A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon that old meme which divides moviegoers into three groups: those who love gory films, those who love musicals, and a minute amount of people who enjoy both, classified as serial killers.
At first I chuckled, given the irony of the situation -I had just watched a gory episode of the TV series Hannibal, which I followed afterwards with an animated musical flick-, but then I started thinking about what a supposedly serial killer such as me can find enjoyable in such different genres.
Indeed, ladies and gentlemen: I enjoy both types of movies. And even if every experience is unique, I thought it would be interesting to figure why, in my particular case, I find pleasure in such ardently dissimilar genres.
Initially, I believe there might be a bit of a mix-up when it comes to the general appreciation of what a musical film is. The common misconception is that all musicals are happy-go-lucky tales in which every character sings and dances its way through a realm of never-ending bliss. Everything is light, color and unaltered joy.
No such thing.
Many musicals have dealt with gruesome themes such as death, betrayal, prostitution, murder, etc. A star is born, West side story, Tommy, The rocky horror picture show, Cabaret, All that jazz, Hedwig and the angry inch,… and so many others, have painted a picture of a not-so-perfect world in which the corruption of our reality manages to saturate the diegetic world of the film.
Audiences have commonly associated the musical with the naïve storytelling of the animated Disney films, or the exultant narratives which prevailed during the 40s and 50s, often forgetting that many others have dealt with gritty topics since the genre’s early years.
Take a look at films like Repo! The genetic opera, or Sweeney Todd: the demon barber of Fleet Street, which combine gore with musical performances. These products prove that it is entirely possible to create cinematographic musicals which dwell on the darker side of humanity, just like horror movies do.
What are the monsters and murderers of horror films if not representations of our inmost fears? Dozens of papers have already explored the possibility that the nightmares pictured in these movies are nothing but manifestations of our trepidations, and sometimes even our darkest desires. Authors have equated the likes of zombies to the numbing threat of consumerism, vampirism to the perils of liberalism and sexual emancipation, lycanthropy to irrationality and animalistic impulses,… and even less subtle contents such as the hazard of the much dreaded unconscious part of the human personality, materialized in Freddy Krueger, or the monstrous dangers of societies which exist outside the civilizing aura of the cities.
The representation and ultimate downfall of these characters allows audiences to feel secure after toying with the menace from the safety of a voyeuristic experience. After all, the spectator is not at risk, whereas the diegetic characters are. Terror and horror films connect with society by becoming an outlet, a safe place to let the demons we conceal under our courteous façade run free for an hour or two.
It’s important to understand that every genre creates a link with the civilization that produces the films by providing a set of components which every new production reorganizes to create something new, while maintaining a basic arrangement which is to be undisturbed. Giallo films, for example, have a masked killer, gory murders, scantily clothed women, and a protagonist which acts as an investigator throughout the film. But although the formula is the same, the approach of every director is different, and the creator’s style defines the novelty of every new product. That’s what allows a connoisseur to identify the distinctions between Argento’s films from Bava’s, or any other.
But when it comes to musicals: what is the pact between audience and film? What does the musical allow?
Let’s consider for a moment the elements which define the musical: song and dance. The diegetic world of musicals establishes that the characters are allowed to express their feelings through these activities with complete normalcy. Emotions which are often secluded in our real world can be manifested freely through music when it comes to these films.
If horror films allow the viewer to see his/her fears personified and ultimately defeated, then the musical permits them to express that which civilization forbids us to display due to the banner of decorum: passion, desire, longing, fear…
Our post-Socratic society demands that we keep our wishes and fantasies to ourselves. But in the musical the characters are permitted to run free with their fancies, turning the viewer into an accomplice as they assail them with music and images filled of cathartic escapism.
To some extent, musicals and horror films are two sides of the same coin: that which allows us to set free our most irrational selves.
The Socratic world installed the apollonian –from the Greek god ‘Apollo’- behavior as the model in which citizens should conduct themselves: balance, civility, control over our emotions. Upon these terms our society has constructed its’ guidelines and ideals. Every step towards progress demands the loss of contact with obscure sides of human nature, for order, above all things, must prevail.
But there are compulsions constantly stirring under the surface of our public mask. Impulses that we need to tame, redirect or persecute in order to avoid chaos. Urges and whims that the Greeks represented with the god Dionysus, the divinity of wine whose festivities involved scandalous orgies, wild music and acts of pure depravity such as anthropophagy.
Dionysus arrived to Greece to become the liberator of the oppressed. Through alcohol and music he freed his followers from the burdens of the civilized life, permitting them to be governed by their deepest and darkest cravings for a little while.
The Purge (2013) is a curious horror film which perfectly embodies this aspect of the Dionysian cult. In the movie, citizens are allowed one night a year to surrender their rational selves in order to commit whatever crime they desire: murdering, raping, torturing… everything is allowed during this one night after which every rule is reinstituted. The Dionysian festivities aimed for the same purpose: the purification of the citizen’s heart by submitting them to the desires of the Id.
After Christianity condemned these practices and encouraged measure and purity, society found other methods to cope with their buried wants. Art, of course, became one of them, and cinema, with its remarkable likeness to the experience of dreams –a mental manifestation of the Id’s desires-, inherited the capability of freeing viewers from the monotonous routine of life, a task performed by mythology until its expulsion from our contemporary world.
Genre films are the modern expressions of myths, thus becoming superlative spaces in which society can represent their Dionysian needs. In musicals, civilization is able to portray longings and feelings through music, an element commonly associated with Dionysus when it intends to free the soul; whilst in horror films, society releases the most dangerously immoral forces of irrationality, shadowing the cannibalistic banquets and brutal crimes of the Dionysian celebrations.
The spectator’s needs are satisfied vicariously through the experience of the characters, and after being released and purified, just like during the Greek tragedies –heirs of the first Dionysian gatherings-, they might go on with their lives freely and return to the unstoppable wheel of civilization.
I wonder if serial killers do enjoy both genres. I count myself amongst that reduced group that loves musicals and gore films, yet I haven’t murdered a single soul. The fact is that they both provide a marvelously safe channel in which my darkest and disagreeing impulses can be set loose and fulfilled.
Again, every movie going experience is inimitable, and my explanation, although it yearns to clarify the phenomena universally, can only be single and subjective.
If I find that old meme again I’ll still grin and I’ll agree that my taste in movies can be perceived as rather odd. However, in the end, I’ll know that for me every movie is nothing but the celebration of my muzzled Dionysian self, a reconnection with that irrational side of humanity which we strive to deny and govern, but dwells within us like a sleeping beast.