A book entitled The Lust for Blood , with “Lust” and “Blood” in giant red caps on the white cover, comes at the reader brandishing the promise of the lurid and the sensational. Psychologist and professor of counseling Jeffrey A. Kottler promises to help us understand why violent films, spectacles and video games have such appeal and how they are actually “quite constructive in helping us deal with our fears and express impulses that might otherwise lead to self-harm or danger to others.”
What interests the author is “spectacle violence”, a term he grants a very broad definition. Chapters deal with a huge variety of phenomenon, from the history of public violence, to horror movies, to serial killer groupies, to our fascination with disasters and automobile accidents. The author admits, ad nauseum in fact, his own interest in such things, while making the easily defensible claim that a large number of his fellow humans share the same predilection.
Kottler includes a significant number of interviews with a wide variety of subjects. We hear from police officers, boxers, film producers and serial killers. These interviews often seem to offer more than the author gives us. In general, we encounter these interviews through largely impressionistic accounts by the author. Studies that employ interviews often include block quotes from the subjects and a full accounting of the conversation. When a significant number of interviews are used, good scholarship uses statistical sampling. What the author gives us here is instead anecdotal, his own memory of the interviews he conducted.
The anecdotal approach holds sway throughout the text. The self-referential nature of the book at first seems to personalize the author and help us to understand his interest in the topic. Eventually, it passes over into the purely self-indulgent. Even in his description of an interview with serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, we mostly hear about Kottler’s own reaction to Lucas as he transforms their meeting into a Clarice Starling meets Hannibal Lecter confrontation.
The fulcrum of the book is a discussion of media violence, especially in the form of the horror film. Writing about popular culture seems to have two kinds of styles. There’s the scholarly detachment, often ironic, that only slightly hides it affection for its topic. Then there is the nerdcore enthusiasm that goes for the full-on geek-out in print. Kottler summons neither and writes instead like just some guy who likes to go to the movies.
This leads to a number of claims about horror that are both annoying and misleading. These range from relatively small matters to larger, more problematic claims about the meaning of the genre. At one point, Kottler refers to Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and George Romero as the splat pack. This is a term never applied to Romero but rather to a larger group of filmmakers (including Roth, Zombie and Robert Rodriguez) who have made multiple films. John Carpenter’s Halloween, essential to understanding the genre, appears only in lists (often repeated!) of significant slasher films. Other small errors and evidence of genre illiteracy abound, suggesting the author has a passing knowledge of horror at best.
Kottler writes about these issues as if there is not already an enormous stack of material full of insight that he could have drawn from. In the author’s discussion of the slasher film, for example, he does not use the groundbreaking work of Carol Clover, whose Men Women and Chainsaws introduced the term “final girl” to describe the heroine of the genre, the last survivor standing who finds a way to defeat the monster. Clover’s work has been so influential that she has actually served as a technical advisor for horror directors and appeared in countless documentaries and commentary tracks. Kottler fails to engage with her work even when writing about gender and horror. This fact, by itself, calls his own study into question.
Most readers will find themselves frustrated by the refusal of the author to make distinct claims about the subject he claims to be investigating. Nowhere do we find a coherent argument for why horror films are appealing or why professional wrestling and rubbernecking at car accidents are favorite societal pastimes. What we get instead are menus of possibilities, all of which are reducible to the idea that human beings like the thrill of the uncertain, the frightening and the unknown. This begs the question rather than answering it.
Worse, the author seems to make claims in one section that he then effectively contradicts in another. He introduces the idea (put forward by a number of scholars before him) that there are elements to the slasher genre that women find empowering, accounting for the large female audience for horror. This claim is then contradicted several chapters later when he suggests that horror films teach “prescribed gender roles” by urging the male members of the audience to be protective of their date who “whimpers, gasps” and falls into his arms. This nonsense, based on some deeply flawed research (never actually cited here) in the late-‘90s, again calls into question the author’s reliability as an interpreter of horror and violent spectacles more generally.
All of these problems aside, this book’s central problem is its deep naïveté about history, culture and context. There is, to borrow the title of John Wagner’s acclaimed graphic novel, a history of violence. Conspicuously absent from this discussion of our love for violence is a willingness to confront the shadows of American and western European history.
By focusing on the individual and her personal interest in violent media, the author ignores the larger structures of violence that have shaped our contemporary societies. In American culture, doesn’t it mean something that the slasher genre, with its gore and viscera, appeared in the wake of the Vietnam War? What do we learn from the “torture porn” genre on display in Hostel and Saw? It appeared during a decade when an American administration made a case for the legal torture of alleged terrorists?
A study that ignores the connection between media generated images of violence and the literal violence of nation-state and empire will do little to help us make sense of the lust for blood.