Monday, October 21, 2013

Sympathy for the Monster

Oh, around 8 years, while I was seriously deliberating on whether to attend grad school, I enrolled in a Continuing Ed course to see if I would like being back in the classroom. I decided to take a course offered in the English Lit dept called "American Film Genres". The course consisted of a film list. The students needed to watch two films a week and then during each class that week we would discuss the films and breakdown the themes and tropes, as if we were dissecting a book. As the course title indicates it was all American film and the genres were comedy, horror, western, noir, science fiction, war, etc. Lots of good movies watched. Some I havd never seen before, some I watched for a second or third time just for the class. The grading was based upon two papers and a final exam.

The professor was excellent. She was brilliant and insightful and excited about film. I learned a lot and she taught me even more about writing as she reviewed my submitted papers with me and offered all sorts of helpful tips on critical writing. It was a wonderful experience and I subsequently went to grad school for Public Health and never took a class on film again.

I was thinking about this experience since The Walking Dead just started up again and a remake of Carrie recently hit the theatres. Carrie was one of the films as part of the horror genre. One of the paper subjects that could be chosen dealt with Carrie as a sympathetic "monster" and I think asked to use Carrie and another film monster a subjects. I used zombies. I love zombie movies, specifically George Romero zombie movies. Probably my favorite monster genre, although huge creatures stomping cities can give it a run for its money depending upon my mood.

Presented below is my paper, unedited, as submitted; before my professor reviewed it with me. I thought of including her copious notes and suggestions but that would require me to dig up the hard copy and take away from the rawness of the original. One comment my professor did make to me was to wonder why I just didn't ask her to drop Carrie and just focus on the Romero zombie movies (of which there were 4 at the time of this writing). Without further ado, here are my thoughts on Carrie and zombies as sympathetic "monsters".

One final item before that: my second paper for the class had to do with The Wild Bunch, as great a western film as the Romero "Dead" series are zombie movies. 

Sympathetic Identification With Horror Film “Monsters”

In horror films a clear divide usually exists between the “monster”, the victims, and the hero, where the audience identifies with the hero.   Occasionally, this divide is blurred, and the “monster” exhibits identifiable traits. The films Carrie (1976) and the George Romero directed “Dead” series [Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005)] all invite the viewer to identify with their respective “monster”. In these films, identification with the “monster” is achieved by evoking the viewer’s sympathy.

Although identifiable characteristics within the zombies can be found in any of the “Dead” films, the entire series will be discussed.  One of the conceits of the “Dead” series is the zombies’ continual evolution from one film to the next.  The identification process for the zombies takes a bit of maturation because from the first sighting in Night of the Living Dead zombies can be viewed as the “monster” and therefore need to overcome that stigma. Conversely, Carrie White is first viewed as an unfairly mistreated high school student and the qualities that may make her viewed as a “monster” come to light later.

As a result, the identifiable traits become apparent to the viewer at different times. Carrie becomes “monstrous” during the climax of the film, while in each subsequent “Dead” film the zombies become more human-like. The viewer, then, is invited to have sympathy for the “monster” in different ways.  Examples of identifiable traits that can evoke sympathy are the “monster’s” familiarity, innocence, and victimization. 

Familiarity with the “monster” is put into motion using “normal” settings.  Carrie is set at an All-American high school with recognizable characters. The viewer can appreciate the trials and tribulations a high school student such as Carrie must endure.   Most viewers can relate to the desperate feeling of not being recognized as when Carrie’s principal continues to call her by the wrong name. Carrie’s sentiment that “All the kids think I am funny” is another way of involving the audiences own memory of times they have felt different. But, while different, Carrie neither looks nor acts like a “monster” for most of the film.

Familiar settings also exist in the “Dead” series, notably in Dawn of the Dead, which takes place mostly in a shopping mall. While the zombies, being recently dead, differ physically from humans - purplish skin, rotting flesh, evidence of death - familiarity still exists because of their past humanness.  As the films progress, an abundance of zombies betray their past lives by their clothes, accessories, and actions. In Night zombies that were buried in their Sunday best to others wandering around in their underwear are seen. Dawn begins to show an ethnic diversity of zombies, reflecting the world in which we live, that will continue through Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead.  Everyday recognizable outfits worn by the zombies throughout the films include a little boy in his Little League baseball uniform, doctor, softball player, cheerleader, butcher, clown, construction worker, a woman still clutching to her purse, and various blue-collar work uniforms.

As the films move forward, the actions of the zombies become more familiar.  One technique used to enhance this is a focus on an individual zombie rather than a mass volume of undead. Day, mostly taking place within a military bunker, limits the actual number of zombies on screen.  Bub the Zombie is seen responding to music, attempting to use a razor blade and read a book, saluting Capt. Rhodes and shooting a gun.  This coincides with Sarah expressing that the zombies are “…learning, they are actually learning”.  Land expands on familiar actions, bringing to the forefront the zombies’ past humanity.  During a raid for supplies by the surviving humans, a group of zombies, gathered with wind instruments under a gazebo in the town center, fruitlessly try to make music. Big Daddy, a former gas station attendant, now zombie, responds to another zombie inadvertently stepping on the bell line at his gas station, by coming out to pump gas. Big Daddy, so identified by the nametag on his work overalls, becomes the de facto leader of these zombies, uttering growls and cries to which the denizens of the undead seem to respond. Just as in all the films humans are witnessed becoming zombies, the ability of the audience in the last two films to view zombies as individuals emphasizes their former human lives. It portrays zombies relying on what they remember of being human to get by.

Both Carrie and the “Dead” series rely on memory to allow the viewer to identify with the “monster”. The “Dead” series relies on the zombies’ memories to trigger sympathy. What began in Dawn, with the zombies flocking to the shopping mall, and is crowned in Day and Land, is an influx of “human nature” on the part of the zombies (Williams 91). What is described as  “some kind of instinct” to travel to the shopping mall in Dawn, becomes Riley telling the other survivors that the zombies are just “looking for someplace to go…same as us” at the end of Land. This indicates an intersection of desire and memory shared by the living humans and the undead zombies (Williams 91).

Rather than emphasize certain character’s memories, Carrie relies on the audience’s memory of high school and feelings of being ostracized or considered different to identify with Carrie. These high school memories are meant to focus on the “typical” victimization and relative innocence of the outcast.

Carrie is viewed in the opening scene as an outcast by other students, blamed for losing a volleyball game, and then alone in the shower.  Her innocence is displayed as she reacts to having her first period. Even before her telekinetic powers are revealed, Carrie’s na├»ve reaction immediately marks her as different from her peers. (Sobchack 183)  Carrie demonstrates a lost innocence here. Not only does having her period reflect a burgeoning sexuality, but immediately after the bleeding occurs, Miss Collins is trying to help, and the first glimpse of Carrie’s power is shown as a light bulb explodes in the shower.  Carrie’s loss of innocence through natural means and by the taunts of her peers allows Carrie to be identified with even as she begins to show “monstrous” characteristics. The sympathy towards Carrie due to the helplessness she feels allows the viewer to live vicariously through Carrie as she unleashes her telekinetic powers.

Carrie’s innocence, although lost to some extent now, reasserts itself in preparation for and during the prom.  It is this innocence that causes her victimization at the hands of her fellow students. Carrie is seen sewing her own dress and putting on lipstick and make-up, presumably for the first time.  Carrie maintains a child-like glow of wonderment as she enters the prom. Carrie is portrayed as an innocent in a new world until the pig’s blood drowns that illusion. From this additional loss of innocence, sympathy is again aroused. In this respect the viewer is excused from feeling a sort of gratification as Carrie uses her powers to take revenge. This gratification dims as revenge is taken on both friend and foe, although sympathy still exists.

The zombie’s innocence arises partly from the possibility that they exist at all. Although a feeble explanation about radiation is proffered in Night as a reason for the zombies’ sudden appearance, it is never verified.  The zombies attack and eat the flesh of humans for no other reason than they are zombies.   Like a young child writing with crayons on the wall, the zombies conduct themselves in this manner without ever realizing it is aberrant behavior.  In fact, most of the zombie victims killed throughout the films are caused by the “sheer stupidity” of the human characters (Newman 200). The zombies have a perpetual look of otherworldly confusion, look in awe upon the most mundane objects and are portrayed as oafish throughout the series.

This innocence of lacking realization compiled with limited memory and brainpower results in the zombies’ victimization from the humans around them. What begins in Night with the posse excitedly walking through fields exterminating zombies and humans alike culminates in Land as the zombies are used as target practice and in gladiator games. In each subsequent film human behavior towards the zombies grows more barbaric.

Even though zombies become identifiable, unlike Carrie, there is no great gratification in watching a zombie eat live human flesh, other than to appreciate the special effects.  This changes somewhat in Day and Land where “bad” human characters are present along with the focus on individual zombies. Throughout the films certain human character’s behavior, towards zombies and other humans, is abhorrent. This assists identification with the zombies not by having zombies look appealing but by having humans look unappealing.

In Carrie many of the feelings of sympathy and identification come not from Carrie herself but due to the actions of other characters toward her. Issuing vulgarities, throwing feminine hygiene products at her, writing insulting graffiti on the walls, and laughing at her constantly only enhances the sympathetic identification to the character.

In addition to the traits that invite sympathy and identification with the respective “monster” in each of the films, there is also an aspect of “rooting for the underdog” present.  Carrie is viewed as a different yet nice girl, treated horribly by her schoolmates and repressed by her mother. The audience wants Carrie to have some sort of revenge and knows that Carrie possesses unique abilities that can enable revenge.  

Although the zombies become ever more numerous with each passing installment they still never shed their underdog status.  This is partly because as described by George Romero, zombies “are the lower-class citizens of the monster world” (Williams 14).  Also the zombies, as is Carrie, are never portrayed energetically with the evil or negative connotations usually seen in horror film monsters (Wood 114). The zombies are not even made out to be “particularly frightening” or surrounded by an “aura of frightening mystique” (Newman 199-200).

The viewer sympathetically identifies with Carrie and the zombies because exhibiting familiar traits allows them to be seen as unfamiliar as a “monster”. This creates an unbiased initial reaction that resonates with the audience and enhances all other identifiable traits. Ultimately, as remakes, sequels, and spoofs involving “teenage outcast with unique ability” and “oafish undead” themes continue, identification may occur less from evoking sympathy than just the result of saturation.

Works Cited

Newman, Kim. Nightmare Movies. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Limited, 1984
Sobchack, Vivian. “Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange.” American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Ed. Gregory A Waller. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987. 175-194.
Williams, Tony. The Cinema of George A. Romero: knight of the living dead. London:
Wallflower Press, 2003
Wood, Robin. Hollywood From Vietnam To Reagan. New York: Columbia University
Press, 1986