The Horror of Production

Dom Rottman

9 Feb 2024

This year is as much the year of the rat as it is the year of the dragon. Among the reasons to celebrate 2024 is the release of Steamboat Willie–and therefore, Mickey Mouse–into the public domain. The spectre of Walt Disney howls, his corporate successors tremble to see their beloved creation used, abused, manipulated, bastardized, despoiled, shaken down, beat and ruined asunder–by those other than themselves! The horror!

No, I mean literally the horror: not one, but two works of horror starring the beloved mouse in his monochrome form have already entered production and are chugging along at great speed (full trailers were completely produced in mere hours–how remarkable!). This trend of mutilating childhood figures into grotesque abominations was set by last year’s slasher film Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey–likewise produced after the titular character entered the public domain–and shows no signs of stopping either, with the announcement of Peter Pan: Neverland Nightmare and Bambi: The Reckoning. It’s all but impossible to take these things seriously. It’s therefore easy, if not appropriate, to respond with flippancy: these horror “films” are nothing but shameless cash grabs which neither aspire nor desire to be cinema, and any attention paid them is not worth the time. Still, it’s hard to blame anyone who might take offense and insist that this trend stops. Garbage is still garbage, and no misdeed is ever righted by explaining it as such. There is a way out, however, by leaving aside textual analysis of such films themselves while taking seriously the phenomenon of their production. What we find is most absurd: an argument for the trite claim that slasher horror is a metaphor for the horror of reality.

It is noteworthy that consumers of the culture industry would, the instant the means are available to them, immediately respond by producing a commodity of their own. The controlling behavior of parents on their children does not result in full control but rather the imitation of such behavior. Consumers do indeed know culture only as it exists in the form of commodities, but they are not simply lapping them up like dogs–consciousness prevails enough to learn the entire production process, executed like a glorified game of Mad Libs with the pool of stock characters, tropes, and techniques ready at hand.

But what is just as fascinating is the choice of horror. This choice is neither arbitrary nor of sadistic pleasure, but rather entirely rational. The Blair Witch Project (1999) was an achievement of cinema perfected by Paranormal Activity (2007), films which firmly enshrine horror as the film genre par excellence as the culmination of a great legacy of low-budget B movies. The mere fact that they are referred to as such already maintains the false division between “high” and “low” art, allowing both to serve parallel purposes. The B movie takes its low place as undergirding with its lucrative potential to realize surplus value. This is true at two levels and in two senses. Both an individual film and the industry at large reap great profits and cultural/ideological impact, by not only having great returns on investment and the occasional breakthrough of the “cult classic,” but also as the springboard of the careers of many directors, writers, and actors who have shaped the success of the culture industry in film and television as we know it today.

To recoil in horror at culture–and the image of reality it presents–is an emotional response validated by its production. But rarely are consumers of culture willing–much less able–to respond in any other way or give greater weight to these critical instincts. The consumer is categorically unable to respond in kind to the commodities she has consumed. Even the production of amateur garbage cashing in on a novelty takes time, effort, and resources most cannot afford, and despite going through the exact same processes, with the exact same materials, and being distributed and consumed in the exact same way, even the most unabashed cynic struggles to dignify such products with the rank of film. As a form of mimicry, however, as a reflection and expression of received practices, symbols, and images, they have just as much of a claim to truth. Understood as such, they reify the experience of culture and its consumption. Unlike film proper, these horror mimicries do not have the option of being sold with even the thinnest ideological wrapping. Another lighthearted Mickey Mouse cartoon, however well made, would likely flop, and most would wonder why someone would go through the effort in the first place. A deliberate abuse of a cultural symbol freed into the public domain as a factor of production demands that the final product be shoddy horror, lest the whole enterprise fail. The reification of learned cultural practices and symbols therein is therefore determinately an image of bloody horror.

There is an unsettling irony in the fact that the imitation conveys truth better than the genuine article. Insofar as these horror mimicries are a response to culture by exploiting a cultural symbol the moment it is freed for cheap and public use and by being produced through the same process of cultural commodity production as all other films, the bloody, horrific, uninspired, cheap, and barbaric nature of such production is made plain and affirmed. Film proper deceptively affirms a particular image of the good life and its correspondence with reality and history, or in its ideal sense subverts and negates such an image with a form of irony. In both cases film must be pierced with a critical eye. But to do the same with horror mimicries seems to be a waste of time since it reveals, if more obviously, what is true for all cultural commodities–to deny their cultural or critical value vindicates the all but explicit intent to make cheap money. Likewise, it would be absurd to take seriously the image of their horror at face value. However, to do so in the context of the modern world–their production–the critical eye sees clearly the other side of the literal coin to be bloody horror all the same. To be sure, such “filmmakers” have no intent of honestly offering and claiming their horrific picture as having correspondence with reality; rather, this correspondence is also a determinate consequence of its production. This commodity is forcibly horrific and forcibly makes a claim to truth. The final image it bears, therefore, because it is forced and reinforced by the nature of cultural production, can be fairly considered to be a representation of culture today.

In sum, the reality of cultural production, particularly in film, provides a disturbing foundation for taking these cash-grabbing slashers, this horrific horrific garbage, as a metaphor for the state of modern culture and its participants. It is disturbing because this claim is utterly absurd both prima facie and in the final analysis. A film or cultural commodity’s correspondence with reality, if not uncommonly believed either consciously or unconsciously, is deceptive at its typical worst. The B Movie horror is itself too absurd to be believed, but for precisely this reason serves the same ideological function by making AAA Oscar bait more believable. To then take seriously a cultural commodity which can’t even do that, a cultural commodity intentionally and forcibly reduced to all but dollars and cents, this blood-drenched thing that I’m running out of names for, is basically delusional. But because it exists in the world, because of how it was brought about, because of the nature of production, it’s rationally justifiable.

If the upshot is that, yes, this particular image is a metaphor for our reality, it is still up to us to draw the line. Culture today is indeed haunted by a cast of vampires, zombies, and ghosts. The lifeblood of what we would want culture to be, along with its artists and laborers, is drained by the means through which culture is itself produced. There is nothing simpler than the image of blood to signify the suffering of labor today, and how it stains everything working hands produce, however once beautiful. One almost feels sorry for Mickey Mouse seeing his original form stained red. Such an image evokes a longed-for cartoon innocence as a phantasm. With it ought to be the realization that it was never anything more.