Sady recommends horror.

Alex West: '90s Teen Horror and the Cinematic Importance of "Scream"

Anyone trying to write smart, feminist horror coverage is operating in the shadow of Alex West.

West is a sociologist, a very good podcast host, and a horror fan, whose work as a critic combines intellectual rigor with sheer fannish joy. She’s been able to dive deep into movies that other critics have written off as merely gory — her first book is on the New French Extremity, and its cover features a still from Trouble Every Day, wherein, I regret to inform you, Vincent Gallo bites a woman’s clit off — and emerge with a deeper understanding of cultures that created them.

West is also about my age, which explains why I lost my mind when I heard about the concept of her newest book, The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula. She was generous enough to answer some questions by e-mail about Carol Clover, The Craft, and why critics write off horror that centers on teen girls.

The idea of a book on the ‘90s teen horror cycle fills me with joy. Can you define that cycle a little, so we’re clear on our terms? Where do you set the start and end points? 

The start and end points, for any film cycle in my opinion, lie with production. How is a film made and why is a film made? Once you align on these you can begin to see patterns. For me, to be included in this cycle a film had to be a major studio film with celebrities, have a significant theatrical release and employ callbacks and/or subversions to previous entries in the horror genre. Ideally they would have all three of those things, but in the case of something like Cherry Falls, I made an exception. It never got a major theatrical release (due to the Columbine shootings) but it was so indebted to the films that came before that it felt wrong to not include it. Ultimately, all these films have to work together to form pieces of a larger puzzle so when you step back you can see the bigger picture and examine how each piece ladders up to major ideas and themes. Final Destination was a true end point for me with the cycle as I could see the remnants of Scream in there (teen focused, cultural references, recognizable actors) but I could also see the beginnings of torture porn (elaborate deaths at the cost of narrative).

You wrote the phrase I realize I’ve always been waiting to hear from a critic, which is: “Scream is an important film.” You make an argument for the Scream trilogy as Cinema, capital C. Yet even a lot of horror critics and fans have written it off — I remember Rob Zombie fulminating in Rolling Stone about how Scream had ruined horror. 

Scream was a cultural phenomenon in terms of buzz and box office. It brought legitimacy to the genre for a period of time where mainstream media was actively covering the sequels and actors were fighting for parts in them. I don't care how many dude-bros say it ruined horror. Maybe it did for them, but it reignited the slasher film and the teen horror film. It took the elements of slasher films which had become punchlines, called them out and, in many cases, subverted them, while still being quite dark and gory, from Drew Barrymore's steaming guts hanging out of her body to Sidney's boyfriend taunting her that he raped and murdered her mother. Scream ultimately was a film about misogyny and women being forced to fight back against it, which is incredibly uncomfortable for a lot of people because that means acknowledging that misogyny is real and palpable.  I think fans, critics and other filmmakers (Robert Zombie) have a strong aversion to it because it explained the codes of the slasher and commented on them, allowing a new generation of fans to access these films, and making it harder for them to be gatekeepers. 

My theory is that people hate Scream because it’s for girls. Kathleen Rowe Karlyn says it was the first slasher movie to succeed largely on ticket sales to teenage girls. (It was also the highest-grossing slasher movie ever made.) It was teen girls who made Scream a cultural phenomenon, just like they did for Titanic a few years later. I don’t think it’s at all unclear why: It’s a story about a girl surviving an abusive relationship. People nowadays connect it to GamerGate, with these maladjusted guys who use their fandom as an excuse to hurt women. At the time, as you note, the momentum around Scream died because the two angry white boys killing their classmates reminded people of Columbine. Toxic nerd masculinity has single-handedly kept Scream relevant. You write a lot about the perception that ‘90s teen horror was “corporate” and inauthentic. But to what degree would you entertain the poptimist argument, that these movies were seen as unserious because of who their audience was? 

I think that's bang on! One of the first quotes I put in the book is a guy calling the Scream films "a bit misandrist" because it illustrated so clearly that films, particularly genre films, centered around women were threatening to a male audience. While I think we have to be wary of the corporatization of art and entertainment sometimes, it’s not all bad. These films were interested in young women, were willing to discuss female trauma (The Rage: Carrie 2 is another great example of this) and yes, they were made for a large audience, a large audience of young women who hadn't been spoken to before about the realities they were experiencing as young women. The idea of celebrating a film that wrestles with violence and sexual assault is hard for a lot of people because it means they have to acknowledge it as a fact of life that women have to grapple with on a daily basis. It is easier to dismiss them as silly or inauthentic rather than examine where these narratives come from and why they resonate so strongly with audiences. (Also, I like this article by Entertainment Weekly about female ticket buyers for horror, which uses a famous Scream quote in its title.)

You write about how this era really re-defined the Final Girl. In Carol Clover’s original formulation, the Final Girl is not necessarily a feminist trope; she’s just a female character who is portrayed as androgynous so that men can project their own conflicts onto her. This new wave of movies made her more human. Can you go into that transformation a little?

Clover is a bit tricky for me. I have tremendous respect for the foundational work she did but she never seemed to like the genre all that much. Her description and dismissal of the character (who must take on male traits to defeat the killer, but always reverts to dropping her weapon, and is saved by a male authority figure) isn't all that off-base for these characters in the 70s and 80s, even though I adore many of them. Before Scream, the Final Girls were grappling with the sins of a previous generation. In the ‘90s they are far more involved in the initial trauma that sets things into motion, whether it be Sidney's refusal to deal with the reality of her mother, or Natalie's joyriding in Urban Legend. They have pain, trauma and guilt and are often wrestling with symptoms of PTSD. They felt real. They weren't happy-go-lucky kids who discover their parents murdered a pedophile, they are living with trauma before the film begins, whether it’s guilt, the dissolution of a family, or traumatic violence — they are imperfect.

I also wonder what you think about how the female victims in these slasher movies were portrayed. You write about something that I hadn’t seen anyone else notice before, which is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character in I Know What You Did Last Summer. She’s so sad! She’s playing what should be a standard bitchy-beauty-queen archetype who gets offed, but she’s just an incredibly affecting, lonely, tragic character. Do you think the revisions to the Final Girl trickled down to all the non-final girls, or am I being too optimistic? 

The Authors: The Haunting of Hill House (Mike Flanagan, 2018)

A ghost can be a lot of things.

Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, is a really, really terrible adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel. However, it’s one of the most Mike-Flanagan-esque things that Mike Flanagan has ever done. 

Female writers are often protective of Shirley Jackson, and it’s not hard to see why. She’s a depressingly representative figure. Her books were initially written off as minor, non-literary “genre” work (family comedy, horror, thriller, etc.) only to reveal themselves, decades down the line, as tight, angry, luminous books about what it was like to be a woman stranded in the mid-20th-century, each one written in near-perfect prose. Her home life, despite all the wacky essays she produced about it, was awful; she paid for her philandering husband’s doomed literary ambitions by cranking out bestsellers, and she was still expected to do the cooking and the cleaning so he could focus. She crumpled under the weight of her misery, developed anxiety so intense she frequently couldn’t leave the house, and just when she was finally ready to file for divorce, she died in her sleep. She was 48 years old. 

We want the best for Shirley Jackson. We want her to be taken seriously in death, as she never was in life. The Haunting of Hill House, which borrows the title and some character names from Jackson’s best-known work, has almost nothing to do with Shirley Jackson, and for some people, that signifies disrespect. It doesn’t help that Flanagan’s style and Jackson’s are wildly incompatible, or that the series ends on an unspeakably awful rewrite of Jackson’s most famous line. 

But maybe viewing Hill House in terms of Shirley Jackson is beside the point. Flanagan is not so much adapting Jackson as he is using her story as a framework on which to hang his own obsessions: Estranged siblings, dead mothers, memory as time travel, angry women with brown hair. Hill House is one of the most widely known and adapted ghost stories in the canon; it’s presented here as a melody to riff on, a familiar premise Flanagan can use to illuminate his own recurring themes. This is how houses work: People move out, other people move in. 

*

So: Here’s a story. Some of it is new. At some point in the mid-1980s, the Crain family moved into Hill House, with the goal of renovating and flipping it. This stay ended when Olivia Crain, the mother of the family, jumped or fell off a staircase and was killed. Various unspeakably awful, mostly paranormal events took place leading up to her death. Different children saw different pieces of the story, some of them saw almost nothing, and only two of them saw it all. The story begins when one of those two children commits suicide. 

Because it is the way of the Internet, I will now rank the six non-Olivia family members from least to most insufferable: 

6) Eleanor. It’s very hard to be mad at Eleanor, mostly because she’s dead, which is sad, and also a ghost, which is entertaining. Having been haunted all her life by one particular Hill House ghost, the “Bent-Neck Lady,” she goes back to Hill House as an adult and winds up hanging herself on the balcony where her mother leapt to her death. This is tragic on many levels, but Eleanor soon gains by becoming spooky AF. 

5) Luke. Eleanor’s twin. He’s deeply self-destructive, does a lot of heroin, and is obsessed with saving troubled women. This is a recipe for a very obnoxious character, but consider: Luke is also hot.

4) Theo. Theo is played by Kate Siegel, who not only starred in my favorite Mike Flanagan movie, Hush, but co-wrote its screenplay. She is also Flanagan’s wife, apparently, though I will leave it up to you to tell me why every single review mentions this instead of the fact that she’s his recurring star and co-writer. My hatred of sexism, and my affection for Hush, are the only reasons Theo ranks high on the list, as she is otherwise a walking collection of whiskey-swigging “tough girl” cliches taped together with girl-on-girl scenes. 

3) Hugh Crain. Patriarch of the family. Maybe killed his wife. Still boring. 

2) Shirley. The oldest daughter, who tries to take care of the rest after their mother’s death, Shirley is an undertaker whose damage plays out in the need to “fix” death. Sounds interesting on paper, but in practice: 

1) Steve. Steve thinks there were no ghosts in the house. His hobbies include: (1) Writing bestsellers about how there were totally ghosts in that house, and (2) Being a condescending little shit to everyone.

DON’T FUCKING SCOFF AT ME, STEVE. I OBJECT, STEVE. I OBJECT.

Anyway. Here’s a picture of Baby Luke to make it better:

I would not be surprised if this miniseries blew much of its budget on Luke Casting. It’s just top-notch throughout.

It is impossible to think about Hill House, or to say what it does well, without mentioning Flanagan’s great 2013 haunted-house movie, Oculus, a dizzying head-trip about memory and trauma. That movie (which I already covered in an earlier newsletter; subscriber-only, for the moment) is about two siblings whose mother died under mysterious circumstances after seemingly trying to kill them. One of the siblings, the brother, thinks this is a story about inherited mental illness and abuse. His sister thinks that one of the family’s prize possessions, an antique mirror, is demonic and drives all its owners to madness and death. We get lots of flashbacks, through which we learn that the sister is correct, although in the present day the siblings have unfortunately decided to lock themselves in their childhood home with the haunted mirror and wait to see if it kills them. 

As you’ve probably figured out by now, Hill House is an almost beat-for-beat retelling of Oculus. It’s much longer, there are more siblings, and the problem is a haunted house rather than a piece of haunted furniture, but it’s still just a much bigger version of the same story. All of the odd quirks and storytelling maneuvers that made Oculus stand out — the non-linear time, the flashbacks that interact with the present, the unreliable narrators and big “but the ghost was there all along!!!! moments — are in Hill House too. 

I mention this because if you watch Hill House as a sequel to Flanagan’s own work, rather than an adaptation of someone else’s, it makes more sense. I also mention it because the differences stand out. Flanagan and Jackson do share some core concerns — family secrets, unreliable narrators — but her work is interior, delicate, often dreamlike. Jackson works through atmosphere and suggestion, frightening the reader by destabilizing her assumptions. (The biggest scare in Hill House, as I think I’ve said every time I’ve written about it, is not a ghost, but a mundane statement about how much time has passed; we don’t realize how delusional the protagonist Eleanor is until we realize we’ve been sharing her delusions.) Flanagan is realistic and propulsive and plot-driven. He has scarier jump-scares than any director I know. Flanagan’s Hill House has a whole cast of ghosts, with backstories, who leap out of dark corners and deliver monologues in terrible ‘20s slang; Jackson’s Hill House may not even have any ghosts. 

I do not think Flanagan is a particularly sexist director, and in fact, I think he writes women very well. But he typically writes one specific type of woman: Tough, resilient, determined, the kind of woman who, even if she feels like a victim, is never genuinely helpless. Flanagan does not understand fragility, not the way Jackson did. His characters can be haunted by the past, or hurt by other people, but the kind of deep, self-generating, self-defeating neurosis that drives Jackson’s Hill House — and defines her Eleanor — is not in his wheelhouse. The Haunting of Hill House, the book, is a story about what it feels like to fall apart. The Haunting of Hill House, the show, is about watching someone else fall apart, and learning to live in the aftermath of the fall. 

Here comes the part with the spoilers. 

Delays and Demons Pt. 2

Hi all!

A few weeks ago, I sent out a letter to our paid subscribers, letting them know I would be slow on the jump through the month of September.

September is over, and so I’m e-mailing you.

First: I’m very grateful that you haven’t brigaded me with torches and pitchforks, or cancelled your subscription. Second: There is an actual reason why I’m late.

I’m on the final deadline for a few long-form projects, which I very much hope to show you soon. I’m also moving out to the country — a process that involves packing up everything I own in the few hours when my baby is not awake and raining chaos down on us all. (She’s not technically a “baby” any more so much as a “giant toddler,” but I refuse to change the terminology, in the hopes it will somehow make time stop.)

I will be out in the country, in a wonderful 120-year-old house that I’m only moderately certain is haunted, by the third week of October. My deadlines will wrap up at the beginning of November. That means we should be able to resume normal functioning at the most cliche possible date for something like this: Halloween.

Thank you, and see you soon,

Sady.

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