IV. “The Eye of Horror” and The Assaultive Gaze
I digress to return to a previously mentioned film, Peeping Tom, and a great essay written by Carol J. Clover entitled “The Eye of Horror,” which looks at the film’s grappling with gazing in depth. To be brief, her analysis centers on the film as:
a commentary not only on the symbiotic interplay of sadistic and masochistic impulses in the individual viewer but equally as a commentary, within the context of horror filmmaking, on the symbiotic interplay of the sadistic work of the filmmaker and the masochistic stake of the spectator, an arrangement on which horror cinema insists (Clover 179).
Peeping Tom is a film about a cinematographer who moonlights as a photographer for pornography, a job that culminates in him murdering his female shooting subjects. Clover’s analysis of the film is more all-encompassing than I let on, but the “interplay” she refers to is indicative of “the assaultive gaze” of the camera and “the reactive gaze” of the spectator, just as the film presents a literal assaultive gaze on the female victims.
While the film’s director, Michael Powell, refused to refer to the film as a horror (the shocking nature of the film ostensibly ended his directing career), Peeping Tom presents two sides of the camera that are distinct, and “to be on the object side of the camera is to be hurt” (Clover 171).
While I am not engaging with all of the nuances of Clover’s Peeping Tom thesis, the concept of the feminized “reactive gaze,” which is to say the victim gaze, and the masculine “assaultive gaze” is in some ways the perfect distillation of the male gaze in horror. The point-of-view of the camera invades, depicting women as helpless victims and objects of entertainment and sexuality, allowing the viewer to become the voyeur.
And yet, this same formula invites the opposite as well. Where the assaultive gaze is designated to both the camera and the killer, the reactive gaze is reserved for the victim and the spectator. Clover attests that what is “perhaps universally implicit in horror” is “the alignment of the audience with screen victims” (Clover 200). The viewer is then “feminized” in their alignment with the female victim, called on to sympathize with the assaultive male gaze that is invading on her.
How do we look at the “Eye of Horror”? It is inherently masculine and easily exploitative. Still, the viewer’s alignment with the eye is multi-faceted. Knowing that the male gaze of the camera is omnipresent, we go to see horror in order to see such exploitation: the violence, the sex, the fear. But we are left to sympathize with the victim herself, as opposed to the perpetrating camera that is embodying the male gaze. It is two sides of the same coin.
Which leaves us with a final conundrum: Who is really to blame? Is it the filmmakers whose work in the horror genre reinforces hegemonic representations via the male gaze? Is it the audience for passively accepting this same set of representations film after film without calling out the male gaze? Is it the industry for reaping the benefits of releasing carbon copy films that adhere to the hegemony? Is it the horror genre itself for basing its cookie-cutter premises on such outdated conventions?
Wouldn’t it be great if I had a concrete answer? I don’t. The problem is, as is almost always the case with hegemony, a societal one. Multiple factors contribute to the perpetuation of hegemonic representations in the media, and the time it takes to alter those representations that are inadequate is unfortunately slow. With a genre so pervasive and downright conventional as horror cinema, it is hard to know exactly what will change the course of male gazing.
This is why The Cabin in the Woods is such an intriguing case study. It is wholly original in its manipulation of genre cliches, but the end result begs the question as to whether or not the film is part of the problem or part of the solution. The argument could go either direction, but I think that, in all cases, it comes down to the viewer to understand how the media represents various identities. Because we are the ones who ultimately consent to what is deemed hegemonic.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)
Clover, Carol J. “The Eye of Horror.” Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992. 166-231. Print.
Fiske, John. “Ideology and Meanings.” Introduction to Communications Studies. New York, NY: Routledge, 1982. 164-188. Print.