Michael Fuchs: When the Repressed Returns in a Funhouse

In contrast to its superficial (post)modernity and all the technological tricks the medium plays, cinema – as well as television – has long been fostering an anachronistic return to an illusionistic aesthetic. However, even if cinema is still largely devoted to the mimetic principles of the pre-twentieth-century era, meta-referentiality can already be found at early stages of the medium’s history and not only in postmodern(ist) cinema. Though metaization is a phenomenon usually linked to postmodernist aesthetics, the phenomenon has existed for centuries, only has it not been as carefully studied as in the postmodernist context, which is why I will not only deal with postmodern horror films but also earlier filmic examples ranging back to the times of the silent movies.

Why meta-referentiality in horror films? The answer is rather simple: Though film scholars have mentioned the self-reflexive nature of the horror film genre time and time again, academic writing that solely deals with meta-referentiality in horror (and films in general) is more than easy to survey. And if academics deal with the topic, they usually come to oversimplistic conclusions that usually evolve around the idea of reflexivity laying bare the artificiality of the work and breaking the illusion. Fact of the matter is, however, that the exposure of the work’s fictionality is just one of many functions of meta-references. After all, none other than John Barth already noted two decades ago that “all fiction about fiction is in fact fiction about life. Some of us understood that all along.”

What I will thus do in my dissertation is first provide a framework to talk about the filmic illusion (Brechtian approaches, psychoanalysis …) before entering the world of meta-referentiality, first theoretically and then practically by discussing meta-referentiality in horror films. A question that looms large over the latter part of the project is whether a meta-referential horror film may actually be referred to as horror film, since meta-references supposedly target rational responses whereas horror as such rather emotional ones – is the viewer thus in a constant oscillation between the two ‘readings,’ do rational responses offset emotional ones or vice versa or may they even occur simultaneously? This is just one of many interesting issues connected to the core topic of meta-referentiality in horror films.

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(University of Graz)