It’s a Metaphor

Tonight, I watched Men, a movie that is more awkward to write/talk about than anything since Us (2019). I had a good time and liked it fine. I’m not here to write a review, though you may be able to extrapolate something of a review from what I’m about to say, if you want that.

As I was watching it, something clicked into place. Something I’ve been trying to get at in conversation and on episodes of the Horror Pod Class for a while now. There have been a lot of people complaining, lately, about horror movies being “too political,” or about there being metaphors in their horror movies, as if this is a new thing. We’ve talked about this several times on the pod.

For the most part, these people end up getting dragged (and often rightly so) on Twitter, at least in the circles where I hang around. Horror has always been political, obviously, and pretty much every story contains metaphors. Despite the oft-shared joke from Garth Marenghi, all writers, indeed, use subtext (whether they know it or not) because text without subtext is virtually impossible. And yet, for all that we may disparage these positions, they’re obviously complaining about something.

In many cases, that’s simply that they’re no longer the center of the universe – or that they’re realizing they never were. It’s people who could blissfully overlook the politics of films from yesteryear suddenly being confronted with things that no longer privilege them. But that’s not the whole of it.

There genuinely is a difference (perhaps many of them) between much of the horror of yesterday (classic or otherwise) and the so-called “elevated” or prestige horror films of today. There’s something there that people are seeing, but they’re misidentifying it, calling it by the wrong name. Watching Men, I think I finally figured out what it is.

Most horror films of the past can be read literally. No matter how rich they may be in metaphor, if you read them as a purely literal chain of events, without subtext or theme or added meaning, they still make sense. Psycho, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, you name it – you can recite the particulars of those films as a literal chain of events that make sense, without taking into account whatever metaphorical weight they may also possess.

In Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a group of young people run afoul of a cannibal family in the sticks. This is true, regardless of what metaphorical reading you then apply to the narrative – but that isn’t to suggest that those metaphorical readings aren’t there. Indeed, they are, just as rich and robust and important to the functioning of the film as the literal reading. Merely that the film can be read without them.

Even ambiguous films like The Innocents or The Haunting are ambiguous only in the sense that they support a handful of competing literal readings. A literal reading is still possible, without delving into subtext or metaphor.

Many of this more modern crop of films, however, make almost no sense without their metaphors. Read as a series of literal events, they are gobbledygook. It is only once the metaphors are applied that the films can be read at all. If you simply attempt to read them literally, as a sequence of events, they are basically incomprehensible.

This is what people are complaining about, when they ask for movies that “aren’t about anything.” Because of course no one wants a movie that isn’t about anything. They would hate that. Just as they don’t actually want movies that can’t be read as metaphors. Rather, they want movies that can be read literally.

And, to head off some angry replies, I’m not advocating for either side here. I have my own personal preferences, but I think there’s room at the table for both kinds of stories. Call them poetry and prose, if you like. That’s not the point of this post. The point is that people are identifying a real phenomenon – good, bad, or indifferent – but they’re misidentifying it. And I think it leads to confusion and hurt feelings and strawman arguments on both sides.

This isn’t really here to sway anyone. Rather, it’s to have something that I can point back to when, inevitably, this comes up again and again in the future, as it has so many times in the past.

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