Excerpts from Experts

Excerpts from Experts: “Metahorror: Sequels, ‘The Rules,’ and the Metareferential Turn in Contemporary Horror Cinema” from Dr. de Villiers

The following excerpts were written by Dr. Nicholas de Villiers, an English and Film professor at the University of North Florida who teaches a course on horror films. They are from a published essay called “Metahorror: Sequels, ‘The Rules,’ and the Metareferential Turn in Contemporary Horror Cinema” in an edited collection on metareference in media.

Clover uses the film Peeping Tom (Powell, dir. 1960) to challenge the orthodox focus on sadistic or assaultive gazing in film theory (specifically Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey). She examines the division of labor between ‘assaultive (sadistic) gazing’ on the one hand and ‘reactive (masochistic) gazing’ on the other [2]. Especially since Alfred Hitchcock, there has been an established tradition that likewise assumes a division between “the sadistic work of the filmmaker and the masochistic stake of spectator” (ibid.: 179). John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) connects the camera’s gaze to that of the psycho-killer early in the film, where we see through the eyes of the murderous child Michael Meyers as he murders his sister as punishment for her sexual behavior, thus establishing a well-worn trope in slasher films (cf. ibid.: 187). Yet Clover argues that “the credibility of the first-person killer-camera’s omnipotence is undermined from the outset” (ibid.) and notes that assaultive gazing never prevails, since the killer usually ends up blinded, killed, or both (cf. ibid.: 189). Audience identification shifts over the course of the film towards the film’s surviving protagonist, the ‘female victim-hero’ (a.k.a. ‘Final Girl’), whose usually androgynous characterization makes her a perfect surrogate for the male audience member. Clover argues that Metz and Mulvey’s blind spot is masochism (cf. ibid.: 209), and that masochism and repetition compulsion both help explain horror’s repeated formulas (cf. ibid.: 213). (de Villiers 358-59)

Clover argues that, “as anyone who sees horror in the right venue (designated mall or downtown matinees) can attest, horror audiences can be startlingly ‘competent’ (in the linguistic sense) and startlingly public about it” (ibid.: 9). Horror audiences are competent in the sense of knowing the ‘code’ and conventions of the genre. (de Villiers 359)

Classical Hollywood codes of fiction filmmaking generally placed a taboo on directly addressing the camera (except in musicals), and great care was taken to avoid capturing the camera’s reflection in a mirror, in order to avoid breaking the aesthetic illusion of the film and revealing it as a staged fiction. Cinéma vérité inverts this practice, drawing attention to the camera, featuring direct address, and highlighting the technical aspects of filmmaking in order to convince the audience that what they are watching is true. Paradoxically, mockumentaries borrow these reflexive techniques (often trying to capture the camera in a mirror, as in Blair Witch) in order to stage the illusion of reality [16]. Judging from debates about whether The Blair Witch Project was really a documentary (part of the marketing of the film), this device is surprisingly effective. (de Villiers 369)

Quarantine borrows the subjective camera of Blair Witch and literalizes the ‘assaultive gaze’ of slasher films in a brutal scene where the cameraman kills one of the rabid assailants in self-defense with the video camera (see Illustrations 4 and 5). What, then, happens to the normal process of cinematic ‘suture’ identified by Kaja Silverman, whereby the audience is asked to identify with the camera’s point of view? Silverman argues that “[t]he operation of suture is successful at the moment that the viewing subject says, ‘Yes, that’s me,’ or ‘That’s what I see’” (1983/1986: 222). (de Villiers 370-71)

What each of these films indicates is that, in this unique context, awareness of the camera is compatible with immersion, and ‘suture’ takes the form of audience investment in the will to document. There is a kind of cinematic survivalism at work that implies that if the camera is threatened, the narrative is threatened (proving that reference to the medium need not result in critical distance) . . . . As we have seen in Blair Witch and Quarantine, the camera acts as the hook to snare the audience, ensuring our ‘suture’ or immersion within the narrative fiction. An excellent example of this terrorizing of the viewing subject in order to guarantee immersion, even while revealing the operations of enunciation, can be found in the horror/science fiction hybrid Cloverfield (Reeves, dir. 2008). (de Villiers 371) 


[2] The protagonist murders his female victims with a spike attached to a camera tripod, and each victim sees her own death in a mirror also attached to the tripod. In filming the murders and then watching the reactions later in his projection room, the protagonist actually experiences both gazes and positions, finally committing suicide with his own device, thus fully crossing over to the victim position. 

[16] Robert Stam notes that “[r]ealism and reflexivity are not strictly opposed polarities but, rather, interpenetrating tendencies quite capable of coexisting within the same text” (2000: 152). Likewise, Jean-Marc Limoges focuses on self-reflexive cinematic devices and attempts to understand “why, despite the formal similarities between some of them, the aesthetic illusion was broken in some cases, and maintained in others” (2009: 392). 

Work Cited

“Metahorror: Sequels, ‘The Rules,’ and the Metareferential Turn in Contemporary Horror Cinema.” The Metareferential Turn: Forms, Functions, Attempts at Explanation, edited by Werner Wolf, Rodopi, 2011, pp. 357–77.

Dr. Nicholas de Villiers (he/his) is an English and Film professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, concentrating on gender, sexuality, autobiography, and French philosophy in cinema and literature.

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