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Irving Howe

Hollywood Terror Films Mirror of Social Decay

(16 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 37, 16 September 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Even casual movie-goers have probably noticed the greater stress on violence, horror and sadism in the pictures recently produced by Hollywood. These “shockers” have been among the most financially successful of Hollywood’s recent productions. They can hardly be MERELY contrived by Hollywood planners as part of their continuous search for fresh material; and even if they are that, there must still be something about these movies which touches areas of response in the minds of the millions who view them.

Hollywood has always gloated in violence, always been fond of the strange, the grotesque and the horrible. It has always skillfully, though crudely, appealed to the subterranean areas of its audiences’ minds where fear of and fascination for terror are inextricably mixed. Thus, the success of such actors as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But these films usually made it abundantly clear that their locales were unusual, that they were concoctions of weird imaginations, and that they had no relationship to ordinary life as experienced by the people who paid their money to enter the dreamworld of the screen’s shadows.

Today that has all been changed. Instead of vague castles, mythical laboratories and Roman amphitheaters, movie terror is shown in most usual environments. Where in the past the Frankenstein monster made one shudder at first sight, today the villain is an unprepossessing young man, often slight in build, who engages in the most ruthless behavior in typical American small towns or cities. (For instance, the films Shadow of a Doubt and The Stranger.)

As one critic, Siegfried Kracauer, writes:

“Thus, the weird, veiled insecurity of life under the Nazis is transferred to the American scene. Sinister conspiracies incubate next door, within the world considered normal – any trusted neighbor may turn into a demon.” (Commentary, August issue)

The same critic notes the penchant for unrestrained and deliberate physical brutality in which this type of film indulges. He points to the film, Dark Corner, in which a private detective smashes the hand of a gunman to make him confess and is then himself assaulted by the gunman, who knocks the detective down and “steps with the full weight of his body on the hand of his unconscious victim.” An even better example is found in the series of pictures made from Raymond Chandler books and in those which star Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart: for instance, the scene in one Powell picture in which he beats a man to death with his fists and the scene in a Bogart picture in which he contemptuously refuses aid to a group of drowning German aviators.

This tendency toward obsessive concern with physical brutality – in a world which seems to have lost all rational meaning, is not physical power the decisive arbiter? – is combined with the suggestion of a constant eerie feeling of uncertainty and insecurity. The films directed by Alfred Hitchcock are extremely effective instances.

As Kracauer writes in the previously mentioned article:

“Apprehension is accumulated; threatening allusions and dreadful possibilities evoke a world in which everybody is afraid of everybody else, and no one knows when or where the ultimate and inevitable horror will arrive. When it does arrive it arrives unexpectedly: erupting out of the dark from time to time in a piece of unspeakable brutality. That panic which in the anti-Nazi films was characterized as peculiar to the atmosphere of life under Hitler, now saturates the whole world.”

What is the explanation of this emphasis on horror, physical brutality, psychological destruction of personality, and pervasive feelings of insecurity?

An answer to this question involves many factors. For one thing, all of life under a decaying capitalist society is increasingly insecure, many pretenses of morality and order are being dropped in political life. This tendency toward open power domination, toward domination of masses by terror and pressure propaganda, is transformed on the screen into images of more personalized insecurity. What is especially noteworthy is that so much of the brutality and horror of these Hollywood pictures is without meaning or purpose beyond the mere accidental existence of some particularly evil individual – this very meaninglessness, incidentally, making it all the more terrifying. Hollywood refrains from associating terror with current social and political life, even to the degree that, such a foreign film as Open City does. Unable or unwilling to connect the feelings of terror which seem so strongly rooted in contemporary life with their social setting, Hollywood can therefore produce only grotesque portraits of horror, ultimately boring in their viciousness.

There is still another important reason for this series of films. During the war, most “war pictures” were, to the surprise of their producers, not especially popular. People felt that they had enough of the real thing; soldiers universally scorned the sugared versions of war which most of the “war pictures” presented. Yet all of the emotional antagonisms, the accumulations of aggression, the bundles of tension which war produces in men required some outlet for release. This, I think, the horror films are doing.

The films produced by Hollywood can serve as barometers of the moral and ideological climate of capitalist civilization. When that civilization is distinguished by an increasing sense of individual helplessness in a brutal, meaningless world; when mass murder and terror are everyday events; when psychological disintegration is the result of social decay – then the pictures made in Hollywood will reflect, in however distorted a form, that very situation.

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