Cinematic terror becomes reality: Changes in post 9/11 horror film

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By Caitlin Gardner

“It was just like a movie.” This was a common reaction to seeing the horrific destruction of the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, according to Associate Professor of English Aviva Briefel of Bowdoin College in Maine.

Briefel spoke in Reamer Auditorium last Friday about patterns in post-9/11 horror films in a lecture entitled “How Horror Rewrites Terror: Cinematic Monsters and Political Allegory after 9/11.”

The familiarity of the event that transcended generations was reminiscent of disaster films in recent decades and only got bigger and bolder around the ‘90s, such as Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996).  The familiarity of this type of event was uncanny and jarring.

Resemblance to real disaster did not come from other experiences in America, but the familiarity largely came from images in film centered on the destruction of major landmarks, unknown and menacing invaders, chaotic scenes of masses of people and the short time span of events that comprised the destruction, all of which could have easily comprised a horror  film.

Briefel  observed  that in horror, there are direct and indirect components audiences could pull from films that could be allegorical in a post-9/11 context. The reaction in various genres of film to 9/11 had a brief moment of pause over what can and cannot be shown and said in explicit terms.

The genre of horror, already proven as an effective allegorical cinematic space for issues of race, the Red Scare, and much of the zeitgeist for each generation, seemed most adept to deal with the horrors of Sept. 11, albeit indirectly.

But as Briefel noted in her talk, there were several splintering directions in which the horror genre went post-9/11.  The so-called “torture porn” sub-genre, epitomized by the rising popularity of the Saw movies, seemed to send mixed messages, since there existed an audience that actively craved images of inflicting pain on others for entertainment while the immediate response to 9/11 in cinema was  to remove or obstruct any reminders of the event’s destruction.

Even the disaster films since 2001 that invited a 9/11 comparison, like the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend (2007) and the Matt Reeves and J. J. Abrams found-footage horror film Cloverfield (2008), pulled their audiences back by highlighting that a disaster had already happened in the universes of each film.

The incoming disasters and horror of each film have already been experienced, be it the disaster itself or quotes from those who have experienced the disasters at that moment by comparing it to the experience within a horror film.

This is probably the starkest difference from the pre-9/11 films that dealt with disaster; the experience has happened and there is no idealized response that is explored or even gained in the post-9/11 context.

The monsters for post-9/11 horror each have traces of their own construction because of the allegories many viewers can immediately and easily identify in films packaged in the post-9/11 context.

But is there a defining monster for the post-9/11 horror genre?  When I asked Briefel this question, she answered that singling out the monster still needs time to be defined and sorted out with the various allegories packaged in the horror genre in so many films.

In some ways I agree, but I’m inclined to think it’s Jigsaw.

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