WiHM 2023: One Goddamn F*cked Up Horror Picture: Carmen Maria Machado, Pearl, and the Psychoanalytics of Horror

One Goddamn F*cked Up Horror Picture: Carmen Maria Machado, Pearl, and the Psychoanalytics of Horror

by Tenacity Plys


Generally, horror doesn’t scare me. It’s not that I don’t feel fear; I feel fear literally all the time. Don’t you?! But typically when a book or movie is supposed to be scary, something in me is numb to the experience. Like, there’s a guy killing all these people while they’re on vacation; who cares? Or some doll is creepy, and it’s gonna kill everyone; whatever. Even Midsommar didn’t really do it for me, because I was basically nodding along like, “okay, these Swedish people are a death cult and they’re going to kill all these teens in ~symbolic~ ways until only Florence Pugh is left. Got it.” Once you know the shtick of a horror story, that’s kind of it for your emotional response, even if the story is as smart as Midsommar


I used to be way too scared of horror movies. As a kid, I basically couldn’t watch them; they upset me way more than anyone else my age. Over time, I believe I developed defense mechanisms to keep me from being so overwhelmed, resulting in my anhedonia—in fact, sometimes I feel moved to nervous laughter at horror movies, my distress taking a detour through hilarity to make me look like a sociopath rather than a crybaby. Progress?


Fear is a primary emotion, meaning it’s a reflexive reaction to our environment; primary emotions are sometimes called precognitive emotions, because they happen before you can think about the fact that they’re happening—and while you can mitigate them by thinking once they’ve happened, you can’t prevent them by thinking. To instill fear, horror has to sneak up on us, before our conscious minds can catch on and intellectualize our fear before we feel it. The power of language is such that when we think “I am scared” to ourselves, this gives us a handle on our fear—naming what’s scary is half the battle, especially when you can just say to yourself “it’s only a movie.”

This technical challenge is a tough nut to crack—no matter how technically accomplished a film is, the only real criterion for horror is the audience’s subjective reaction. It’s like adult content in that way—people go to this genre for a very specific emotional response, a build-up and release of psychosexual tensions that can be difficult to trigger properly due to the audience’s jadedness, defense mechanisms, and internet-induced ADHD. We can all agree that when it’s not done right, the splatters of bodily fluids do nothing for our lizard brains, no matter how gratuitous the action. Something needs to be left to the imagination, a gap for the mind to fill in.


I was recently reawakened to the possibilities of horror by a. writing my own horror story and b. watching X and Pearl, a duology of horror movies from Mia Goth and Ti West, both released last year. These two films, particularly Pearl, made me remember why I like movies in general, especially horror. I watched the full credit sequences for both films in stunned silence, realizing that for the first time in years, I had been horrified by fiction rather than fact. 


Pearl is the latest entry in a new genre I would call the horror of the marginalized, arguably begun by Jordan Peele and continued by Carmen Maria Machado, Jac Jemc, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Caitlin Starling, and others. This emerging school of horror draws heavily on the gothic, which holds its thematic and aesthetic roots—think “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Rebecca. These stories are characterized, obviously, by centering some aspect of marginalization, or at the very least lending themselves very easily to that interpretation (Ti West is a white man, so he may not have intended X to be a feminist film per se, though Mia Goth is a co-writer on Pearl).


Marginalized people are great at horror because our lives are often horror stories already. Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably seen at least one analysis of the Handmaid’s Tale dismissing it as a radical text because many elements of the story’s “dystopian sci-fi” has been reality for women of color for centuries. As a queer person, I live in a country where people like me have been lobotomized, castrated, and electrocuted as part of “conversion therapy.” That fact horrifies me every day, especially as those who advocate for these atrocities steadily gain political power. 


In Pearl, what I found horrifying wasn’t a man being stabbed with a pitchfork and then fed to an alligator; it was the shrieks emitted by the titular character as she commits these crimes. I first became aware of Pearl through TikTok, where the algorithm showed me clips of Pearl’s screams in conjunction with the “cool girl” monologue from Gone Girl. Amy Dunn and Pearl, two very different women driven to psychopathy by the pressure of forced femininity, trapped by the men in their lives and patriarchal society as a whole. Directed by men but written and acted by women, they embody the rage (and fear) of women prevented from self-actualizing, women forced into the role of caretaker, wife, sex object. Rebecca comes to mind, not to mention The Babadook, The Grip of It, Plain Bad Heroines, and Rosemary’s Baby.


In these stories, I see lives I might have been forced into, screams that could be mine. And there’s also an element of cringe there, at the women who embody these feminine roles so completely they reveal the horror inherent to them—the Karen, the tradwife, the white girlfriend in Get Out who eats Froot Loops while stalking her next victim online. This is true of Pearl more than almost any horror heroine: the bows in Pearl’s hair, the too-big smile plastered on her face as she auditions for a dance troupe, her childlike schoolgirl mannerisms—we’re not just experiencing horror committed by this woman, we have a certain horror of this woman. The whiplash from weirdly immature farm girl to overwhelming homicidal rage is jarring, and also an incredibly truthful statement on white femininity. Maybe the real horror of Pearl is the white woman’s combination of victimhood and villainy.


Cringe is rooted in disgust, another precognitive emotion. A “cringe content” video is essentially a horror movie—for example, a cringe video from my Tiktok feed shows a white cooking influencer butchering a traditional recipe (rather than a human being). Cringe elicits the same “can’t look away” response as horror, our response being less “to shudder” than to mock. Though not always: I’ve actually seen comments on lengthy cringe videos in the vein of “this is terrifying” or “I was traumatized by this.” I even know people who can’t watch The Office because the cringe humor is too painful for them. I once dated someone who had to pause our binge-watch sessions of Seinfeld to smoke a bowl when a scene got too awkward, or in extreme cases they would leave the room and ask me to call them back in when it was over.


Perhaps horror lives in the Venn-diagram intersection of cringe and adult content. Perhaps white women are uniquely prepared to deliver content at this intersection—note the long legacy of “scream queens” leading horror movies, even in periods when other genres were stubbornly male-dominated. After her failed dance audition, Pearl is dragged off the stage screaming “please, I’m a star!” Later, she sits outside the theater crying very literally like a baby. Her howls of grief are so abject they would be considered embarrassing for anyone to do in real life. At one point she even takes a deep breath and brings her screaming significantly upward in pitch, sounding more like an ambulance than a person. It is deeply uncomfortable to watch, an assault on both a taboo against this level of emotional expression and on our instinctive empathy for someone in such a condition.


For a story to inspire fear or lust, there has to be an extrapolation from relatively scant information—that’s one reason erotic poetry is so popular; it benefits from the opacity of the form. One thing I notice about cringe is that it achieves its effect in the opposite way: cringe shows us way too much—it brings us up close to Pearl’s face as she screeches almost directly into the camera. This scene, devoid of violence, is the most-referenced moment of the film. Its secondhand mortification burns itself into your amygdala, Pearl’s despair becoming so immediate it feels like your own. However, there still needs to be an element of seduction in cringe—when cringe videos are too calculated, they’re condemned as “engagement bait,” staged scenes meant to trick the audience into thinking an implausibly cringy thing happened in real life.


Cringe, fear, lust. A horror filmmaker’s quest to trigger this cocktail of precognitive emotions must be roundabout, or the audience will catch on and the spell will be broken. That’s the difference between a story and an essay: an essay is a mathematical proof, but a story is a sleight-of-hand trick. We’re still left with the question of how that’s best accomplished, though. How do we get people to lower their defenses and show us their seedy emotional underbellies? 


I would start with atmosphere. Atmosphere provides subtle cues that coax our more skittish emotions out of hiding. It primes us to be seduced, it’s the lead-up that creates anticipation. Maybe people whose everyday lives have creeping notes of horror, even in their best moments, are better at achieving atmosphere—much of Carmen Maria Machado’s horror in Her Body and Other Parties literally just comes from the real details of a cishet relationship, an atmosphere that then leads into the absurd and paranormal by extending those details to their logical conclusion. Machado is in fact known more for her narrative voice, the feeling of her writing, than for any specific monster or conceit from her stories. Maybe now that the horrific lives in the “trending” sidebar of our Twitter feed at all times, we’re in an ideal era to appreciate this. 


But this isn’t about analyzing the constituent elements of horror—my real question is how one can write smart horror, when the genre must elude the intellect to succeed? Where does the smartness lie in a genre that needs to get an audience vibing instead of thinking? It couldn’t only be after the fact, crammed into the denouement. It couldn’t all be so subtle that it’s only apparent on rewatching, though that’s a promising avenue in general—a psychoanalytic reading is usually done in retrospect, while looking back through key moments of the text, and is no less rewarding for that. Maybe there’s a way for audiences to be intellectually engaged with one aspect of a film without compromising emotional engagement. 


Reconsidering the gap that must exist for horror and adult contentto seduce, I realize the audience is thinking during the process of psychosexual seduction. They’re wondering what happens next, what the monster looks like, mentally telling the main character not to go into the basement. Maybe this existing line of thought could be smart horror’s best line of attack—if the audience will already be thinking about the climax of the film, if the anticipation that produces that thinking is the point, maybe that’s the best place for a commentary on genre to be made? 


In my novella Family Curse, the horror story is blended with a mystery story, though of course this is always the case. I wanted the reader to come up with theories about what was lurking in the woods, picking off my characters’ family members one by one. As you’re probably aware, the mystery genre is defined by the plot considering a series of suspects before the final one is revealed, hopefully surprising the reader. As I lead the reader through creepy elements of each disappearance, I place red herrings meant to lead them to a different conclusion with each victim. I use the mind’s natural tendency to extrapolate from evidence and created a story that comments on several fantasy tropes in quick succession before suggesting the real answer toward the very end. This keeps the reader guessing and, I hope, instills a sense of paranoia not unlike that of my UFO conspiracy theorist character. 


Not to call myself a genius, but maybe working with the warp and weft of genre is the best way to comment on its conventions. In X, the characters are the cast of an adult film. They all have different relationships to their own sexualities, and different opinions of what it means that they create adult content for a living. Since often the protagonists of a horror movie are to some degree being punished for sexuality (kids hooking up on vacation are mowed down by a serial killer, women seduced by a vampire become his next meal), this gets at the heart of one major problem of the genre. The villain in X and her husband/ accomplice, appear unable to have sex most of the time, and each expresses resentment at the desirability and sexual activity of their victims. So on the surface it’s an affecting slasher film, but then if you think about it, X has plenty to say about why slasher films are always so slut-shamey, and about slut-shamers in general.


As an essay in the “assay” sense of the word, I can only do here what I did with Family Curse, which is write my way into provisional answers to questions that don’t end here. As someone who aims to be bisexual in my approach to logic and emotion, I’m interested in finding ways for the two to harmoniously coexist. What I’m realizing, though, is that we live in a terminally self-referential society, one where it is increasingly impossible to experience stimuli in a precognitive manner. The social media era’s onslaught of internet commentary is an analogue for the intellectualization of fear—after all, who would be scared by a monster they had already seen mocked in dozens of memes before entering the theater? Signs pointing to signs, Joss Whedon quips, scenes that feel like they were written to be made into GIFs—they signal the death of emotion unmediated by irony. Maybe people go balls-out for X and Pearl, and generally anything that actually makes them feel something, because these days most of us exhale more sharply than usual instead of laughing. 


Wittgenstein spoke of expressing the unutterable through the utterable; wending one’s way around the unutterable in ways that allow the reader to reconstruct the unutterable in their own minds. A work of art whose project is to be the smartest person in the room is not concerning itself with the unutterable. Maybe the real “smart” art of the future runs along the lines of David Foster Wallace’s prediction that sincerity will become the new punk. No more Cabin in the Woods, the horror movie equivalent of a Youtube essay. More Pearl, a simple story of a farmer’s daughter who yearns for a better life.


It’s worth noting that the authentic, the sincere, is often labeled as sentimental kitsch online—that assumption in our culture that for something to be deep it has to be sad. (This content is even labeled cringe by some.) Say what you will about Rupi Kaur, Warsan Shire, and countless anonymous Tumblr artists, but their work has spread because it makes people feel something, which is what art aims to achieve. Despite the fact that neither X nor Pearl has been nominated for an Oscar this year, I think these films achieve it, too.

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