Saturday, June 8, 2013

Universal Threat

Last night I watched Silent Hill 2: Revelation. On the face of it, this is not a very good movie. And the face of it goes all the way to the bone. But that doesn't mean it's not interesting. I conceived a desire to explain to you at last why I find Silent Hill so utterly fascinating, and this led me to systematize some thoughts I had been sloppy about before.

I'd like to propose a three-tier division of horror movies:

1. Local Threat

The overwhelming majority of horror movies are local threat stories. In such a case, the character of the threat - be it a serial killer, a vampire, a witch, or distressingly aggressive wolves - is essentially limited in space. This means that whatever hellishness afflicts the main characters, anyone who isn't so unfortunate as to wander into the immediate area will probably make it through OK.

Psycho is a classic local threat horror movie:

If you don't check in, you can't get hurt.

This type of story has virtues and weaknesses. Its minor virtues flow from its major virtue, which is that it obeys the Aristotelian narrative unities of time, space, and action. The minor virtues that result are that if you do one well, it is propulsive and terrifying. It provides precisely the right size of canvas for reflection on the darkest verge of morality.

For instance, one of the most beautiful cinematic portraits of sadism I know is Alan Arkin's performance in the 1967 Wait Until Dark. This movie, which more or less takes place in a single apartment, pits Arkin's psychotic mobster against Audrey Hepburn's blind housewife. As the film progresses, her sightless eyes bulge, seeking a knowledge they cannot gain:

And he, who can see, is self-blinding - he hides his eyes behind sunglasses:

How like their morality this is - she, striving toward awareness and virtue, and he, sinking ever deeper into depravity. This simple visual parallel for their deepest qualities as characters is made possible by the narrow confines of the narrative. And again, if you happen to live only one apartment over, Alan Arkin really has no beef with you. A very local threat.

The major weaknesses of this type of story are twofold: the first is the stupid-main-character problem. The threat can be so curtailed that only a goddamned idiot could expose themselves to it. My friend Mac Rogers summed this up maybe twenty years ago in contemplating the obvious problem with the Friday the Thirteenth series, that Jason "pretty much only works Camp Crystal Lake." While we're talking about Mac, let me plug his new play, Frankenstein Upstairs. It's up in New York this month, and you oughta go, because on his worst day his writing is riveting. Info at the link.

The other major weakness of the local threat story is that the threat is more or less limited to evil versus good. Evil is a specifically human phenomenon. It is comprehensible because it is close at hand. It is the nearby threat, the familiar threat. We all represent this very threat. As Dostoyevsky demonstrates, it is a threat of horrific depth and inspires tremendous fear. But it is not the most frightening thing in the world. Not to me, anyway.

2. Global Threat

The local threat story deals with the extinction of the lead characters. The global threat horror story deals with the extinction of humanity. There are far fewer global threat horror movies than local threat horror movies, and most of them concern zombies.

I'm not much scared of serial killer movies, which shade off so easily into torture porn, which is not, properly speaking, horror at all. I'm not so distressed by vampires and witches and wolves. But zombies scare the holy fuck out of me.

George Romero, Dawn of the Dead, 1978, the best zombie movie ever made

I am unendingly upset by the prospect that, at some time in the future, everything we love and care about, so much of which resides in vessels of flesh, will be reduced to bloody meat. That some paralyzing disorder of the mind will erase everything that makes us distinct and individual, and fine and true, and turn us into a mumbling, self-consuming rabble. Zombie movies are terrifying because they are, ultimately, about the end of the world. What is the loss of my life, or yours, in the face of the loss of everything? I can bear the thought of getting eviscerated by some asshole with a knife, so long as the Mona Lisa survives. But I cannot bear the thought of the entire edifice going down in flames.

In fact, this was the only good thing about the deservedly overlooked 2009 Alex Proyas film Knowing. There's a good deal of running around and shouting before it becomes clear that nobody in this movie has any chance of influencing any of its major events, which are this: the world comes to a fiery end.

There is something obscene about its loving penultimate sequence of the destruction of Manhattan (a solar flare I think). If you're paying attention, you can see the water boil out of Central Park's reservoir. Which means that you've just seen the Met, and all the treasures in it - five or six thousand years of human hopes and achievement - turn to ash.

This, to me, is scarier than evil: coming face to face with the implacable indifference of nature. In the face of this indifference, all the things we value will not survive. They must be overwhelmed by the superior and inhuman forces of disease (as in zombie movies) or geology and cosmology (as in planetary destruction movies).

And yet even these awful nightmares adhere to a Law. It is the Law of necessity, and from our fragile human perspective, it is a cruel law, a law which overrides our affections and needs. But for all that, it is a Law, and therefore it is of a kind with ourselves, because we are characterized by reason, and reason is a law-seeking mechanism. We need not like the Law to take comfort in its government of the world.

3. Universal Threat

All horror movies concern offenses against order. Local threat horror movies deal with offenses against the moral order. Global threat horror movies deal with offenses against the civilizational or species-scale order. Universal threat horror movies, which are vanishingly rare, deal with offenses against the order of being itself. They are metaphysical horror movies.

You should know me well enough by now to know that I am a born metaphysician. This is why, of all the horror movies, I find the universal threat horror movies most fascinating and most unnerving.

I'd like to distinguish here between supernatural and metaphysical horror. Supernatural horror, for me, falls into the local threat category because, typically, it is treated as pertaining only to its immediate region of influence:

victim of the Blair Witch

The supernatural acts more like a magic trick than a rift across the diameter of reality. It's a scary, unnatural magic trick, but it does not rise to the level of a universal threat.

The 1997 movie Cube was a local threat horror movie. It concerned a large cube, built by fascist bureaucrats or something. This cube is subdivided into many cubical rooms, some of which tried to kill you in novel ways. A number of characters trapped in the cube spend the movie working on escaping from it. You could say it does not go well for them.

The 2002 sequel, Cube 2: Hypercube, was not a good movie. But like somebody you love without especially liking, it was a brilliant movie. It was a universal threat horror movie. Its new-and-improved cube is actually a tesseract. It doesn't have a large number of rooms; it has an infinite number of rooms.

one of many

As in the first movie, some of these rooms may well kill you, but they won't slice-and-dice you as the intended result of active human malevolence. They will do it indifferently, as an accidental outcome of their own unfathomable peregrinations. Inside this movie's hypercube, time and space become unreliable and fragmentary. Some characters are frozen in time, others age lifetimes in minutes. Several are endlessly duplicated. Some are murdered or killed or simply vanish, and some later un-die or forget their terminations.

This is mayhem as a result of the collapse of consistent reality. It is technically limited, I suppose, to the vast confines of the hypercube, but it carries implications for the entire universe: that those verities we think we can rely upon, the predictable identities of space, time, matter, and energy, are subject to disturbingly unstable forces. The hypercube strips the mind of its last refuge; beyond evil, beyond extinction, there remains the Law. The hypercube offends against the Law. It is an illustration of universal threat.

This genre also includes the 1997 Event Horizon, in which Sam Neill:

Becomes all kinds of fucked up:

As a result of a glitchy faster-than-light drive that opens one of those gates to hell you hear so much about:

The shockingly blithe, careless violence of this movie has to be seen to be grasped.

And finally, this microscopic genre includes the movie adaptations of the video game Silent Hill. The first Silent Hill movie, from 2006, had the following titles in its trailer:

A little grammatically questionable, but yes, yes exactly - the universal threat corresponds with De Chirico's formulation:

To live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness, full of curious many colored toys which change their appearance, which, like little children we sometimes break to see how they are made on the inside, and, disappointed, realize they are empty.

We seek an explanation because we are human, and we depend, when all else has failed, upon the Law. And the essence of the universal threat is lawlessness - that at bottom, there is no explanation. Silent Hill demonstrates this awful inexplicable lawlessness in its decay sequences. Preceded by air-raid sirens, darkness falls, and with the darkness, everything decays, clean new walls drying up and flaking off of a deeper layer of rust, blood, and cracked tile:

There are monsters and bloodshed and so forth, but it is the brutal inconsistency of the scenario which I find disturbing. There are at least three versions of the town Silent Hill in the movie: a real-world version that is a sunlit abandoned town in West Virginia (based loosely on Centralia, Pennsylvania), a fogged, more deeply empty version - and the darkness version of the fogged version.

All three of these towns exist in the same space. In the sequel, the one I watched last night, the heroine goes to Silent Hill to find her abducted father, leading the inevitable Malcolm McDowell to remark, "There are many Silent Hills, are you sure you've got the right one?" This suggestion of the laminar nature of reality, of layer upon layer proceeding to potentially limitless depths, of every volume of space a continuous maze -

note the maze

- is a core facet of how the Silent Hill movies produce their proposed atmosphere of mysteries without answers, and secrets without explanation.

The filmmakers being human, of course they clutter up their movies with nothing but attempts at explanation. But at the end of the day, does it really matter which horde of benighted townsfolk burned who at the stake? All the narrative justifications in the world don't get us all the way down to the fundamental terror of the premise: that the world does not make any sense at all. You just thought it did, and you were wrong.


So that's my three-tiered system of horror movies, and my explanation for my immense affection for flicks of dubious quality like Cube 2: Hypercube and Silent Hill. A few additional notes:

1. I have read somewhere that in the perfect horror movie, no character would appear twice, so that we could not even rely upon the company of our guides through the universe of the film. This is obviously a universal threat mode of storytelling. And look - producers need to make their money back. Nobody, right now, is going to make a dada horror movie, a horror movie of total anarchy. But soon, perhaps, the cost of making movies will drop so low that it will be possible to think them directly into being. At that point, I will get around to writing and executing my long-dreamt-of take on universal threat, Irrational House. Until then, there's not much point.

2. This is the second time I've come upon the phrase "universal threat." Previously, I was thinking about all the things I'm interested in doing - the ones I'm actually doing, like painting, drawing, and writing, and the ones I'd like to do, like directing and sculpting. There is a film-world terminology whereby if you write and direct you are called a double threat; and if you write, act, and direct you are a triple threat. And I thought, abruptly, "I don't want to be a double threat, or a triple threat - I want to be a universal threat."

This struck me as such a badass phrase that I right away went and registered the URL. I haven't done anything with it yet, but if I get to the point where I need to, you know, leverage synergies, then surely this is what I will call my synergy-leveraging corporation and where I will park it on the Web.

Also, I made a mockup of a logo.

3. I recognize that I have been talking about things, these past couple of posts, which are not, technically, painting. I hope you'll bear with me while I flagrantly violate your trust as regards subject matter. I have many things to say about painting in the next few posts, but this was what I thought about this morning.


  1. Great stuff! Perhaps the closest approach to your "dada horror movie" is Lynch's dada suspense film *Inland Empire*, which keeps dragging the Woman In Peril into the type of scenario narrative has trained us to recognize as preceding some terrifying knowledge of what threat truly awaits--but no knowledge ever materializes.

    Also: I read (somewhere I'm too lazy to track down) an essay arguing that the Zombie is the progressive's shadow of the conservative--pitiless, nihilistic conformism--while the Vampire is the conservative's fear of the progressive--seductive, amoral elitism.

    1. Maven - thank you! And it's funny you should say - Mac brought up Mulholland Drive as a candidate for universal threat after reading this over, and I explained that if I'd covered Lynch, he would have taken over the post, but my picks would have been Twin Peaks for, if not anarchy, than xenarchy - some kind of alien order - and Inland Empire, which impressed me exactly as you describe, something I've only ever seen fully developed in De Chirico's "Hebdomeros," which I loved, Malraux's "Man's Hope," which I couldn't finish, and "The Red and the White," a battlefield film.

      The zombie/vampire system you describe is very funny; although I have also read the conservative analysis of the zombie as the end-goal of leftist totalitarianism, and the socialist take on the vampire as representative of the parasitism of capital. Floating signifiers! Yaaaaaay!

  2. Dan,

    You read much Lovecraft? He is the Father of the universal threat horror.

    1. I have! I thought of mentioning him, but I decided to restrict the coverage to movies, more or less, for the same reason I decided not to cover Lynch - it would all have gotten too far out of control. If you like Lovecraft, you might try Ligotti. I haven't read much of him, but I've very much liked what I've read, and it's in a similar vein.

    2. I would love to make a video game with this premise, but a lot subtler than either Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness (the latter is a Lovecraft-inspired Gamecube title that's quite good.)

      The idea would be the gradual rewiring of the electrical system of the entire world by a faceless, voiceless organization whose orders have no writing and whose workers have no faces and make no sound. The Universal Mechanical Corporation.

      I tend to think this has uncanniness too it as well, since we intuit a goodness to the basic order of the world, and this premise asserts (or provokes) the opposite. It cannot be so, and yet, like the creeping nightmare, it is (at least in the story.)

    3. I think that's a fantastic idea, and assuming you don't actually have the resources to produce a game, I would encourage you to write it out as a short story or novella and submit it to both the standard science fiction magazines and to Weird Fiction Review:
      Seriously, it's a great idea, it deserves follow-through. Good luck, and let me know when and where I can read it.