By One’s Own Hand, Then

As argued on the previous installment of Dread Reckoning, “Something to Do With Death” , horror films function as symbolic safety barriers that help us confront the certainty of biological death as an unavoidable physiological process against the unsubstantiated theological belief of a spiritual afterlife. That is, the iconography of horror almost exclusively deals with all matters surrounding death and our specific cultural perception of the afterlife.

At the same time, horror is about transgressing boundaries and norms. For instance, monsters are portrayed as creatures that challenge biological, physical, social, and moral rules. Such anarchy is what makes these monsters dangerous to our world, our culture, our society, and our persona. Therefore, horror narratives often revise relevant cultural issues regarding gender, sexual, social, and racial anxieties. In this context, horror films have an important cultural function: they are partially sanctioned public venues where we can safely negotiate and articulate our fascination and/or dread of difference.

Because horror films represent radical alterations to our sense of normality, they tend to embrace ideologies, rituals, traits, and behaviors that are forbidden or considered taboo in our society. That is, the public discussion and analysis of these cultural and ideological issues are often considered to be off-limits to an open debate. One such forbidden topic is suicide.

To date, only a handful of horror films have dared to deal with the issue of suicide, and most of them have taken a conservative approach. Consider for instance, What Dreams May Come (Vincent Ward, 1998), which is based on a novel written by the talented Richard Matheson. This flick presents the adventures of Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) in a heavenly afterworld. However his wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra), is condemned to a hellish place because she took her own life when she was unable to cope with the death of their children.

Similarly, John Constantine is sentenced to go to Hell after his nearly successful suicide in Constantine (Francis Lawrence, 2005). In this case, the movie reveals that John attempted to take his own life when he proved unable to cope with his supernatural visions of demons and other hellish creatures. Constantine also reminds us that the Catholic Church forbids funeral services granted to those who die by their own hand.

Therefore, What Dreams May Come and Constantine automatically consider suicide as a moral sin without regards to mental or physiological considerations, a view that is commonly held by most of modern society. However, suicide is a much more sophisticated issue that involves a variety of cultural and ideological complexities.

Consider for instance the case of Mahatma Gandhi, who went through prolonged and dangerous hunger strikes to support his political ideology. Arguably, he would have willingly died just to prove his point. Also, several Buddhist monks publicly burned themselves to death during the 1960s as an act of political protest. Equally important, kamikaze Japanese pilots attempted to stall American naval forces during the final days of World War II. In antiquity several cultures practiced ritualistic and religious immolation.

Nonetheless, suicide remains a taboo subject in modern culture. Even the issue of euthanasia due to terminal medical illness remains a problematic political issue, as put in evidence by the Terri Schiavo case, still fresh in public memory. Clearly, society at large appears to put a strong emphasis on moral and theological matters, while leaving aside any considerations about quality of life, choice, and economic costs.

There are at least three horror films that subversively contribute to the discussion of suicide outside the moral and theological sphere: Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973), Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983), and The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan, 2008).

In Soylent Green, unrestrained overpopulation and pollution have literally consumed Earth. The nation shows a dramatic social polarization, where the masses starve, and only a few can afford a decent meal. To prevent riots, the rulers of this dystopian world distribute Soylent Green, a new synthetic food alleged to be made of ocean plankton. When Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson) discovers what Soylent Green is really made of, he opts for euthanasia at a government sanctioned facility.

While there have been many cinematic utopias around the issues surrounding ecological disaster, Soylent Green probably is the only film to depict institutional suicide. In this flick, the subject takes a powerful poison, and he slowly dies while listening to Beethoven and watching beautiful images of how Earth used to look like. Nevertheless, Soylent Green ultimately connects this act of dignified euthanasia with a horrible conspiracy of shattering proportions.

In Videodrome, Max Renn (James Wood) is a sleazy producer working for an adult cable channel. While looking at a pirated transmission, Max is infected with a TV signal that produces a nasty brain tumor. As a consequence, Max is plagued with violent hallucinations involving torture, sadomasochism, and mutilation. The strength of the disease is such that there is a moment in which Max cannot tell the difference between reality and video-hallucination.

A film with deep philosophical undercurrents, Videodrome suggests an alternative reality created by mankind’s biomechanical communion with technology. A full analysis of this groundbreaking film could take several volumes. However, the point relevant to the present discussion is that, by film’s finale, Max needs to commit suicide in order to evolve to a new state of consciousness. That is, Videodrome presents suicide as a necessary step in a ritualistic process of enlightening and evolution.

The Happening presents the shocking scenario of a world afflicted by waves of mass suicides. Unfortunately, The Happening offers one of the most absurd arguments in the history of fantastic films. In this flick, toxins in the environment affect the human brain by shutting down a physiological mechanism that impedes suicide. That is, The Happening suggests that immolation is a natural biological behavior if not regulated by our brain.

Clearly, the pseudoscience put forward by The Happening is incompatible with any possible evolution strategy. Specifically, such a mechanism plainly violates “The Selfish Gene” conjecture put forward by eminent biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976. According to Dawkins’ theory, the survival strategies used by our organism and species are dictated at the genetic-molecular level and they have the single purpose of ensuring the survival of our genes.

Nonetheless, from cultural and philosophical perspectives, the idea of suicide as a natural part of the human condition is an interesting proposition. Indeed, throughout history mankind has proved to be an ominous force endangering all living organisms on Earth. Through the effects of countless wars, unrestrained poaching, and uninhibited pollution of our environment, mankind appears to be on a path of self-destruction.

Therefore, The Happening puts in evidence the irony and hypocrisy of modern culture with regards to suicide and euthanasia. Indeed, on the one hand society at large relies on moral and theological arguments to ban these practices, and on the other our world is plagued with destructive wars and conflicts.

In any event, the issue of suicide and euthanasia continue to be taboo in modern culture. Most of the time when these issues are presented on a film, they are quickly dealt from a conservative perspective that is solely based on moral or theological arguments. For instance, consider the recurrent plot development where the gallant hero immolates himself in order to save others. Clearly, it is only though the transgressive nature of horror cinema that suicide and euthanasia could be discussed from a point of view that encompasses choice, quality of life, and economic costs considerations.