home distraught Thomas sat in the corner and cried to himself, alone and confused, only to be berated by his older brother later.  “Look what you did to the door!!”  All the while a radio plays in the back ground spelling out the apocalyptic news of the world, oil fires and bizarre suicides, in a deadpan monotone.

Well, I think I’ve rambled on enough for this evening; but, you know, I would really love to hear what you have to say about horror and the American Family, and hear other films that you think epitomize this theme and why.  Thanks.

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