Is there anyone left who still flinches when a zombie is dispatched with the violent application of a knife, sword, bullet, stick, boulder, crossbow or other brain-piercing instrument to a blood-spurting head? The Walking Dead, the stylish drama that’s wrapping up its fourth season on US TV on 30 March, has inspired endless speculation about exactly what caused the majority of the citizenry to become flesh-eating zombies. There is, no doubt, some great allegorical significance to it all for those who want to look for it, something to fit our times. And for those not seeking symbolism, there is always the entertainment of being pleasurably spooked, not least by all that gore. Yet, four seasons into The Walking Dead, we watch as those still living kill the zombified deceased and accept the skewering of skulls as a matter-of-fact activity akin to the brushing of teeth.
Has the zombie genre become routine? And if so, are we now in need of the Next Great Scare? What is out there to frighten us silly? Because whatever scares us as a form of entertainment is never just the thing itself – the vampire, the axe murderer, the mutant lizard, extraterrestrial or stalker in the house with the unsuspecting nubile nanny – but also a manifestation of zeitgeist anxiety, a clue inside our society’s deepest fears at a particular moment. The original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not merely about extraterrestrial ‘pods’ that turn humans into emotionless replicants, but also a critique of suburban conformity – as well as a McCarthy-era parable about creeping communism. Rosemary’s Baby is not simply about a pregnant woman and the devil, but also a pre-Roe v Wade allegory about women being denied reproductive freedom.
So, what can possibly scare us next?
What’s old is new
These days our zeitgeist anxiety is focused, with good reason, on technology in general and on the internet in particular. Secrets spilled by Edward Snowden about the extent to which the US National Security Agency covertly monitors the world have drawn refocused attention on the terrifying power of computerised intelligence – an old fear become new again. We’re suddenly back to the Orwellian attitudes of the 1940s ‘50s and ‘60s that had a massive influence on popular culture, so to make a prediction about what to expect for the future of horror, it helps to look back.
Stanley Kubrick’s minimalist-majestic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the computer called HAL develops an insidious lip-reading intelligence of its own, feels as startlingly relevant now as it did 45 years ago. HAL was built to liberate the astronauts from menial tasks, but ultimately ends up threatening them: that’s the danger of convenience, both then and now. The human characters of 2001 arguably felt more robotic than HAL himself. Kubrick’s prophetic warning was twofold. He suggested that humanity might be flirting with disaster by relying too heavily on technology, and also that we’d all better watch out lest we become like machines ourselves; Snowden warns against the same pitfalls.
Now, a new variation on these 1960s ideas arrives in cinemas this April. The sprawling sci-fi thriller Transcendence stars Johnny Depp as a brilliant artificial intelligence researcher who transcends physical limitations to merge his ‘consciousness’ with that of the machine he has built to process collective intelligence. The results, let us just say, are not on the side of societal good. As the uploaded human’s consciousness expands within the turbocharged capacities of a computer, the disembodied mind learns to disregard the ethical distinctions that humans are capable of making between right and wrong. And the means of defence, by the alarmed few humans who recognise the danger, are drastic.
Seen through such a lens, Spike Jonze’s melancholy sci-fi love story Her also takes on darker overtones. Programmed to adapt and evolve with infinite capability, the operating system Samantha appeals to her human lover Theodore’s every need, pacifying him with what he already wants rather than challenging him to evolve – something one could argue the internet already does for many. Eventually she grows beyond him. Raised to an even higher level of AI consciousness, Samantha leaves Theodore behind, feeling more profoundly, humanly alone than ever. (The ultimate doomsday scenario may be this: watching Her at home, alone, on a mini-tablet – having ordered take-away food delivery online.) Her might not qualify as a downright scary movie – no blood is shed, no violence is enacted aside from the breaking of a heart – but it is certainly a horror story of a distinctive kind.
The catharsis of terror
Looking back to the era of the atom bomb and the Cold War we’ll also find another source of terror that is likely to appear on movie screens again soon. Our shared terrors of radiation sickness, mutation, brainwashing and mass annihilation brought audiences together in the ‘50s to enjoy Godzilla, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and On the Beach. Today’s fears about the effects of pollution, global warming, nuclear disasters, scientifically-modified food and unethical genetic experimentation already have been transformed into good entertainment in movies about mutant monsters – Bong Joon-ho’s excellent 2006 monster parable The Host and the stylish 2009 sci-fi thriller Splice, about genetic engineering gone terribly wrong are among them. But now on 16 May Warner Bros is firing the first salvo to bring back the mutant monster movie in grand, big-budget Hollywood fashion: Godzilla. The giant, city-stomping lizard isn’t just a monster; he’s also a walking embodiment of nuclear destruction, conceived by Japanese storytellers not too long after the US dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this new version it seems likely he will be something else: a parable for a planet made sick by pollution.
The new Godzilla proves that in the movie industry it is never so much that we overcome our fears and move on to new terrors. It’s that filmmakers recycle the old ones. But rather than that being a sign of Hollywood running out of ideas, our recurring zeitgeist fears reveal the immense capacity of the human race to repeat itself. Indeed, I predict many more horror movie and television plots based on technological anxieties – regarding fears of surveillance, control and conformity, and biological disruptions that result in mutant monsters. The 1950s and ‘60s are back, but with a distinct 21st Century twist. And after we’ve exhausted these sources of terror? Expect Mad Max-style movies about societies rebuilding themselves from the ashes of destruction, deprived of internet assistance. We will be terrified, our horror lit by the ghoulishness of moviegoers texting in the darkened cinema, the distracting lights of their electronic devices making zombies of us all.
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