Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Science-Fiction, Horror and the Role of Anxiety

Genre fiction provides its fans with many comforts and pleasures that a non-fan might be hard pressed to appreciate.  It offers familiar or exciting situations with new set-pieces and interesting flourishes, often reworking essential human themes.  Nowhere is this truer than in the science-fiction and horror genres.  In sci-fi the focus is often our increasing knowledge of physics and our ever developing sophistication with technology – and how these things impress upon society, the human individual and collective.  Sci-fi is a useful tool to figure out where we might be heading; a way of exploring current social issues and their possible ramifications.

Horror on the other hand is a more atavistic genre, concerned with taboos and personal/collective boundaries.  Horror often explores the curious dynamic between the Self and the Other, mapping the provocative terrain of human resilience and human frailty.

In both these genres the role of anxiety is crucial.  In sci-fi this anxiety often expresses itself as a profound breakthrough in technology that simultaneously offers possibilities of great freedom or great control.  The intricacies of such a situation constitute the substance of much science-fiction.  No matter how much mainstream science assures us that certain concepts and technologies are impossible or unlikely, sci-fi exploits our hope or anxiety that such things may indeed come to pass, i.e. cloning, interstellar travel, time travel, and various forms of exotic technology.  Sci-fi then spins all kinds of ‘what if’ scenarios from these suppositions.

Anxiety can also work in another way in sci-fi, by suggesting that certain things denied by officialdom are in fact true or happening right now.  The seminal television show The X Files was very good at playing on this kind of counter-culture anxiety.  It took a whole host of denied UFO information and represented it as a semi-credible situation occurring in the here and now.  The X Files went to great lengths to never suggest that its narrative was taking place in some alternate reality; its details were very much anchored in our recognizable world.  The show expertly exploited the uneasy sense that our governments were lying to us, and lying to us about UFOs in particular.  The show’s producers were able to craft a brilliant paranoid sci-fi thriller that had added resonance and emotional kick because of this collective suspicion.

The horror-thriller show Millennium, by the creator of The X Files, was also good at playing on a different kind of expectancy and anxiety.  The pre-millennial angst of the late twentieth century was a fear that something dark and apocalyptic was just around the corner.  Like The X Files, Millennium utilised our invasion/infiltration fears but suggested that unlike its predecessor these fears were a lot closer to home.  The fear of religiously-motivated deviants and killers is a reoccurring trope of Millennium, along with the implication that their skewed perceptions of religious portents had a kernel of truth to them.  Again, this gave Millennium an added kick that raised it beyond the average serial-killer narrative.

This role of expectancy and anxiety is a crucial one in genre fiction because the reader or viewer must have his expectations and anxieties both confirmed and overturned in various ways – otherwise genre fiction fails to be entertaining, intelligent and provocative.  But in sci-fi and horror this function is even more vital because these particular genres are explicitly about boundaries, taboos and the individual/collective possibilities of our society.

For example, in the science-fiction film The Matrix our anxieties about technology, corporate culture and dehumanization are all played upon.  Specifically, the sinister Agents of the film can be figured as the faceless ambassadors of multinational corporations that seek to keep everyone asleep as passive consumers.  But beyond this, the Agents of the film talk in slow measured tones with odd cadences, driving home the idea that they are counterfeit individuals lacking genuine souls.  The Agents also dress like the mythical ‘Men In Black’ of UFO lore.  So the film taps into this anxiety of otherworldly strangers who purposely behave in unsettling ways, without UFOs or aliens ever being mentioned in the film.  In fact, the Agents of The Matrix seem to be an amalgamation of many human anxieties; they are part corporate executive, part MIB, part vampire and part insect.  Would it be fair to argue that The Matrix owes a large part of its huge success to the full-on exploitation of profound human anxieties both ancient and modern?  After all, the idea that we are existing in a simulated reality that wishes to enslave us is a terrifying one, and is not without historical precedent – as Gnosticism attests.

Science-fiction’s implicit credo could be imagined as ‘Assuming it IS possible, what then?’  Horror’s credo might be imagined as ‘Is the thing we fear real, imaginary, internal, external, or something in between?’  These are important things to consider in a society that wishes to be of any benefit to its members.  Fiction is the perfect place to explore humanity’s most anxious questions, and the best genre fiction allows us to do this in ways that are incredibly entertaining as well as intelligent and thought-provoking.     

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