The finding and decoding of subtext, or metamessages, is a longstanding hallmark of horror criticism. Horror certainly isn’t the only type of media tainted by this annoying tendency (based on the many academic dissertations proclaiming SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN an exploration of Depression-era angst, first-time viewers might well be surprised to find that the film is a musical, and a comedy), but it seems the genre is especially vulnerable to metamessaging.
Note the many, many interpretations ascribed to Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, with an entire film, 2012’s ROOM 237, devoted to such theories. Opinions about ROOM 237’s worth tend to vary (according to Stephen King, “for me it was like a two-hour compilation of people who see Jesus in a taco”), but it stands as a fascinating example of just how nutty the hidden-meaning craze can get.
ROOM 237, for the record, consists of five SHINING fanatics discussing the film in voice-over. Their theories include the popular Stanley Kubrick-faked-the-moon-landing-footage claim, which one of the narrators states is referenced in THE SHINING by the titular room number (the moon, the guy claims, is 237 thousand miles from the Earth) and a hallway rug pattern, which resembles an aerial view of a NASA field. A woman theorizes about the layout of the film’s hotel set, which curves in on itself and contains an “impossible” window that (as shown by elaborate animated diagrams) actually faces inward–which, the claimant maintains, was part of Kubrick’s design. We also hear from a guy who feels the film is a metaphor for the suppression of Native Americans, and another who believes it’s referencing the holocaust.
Why does THE SHINING inspire such obsessive attention while other, more enigmatic Kubrick films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and EYES WIDE SHUT don’t? I believe it’s because THE SHINING is a horror movie–and, in the words of ROOM 237’s director Rodney Ascher, “a horror movie that’s a fun, entertaining film, so people watch it because they want to watch it and not like it’s a homework assignment.”
To that I’d add that intellectualizing horror fare like THE SHINING makes self proclaimed “pop culture enthusiasts” feel better about themselves, providing an academic rationale for the fact that they’re spending time with popular art, and even (gasp!) enjoying it. A certain passage from C.S. Lewis’ SCREWTAPE LETTERS comes to mind here, in which the titular demon Screwtape, who’s tutoring his nephew on how best to turn a human “patient” to evil, advises his nephew on his patient’s reading habits, instructing him to get the man to only read books the establishment deems important rather than those he personally enjoys…
It’s hardly a big jump, I’d argue, from the loony theorizing of ROOM 237 to the more respected academic treatises of the late Robin Wood, who delighted in subjecting 1970s horror movies to tortured sub-textual analyses. As documented in the 1979 mini-anthology THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE and elsewhere, Wood’s analyses invariably focused on perceived sociopolitical subtexts, with the tawdry and uneven films of Larry Cohen singled out for praise, while the far more accomplished efforts of David Cronenberg (THE BROOD in particular) were condemned as “the precise antithesis of the genre’s progressive potential.”
The danger with this approach is that it turns subtext into surtext, regardless of whether the subtext in question is even correct. Let’s take a look at Alfred Kubin’s 1907 horror-fantasy novel THE OTHER SIDE, which has come to be identified in quite a few reference guides online and off as a “surrealistic portrayal of turn-of-the-Century Europe.”
That description is off-base because: 1). THE OTHER SIDE is set largely in Asia rather than Europe, 2). It was written nearly two decades prior to the advent of surrealism, 3). While Kubin’s life in turn-of-the-century Europe very likely informed the happenings of THE OTHER SIDE, describing the book as being “about” that is grossly reductive in every sense. There’s far more to THE OTHER SIDE than that description implies, and it seems rather silly that Kubin would have gone to all the trouble of creating such a highly involved fantasy landscape if his aim was to simply portray life in Europe.
See also Nikos Mastorakis’ film ISLAND OF DEATH (1976), about a depraved American couple on a rape and murder spree on a Greek island, which it seems has been officially designated a metaphor for western imperialism–even though Mastorakis himself has admitted his primary motive in making the film was simply to shock. I believe a quote by author Muriel Gray applies here, about the fact that most horror moviemakers are “on the whole unlikely to be able to spell ‘political issues,’ let alone cunningly conceal references to them in their films.”
Reductiveness is a frequent problem with horror movie dissertations. The sexual symbolism of the final scene of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, for instance, has been elaborated on ad nauseam, ignoring the 135 jam-packed minutes that preceded it. The Godzilla movies certainly can’t be said to be especially deep or complex, but there is nonetheless far more to them than the metaphoric representations of atomic energy and wounded nationalism that according to many commentators are those movies’ sole reason for being.
Of course there does exist horror fare with very real metaphoric content. An example would be Argentine filmmaker Gustavo Mosquera’s 1997 film MOEBIUS, about a subway train carrying 40 passengers vanishing into a moebius strip of subway track. That situation was intended to invoke the 40,000 political dissidents who “vanished” from Argentina in the 1970s. Mosquera litters the proceedings with plenty of clues about his story’s real intent (including the fact that the higher-ups steadfastly refuse to acknowledge or publicize the subway car’s disappearance), and also pointed dialogue like “We live in a world where nobody listens.” Of course, MOEBIUS hasn’t received nearly as much attention over the years as the other films and books mentioned above, suggesting that the likes of Robin Wood and ROOM 237’s theorists prefer to come up with their own wild-eyed theories about the “true” metamessages of their favorite horror narratives.
This brings us to the question of whether the idea of concealing hidden meanings in fictional narratives is a wise one at all. It certainly worked well enough in MOEBIUS, but on the whole I tend to agree with the Russian filmmaker Grigori Chukhrai, who once stated that “if the artist has something to say he doesn’t put his thoughts into code, he says what he thinks.” So, unfortunately, do hidden-message obsessed commentators!