08 June 2010

American Horror Genre and Everyday Anxieties

All I know about the movie "Foreclosure" currently in production is that it's a horror film about people losing their house and this immediately called to mind an essay I read in graduate school.

"Romance and Real Estate" by Walter Benn Michaels is only tangentially interested in the American haunted house as an exorcism of middle-class anxiety about mortgages and at the time I found it to be the essay's most interesting point.

Michaels quotes a 1984 NYT magazine article written by Stephen King:

"[The Amityville Horror] is about a young couple who've never owned a house before; Margot Kidder is the first person in her family actually to have owned property. And all these things start to go wrong — and the horrible part is not that they can't get out, but it's that they're going to lose the house. There was some point where things were falling, and the door banging, and rain was coming in, and goop was running down the stairs, and behind me, in the little movie house in Brighton, this woman, she must have been 60, was in this kind of ecstasy moaning, 'Think of the bills, think of the bills.' And that's where the horror of that movie is."

This isn't just about the costs of repairs, says Michaels, it's what the ghosts have done to the couple as investors in real estate. 

Cast your mind back to all those horror movies opening with a visit of the only house the couple/family can afford in the area. Even if the buyers feel lucky and blissful, they are conscious of fluctuating interest rates which, as Michaels writes are "as intangible as ghosts".

Michaels' essay centres on The House of the Seven Gables, a book Hawthorne wrote during of the peaks of land speculation in the nineteenth century. The novel makes a connection between witchcraft and title disputes between property. This arks back the Salem witch trials which were very much about rich owners seeking to expand their territory by having less powerful neighbours be accused of, and hopefully hanged for, witchcraft. (For more on this read Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum). Hawthorne uses the Salem example as a partial source of inspiration in a complex critique nineteenth of century mercantile capitalism. 

"The whole project of romance," writes Michaels, "with its bizarrely utopian and apparently anachronistic criteria for legitimate ownership, had already played a significant, if ironic, role in opening the American land market."

I find this metaphorical relevance of American horror to real life fascinating and satisfying. The birth of American horror (American Gothic) is deeply grounded in American soil itself. It seems to me that American art was shaped by the anxiety stemming from the irreconcilable chasm between Protestantism and nature. The first Americans were Puritans, city dwellers. They had constructed for themselves a belief system with utter disregard for nature. The Pilgrims' belief system stood completely at odds with the wild environment that met them at Plymouth Rock. Wild environments command animist, pagan-like beliefs and Protestantism deliberately shook off any hint of allusion to Pagan belief or practice.

Camille Paglia writes in Sexual Personae: "Classical American literature suffers a sex problem [...] Puritan personality, unitary and sharply bounded, was formed by the rectitude of acts, a masculine straightmeasure. Hawthorne shows patriarchal will waning in The House of the Seven Gables, with the decadent relics of shabby mansion and inherited curse.

America's sex problem began with the banishment of the maternal principle from Protestant cosmology. Medieval Mariolatry was and is a pagan survival that Protestantism [...] opposes. But in the absence of the mother from pioneer American values imaginatively limited a people living intimately with nature"

My take on this and Paglia's were heavily influenced by Leslie Fielder's chapter on Charles Brockden Brown in the seminal Love and Death in the American Novel. Fielder posits that this anxiety between Protestantism and nature gave birth to American Gothic.

We can only guess at how much damage this gulf between environment and belief has caused in real terms in American life. Some would say it is oddly appropriate that the first American novel, Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown, is about a religious zealot who believes God wants him to kill his entire family. A mission which he executes with fervour and a flair for spectacle.

Back to the movie "Foreclosure". It's never safe to raise one's expectations when it comes to horror. The beauty in all this is that we need not expect the average American horror filmmaker to possess a thorough understanding of Hawthorne and Fielder to produce great American Gothic. The savageries of mercantilism and the fundamentals of Protestantism are echoing well and have marched through time to us. All the filmmakers of "Foreclosure" need is a good sense of intuition.

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