The Coven’s Vision of Hell and ‘Repetition Compulsion’

American Horror Story‘s third season, The Coven, ended last night. The show as a whole did not quite meet my expectations–a critique echoed here and here; but still, for various reasons, I quite enjoyed the season’s finale.

Among them was it’s take on hell: each of us has our own private one. Misty, the “swamp-dwelling, resurrecting sweetheart obsessed with Stevie Nicks” ends up in a school biology lab, forced endlessly to kill and dissect a live frog at the insistent bidding of a loud, cruel, bullying teacher; Fiona meanwhile is “doomed to an eternity of being smacked around by the Axeman in the afterlife.”

This vision of hell is not new for American Horror Story; indeed, one of the most chilling twists on our understanding of a ghost’s life was provided by its first season, when we realized that being a ghost meant staying alive forever, stuck not only in a  particular place–the Murder House–but in a particular stage of psychological development, and confronted again and again by conflict with others also locked into dead-ended trajectories of mental being. A ghost is trapped for eternity in the afterlife; unable to die, unable to move on, unable to ‘get over’ anything. It turns out traipsing through haunted houses and spooking visitors is no fun at all.

So hell is other people all right–as some French dude once suggested–but it’s also you yourself, unable to snap out of a groove, a rut, a slippery well whose walls you slide back down again and again.

This kind of hell is one we actively aid in constructing; our own lives, our patterns of behavior, our responses and pathological modes of behavior slowly develop a place–in the mind–that we dread visiting; and when we do find ourselves in its environs, we are unable to escape.

All of this is–as should be obvious by now–as Freud suggested in ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through‘  a neurotic’s suffering, in which:

[A] person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This “re-living” can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucination….’repetition compulsion’…describes the pattern whereby people endlessly repeat patterns of behaviour which were difficult or distressing in earlier life.” (Jan Clark and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection: Mirrors to the self. (Buckingham 2002) p. 38 -as cited in Wikipedia article.)

The most frightening aspect of the neurotic’s behavior–for those who observe it, and those who experience it themselves–is that it is painful and unpleasant and yet compulsive; the patient seems to experience a powerlessness to exert her will over herself, to bring to an end, by her own agency, her self-inflicted pain.

The hellish afterlife is just that slice of this life which we have found to be the most unbearably painful. It is all the more so for being of our own making.

Note: Milton too, in Paradise Lost, had noted our interactive construction of our own private circle of pain.

The Year That Was, Here, On This Blog

The formal two-year anniversary of this blog was sometime back in November; as I was traveling then I couldn’t put up a commemorative post; this year-end dispatch will have to do as substitute marker for that occasion.

2013 was a busy year for blogging here, though I blogged on fewer occasions than I did in 2012. (In 2012 I put up three hundred and twenty four posts; this year, only two hundred and ninety-four.) Like 2012, I took one long break–of four weeks–from blogging because of travel; last year, I had taken my furlough while I was out road-tripping in the American West; this year, because I was traveling with my family in India. I also took occasional breaks from blogging while I traveled outside New York City; this was not a luxury I had allowed myself in 2012, but I was more fatigued this year thanks to parental responsibilities, and I took any chance I could get to catch a bit of rest.

As I noted in my first-year anniversary post last year, this blog still lacks focus; I do not have a particular subject of focus and write on almost anything that catches my fancy. My daughter’s birth sparked a particularly self-indulgent set of posts responding to her presence; I presume those readers who were parents found this understandable, while other readers’ tolerance might have been severely tested. I also remained tardy in replying to readers’ comments; I hope they will continue to indulge me and reply to my posts as I struggle to improve my response time to them. I do not know what lies ahead in 2014; I think my frequency of blogging will diminish just a bit as I spend more time on other writing projects. Do stick around though.

The five most viewed posts this year–a series started last year–were as follows:

Alan Dershowitz, Pro-Torture Plagiarist, Deigns to Lecture Us On Intellectual Honesty: When Alan Dershowitz decided he wanted to interfere with Brooklyn College’s academic departments’ rights to conduct academic events on campus, I was incensed, and said as much. The posts on this ‘BDS controversy at Brooklyn College’ also brought in a record number of comments, which should not have been all that surprising given that they were, after all, about Israel and Palestine.

The Peculiar Allure of Blog Search Terms: This post, my nod at the peculiar, intriguing, fascinating, sometimes disturbing search terms that bring readers to this blog (and others), was picked by WordPress for their Freshly Pressed series. My thanks to the WordPress folks for that; their selection certainly brought in many new readers to this blog.

American Horror Story and Torture Porn: This post was quite popular in 2013, and sometimes I wonder if it’s for all the wrong reasons: are people looking for ‘torture porn’? I don’t have any to offer, unfortunately, just some commentary on the cinematic laziness and possibly problematic morals of the genre.

Crossfit, Women, and ‘Tough Titsday’: A Woman’s Perspective: This post featured a guest contribution by my wife, who wrote an impassioned rejoinder to a wildly skewed, superficial and misleading article on Jezebel.

Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy: I continued writing on womens’ station in academic philosophy, and here, in this post, I addressed the anxiety their presence seemed to cause to men.

American Horror Story and Torture Porn

Last night was Fright Night. I had plans to watch the opening episode of the third season of American Horror Story, a show that despite its disappointingly concluded first season and its at times too-lurid second season still manages to hold considerable promise for me. But I was going to watch Paranormal Activity first; somehow despite the hype, I’ve managed to not see this 2007 sleeper hit.   Watching a commercial-separated movie isn’t great, but it was going to run on F/X from 8-10, at which point American Horror Story would kick off.

Two hours later, after I had finished Paranormal Activity, I was only able to stay awake to catch the opening scenes and title sequence of American Horror Story; the rest was DVR’d for another day. But by then, I had already had occasion to encounter yet another instance of a familiar and problematic aspect of modern horror cinema: torture porn. (The Saw and Hostel franchises made torture-porn a talking point, enough of one to inspire a satirical short video in response; American Horror Story flirted with it in the second season.)

The Wikipedia entry for ‘torture porn’ is filed away under ‘splatter film; this, and the titles listed there suggest a broader understanding for the term that I have in mind. I take ‘torture porn’ to implicate those scenes, story lines, and plot devices that rely explicitly on torture carried out on captives (I’m suspect women are the majority of these prisoners.)

In this form ‘torture porn’ relies on scenes of extreme cruelty inflicted on helpless subjects. It is the contrast of maximal power with minimal that unsettles us so, tapping into primeval fears of inefficacy in the face of a variety of forces: natural, political, economic, animal. In the face of sadistic exertions in those domains, we sense we would experience fear and pain only dimly imagined, the kind that would transform us into whimpering, gibbering cowards, begging for mercy;  its cinematic depictions are then, bound to be disturbing to all but the deeply desensitized.

Torture porn can afford to be simplistic in its work. There is little to no suspense, no build-up of supernatural tension; there is little need for supernatural agencies; indeed, most torture porn relies on humans to do the dirty work – on other humans. Which, of course, is what makes it so disturbing: stories of torture are part of our histories, modern and ancient, and there is no evidence our species has grown any less fond of it over the years. Torture porn might thus enable the blending of two genres of cinema, sometimes taken to be distinct: true-crime and horror. For instance, Snowtown, the story of the John Bunting murders in Australia, could be reckoned a torture porn movie. (It is perhaps a little too sophisticated for that, but still my drift should be clear: torture porn enables us to see how horror lurks in the human.)

Is torture porn morally problematic? That is a large and complex question but at the least, I think many of its offerings are just plain lazy, unwilling to do the hard work of story writing, editing, and atmosphere creation that is usually required to effectively and scarily bring horror to the screen.  That’s as big a sin as any.

Note: Paranormal Activity is a very effective little shocker of a movie; with no torture required to creep us out.

American Horror Story’s Asylum: Site of Nightmares

American Horror Story‘s second season always promised to be creepier and more effective than the disappointing first season, which began well, but had devolved into a terrible mess by the time its end rolled around. The second season’s ending had its share of disappointments, but it had many fine moments that came before, the episodic impact of which ensured that despite some incoherence along the way, it managed to deliver a healthy dose of the heebie-jeebies to its viewers.

The key to American Horror Story‘s success in the second season, lies, of course, in its setting: an asylum, which doubles as locale for Mengele-like experimentation on human beings. This ensured that the invocation of standard horror movie tropes, American Horror Story‘s fundamental technique, would work particularly well. In particular the asylum becomes a distinctive site of horror because of the utter helplessness of its inmates: demented human beings, lost to the world and themselves, cast aside into a refuse heap to be prodded, poked and tormented till death mercifully intervenes. The asylum is yet another place where helpless humans can be made the targets of sadistic violence.

The asylum is also home to a classic nightmare: the mentally competent, locked up against their will, and slowly turned into docile vegetables or raving lunatics. The second season invokes this trope without fail: there are straitjackets, the struggles of the innocent, the forced administration of unwanted treatment. And so unsurprisingly, the two most horrifying and disturbing scenes of the second season–for me, at least–were the forced, brutal electroshock treatments administered to Lana Winters and Sister Jude. The horror of these scenes lies not just in the overriding of the patient’s will, or the terrifying convulsions of the victim, but indeed, in our knowledge that this treatment must have been administered to too many, too soon and too often.

Mention of these treatments brings us to the t-word: torture. Too much contemporary horror is rightly described as ‘torture-porn’: painful, systematic, degrading, mutilation being the most favored device to induce terror in viewers. American Horror Story‘s second season flirts with torture too; these moments are terrifying to witness. I had wondered whether the avoidance of torture was possible given the captive nature of asylum inmates’ existence, but the show went even further as its inclusion of a serial killer allowed even greater utilization of torture themes.

Like the first season the second season had its weaknesses: there were too many story lines and too much plot confusion (the invocation of extraterrestrial aliens was particularly pointless and silly). What enabled the second season to transcend them partially in a way the first season was simply unable to do was its atmosphere, which remained unrelentingly grim throughout. (Indeed, the introduction of a jukebox in the later episodes was jarring precisely because it seemed to provide a soundtrack that felt out of place and dispelled a carefully constructed mood.) Lastly, Kyle Cooper’s title sequence was brilliant: it retained the original music and drew upon a new montage of graphic and disturbing images.

Those thirteen episodes went by quickly; I look forward to the third season.

American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, and the ‘American Gothic’ Style

The opening credits/titles for season 1 of American Horror Story are very creepy; in their visual ‘style’ they resemble those of season 3 of The Walking Dead. Let’s call this style ‘American Gothic’; what makes it work?

The central motif in ‘American Gothic’–at least in the two sequences cited above–is the decay of the familiar: inevitable, persistent,  insidious, ever-present and perhaps most frighteningly, contagious. In the case of American Horror Story the haunted house is so because of the ghosts that live in it, carrying around their violent pasts, impinging on and infecting the present. In the case of The Walking Dead, the decay motif is especially straightforward: this is what is left of the world we once knew, this is what awaits us. In both cases, the title sequences  remind us that true horror lies in that which is most immediately at hand, that the most proximal bears the capacity to contain the utterly unfamiliar; that is what makes it frightening. Novelty, because of its distance from us, can be comforting; the familiar is not so easily dismissed. Its decline is more frightening because it cuts a little closer.

The imagery of the ‘American Gothic’ style forces us to confront a world that lives among us even though it has passed away. It makes us reckon too, with the dissolution that lies within us: we are headed for death, our decline is inevitable. American Horror Story relies on old photo albums, household objects, nooks and crannies, and lab jars for preserving biological artifacts. (This last item taps into a straightforward source of childhood nightmares; no one is left unaffected by their visit to the samples room of a biology or pathology lab.) In The Walking Dead the decay of the world is infected by the melancholia of days gone by, of a kind of life no longer lived. It evokes terrifying dreams of deserted landscapes we found ourselves in, lost and alone; the cry of the disconsolate child is almost at hand. What makes this nightmare complete is the once known world is now strange; we see see traces of the past even as we realize it is gone forever. In American Horror Story the world is as it should be, peopled and populated by the living, but forced to reckon with those whose time is not yet up. Their remains intrude into day to day life, their actions live on beyond their first commission. The photos of children add a layer of menace to the intrusion of the pathological and horrifying into the mundane, in asking us to consider the possibility that children are monsters in the making.

But perhaps most fundamentally, the specific imagery of the style taps into a truth that can only be postponed but that must be faced up to eventually: that everything we know and love will no longer be. That relentless fact, always visible out of the corner of our eyes, standing in the wings of our mental stages, ready to wrap us in its clammy embrace is what makes ‘American Gothic’ effective.

Note: I’ve just found out that the American Horror Story and The Walking Dead title sequences are directed by the same person: Kyle Cooper.