Q&A: JASON ZINOMAN, HORROR NUT

Jason ZinomanJason Zinoman's book “Shock Value” succeeds where countless trailers failed: it will convince people who dislike horror films that they are missing out on a vital school of art.

In the late 1960s the genre shook off its Gothic dust and consigned werewolves, caped vampires, swoony ghosts and Vincent Price to the kitsch closet. In their place were ambiguously Satanic babies, hordes of hungry zombies, faceless and implacable serial killers and demons embodied in 12-year-old girls. The most horrifying events took place in familiar worlds.

Revelatory and entertaining, “Shock Value” conveys the thrill of discovery felt by horror-film directors such as Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Roman Polanski as they pushed the boundaries of a stale genre. Zinoman is an incisive critic and a born storyteller (and occasional contributor). I know this also because (full disclosure) he is among my oldest and closest friends; I have been listening to and laughing at his stories since high school. I interviewed him for More Intelligent Life over e-mail.

In “Shock Value” you use the phrases “New Horror” and “Old Horror”. What distinguishes an old from a new horror film?
 
New Horror (a term I stole from a 1979 Harper’s essay by Ron Rosenbaum) refers to a discrete period that began in the late 1960s, with “Night of the Living Dead” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, and ended at the close of the following decade. Horror movies became more graphic, fiercely realistic and morally ambiguous. They dug deeper into social taboos. Their appeal became less escapist. The overall project, I think, was in part a rejection of the popular conception of horror as fantasy, as kid’s stuff, as silly monsters good for a laugh along with a few chills. Old Horror had little interest in realism or politics. It relied on actors such as Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, while New Horror came about in the age of the auteur: the director is the star.
 
One of the big ideas you get across is that it’s not really the monster that is frightening. “Rosemary’s Baby” is only incidentally about Satan; it’s actually about the anxiety of motherhood. The chase-and-escape scenes in "Alien" are exciting, but the movie is about claustrophobia and stomach troubles. Can you talk a little about the role of reality in horror films?
 
A standard New Horror strategy is to create a very mundane, ordinary, almost naturalistic environment: real-estate hunting in Manhattan (“Rosemary’s Baby”), girl talk in suburbia (“Halloween”), or average Joes bickering about money (“Alien”). This lulls the audience into a suspension of disbelief. Enter the monster. In some ways, the appearance of the monster is often an anticlimax. The hard work of the horror films of the 1970s lies in meticulously building the familiar world and then planting the seeds of terror within it.
 
What about the critical journey of horror: why was it initially dismissed? What did it have to overcome?
 
It’s startling how little respect horror movies received by mainstream critics before the late 1970s. Roger Ebert dismissed “Night of the Living Dead” as a danger to kids. The critic for the New York Times walked out of Wes Craven’s first movie “The Last House on the Left”. Harper’s called “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” “a vile piece of sick crap.” But the most telling review might have been when the chief film critic for the Los Angeles Times argued that the heroine's anguish in "Rosemary's Baby" was too real, so it didn't allow audiences to enjoy "some never-never land of escape." Implicit here is the idea that horror was only aiming for a child-like fantasy. "Night of the Living Dead" might mark the start of horror's critical respect. Some saw in the murder of its black hero and the scenes of unthinking mobs metaphors about civil rights in America and the country's involvement in Vietnam.
 
I notice you don’t write all that much about “Saw” or “Hostel”—films that, rightly or wrongly, have become known as “torture porn”. Do you consider these horror films?
 
“Saw” is an excellent movie that has spawned a dreary franchise, but it’s not the first horror film to do that. The goal of the Iraq war-era movies was the same as that of those from the Vietnam war era: to assault the audience, to shock them to attention. Now whether that was exploitation or a moral statement about the times is an open question and depends on what movie you are talking about.
 
Jason Zinoman  Shock ValueCan you talk a bit about the challenges and possibilities for horror as CGI grows more popular and accessible? Does it threaten narrative?
 
It’s no accident that the golden age ends in the 1980s, when special effects become much more sophisticated. The central problem is that far too much of the creative energy on Hollywood horror movies goes into creating the monster and far too little on how to scare us. CGI effects also often look artificial, which is the death of real horror.
 
You’ve seen hundreds of horror films. Do you still get scared?
 
One of the saddest things about being a horror nut is that getting scared at the movies becomes increasingly difficult. Once you see one couple getting speared together while having sex, it’s harder to be shocked by it the second time around. But I don’t stop trying! Every once in a while I see a horror film that frightens me, but it’s rare. I highly recommend J.T. Petty’s “S&Man”, but do not want to say anything about it because that will ruin the fun.
 
Can you talk about the influence of horror techniques beyond the bounds of the genre?
 
Anyone who watches American news can see that our culture is driven to a large extent by fear. Hillary Clinton’s most effective attack ad, in her 2008 primary run against Barack Obama, asked the audience who would they trust to answer the tough phone call at 3am. What was startling about the visual vocabulary of the commercial is that it precisely echoed the classic opening of John Carpenter’s 1978 babysitter-killer slasher “Halloween”.  When we have nightmares they look like horror movies from the 1970s. Once the ad aired Clinton’s poll numbers improved.

You have interviewed pretty much every great living horror-film director. Do they share any traits? Background? Habits?
 
Weirdly, they are remarkably sweet, normal, slightly nerdy types. They are outsiders who see themselves as misunderstood and usually have difficult relationships with authority or their parents. Yet the artists who dreamed up the most insane and prolific killers in cinematic history are kind of, well, nice. I like a Stephen King line passed along to me from George Romero: “We don’t have nightmares because we give them away.”
 
Why do you think there are so few female horror directors?

This is a fascinating question. The honest answer is that I have no clue. Kathryn
Bigelow made one of the best vampire movies of all time (“Near Dark”), and there are other female directors, but not many. The fact is Hollywood is a boy’s club and institutional sexism is a problem in many genres, but horror has long been considered a particularly male genre. Yet there is now an undeniably huge female audience for horror. The smartest horror criticism is also written by a woman (Laura Miller, who mainly covers books). Cynthia Freeland’s “The Naked and the Undead is one of the most sophisticated books about horror films I’ve read in the past few years. We would have much better movies if we had more of a female perspective on screen. It was recently announced that they are remaking “Carrie”. That seems like an excellent opportunity to start balancing the scales.

"Shock Value" by Jason Zinoman is published by Penguin in America and is out now

~ JON FASMAN