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The Privatization of Trauma in Contemporary Horror Cinema

by Marcelo Miranda

          David Gordon Green's Halloween, released in 2018, did not invent trauma as a catalyst for horror in cinema, not even in contemporary cinema, but something has happened ever since then. There have been a few little earlier films that have dealt with the painful woes of major physical or psychological beatings as the fuse of plots and allegories of the unusual, such as Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) and Dark Places (Giles Paquet-Brenner, 2015), and even a kind of transition in A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017), in which the traumatized person is the very ghost haunting a house. But the box office and critical success of the Halloween revival, with a Laurie Strode completely taken by the impact of the hellish night shown in John Carpenter's original 1978 film, triggered some yellow alert in horror producers in Hollywood for what has since become practically a commodity when the genre tries to find respect and legitimization among less calloused viewers: trauma as a regime of dramatic action.

        If trauma is, in philosopher Jeanne Marie Gagnebin's conception, "a wound opened in the soul, or in the body, by violent events, repressed or not, but which cannot be symbolically elaborated, particularly by the form of words, by the subject", then horror cinema, with its possibilities of imaginaries and allegories, naturally becomes a way to express and expurgate this feeling. It's not that the directors are necessarily using films to treat their own traumas (as literary authors often do); what we notice is that fictional plots initiated by traumas start to anchor themselves in the feeling to add suffering to the main characters, inserting them in dangerous situations that illustrate the anguishes they already feel internally, and removing them from these same dangers, either by less or happier endings. What seems to be at stake, in all of them, is the emotional connection that one wants to establish between character and spectator: the films invite the audience to share the pain and, from that, fine-tune the relationship between those who see the story from the outside and those who live it inside, causing at the same time uneasiness and re-knowledge.

         Halloween in 2018 is symptomatic in this sense because it makes Laurie Strode not just another person among many who survived the massacre perpetrated by Michael Myers in 1978, but rather the great character of this story that began 40 years earlier; not just another member of the Haddonfield community attacked by the maniac, but rather the anti-heroine who escaped the killer's knife, isolated herself in a domestic bunker, trained and armed herself to face the antagonist and become a herald of the apocalypse in an attempt to warn her family that Evil will still return. The minimalism of Myers' pursuit in 1978 gives way to the maximalism of the reactions to his attacks in 2018. Only Laurie reacts to the trauma because only she experienced the events, and all that matters is protecting her family. The new Halloween promotes what has become a convention of similar films: the privatization of trauma.

          This privatization is connected to a concept that is also always pursued to legitimize some of the most popular and best-selling horror movies: empathy. In times of trigger alerts and Twitter cancellations, working the drama so that the viewer understands the feelings of the characters is much more positive in the lottery of social networks than films that have amoral figures or less emotional approaches or less concerned with the welfare of those watching. The commoditization of trauma is only justified if it serves the unavoidable approximation of dramas, having as its objective and eventual The more comprehensible the anguish of the characters, the more touching their difficulties, and the more cathartic their purges, the more the connection is formed and the more emotional the response to the film tends to be. Individualism, then, is important in this process, for as much as a certain spectator may have his or her concerns about the world and the collective, there in the movie theater (or on the TV screen, or in the streaming window) this spectator is alone and only him or herself, his or her feelings are the only ones on the boil. Laurie Strode is a traumatized woman, and it is up to her and to those who watch her to overcome this trauma, as if our lives depended on what will happen in her life.

          Let Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2018) be seen. Dani is the traumatized girl by the tragic loss of her family and carries pain and guilt on the trip she takes with her boyfriend and friends to a community in northern Sweden. All the strangeness of the film lies in the cultural clash between Dani's gang and the residents of Harga, with violent consequences for both sides. But it is in Dani's traumas that the film is fixed, and it is to her that the point of connection and empathy is sought. This is the only way the ending works: in the separation between Dani's trauma and the cultural shock. In the end, Midsommar actually brings the two together to atone for Dani's trauma and conflicts in the final ceremony of human sacrifice. The last shot is the protagonist's frontal gaze at the camera and the smile of satisfaction of a revenge she did not ask for, but the Harga culture provided her with. The smile is a call for complicity, it is Dani's projection off-screen, summoning the viewer to be with her at that moment and to share her choices, justified by the duly privatized trauma.

          The process of purging the trauma is similar in The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, 2020), although, from the beginning, it is connected to the intimacy of the character. Here, it is not a single event that shapes the entire dramatic structure, but a cultural context of male oppression that provokes the traumatic fissure in Cecilia. The film responds to this context by first taking the woman to the maximum degree of suffering and pain, and then letting her restore herself and come to the end duly avenged and atoned for from her own actions. Here too, the balancing act between fictional character and real spectator depends on how much empathy is placed on Cecilia, and that is why The Invisible Man has a less frenetic pace, to allow one to share her feelings.

          This certain pattern of horror films about trauma in the last six or seven years - a more cadenced pace, characters with more charged inner dramas, screenplays attentive to potentially empathetic throws to hook the audience's emotions - has generated concepts such as the notorious "post-horror", coined by English journalist Steve Rose in 2017, to deal with works of the genre supposedly more reflective and less voracious of elements identified by him as characteristic and traditional of the genre. What seems to me to be most present in this relationship, and what Rose may not have grasped, is essentially the linking of intimate dramas to unusual elements in order to achieve empathy. The trauma, this "wound in the memory", as defined by Márcio Seligmann-Silva, appears as an opportune and ideal element in a cultural scenario in which one seeks to make horror films something "post", something that can be justified beyond the genre and that commercially breaks the bubble of occasional rejections from those who still believe that horror is synonymous with fear or violence. If you package the product in a shinier and shinier shell, sprinkle some perfume to disguise any bad smell, and sell it as a novelty, the chance of success tends to be greater. There is the production company A24, sometimes accused of being a kind of Right Wing Party in horror cinema.

          It doesn't always work, of course. Men (Alex Garland, 2022) was a critical and public failure with its metaphors about toxic masculinity and female suffering in a patriarchal society, and not even the privatization of trauma worked for the film to have a more positive repercussion. Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the denial of empathy, when, from a certain moment on, the excess of allegories, symbols, and surrealistic delirium unravels the relationship established until then between Harper and the spectator. It is easier to accept pagan rituals in Sweden or men wearing invisibility technologies if the film puts the audience on the same level as the characters, but this is not so valid if what the character sees are images of difficult codification (a man giving birth to himself infinitely, for example).

        The disconnection of the trauma causing the difficulty of empathy also happens in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (David Blue Garcia, 2022), which tries similar principles to 2018’s Halloween, but never finds exactly where to open the way to the emotionality that might have an effect beyond shock and nostalgia. In fact, this most recent entry in the franchise, that started in 1974, has as its greatest difficulty the blurring between being a film of bloodshed with social discourse (criticism of entrepreneurship and gentrification, roughly speaking) or a film of facing trauma (in the reappearance of Sally, the survivor, now a woman as thick-skinned as the Laurie of the 21st century). A young character traumatized by surviving a school shooting is rehearsed, but it's all so diluted in the overall mess of the film that there's not much left to connect to anything else.

          In other words, the privatization of trauma is not necessarily a guarantee of success and prestige, but its presence is certainly amplified in recent years in horror cinema precisely because of its tendency to be an almost immediate point of connection when approaching films. It is such an up-and-coming commodity that it is literally themed in Smile (Parker Finn, 2022), in which the entity that torments the character feeds off the trauma of the people she possesses. Eager not to pass on the evil, Rose - herself traumatized by her mother's suicide - tries to isolate herself, but is sought out by her former boyfriend, who naturally picks up the curse. There is nothing more explicit than Smile: it is impossible to escape from trauma, and therefore, it is impossible to escape from the eternal return to the "excavation of memories" that Seligmann-Silva talks about.

          The genesis of trauma, according to Freud, is the repetition compulsion, that is, it establishes itself in a mental coming and going, never to leave until the person overcomes it. Because it is a fissure in the memory, this repetition occurs through the constant remembrance of the shock and the reconfiguration of suffering. This is supposed to explain the contemporary perception of producers and directors that horror cinema can take advantage of this as much as other genres, and even more so when successes appear constantly. Trauma will continue to be more and more present, as well as its individuation/privatization, something very useful in times when the sense of collective is going through an unprecedented world crisis, aggravated by the pandemic that is still in the not so distant horizon. The trauma show will continue.



October, 2022

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