New French Extremity and Monster Theses

By: Jacqueline Marsack

Images from the riots in Paris, 2005

Images from the riots in Paris, 2005

One of the things that has interested me is how the use of horror can change over time within a culture, especially when dealing with a culture that doesn’t necessarily emphasize horror as an artistic genre. I thought specifically of some European countries not usually associated with horrific tales, in art, literature, or cinema, and chose to examine how the utilization of horror has changed over time. While researching how the use and perception of horror has changed in recent decades, I stumbled across several articles referencing the New French Extremity movement. Curious, I deliberately searched out more references and was drawn to Matt Smith’s post “Confronting Morality,” on his blog The Split Screen. In it, Smith describes the development of the new wave horror of French cinema, as “[F]ilms comprising the so-called new wave of horror in France… provide one of the most comprehensive snapshots of human anxieties about our bodies and modern life in general I can think of, and feature all manner of murder and mayhem, ranging from simple stabbing to evisceration to the most inhuman torture imaginable.”

Smith highlights the “common threads throughout these films, the most common among them being home invasions that lead to unspeakable violence, and the fear of the Other, most often embodied by Arab immigrants and their offspring and centered on the riots and car burnings in the Paris suburbs.” I found it very unusual that Smith was able to pinpoint the commonality between these films as fear, and it is fear that is motivating the characters, whether it be fear of violence onto their person or fear rooted in difference. What made the French Extremity so interesting, and frankly exciting, to me was how applicable the Monster Theses, found in Cohen’s Monster Culture, were to this movement. Referring specifically to the fear of unexpected violence, the NFE movement exemplifies Cohen’s first monster thesis: that the monster’s body is a cultural body. The monster is a reflection of cultural fears and taboos, and the monsters featured in films are also a reflection of these fears. The changes that society has experienced in recent decades, the exponential increase in violence, increased coverage of horrific events, and the general loss of control over daily life, are directly related to these fears. The most common things that we as a society have come to fear involve these kinds of senseless, unexpected attacks and these films emphasize the fear we feel as we come to expect vicious, violent attacks.

The movement also exemplifies Cohen’s fourth thesis: the monster dwells at the gates of difference. These differences are emphasized specifically through racial and socio-economic divisions. These divisions are seen especially in films in the years after the riots that racked France in the aftermath of the deaths of two teenagers. The riots were rooted in “the underlying issues…involving social and economic exclusion, racial discrimination, and most importantly the capacity of the French Republic to respond to these challenges” (Peter Sahlins “Civil Unrest in the French Suburbs”). The “monsters” that are portrayed in the NFE films utilizing the fear of the “Other” are rooted in the differences that French society encounters in light of the political and economic instability in the region, and the impact of the refugees and immigrants. The new wave of French horror thus reflects social anxieties and these monstrous figures and actions are rooted in cultural fears of the differences France is being confronted with.

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4 thoughts on “New French Extremity and Monster Theses

  1. I agree with your beginning sentence about horror changing not only over time, but with cultures. I come from a culture that was more traditional when I was younger, so every scary story was somehow creepy. Now my younger brother scare me too easily and it’s because i grew up in a different time frame than they did. The culture part, is also very true to me personally. Most of the horror stories I grew up scared of, are stories that had a lot to do with my culture specifically, so I know they would not be particularly scary to anyone who doesn’t understand my culture, It would be creepy maybe, but not terrifying.

  2. Similar to what Perla said, I agree with your claim on horror being ever-changing. It’s interesting to think that what one culture finds horrifying, another finds neutral. My parents had a completely different upbringing than my brother and I, so there’s always a debate in my house on what is considered scary. It’s just interesting to think that fears are manmade–that nothing is really scary unless we think it’s scary.

  3. This was an extremely well planned, well researched and well developed blog post with a clear thesis. The observation, that a new wave of horror is based upon fear of outsiders, is potent and a sad truth that resonated within America as well. Even outside of the genre of horror, consider recent films like Planet of the Apes and World War Z; both portray an invading people, taking over and ruining the existing social structures. What in current events is prompting such fears? War? Terrorism? It is worth considering, so that we are not sucked in by this kind of propaganda.

  4. This was a very informative post. I find it very interesting how horror changes over times and cultures. Before taking this class, I was not aware of how Zombies were compared to the Red Scare and diseases like AIDS etc.. I feel like there has already been many different types of monsters throughout all the years, so I wonder what the next type of huge “monster” will be. I also liked how you included Cohen’s monster theses into your blog.

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