Monday 30 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls, interlude: We Are Haunting Ourselves

One of the theses that I have about the cultural scene right now is that it reflects wider society. I mean, OK, that should be a no-brainer, except that it isn't, because if it really was, people would have noticed. But put it this way. I wrote a wildly successful (in niche nonfiction terms) book about folk horror. It is not successful because it is good. It might be good, and I like to think it's quite good, but that's not why it succeeded. It succeeded because it had an audience.

It had an audience because it was lucky enough to hit the market at the precise moment where enough people were really interested in folk horror and adjacent things. And the reason that enough people care about folk horror to make a self published book about folk horror media sell more than a major publisher's release of a book by a prominent British politician is only partly because that politician's book was completely shit, although that's also part of it (remember, shit things that succeed do so in spite of being shit; good things that fail do so in spite of being good).
I think it's because the climate we're living in is conducive to Folk Horror. In the first half of the 1970s, we had brutal austerity, an explicitly xenophobic fascist political party that always seemed to be on the TV despite never having an MP, and the fallout of a divisive referendum about Europe that may have been cheated. Meanwhile, over the pond, their corrupt and unprincipled president was facing impeachment. In the present day? Same.

After 9/11, zombies really became a thing in the pop culture consciousness. We were terrified of the other, a faceless mass of hungry, violent ideology that might bite us and make us one with it. We saw it as death, death of the self, death of our civilisation. So? Zombies.

After the world financial crash, that's when folk horror began to come back. Suddenly the prosaic and the uncanny began to exist side by side. We began to be haunted. Jacques Derrida, who loved a pun, came up with “hauntology” pretty much because it sounds like “ontology” if you're French. And it's got a specific and technical meaning that's to do with language and being, but culturally, it's about being haunted. It's about nostalgia for an obsolete state of the art. It's about lost futures and incomplete pasts. It's about what was once the future coming back and haunting us. In a sense, steampunk is also an exercise in hauntology, and before you scoff at the idea that the top hat/goggles combo or a corset adorned with glued on cogs might be hauntological, remember that Summerisle T shirts and mugs are a thing. But if you look at Michael Moorcock's Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, or Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine, you can see the unfinished business there. And that's what a haunting is. It is the feeling that history is not finished with us.
You know why the 90s was such a terrible period for horror movies? Because we thought it was The End of History. Even if we as individuals knew that Francis Fukuyama was talking out of his butt, as a culture we bought into it. We believed in Cool Britannia. We elected a government with the theme song Things Can Only Get Better. We watched the Iron Curtain – so we thought – rust away. We thought that sure, things weren't perfect, but democracy was winning. And it was an illusion, but the illusion was all there was. We were in a celebratory mode and of course there weren't many decent horror films between about 1993 and 1998, because horror movies are meditations on what scare us, and of course the only really popular horror movie of that five-year period that had wide cultural reach and crossover appeal beyond actual horror fans was Scream (1996), a jokey metatextual essay on horror movies rather than an actual horror movie. There was nothing much to be scared of, or so we thought.

(Don't call us naive: we had lived for decades under the horrible certainty that armageddon was any day. How could we be blamed for the rush of relief, the misapprehension that the respite was anything other than temporary? What's to say that in twenty years' time the survivors of our current social horrors won't find themselves in another cycle of celebratory self-congratulation?)

When things start going wrong – wars, recessions, social unrest, whatever – we start to realise that the past might actually have worked out better going in another direction to the one it actually took. We double down on our identity. And that might mean zombie movies; back in the 50s with the dawn of the Cold War it meant Red Scare alien invasion movies like Invaders From Mars (1953). Later, it metastasises.
We begin to indulge in false nostalgia, vague nostalgia. Fake olds, if you will. The wide adoption of slogans like “Take Back Control” and “Make America Great Again” is an indicator of haunting. They are dangerous because they don't mean anything real. When did we have control? At which particular time was America great? What do either of those things mean anyway? They only make sense when you realise they refer to a time when we thought we had the potential to control our fate, a time when America felt like it had the potential to be great. They are false memories. They are ghosts, the unfinished business of history. And now we start looking for films about ghosts. And we start to be afraid of conspiracies, of the heathen – and remember that “heathen” is just old English for “the people from the heath”, that is, the country folks. Folk horror is the horror of folk, and the horror of folk, our societies' slow descent into self harm, is the reality in which we live.

We're making films that reflect these concerns again. We know the social climate is depressing, and we're afraid, and we see the horror of folk manifest itself in populism, xenophobia, and the crushing of the disadvantaged, so we use horror as a safety valve. Genres are cathartic, a safe way for us to let out the concerns of our society. I've said this before, but right now we are haunting ourselves. Our folk horror, and the occult social horror and urban wyrd connected to that, and the identity horror that's flourishing now? They are manifestations of that.

We are haunting ourselves.