Universal Darkness: In Defense of Horror, by Elena Furlanetto

A scene from Il Signor Diavolo, Pupi Avati, 2019

       Let me start with a provocation. Although we all love indie movies more than blockbusters, blockbusters generally teach us more about culture than indie movies: lamentably, the Cinepanettone genre in Italy is more indicative of mainstream tastes and orientations (let alone the exquisitely Italian and untranslatable mood of the demenziale1, than the cryptic 2020 Silver-Bear winner Favolacce. Blockbusters follow formulaic patterns of struggle and redemption, damage and victory, at the end of which the good, the valiant, and the handsome triumph, one way or another, and send us home with a moral message. These patterns and formulas are extremely revealing of the culture that generates them, of its dos and donts and proceed-with-cautions. In 1934, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America released the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, a set of guidelines that established what was acceptable and unacceptable content for motion pictures, and what had to be handled with care. The code was obviously a direct expression of an inherently sexist, racist, and homophobic culture and its priorities, and so were the movies that came out of that era. The code declined in the late Sixties and while some of its taboos like “lustful kissing” and “sympathy for criminals” are obviously history, others are not. Hollywood still shows extreme discomfort in the face of interracial or gay romances. If the former are suspiciously chaste, the latter often end in death, abandonment, sadness, as in Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017), to give one example. Or vice versa: the former end in sadness and the latter in chastity. Hollywood’s conservatism, racism, and sexism are infuriating as well as sadly indicative of what we are up against. If this is true for mainstream cinema as a whole, it is particularly true for the much-disparaged genre of horror, which can be equally instructive of what a given culture fears the most. To know what history has taught your country to fear, watch its horrors.

       I wasn’t always into horror. I was embarrassed at how often I would hide my head under a blanket, stare at my feet, or cover my face with my hands leaving a narrow opening between two fingers showing a square centimetre of screen in the upper right corner. Then I saw the beauty in this helplessness, the thrill in honoring a movie with my vulnerability. I enjoyed the power these films had on me, I let them mess with my sense of safety and the result was close to catharsis. Watching horror would make me grow fonder of my uneventful life, of the innocent noises in my apartment, of the harmlessness of its dark corners. Recently, as my growing impatience with American mainstream film pushed me ever further into non-Anglophone territories, it dawned on me that horror has its finger on a country’s cultural traumas, unelaborated areas of history, unacknowledged crimes, and guilty conscience.

The Witch, dir. Robert Eggers, 2015; and American Horror Story, Coven, 2013-2014

       In the United States, the Southern Gothic and small-town America never fail to give people the creeps – a fact that is not unrelated with the density of Trump supporters in these areas and the vastly liberal tendencies of filmmakers and screenwriters. The Puritan past also generated remarkable horrors, one of the most notable being Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015), where a Puritan family of five have an interesting time finding out who among them is a witch. The film, starring The Queen’s Gambit’s Anya Taylor-Joy, is a stunningly accurate portrayal of Puritan inner life and every-day experience, both dense with terror and transcendence. The dialogues between the members of the family are in 17th century English and inspired by archival documents, correspondence, and personal journals from that time. On the TV series front, nine seasons of American Horror Story (2011), another personal favorite, have conveniently gathered the most prolific and significant horror tropes in American history, including a season on Trumpism, one on colonial America, and one on the Southern gothic. In the German TV series Dark (2017-2020) the horror comes from the idea that the past can come back to hunt a community’s lethargic existence through a portal hidden beneath a nuclear power plant. The series evokes at least two endless national debates (and terrors): nuclear energy and the Nazi past. In the Spanish Netflix production Voces (Don’t Listen, 2020), a haunted house once hosted an Inquisition tribunal and the leading ghost is, unsurprisingly, a witch who used to talk too much – but we’ll get back to that. Ghosts, vagrant souls, and possessions are at the heart of Asian horror, the expression of cultures where the world of the living and that of the dead inhabit the same rooms, and your ancestors eat at your table, if you let them.  

       In spite of its glorious tradition of weirdly feminist gialli and Dario Argento’s blood-splattered heroines, Italy is no country for horror. Director Pupi Avati describes Italian cinema as the domain of comedy, the eternal return of an “amused contemplation of the present,”2 and endless combinations of three or four issues: him, her, her friend, sex. Two recent horrors, however, caught my attention as I tried to gather my thoughts for this piece: Avati’s Il Signor Diavolo (Mr Devil, 2019) and Domenico Emanuele de Feudis’s Il Legame (The Binding, 2020). Both movies are built around local and universal terrors. Growing up in rural Veneto, I am no stranger to the mystique of the fields at night, wrapped in ominous fogs. Driving on country roads in the dark, all one sees are the faraway lights of lonely houses, swallowed by miles of impenetrable night. And one wonders what must be going on behind that one lit window, what solitudes it hides, and what ancestral terrors unfold unseen in the majestic darkness around it.

Lonely houses. A scene from Il Signor Diavolo, Pupi Avati, 2019

       Il Signor Diavolo captures and exploits the Po Valley as locus horridus, making it the epicentre of terror. “I want to go back to my childhood’s fears, to the things that scared me when I was a boy,” Avati explains, “I want to go back to the ghost stories one tells in front of the fireplace”3. Il Signor Diavolo is far from perfect film: the acting is underwhelming, the ending anticlimactic, but it does succeed in evoking ancestral terrors. Although the plot revolves around the problematic equation between disability and the demonic, what injects life into this otherwise exhausted source of horror are the desolated landscapes of Northern Italy at the edges of winter, the fog rising from the canals, the implacable darkness separating the sparse houses, and the vast, dark unknown stretching in between. According to Avati, “fear is universal, darkness is universal.”4 And I agree that it does not matter if a child sitting in the dark is French, English, or German – they will be afraid, but they will be afraid of different things, the monsters rising from the shadows will have different histories. If dark rooms don’t have passports, what hides in the darkness might. The geographies of Il Signor Diavolo, which Avati calls “asphyxiating” are both local and universal, but the terrors hiding in them are as Italian as the Catholic church. The director himself claims to have “a conflictual relationship with the church.” Country churches and their inaccessible backrooms and basements are suffocatingly present in the film. And the devil, weirdly embodied in a youth with remarkable teeth who is rumored to have bitten his infant sister to pieces, is responsible for most of the movie’s jump-scare moments.

“A conflictual relationship with the church”. A scene from Il Signor Diavolo, Pupi Avati, 2019

       If church and landscape are sources of horror in Il Signor Diavolo, Il Legame is afraid of women5.  Francesco (Riccardo Scamarcio), his fiancée (Mía Maestro), and her daughter (Giulia Patrignani) spend a few days in Francesco’s ancestral home in the countryside around Bari, Apulia, where the olive trees are dying of a strange disease that brings to mind the cyclical olive plagues in the Salento region.

Ghost landscapes of Apulia. Il Legame, 2020

       When the girl is bitten by a tarantula, the family realizes that what looks like an out-of-the-ordinary allergic reaction is a curse cast by a desperate spirit. Like Il Signor Diavolo, the movie is rooted in the region’s primordial traditions and magical knowledge, as suggested by the epigraphs from Ernesto de Martino’s book Sud e Magia and by the conclusive photos accompanying the end-titles, showing possessions, enchanted objects, and a series of awe-inspiring, magic-wielding women. The Apulian landscape unfolds itself in bird’s-eye views and is once again a space to lose one’s soul in. Evil resides in the trunk of infested olive trees, where talismans have been hung by sapient hands, and in the infamous grottos and underground cavities children disappear in. This was the case with the 2006 death of two boys of 11 and 13 at Gravina di Puglia, who were found in the well of an abandoned mansion, not too dissimilar from the one in Il Legame, two years after their death, after another child fell into the same well. The events around the disappearance and death of Ciccio and Tore, reported on national news, are still wrapped in mystery.6

Possessions. And Ernesto de Martino, Sud e Magia. Feltrinelli, 1959

One learns an awful lot from horror films about their culture of origin, even things one doesn’t want to be reminded of on a peaceful horror night, when a friend is telling you about that lady back home who could talk to the dead, and you suddenly realize that Il Legame is not at all worried about women’s ancestral powers (the shaman mother, after all, is a positive character, a healer of bodies and trees), but about the bonds – i legami – between them. Women gathering in secluded rooms muttering spells about blood and protection, the wordless understanding between mothers, life-long friends, young women and older ones who guide them, motherhood, daughterhood, and sisterhood – this is the heart of horror in Il Legame. And if that wasn’t enough, the film demonizes the endless pain of a woman who was betrayed by her lover, the victim of a man’s clumsy attempt to change her destiny through powers he has no knowledge or mastery of, and which causes the demise not only of her body, but also of her soul. Only in the logics of a patriarchy can this woman – wronged, tortured, physically and spiritually abused – be a villain. How is the man who impregnated her and wrecked her soul not the monster in this story? Let us shortly turn back to Ángel Gómez Hernández’s negligible Voces, where the spirits of tortured witches seduce the tenants of a haunted house into killing themselves and their loved ones. The film mines the legacy of the Spanish Inquisition and its crimes for horror motifs, but centuries later, witches, not Inquisitors, are still the enemy. There are many cultural lessons to be learned from horror: what a country is afraid of, and most importantly, why we should be afraid of that country. In major European patriarchies, for example, witches still burn.

Note 

1. Slapstick is close enough but does no justice to the demenziale’s sexual charge and, alas, social relevance
2.  “Una riflessione divertita sul presente.” “Con Pupi Avati | Il Signor Diavolo | ‘La paura è universale.’” Horror Italia 24. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujfOYnLqKx0, 20 August 2019
3. 
Voglio tornare alle paure e alle cose che mi spaventavano quando ero ragazzino”; “Voglio ritornare a quelle storie ‘di paura’ che si raccontano davanti al camino”. “Con Pupi Avati | Il Signor Diavolo | ‘La paura è universale’”.
4. 
La paura è universale. Il Buio è universale.” “Con Pupi Avati | Il Signor Diavolo | ‘La paura è universale’”.
5. 
From this moment on, the article contains spoilers.
6. 
Coverage of on La Repubblica can be found here https://www.repubblica.it/2008/02/sezioni/cronaca/gravina-pozzo-bimbo/recupero-corpi/recupero-corpi.html. I’m grateful to Felice di Maida for bringing this to my attention, and for his ghost stories.

Foto di copertina: A scene from Il Signor Diavolo, Pupi Avati, 2019

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Elena Furlanetto is assistant professor of American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. She is the author of Towards Turkish American Literature, Narratives of Multiculturalism in Post-Imperial Turkey (2017) and of several articles on American and Postcolonial literatures. She also co-edited a collection of essays titled A Poetics of Neurosis (2018). An Americanist by training but a postcolonialist at heart, Elena loves books and films that narrate the US through the lens of different cultures. Movies give her lots of joy — especially horrors. Her poetry in Italian and English appeared in Italian and international publications. She collaborates with Finnegans as a translator and film critic since 2011.   

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