Zombies, Horror, Pornography, Souls

The Thinking Housewife always has fascinating ongoing discussions. This week, Mrs. Wood and her readers have been talking about the popularity of horror films and what it says about us. The discussion is broken up into separate post, as is the style at TH. In order, the posts are concerning horror, hipsters, horror-lust, zombies, and children. The discussion was prompted by an essay sent in by a reader, by Spengler at the Asia Times. (Note: that last link results in irritating, auto-playing video advertisements. Be advised.)

I added this comment:

I think part of the explanation for the popularity of zombies, at least, is very simple and close to the surface. Zombies are animated corpses without souls. They are shaped like people, but they are not people because they have no spark of life within them.

This fantasy reflects one fear and one reality. The fear is that we truly are all zombies: soulless, meaningless, just meat-bags walking around. This is the ultimate teaching of materialism, of course. It’s not true, but most people these days are convinced that it is, on the intellectual level. The fascination with zombies is the heart (which knows itself to be ensouled) reacting to the modern world which “knows” souls to be a myth. Zombies are terrifying because they are reality exactly inverted, and yet they are plausible in a way because we are told over and over that yes, essentially, we are all zombies. The most thrilling scarifiers are always the things that seem most plausible. Still, it’s only a myth.

The one reality which zombie tropes reflect is the numbness and deadness of modern people. We all have souls, but that does not mean that we are all currently alive to reality. Our sparks are dim and obscured. Mass media, rejection of history and tradition, atomism and individualism, love as a “lifestyle choice” … you know the litany. So it’s natural for people to get a nagging feeling they are surrounded by zombies.

Not to say this is a healthy phenomenon, but it’s certainly understandable.

Thomas Bertonneau, (who writes in many places, you can find some great essays at The Brussels Journal, and some more scholarly work in the Anthropoetics journal), comments:

There are “dead soul” movies that are not “zombie” movies. The classic example is The Body Snatchers(1956), in which “pods” from outer space take over human beings, who retain their human shape but become emotionless cells in the alien collective.

“Zombie” films, going back to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) are “gross-out” films the point of which is to represent cannibalism and blood-spraying violence with cinematic ultra-realism. The Body Snatchers is amenable to “Spengler’s” thesis. First, it’s a genuinely frightening film (with no blood-and-guts element whatsoever), and second, it makes obvious comment on conformism whether of the totalitarian or the consumerist variety. Immense contemporary popularity belongs, not to scary films likeThe Body Snatchers (there is nothing like it today), but to ultra-realist torture-and-murder films like Sawand Hostel. The spate of Night of the Living Dead spin-offs, like the current AMC television series The Walking Dead, is more closely related to the ultra-realist torture-and-murder genre than to the “dead soul” genre.

The pornography of explicit violence shocks me more than the pornography of sex. In the hierarchy of perversity, the desire to look at nakedness is salacious but understandable; the desire to look at other people having sex is genuinely perverse; but the desire to be a spectator of torture and murder is alarmingly perverse.

This is an excellent point. I started to think of a rebuttal, but then realized I don’t really have one. I think I’m right and Mr. Bertonneau is right. But one interesting thing that occurred to me is that the violence in horror films (zombie or otherwise) is simulated, whereas the sex in pornographic films is real.

Does this make a difference? Well, I don’t want to say it makes one worse and the other okay, or vice versa. That’s not the point. Let’s try some brief thought experiments instead.

In order to be real, the horror films would have to show actual torture, murder, cannibalism, etc. Obviously this is illegal. But would the makers and consumers of horror movies have a moral problem with it? Certainly they would claim so in public. But, let’s say a high-production-value film, done in the style of popular horror movies, came out that featured non-simulated acts of torture wherein real human beings actually died. Would it do well at the box office? The question answers itself, I presume.

[I would not claim, obviously, that this is a new phenomenon in human history, the desire to watch death, dismemberment and torture.]

But what about sex pornography? Another thought experiment is to think what changes would have to be made to sex films to make them the equivalent of simulated horror films. Would it have to be two robots or dummies having sex? Would it have to be one real human (an actor) pretending to have sex with a doll or dummy? Or would it be like the love scene in many R-rated movies, where two actors simulate having sex without any actual penetration (with kissing, caressing, etc, but not technically engaged in intercourse)?

I don’t have an answer, and I don’t think it’s worthwhile to tease these questions out forever. But the train of thought got me thinking about the essence of violence and the essence of sex. In a sense, pornographic films already are the equivalent of zombie films. (From a Aristotelian/Thomistic point of view, the problem with pornography is self-evident, of course). The two bodies involved are real, and the acts are real, not simulated. But the act is totally simulated from another point of view.

Would a horror film be any more terrible if it was real humans being killed? Yes.

Would this, in the end, stop people from watching it? I fear the answer is No.

Would a porno film be any less obscene if it were a (real) man having sex with a simulated doll? No. If anything, it would be more obscene.

So then… no human bodies are harmed in horror films, but human souls presumably are. And human bodies are involved in sex in porno films, and it does damage to human souls (of the actors, the filmers, the audience). But it seems like the bodies themselves are incidental (as are the dummies and robots used in horror films). And it is this very incidental, instrumental nature of bodies in porno that makes it so soul-destroying, right?

Obviously there is nothing novel about this observation of mine. But, of course, the ongoing quest of this blog is to never say anything novel.

This is a distasteful subject and I’m having difficulty coming to any conclusions, so I will stop this entry here, and perhaps return to it if I have an insight. Thankfully, the easy answer to all of this is to not watch pornography and not watch blood-sport movies. Then, as they say, it’s all academic!

[Edit: In the time it took me to write this, there’s another link at TH on this topic!]

4 comments on “Zombies, Horror, Pornography, Souls

  1. zhai2nan2 says:

    Many horror stories depict a beautiful woman who is horrified because she is touched by a rotting zombie. That is a physical gross-out.

    More subtle horror stories (see 1983’s The Hunger) combine the horror of touching a rotting thing with the horror of loneliness.

    A lot of bad horror stories (such as 1982’s Cat People) are caused by second-rate writers who think that their personal sexual frissons are of great importance. Ultimately Cat People does not look like an “erotic thriller” to me – it just looks like a very bad movie pretending to be softcore porn.

    There are a lot of silly vampire stories, but some of them show some attempts to move from gimmick fiction to more thoughtful speculative fiction. The problem is that horror is thrilling, and speculative fiction is often a not-very-thrilling power fantasy.

    For an example of how horror movies can degenerate into power fantasies, see “The Howling” series.

    Horror is thrilling because it shows a world that is dangerous and mysterious. Normally, people are propagandized to believe that the world is safe and boring. (It *is* boring, but it *isn’t* safe, as the residents of Fukushima found out.) Horror is thrilling because it reminds us of reality – the world really is dangerous, and we really should take notice of it.

    • outofsleep says:

      Hypocritically, considering my own comments here on this blog, I’ve been watching the AMC series “The Walking Dead” that Thomas Bertonneau mentions. It’s pretty gruesome, I must say.

      Interestingly, in the season premier recently (and there are only 8 episodes currently available), the plot revolved around the main characters trying to find a little innocent girl who had run off in a moment of fear. All the tough-minded adults worry and fret and search for the little girl. “The Walking Dead” is attempting a high-minded zombie story. It revels in gore and fear, but it’s also trying to step a bit higher than pure torture-porn like the Saw movies.

      So it’s interesting to me how soon they had to default to the “innocent, lost little girl” trope. It seems to be a form of admitting that their human-interest story is running out of human interest. What’s more precious than a small, innocent girl?

      As the show is a big hit and presumably making a lot of money for AMC, they will keep making episodes as long as they can. But already having put the little sweet girl in danger, what’s left? An infant? A pregnant woman? I assume we will see those stories too. There’s nowhere else for them to go.

  2. fsg says:

    A difficult, but necessary subject to discuss.

    Something that is even now frequently described in the media is that pornography is no longer a product of perverted capitalistic division of labor, but a ‘crowd-sourced’ phenomenon. In perhaps the first time in the history of modern society, professional production is being defeated by cottage industry of millions (of women), facilitated by social networks. Although there is a similar parallel in the decline of prostitution in the face of the explosion of free extramarital sex post-cultural revolution.

    It looks like Houllebecq and the ancient Greeks are right about sex; uncontrolled it truly brings everything else down.

    Another thought: has our society thought seriously about the kind of people we are inevitably producing? Simply, is it possible or probable for a mass media culture suffused by explicit or implicit pornography to produce people who will fulfill the moral requirements we are accustomed to in leaders, parents, mentors, or even adults, in quite the same way as in the past? I suppose to ask is to answer.

    At least our modern predicament can be richly comic in a way that the sane era was never:


    • outofsleep says:

      I try to keep this blog relatively smut-free. But most people who even bother reading a blog like this are probably not the kind of people who frequent porn sites. Or if they do, in a moment of weakness, they might see some salaciously posed naked women.

      Porn has become VERY foul, very quickly. Don’t google it. Just trust me. There are thousands and thousands of sites that feature the most disgusting kinds of scenes you can imagine. Rape, denigration, humiliation, even bestiality… it’s all out there. And for every one of those films, there’s a woman who agreed to be a part of it. Literally tens of thousands (maybe even hundreds of thousands). This is not just men and women having sex, it’s men absolutely DESTROYING women. For a few dollars, the women let it happen. And *this* is “liberation”?

      It is the most shameful thing I know.

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