“Horror” – what a shapeshifter of a word. We use “horror” to describe a film genre that we associate with Freudian fear and fantasy, buckets of blood, an exaggerated picture of the dark; and yet we can also call race-based state violence a “horror,” or watch a TV special about the “horrors” of Black Americans forced to live in rat-infested ghettos. This week I found myself really interested in the multi-faceted uses and interpretations of horror – how do we reconcile the human anxieties we represent with fictionalized atrocities, vs. the real atrocities of human life that manifest in deep fissures of anxiety in society?
Though Night of the Living Dead demands a much different analytical framework and context than “Sit-In,” “New Bedford,” and “Walk In My Shoes,” I did find that all of these works had me really considering the function of the close-up as it relates to the Black gaze. Both “Sit-In” and “Walk In My Shoes” had some incredibly evocative, long close-up interviews that simply framed the faces of Black subjects (both male and female) as they told their own stories about experiencing racial injustice, prejudice, and the struggle for civil rights in 1960s America. Take the gentleman from “Walk In My Shoes” whose facial expressions – particularly his eyes – are privileged by the camera as he discusses the complex anxieties and tensions inherent in his Freedom Ride to Montgomery. Or the women who talk about “passing” privilege, where our viewpoint shifts to their faces as they speak. The Athens organist featured in “Sit-In” is contextualized in his close-up by the background of the church organ, allowing the mise-en-scene to support his spoken narrative of “glory and culture.” The close-up, where we are the gaze of the camera upon the subject, gives a sense of both awe and intimacy, sometimes even a sense of empowered space. In these television programs, “horror” is openly dissected by the Black subjects; it is not situated in the realm of uncanniness or fantasy. The beauty of Black agency and revolt exists alongside, and in the face of, everyday horror. Even the non-verbal close-up shots are somehow verbal (like the young man framed at the end of “Walk In My Shoes”) because they allow the humanity of the Black subject to subsume the screen by way of the evocative, uninterrupted, un-edited face.
What about the P.O.V. shot in close-up, where the subject is the camera, right up against the object being viewed? This is such a rich area of Night of the Living Dead to mine. Our Black hero Ben often comes right up against zombies (always white), whose decomposing, twisted faces lurch at the screen and overwhelm the viewer with fear and disgust. Richard Dyer says that the role of the zombies in the film (to destroy and consume) is “indistinguishable” with that of the living white characters – that “body horror is the horror of whiteness” whether that whiteness is alive or undead. I really responded to Dyer’s opening concept that the “source of [whiteness’] representational power” is “to be everything and nothing” – I mean, talk about horror. The monster is everywhere and nowhere at once. We do get P.O.V. horror shots from some of the white subjects in the film – for example, Barb – but they often do not correspond with successful physical struggle onscreen. The frustratingly infantile Barb is eventually dragged away and eaten by the spectre of white masculine control (her brother). Ben’s shots bespeak a more significant kind of racialized fear-confrontation.
The white “ghouls” of Night of the Living Dead certainly embody Freud’s “uncanny.” I characterize it as a liminal space, in which childhood neuroses and extreme representations of the id present themselves in the organized adult world. The uncanny encapsulates the fear that what should not be, what is unreal, can coexist with categorizable reality. The Living Dead zombies are, from a distance, just a bunch of white people walking around. Only as they approach is something “off,” something horrible. Night of the Living Dead, by virtue of positioning Ben as a Black hero amidst this elusive threatening onslaught, engages with this idea and exposes the cracks in the white hegemonist ideology of its audience. As Freud puts it, the uncanny “touches those residues of animistic mental activity within us and brings them to expression.” Ben’s being there kind of makes Living Dead a film for a Black audience.
I’d eventually like to parse out some of the aspects of body horror as it relates to the female body on film – Living Dead touches on it with its brief shot of the nude zombie, but it’s not enough for me. I’ve been watching a lot of body horror ballet media recently – Black Swan and the new mini-series Flesh & Bone – and I’m curious about what everyone’s thoughts might be on how the uncanny shows up in the camera gaze on the disrupted or disfigured form of white feminine beauty.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
ABC Bell & Howell’s Close-Up’s “Walk in My Shoes” (1961)
NBC White Papers’ “Sit-In” (1960)
Say Brother: “New Bedford” (1968)
“The Uncanny” – Sigmund Freud
“White” – Richard Dyer
COURSE: Text & Context
QUARTER: Fall 2015