“…it’s what happens in the United States when a truly radical ideology takes over.”
This is George Romero’s answer to the question of what his film Night of the Living Dead is about. To me, this is a most thoughtful and complete assessment, and perhaps what explains the movie’s enduring success. Of course, on the surface the movie is about the dead coming back to life, and a layer underneath that survivalism, and another layer below that the complexity (and necessity) of social alliances. However, the foundation on top of where everything is built is the pathology and consequence of socio-political ideology.
I won’t lie and say that after watching Night of the Living Dead when I was sixteen (or when I re-watched it years later for that matter) that I had any inkling that this was its ultimate theme. I only knew the movie was about something, its mood too earnest to be about nothing. The overriding theme with which Romero directed all the action around is what elevates it above a mindless zombie flick, an unquantifiable hook in which the viewer can identify despite the fantastic plot elements.
Horror (as well as its cousins Sci-fi and Fantasy) especially depend on theme in this way. After all, horror stories are not ones that from which there are any useful applications to real life. There will never be a zombie uprising, nor will there be some needy devil granting us a wish, and never we will find ourselves inexplicably locked in a haunted hotel room with our own corpse hanging in the bathroom. These situations will never occur in our lives, and so there is no value in preparing for them. Okay sure, while serial killers do exist, let’s face it, is any one of us interesting enough to attract their specialized gaze? Is anyone so deluded to think if there were a Hannibal Lector out there that he would be so impressed with their intellect that he would be compelled to devise some elaborate, personalized death ritual just for them?
It’s not in the plot that horror illuminates, teaches, or scares us. It’s in the metaphor.
Fortunately, inserting meaning into horror has little cost. Whether the horror is literary, comic, bizarre, or an extreme gore-fest, the room to interject theme is equally afforded and fairly easy.
Take the example of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I have never read this book, never will, and I think there’s a movie too which I have no interest in watching, but it helps explain a point. Jane Austen’s version (which I haven’t read either) is classic literature dealing with the themes of love, social reputations, and class. None of these topics need to be sacrificed by the infusion of zombies. The rewriting author can simply inject the presence of the undead into the background and plot. In theory, the book can have the same characters, the same dialogue, the prose can be the stylistically the same, etc. In the parts of the book when the characters travel, they would simply have to do so while avoiding/killing some zombies. Or, a little more cleverly, the discussions over the undead threat between those occupying different socio-economic strati could have been used to further the subject matter of class and social identity. No theme needs to be sacrificed in a change to a z-horror style.
So can serious themes be incorporated into most any conceived plot or technique. Even The Walking Dead need not to sacrifice theme in order to entertain (and maximize) its wide PG-13 audience. While George Romero hates the show for its soap-opera aesthetic, TWD does have its moments of depth. In the previous season (6th?), there was a compelling story arc where Morgan (‘I Clear’) meets up with pacifist and former prison psychologist Eastman (played by the character actor John Carroll Lynch). The Eastman character recounts a pre-apocalypse moral dilemma about his wife being killed by one of his unredeemable patients, which leads to discussions of man’s capacity for evil and the psychology of vengeance. I was glad they delved into this Crime and Punishment-esque narrative in detail over several episodes. Okay, the part about Morgan being kept prisoner in a cell which wasn’t locked the entire time was overly trite symbolism, but generally everything worked and was philosophically fulfilling. Way better than spending an entire segment watching Glen and Maggie moon over each other again (we get it… they’re in love, yawn).
We’ve all read or watched horror that doesn’t work past the point where it is not only boring, but depressing. Some attribute this failure on the subject matter being too violent (first half of season 7 of TWD), or the author punching down on helpless characters, or nihilism—horror without a point. However, while horror’s sub-genres aren’t for everyone, they all have their legitimate place, appeal, and audience. It’s in the lack of meaningfulness that these stories most often fail. A torture scene when done in a context that makes sense in advancing a storyline or character arc reads profoundly differently than one where there is little point besides the documenting of an inhumane act.
In the Marquis de Sade biopic Quills, there is a scene where the imprisoned Sade argues his writings are grand literature of high truths to which the prison’s priest rebuts, “It’s not even a proper novel. It’s nothing but an encyclopedia of perversions…” For anyone who has read 120 Days of Sodom, the priest is technically correct; however, there is such eagerness and enthusiasm in Sade’s listings of sexual deviancy that that in itself gives the work some context in which both Freud and Jung would have feasted. Indeed, Sade’s writings have persisted, been studied, referenced, and even spawned an academic treatise from twentieth century feminist and existentialist Simone de Beauvior.
There are many other examples of stories or movies that despite their apparent nihilism or base crudeness are able to achieve cult or even mainstream success. Pink Flamingos put director John Waters on the map. It’s cinematically terrible (even according to Mr. Waters) and doesn’t really have any particular high concept or metaphor. It’s a gross out film featuring as many perversities as could be jammed into an hour. To wit, in the final scene famed drag queen actor Divine eats dog shit. Literally. Really. For the benefit of any millennial readers unfamiliar with the film, this isn’t Will Farrell licking some FX plasticized prop in Step Brothers, but real dog shit, no camera tricks. Really.
Despite its filth, Pink Flamingos still maintains an enthusiastic fan base and begrudging critical respect. Water’s admits it wasn’t much more than a pothead movie with a motive to gross out his friends. But that in itself is its meaning: to be transgressive for transgressive sake, Waters wallowing in the perverse and profane spaces where he finds his own brand of spirituality.
Whether exploring political ideologies, existential philosophy, or attempting to repulse and offend, there should be meaning in fiction more than to sell a book or pander to an editor to get a story published. Without offering some perception of humanity, writing is only an exercise in craft, toiling over an encyclopedia entry for ‘coprophagia’. It should be obvious, but the author should know why they are writing and what the story is about. The audience will always sense when they have no answer to this question.
Stories are written to connect a reader with their own reality. Share something as a writer and it can make a world of difference. Who knows, maybe you can be the next George Romero.