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A Matter of Morbid Elegance

H.R. Giger's Designs for Alien (1979)

While it may be hard to believe, horror imagery has its direct links in the visual variances of classic painting. It's all a matter of melancholic grace.

As argued by Noel Carroll in his influential book, The Philosophy of Horror (1990), the popular attraction to the macabre has a nature that’s both intricate and paradoxical. Consider how horror films are characterized by their grotesque scenes of death, disease, torture, deformity, and monstrosity. It should not be surprising, then, that these images are purposely designed to be frightening, terrifying, shocking, and maybe even disgusting. Thus, the best films of the genre are those that succeed in making us feel uncomfortable and squirm in our seats. But at the same time, in spite of their nightmarish and disturbing content, audiences love these types of flicks. Indeed, cinematic terror has been one of the most profitable genres in the history of motion pictures.

It is reasonable to suggest that the popular appeal of horror cinema appears to signify our attraction and preoccupation with mortality, sickness, decrepitude, and other unpleasant things. We have to remember however, that these concerns are usually considered taboo in Western culture; that is, public discussion and analysis of these topics is often considered to be off limits. Therefore, horror films function as a kind of partially sanctioned public venue where we can negotiate and articulate our morbid anxieties and obsessions.

On the other hand, horror movies are much more than rational vessels for the public expression of these forbidden subject matters. As with any other cinematic genre, horror films are art. That is, fear flicks are designed and constructed to generate an emotional response in the viewer by presenting their ideological content in an aesthetically pleasurable way. Therefore, combining the macabre with the artistic, horror cinema can be characterized by its morbid elegance.

On a side note, we have to admit that when compared to the established classical arts such as painting and sculpture, horror movies are often regarded as decadent, tasteless, and worthless. Arguably such a harsh and unjustified criticism stems from the wrongful notion that popular entertainment in general is not as valuable as the established classical arts, and that horror films in particular are immoral, indecent, and vulgar. Even so, there are four particular horror films that come to mind that have successfully created truly brilliant aesthetical depictions of death: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), its sequel Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 (Tobe Hooper, 1986), Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). The morbid elegance of these works is perhaps one of the factors that have made them so influential and perennial in the genre’s culture.

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the house of the cannibal clan is a true masterpiece of gruesome set design. Here we find several pieces of furniture that are made of human and animal bones. The arrangement of the carcasses is not random, but rather symmetric and stylish, properly balancing the structure of the furniture by combining skulls, ribs and femurs. The sequel to this timeless classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, takes these morbid set designs even further. Most of this film takes place in the underground of an amusement park, where the fiendish family has constructed a series of tunnels adorned with the skeletons and remains of their victims. These cadavers stand in life-sized dioramas that depict normal everyday activities, like eating at a picnic table or resting in lounge chairs. Most probably they are posed the way they were right before being brutally butchered by Leatherface and his relatives. Interestingly, in all their beauty, these frightening scenes bring to mind the anatomical drawings made by Andreas Vesalius in the 16th century.

Also combining the macabre with the sublime is the scene in Halloween where Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) finds the corpse of her murdered friend Annie (Nancy Keyes). Here, Annie is lying face-up on a bed, and as a headboard we find the headstone from Judith Myers’ grave, which evil brother Michael had stolen from the cemetery. Adding further foul beauty to the scene, the main source of light in the room is a flickering Jack O’Lantern near the side of the bed. Because of the effect provided by the candle and the fact that Annie’s body is in a position that resembles Christ on the cross, this scene is actually very reminiscent of the paintings depicting the Passion made during the renaissance period.

In the case of Alien, the filmmakers found inspiration in the paintings by renowned Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. With them, they created a bizarre world populated by hellish horrors. Giger’s alluring art is characterized by its unique combination of grotesque sexuality with nightmarish monstrosity. These abominations are often immersed in stylish monochromatic landscapes reminiscent of the celebrated works by Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher. However, when the production design team proved unable to construct satisfactory 3D renditions of the artist’s paintings, Giger himself was brought over to work on the movie set.

As the legend goes, the extravagant Giger sent his dedicated crew on an unusual shopping spree. Hitting every slaughterhouse and medical supply store in the region, they acquired thousands of human and animal bones, including a rhino skull. These pieces were then used to create the surface of the planet and the interior of the alien ship, both of them resembling the remains of an unearthly creature. Most notably Giger distorted and modified a real human skull with a saw and screws as the basis for the head of the title monster. The result is probably the most amazing movie design ever. Going far beyond the realm of cinematic artistry, Alien is a true showcase of surrealist paintings and sculptures.

As these four films show, high quality horror cinema is able to merge the macabre with the artistic, creating a morbid elegance that is aesthetically pleasurable. But then again, such a combination of the gruesome and the sublime is not new - it has been present in the art world since immemorial times. Indeed, think about how the art and lore of ancient Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and Greece was full of bizarre creatures and other terrifying scenes. Such a tradition survived the passage of time, and since then it has been incorporated by various artists to metaphorically portray a variety of psychological fears and social anxieties.

Consider for instance The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which depicts a panoramic landscape with a horde of skeletons brutally killing the living. This apocalyptic masterwork shows people from all social backgrounds, peasants, farmers, soldiers, nobles, and even the monarchy, being executed indiscriminately by the living dead. Most probably, the creatures in this painting are an allegory to the many social ills and tribulations of the period: war, famine, disease, and of course, death.

Garden of Earthly Delights

Equally telling is The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1504) by Hieronymus Bosch, which depicts the genesis and damnation of mankind. In the panel that corresponds to Hell, Bosch presents people being viciously tortured and maimed by grotesque anthropomorphic animals. Clearly, there is a strong religious connotation in The Garden of Earthly Delights, which prominently features the seven deadly sins. To fully appreciate the artist’s ideology it is important to remember that in those years Catholicism was a harsh authority institution that forcefully imposed its dogma across the globe, threatening those unwilling to submit with a hellish afterlife. Thus, while Brueghel’s painting can be understood as a metaphor to the social preoccupations that haunted that period of history, Bosch appears to be more interested in expressing the dread to eternal damnation.

In this regard, it is perhaps ironic that religion has been the source of thousands of paintings featuring macabre iconography. But then again, this should not be that big of a surprise. After all, a core element of the ideological foundations of spiritual beliefs is the eternal fight between the forces of good and evil, and the damnation of mankind in the afterworld. As it is often the case, evil is represented by monstrous creatures and demons. And perhaps more telling, Christian rituals are based on the adoration of an icon that represents a tortured man, and the allegoric cannibalization and vampirism of his flesh and blood. Therefore, any artistic imaging of the Passion of Christ or the endless presence of the powers of darkness is likely to contain chilling imagery.

Other important classical masterworks that feature a sense of morbid elegance, most of them without an explicit religious connotation, include Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (c. 1632) by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Nightmare (c. 1781) by Henry Fuseli, Saturn Devouring His Son (c. 1819) by Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, the illustrations for Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (c. 1857) by Paul Gustave Dore, The Scream (c. 1893) by Edvard Munch, and Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (c. 1936) by Salvador Dali. Although this list is short and incomplete, it reveals how horror imagery has been imbedded in the classical arts for centuries and can be represented by such prestigious names of the caliber of Rembrandt and Dali.

We can further argue that the macabre images in these paintings were meant to publicly express a variety of psychological fears and social anxieties surrounding taboo topics such as death, disease, and oppression. In this regard, these masterpieces are strikingly similar to horror films, presenting a similar iconography and playing a comparable cultural function. Thus, it is interesting to observe that the conservative segments of our society condone horror in highbrow art museums where it will be appreciated by the social elite, but deplore it if it is shown in movie theaters for their popular consumption. In any event it is impossible to ignore or obviate the influence of these artists to horror cinema. And as such, perhaps we should rightfully consider Brueghel, Bosch, Fuseli, Munch, Goya, Dore, Rembrandt, and Dali, as vital forgers of horror culture.

Triumph of Death (partial)

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