Department of Theatre and Film
You Are Who You Eat: Cannibalism As A Symbol Of Family Breakdown In The Horror Film
The family dinner is one of the most potent symbol of 1950s family life. The image of a nuclear family sitting down at the table to consume a meal, prepared by the mother and paid for by the father, reflects the ideal of family life: a moment of tranquility where everyone could gather and spend time, as the larger world continued to shift and change. Even as the veneer of the civil society began to fall away in the wake of the Vietnam War, the idealized image of the family dinner remained a fixture of advertising and popular culture. For filmmakers hoping to shock their audiences, the concept of the distorted or perverted family unit was one well-trod. From George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), to Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the idea of the family meal played an important role in demonstrating the darkness lurking just beneath the surface of a seemingly idyllic society.
The evolution of these films charts the changes in the culture; horror films in particular reflect the fears held by the larger society, calling up the darkness (or the fear thereof) that lurks within the hearts of mankind. The four films examined here played an important role in both reflecting the fears of social collapse and paving the way for the further horrors to come, with the family meal symbolizing for their filmmakers a potent symbol both universal and mundane. Audiences could understand what was occurring onscreen in reference to their own experiences, even if the lens of the camera often transmuted it into something considerably more terrifying. In these films, food (and specifically dinner) is the binding thread that holds the family together, an element that is featured in each of these films, and one that any audience can relate to.
The films I will be examining are Blood Feast (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1962), Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper,1974), and The Hills Have Eyes. These films came out of a period of great social upheaval, and represented a marked shift in how the cinema began to reflect the social disorder that began to spill out into the streets as the relative calm and conservatism of the 1950s gave way to potent political movements, violence both domestic and abroad, and the splintering of many of the ideals held concerning family (for instance, the divorce rate alone nearly tripled during the years covered here).
While the 1950s certainly had its share of violence and uncertainty (threats of nuclear annihilation, the Korean War, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts), the 1960s proved even more turbulent (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the escalation in Vietnam, the beginning of second-wave feminism, the full swing of the Civil Rights Movement, myriad riots and assassinations), and these filmmakers tapped into a particular zeitgeist in the moment. Horror films often reflect the fears of the populace at large (consider the atomic-infused giant monsters of the 1950's), and these films continued that trend. These films each feature at least one dysfunctional family, a dinner scene, and the act of cannibalism. Horror is an effective way to comment on current events without directly referencing them, and these filmmakers saw that families were at the center of the burgeoning conflicts.
For the purposes of the baseline family in this discussion, we will draw from the predominant pop culture vision of the nuclear family, the sort that grew out of television series like Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver. While these were not the only versions of the family unit circa 1950 (My Three Sons and The Andy Griffith Show both featured single fathers, and are no less iconic), they give us some understanding of the mindset that existed within the society at large. In its simplest form, the family features a patriarch who holds most of the decision-making power, and whose role it is to provide the basic resources of survival for his family. The matriarch's role is to transform these raw materials into something better suited to the family, and to act as the liaison to friends and neighbors. What children invariably exist are called upon to follow their parents commands and carry on the family line. This may seem overly simplistic, but it is a trope that the filmmakers make a target of, and provides a useful window into their mindsets.
It should be noted that these are not the only cannibal films of the period. Even the term “Cannibal Film” tends to refer to a horror sub-genre of faux-documentary Italian Mondo cinema largely active in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For our purposes, we will be focusing on the shifts within the American horror genre, and how it relates to the social upheaval that the filmmakers were direct witnesses to. The usefulness of food in this equation is summed up well by Carole Counihan: “food functions effectively as a system because everywhere human beings organize their foodways into an ordered system parallel to other cultural systems and infuse them with meaning” (20). What and how we eat helps us understand how a given society operates, and in these films it provides a keen look into the minds of the creators. By looking to these cannibal feasts, we can begin to understand what the directors were trying to communicate.
Examinations of meals can impart a large measure of anthropological information to those seeking to understand a culture. The ingredients, preparation, consumption, and even atmosphere can provide important clues: material artifacts can tell us a great deal of the relative technology and domestication efforts of a given area, social traditions can show us how the gathered related to food, family, the larger society, and even strangers, and the food and preparations thereof can explain much of the role of gender and age within the group. Mary Douglas explains, “the meaning of a meal is found in a system of repeated analogies. Each meal carries something of the meaning of the other meals; each meal is a structured social event which structures others in its own image” (69). The dinner is the thing in which we'll find the meaning of the film.
For the films discussed here, we generally only have one onscreen meal from which to decipher possible meanings, though there are often clues as to the deeper significance of the event. The nature of the food, and the reasoning behind its consumption, can explain much about the characters within the film, as well as the wider culture that gave birth to the notions contained in these films. Using a framework akin to Douglas, we can understand the social mores at play in the films more easily, and understand the underlying messages better. As Douglas elaborates: “if food is treated as a code, the messages it encodes will be found in the pattern of social relations being expressed. The message is about different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries.” (69). While Douglas' framework provides a lens for examining the meal itself, it is important to consider another key aspect of how these horror films operate.
From Douglas, we can create a framework suited to our needs, examining the key components of the meal: the acquisition of the ingredients (in this case, with special attention to how the cannibals treat their victims), the labor engaged in crafting the meal (how much, or little, effort goes into cooking the meat), the roles played by the diners (both the cannibals themselves and their occasional guests), and the act of consumption itself (what rituals the groups engage in). There are certainly other elements that could be considered, but these four pieces explain effectively how the meals are portrayed on screen, and what aspects the filmmakers draw attention to. The degree to which the actions are ritualized is telling with regard to the twisted vision the filmmakers are bringing forth, and provides some clue to the meaning of the images on the screen.
Beyond the meal itself, attention must be paid to the nature of the family units within these films, and how the directors were commenting on the changes. The filmmakers are examining the problems just then bubbling to the surface, problems that had been lurking for some time longer. Robin Wood quotes Wes Craven, summing up the importance of family in these horror films: “The family is the best microcosm to work with. If you go much beyond that you're getting away from a lot of the roots of our own primeval feelings...there was an enormous amount of secrecy in the general commerce of our getting along with each other. Certain things were not mentioned. A lot of things were not spoken of or talked about . . . as I got older, I began to see we as a nation were doing the same thing” (Wood 119). This feeling persists throughout the films, using the family as a focal point to examine the troubles facing society at large. The families are not always the protagonists, notably in the later films (Craven's work emphasizes the dark side of families), but they provide a crucial point in the examination of the dinners within these films.
The filmmakers are not taking a direct page from Douglas' book; rather, they work to subvert the expectations of the audience concerning how a family is supposed to act and supposed to eat dinner, working from the pop cultural presumptions of a nuclear family's dinner. The filmmakers make use of Sigmund Freud's concept of the uncanny, formulated in his 1919 essay titled The Uncanny. Freud defines it as follows: “It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror...the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense...Yet we may expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term” (23). The uncanny thus refers to the idea of something being familiar, and yet foreign, and thus inspiring some degree of psychological horror. Within the context of the films examined here, each of the meals depicted is an uncanny event, a very intentional, warped recreation of the conventional family dinner.
Freud draws a direct connection between death and feelings of the uncanny, recognizing the power that old superstitions still hold, the same powers filmmakers call upon for their scary movies: “many people experience the feeling in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts . . . There is scarcely any other matter, however, upon which our thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the very earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so completely preserved under a thin disguise, as our relation to death” (152). The breakdown and failure of the traditional family unit during the tumultuous years of the 1960s and 1970s might well be viewed as uncanny by observers within the families themselves. This was not lost on these filmmakers, who had grown up in the post-war years and witnessed the false normalcy of the society at large. Thus, a tool for examining how this conflict disrupts the traditional family system is brought forth.
It should be said that there are many that would argue that Freudian thought as a form of critical examination is entirely debunked, and has little use to the modern scholar. Robin Wood posits that it is a political issue, rooted in the politics of the 1980s, an artificial turn of events that has left Freud (unfairly) out of style within academia, especially in the context of horror scholarship (xiv-xv). Wood reckons that Freud's work still has a role to play in the examination of horror cinema. Stephen Jay Schneider goes a step further, finding the history of Freudian thought inexorably intertwined with the traditions of Gothic horror, part of the tradition that the films discussed here arose out of (7-9). It should be noted that the filmmakers discussed here were all well-educated, to the point that three out of the four worked as college professors (each in the humanities) before taking up filmmaking. Moreover, in the course of their educations, and in their jobs, they would have encountered Freud in a theoretical context.
Freud was at the height of his powers in the halls of academia at this point, particularly in the disciplines in which they worked; the only exception is George Romero, who did receive a university education, though pursued filmmaking in a more direct fashion. In the spirit of keeping things concise, I will focus largely to the role of the uncanny in these films. There is a great deal of psychoanalytical horror theory, but the main purpose here is a foodways examination of dinner sequences in a set of horror films, filtered through the concept of the uncanny, as a commentary on the changing American society circa 1962 to 1977. The meals presented here, in ingredients, preparation, and consumption, follow a warped sense of form: they are at once familiar and alien to the viewer, following a universal code that is twisted by the horror of the situation.
It should also be noted that gender, something of great importance in horror films, plays a strange role within the ideal of the meal within the films discussed here. There is a pervasive cultural presumption of cooking and feeding the family as a woman's work. Marjorie L. DeVault explains, “the claim that feeding work is gendered refers to a continuing pattern in the allocation of work: the fact that women typically do most of the work, and usually do its most important parts . . . through this ongoing process, activities such as feeding . . . come to seem like 'natural' expressions of gender” (117-118). Women in society at large (particularly during the era in which these horror films were made) were seen as the preparers of food, casting the situations that occur in the films in an interesting light. The villains of these films are predominantly male, contributing further to the deviance of “civilized” behavior and providing further examples of the uncanny in effect.
I will examine the concept of gender roles in these films, particularly among the predominantly male antagonists, under the presumption of the basic gender roles as understood in this period: the patriarch as the provider, the matriarch as the preparer, and the child as consumers (though each film will subvert the paradigm in their own ways). With the objective of keeping this focused on the uncanny meals within these films, I will generally avoid a larger discussion of gender in horror films. This has been covered more extensively by Carol Clover (Men, Women, And Chainsaws) and Barbara Creed (The Monstrous-Feminine), among others.
My analysis will emphasize a particular meal scene in each film, though I will make note of the larger action of the film and the imagery utilized: the climatic kitchen-set attempted-sacrifice in Blood Feast, the events in the cellar involving the Cooper family in Night of the Living Dead, the unhinged dinner sequence in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the cannibal clan's campfire supper in The Hills Have Eyes. These scenes hammer home the conflicts that were playing out far away from the movie screens of America, behind closed doors in homes all across the nation. The family dinner, the epitome of the traditionalist idealism of American culture, is herein mocked, parodied, and torn asunder, the social and generational conflicts starkly capturing the upheavals that the filmmakers found themselves witness to. The use of the uncanny in these scenes (and, indeed, throughout the films discussed here) helped to mask the subversive message posited within these films, while at the same moment commenting on the collapse of the traditional American family unit.
In reflecting what they saw as the typical American family through a warped lens of violence, the filmmakers simply added another layer of the uncanny to generate unease in their audience. It should be recognized that these films communicated with different audiences in different ways. While the average movie-going public might avoid the films or, at least, not admit to seeing them, others might gleefully attend for Grand Guginol spectacle. Some still smaller minority might recognize the deeper significance of the work and the subtle messages within. Within Douglas' framework, we can examine other factors that went into the particular recipes of horror presented by these films. Combined with the concept of the uncanny and a basic conception of what a family is "supposed" to look like, we can conceive a framework for examining the films and their respective dinner scenes.
The key is the portrayal of the family units and the relationships within these groups, specifically what roles the members are called upon to play. In these cases, the roles they undertake are often uncanny reflections of what "should" be, and provide a useful insight into the meal. From there, attention should be paid to how the raw materials of the meal are treated, and how the preparation unfolds, which provides an understanding of how each family survives and sees their role in society. The dinner scene itself contains considerable information as well, as the diners take on roles within the proceedings that might reinforce or subvert their everyday roles. Finally, the significance of the food itself should be noted, whether it acts as a symbol, serves as simple sustenance, or if it falls somewhere in the middle.
II. “A weird and ancient rite horrendously brought to life!”
The harbinger of the horror revolution was 1962's Blood Feast, directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis. The film was a low budget chiller, independently produced and released to drive-in cinemas primarily in the South. Lewis himself was an ad man and former English professor who had fallen into film-making after directing a series of television advertisements, joining in the wave of early nudist films, before turning his hand to horror. Lewis had the advantage in that the market for low-budget, independent horror had been as yet untapped, with the rise of independently-owned drive-in theaters offering a prime area for new genres of cinema.
Lacking much in terms of budget, Lewis relied on gore in generous, colorful quantities, and as if by accident sparked a revolution. Of his work, Lewis himself is purported to have referred to his film as “a Walt Whitman poem – it's no good, but it's the first of its type and therefore deserves a certain position” (qtd. In Newman 17). Lewis's film is a key stepping stone in what will unfold, and its elements indicate the ways in which the genre at large will be shaped. Blood Feast is a significant milepost in the genesis of the genre, and has merit for examination within the context of the uncanny family dinner.
The plot concerns a caterer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), a murderous worshiper of the Egyptian goddess Ishtar. He is contracted to cater a wedding by the mother of the bride, Mrs. Fremont (Lyn Bolton). He then resolves to assemble a “Pharaoh's Feast” in order to resurrect his goddess Ishtar, the final piece being the sacrifice of the bride, Suzette (Connie Mason). This involves brutally murdering and dismembering young women, and combining their body parts to create horrifying dishes, in keeping with the ancient traditions, as explained by a lecturer during the film. The film jumps from gory scenes of violence to awkward exposition, as the police bumble and meander before finally uncovering the truth. Arriving in the nick of time (or slightly thereafter), they chase Ramses into the back of a garbage truck, where he is crushed to death.
The film is well-noted for its lurid, gory death scenes, as the villainous Ramses preys on various nubile young women, but there is an aspect that often goes unremarked upon. The impetus for much of the action revolves around his preparation of a horrific feast, nominally for his goddess. The feast is, however, prepared at the behest of the mother, who is marrying off her daughter to a police detective. Food, albeit gory bits of human flesh, is the motive of Ramses's crime, in service to his own mother figure, the gold statue of the goddess Ishtar, and much of the action revolves around his preparation of the gory feast.
Blood Feast devotes a considerable amount of its run-time to the crafting of the meal, more than the other films discussed. Ramses's efforts are, in this case, literally ritual, as they are necessary steps in his dark rites, and we gain some understanding of the meaning behind his work. Ramses's takes specific organs from his victims, carefully chosen and surgically removed, combining the roles of the astute housewife, who would contemplate the best cut of meat available, and the butcher, who must work to preserve the specific cuts. He works efficiently, and seems to regard his work as an honor for the young women who are horribly murdered, though we never get much of a sense of why he targets these women beyond simple opportunity.
Ramses, within the "dinner," subsumes the role of both the provider of the food and the preparer of it, becoming the father and the mother within the context of the meal. He takes on the role of the parent for the Fremont bride, and is allowed to do so because of the void left by the inattentive mother and absent father (Mr. Fremont is never seen nor mentioned). Lewis recognizes how fragile the basic family structure is, and how much trust is placed in others in the modern society. Mrs. Fremont never asks to see Ramses's catering license, nor for any business references, or even about the flavor of his specialized cuisine. The threat here is corruption being allowed to creep into the hearth, with Ramses becoming an uncanny mother. Lewis indicates that the mother not preparing her daughter's feast herself, as would be tradition, causes events to go awry.
The “feast” does seem to have a recognizable, if grotesque, structure, and we can draw relation between Ramses's ritualistic feast and the intended wedding dinner. The preparation of the feast is highly ritualized, as if following a recipe, creating a sense of recognition within the horror. We see Ramses's careful gathering of choice cuts of meat from unsuspecting women, including “tenderizing” one young woman with a vicious whip. On a basic level, this is no different than the work that goes into providing for a meal, creating a feeling of the uncanny. Lewis offers up to his audience an uncanny vision of a whole wedding feast, complete with exotic cuts of meat. It is no accident that Ramses's kitchen resembles a medieval torture chamber crossed with an industrial kitchen, creating a conception of what should not be.
It is the penultimate scene that features the closest representation to an actual dinner, though no human flesh is actually consumed. Ramses attempts to complete his ritual at the party, to sacrifice the bride-to-be in her mother's kitchen, upon her mother's counter. Her mother, in refusing to carry out her traditional duties in preparing a wedding feast for her daughter, has allowed a corrupted brute into her home, where he intends to desecrate the holy altar of the kitchen counter. In this moment, Suzette is reduced to the role of food itself, but this in turn marks Ramses's downfall as the surrogate mother.
It is the timely entrance of Suzette's true mother that prevents the terrible act from reaching its conclusion, as she returns to her proper place as a guardian of the household. Her entrance is driven by the grumblings of the guests that they are hungry; she is, after all, still expected to feed her guests, but is not apt to do it herself. Lewis draws attention to the mother's dereliction of her duties when, rather than inquiring further into the revelation that Ramses nearly slew her daughter, she instead nonchalantly states “Oh dear, the guests will have to have hamburgers for dinner tonight.” Her concern is not for the murderer who just ran out the back door, nor for her daughter's frazzled state, but for the meal to be delivered to her guests, once more taking her "proper" place in the household.
It is unlikely that Lewis set out to create a new wave of horror, yet his gory film would ignite a revolution. “When Blood Feast opened at that lone drive-in theater in Peoria,” Randy Palmer writes, “cinema history was made. Nobody knew that yet . . . Blood Feast trickled rivulets of blood that would swell into a torrent a decade later, when other filmmakers began telling their own gory stories” (60). It proved that an audience would be willing to stomach scenes of intense gore, and thus laid the groundwork of the cannibal as a figure of danger to the modern, suburban family. Noted cult film commentator John Bloom (writing under a pen name as Joe Bob Briggs) explains “Blood Feast became the first real find in what I call pop-culture archeology . . . there were young devotees who regarded the exploitation film not as pure entertainment, but as a cultural artifact that was celebrated . . . as an assault on the senses that outrages the middle class and as a part of a subculture that only initiates know about” (87).
While Lewis might have received little recognition for the deeper subtext of his film, he opened the door for others to follow, and for horror films to take on a nature all their own. This film introduced a generation of young filmmakers to what could be done on film, and laid the seeds for what was to come, though it would not remain as ingrained within the consciousnesses of the movie-going public. Lewis would effectively retire from filmmaking in the early 1970s to pursue a lucrative career in copy-writing, just as a new generation of young horror filmmakers were taking up his bloody banner. With this film, the cracks begin show in the facade of American home life, fissures that will be rent open in the years to follow, with horror filmmakers there to document the whole ordeal in gory, colorful detail. Once even the slightest bit of corruption is allowed in, it becomes impossible to be truly rid of, after all.
III. “They keep coming back with a bloodthirsty lust for human flesh!”
1968's Night of the Living Dead, directed by George Romero, would prove one of the most pivotal horror films of all time, utterly changing the landscape following it. Romero was even more inexperienced than Lewis when it came to filmmaking, as he had only directed commercials. However, he had a natural talent and style, and a strong stable of actors to draw from. It should be noted that, in contrast to the higher education backgrounds of the other directors discussed here, Romero had pursued a career in filmmaking throughout college, and had nearly a decade of experience in the field before Night. Romero drew inspiration from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and various B-movies of the day, and the script went through a number of drafts before arriving at its somber, minimalist final form.
The film was in many ways a commentary on the social breakdown occurring in the 1960's, with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War both coming into full swing (the Civil Rights imagery being particularly stark in the film's finale). Romero takes care not to directly reference these events, but there are obvious links between those upheavals and the film itself, particularly in terms of the relationships portrayed within the film. Romero's film is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is creating the modern conception of the zombie, a term which the film never actually uses, and it was the film that would bring a new golden age of horror into full swing. It laid the groundwork for horror films to be more than simply the sum of their parts and take on deeper meanings.
The film follows a group of disparate strangers taking refuge in an anonymous farmhouse, as the dead rise to become voracious cannibals, intent on consuming the survivors. The cast is populated by simple archetypes: the teenage couple (Keith Waine and Judith Ridley), the calm and collected leader Ben (Duane Jones, who happens to be African-American, though this is never directly referenced), the shell-shocked survivor Barbra (Judith O'Dea), and a seemingly average family unit: father Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), mother Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). This family figures most directly into the conception of the family dinner here, as Karen is suffering a fever that will soon make her a member of a different sort of family. Just as society breaks down around them, so too does their own cell.
Eventually, chaos breaks loose, with Ben and Harry struggling over the only gun while the ghouls break through the boarded over doors and windows. When Harry, shot in the scuffle, retreats into the basement after he fails to seize control of the situation, he is met by his now mobile daughter, who falls upon him in a consuming frenzy. Shortly thereafter, Helen arrives to discover her daughter feasting upon her husband's corpse, and is dispatched by a trowel. Ben finally forces his way downstairs, dispatching each of the family of ghouls in turn, but the damage is done, and the film ends on a bleak note when Ben is apparently mistaken for a ghoul and shot in the head by the roving militiamen of rural Pennsylvania.
The most obvious family unit here is the Coopers, who in another film might easily have served as the protagonists (The Hills Have Eyes focuses on a markedly similar, if extended, family). Their dynamic is fairly straightforward: Harry is the leader and decider, Helen is the comforter and diplomat, and the dying Karen's place is to be cared for by her parents. Harry is cautious and conservative (even initially unwilling to open the door when Barbra and Ben arrive upstairs), protective of his family and aggressive, particularly toward Ben. Helen tries to act as a cooler head (though is generally ignored by Harry), and takes on the role of the comforter, calming down the hysterical Barbra, as well as generally trying to smooth out the disagreements that occur. There is conflict within this family unit, as when Helen stays upstairs after Harry is shot rather than tending to her husband's needs. She thus shows she has more power than the others might have recognized, but ultimately it doesn't make much difference.
The sequence in the basement illustrates the disintegration of the family unit, and is the most direct portrayal of a family dinner within the film. While it is not a family dinner in the mode of the other films discussed here, lacking any obvious preparation of the meal or any iota of ritualized behavior, this is still an important portrait of the family unit in decay (featuring the child eating her parents). The scene is shot largely in shadows, a counterpoint to the well-lit interiors of the farmhouse, with the murk of the basement indicating the threat that lurks there.
Harry, already wounded from the upstairs scuffle, stumbles downstairs, only to be finished off by his now-reanimated daughter. The child then proceeds to feast on his corpse, before being interrupted by the arrival of her mother. Tony Williams explains what follows: “Helen moves to the basement to find Karen devouring her late husband. Instead of rationally re-evaluating the changed situation, she allows mother-love to dominate her feelings and falls victim to her daughter” (30). Karen undoes any conceptions of a traditional power structure in murdering both of her parents; in this uncanny new world, she provides and prepares her own dinner, though there is little ritual in her efforts. Romero uses shadows to convey the breakdown of the family unit; the undead make no distinction between family, age, or previous association, existing solely to consume the living.
The parents are dead by their daughter's hand, and are in turn shot by Ben as they reanimate. The family unit thus becomes the living dead themselves, despite the total lack of culture and higher cognition. There is something to be said for the zombies: they tend to travel in herds, gather where others do, don't compete for food sources, and have done away with any distinctions of race, class, gender, and so on. They have achieved a sort of horrible, perfectly egalitarian society, so far as society can be presumed to exist within their reanimated minds. They are not completely mindless, showing fear of fire and awareness of food in the farmhouse; Romero explores these concepts in his later films, including Day of the Dead and Land of Dead, expanding considerably on what it means to be zombie. Here, they are single-minded in their purpose: to consume. Even with the loss of everything else that made them human, they hold on to the need for food, and thus render it more important than the rest of their existence. The undead welcome all into this makeshift family, and all will be treated equally.
This is a dinner scene stripped down to its component parts: the only stab at meal preparation is the murder by trowel of Helen, which mimics a child's attempt at slicing up the meat. The parents aren't even allowed to partake in the eating, as the trio are killed by Ben shortly after reanimation, and are thus denied a “proper” family dinner. This is the new order: not simply do the children haphazardly replace the role of the parents, but there is a total collapse of the familial structure. The structure of the meal is almost entirely absent here: even the savage cannibals of Hills still cook their food, while the ghouls of Night only care about consuming. There are no rules, no structure, only the basest spark of human instinct remaining in this meal. Romero demonstrates how completely society has broken down by showing us the dissolution of the family unit amid a twisted meal in a darkened basement.
There us a another, less obvious family unit in play here: the dead themselves. The walking dead become the new shape of humanity, bringing with them a new code of eating and simplifying their natures to a single purpose: to eat. The ghouls possess mindless hunger, driven only by faint instinct to dine upon the living (for reasons not made entirely clear, they travel in groups, making them far more of a threat than they would otherwise be). Despite their mindlessness, there is a faint glimmer of a code within their actions: the horde works together to acquire food, and every one of them can enjoy the meal. Harry's car was overturned earlier, and he explains the ghouls move in groups; “there's not going to be five, or even ten! There's going to be twenty, thirty, maybe a hundred of those things, and as soon as they find out we're here, this place'll be crawling with them!” It is the very presence of the survivors that draws the dead to the house, much like a dinner bell, creating a great communal cannibalistic feast. Of all the horror movie cannibals, they are the most uncanny: they are us in every respect, save for their state of death, and we will become them whether we'd like to or not.
The undead are thus rendered more horrifying, as doppelgangers to erstwhile heroes, engaging in entirely aberrant, yet still familiar activity. We recognize how the ghouls function (a simple mob mentality based around the acquisition of food), but the traditional bonds of family have been replaced by this new brotherhood of being undead. Arguments have been made that the humans in the house (and the redneck posse) are the real monsters herein. Tony Williams writes, “[the characters] find themselves suddenly removed from their familiar surroundings and customary patterns of behaviour and . . . find themselves reproducing the behaviour of their assailants on a verbal level by attempting to dominate (or consume) their conveniently designated opponents” (23). They simply seek to consume the living in the most efficient and simple manner possible. It is notable that roboticist Masahiro Mori includes the living dead (zombie) at the bottom of the uncanny valley in his 1970 article on the topic, his implication being that by the thing looking distinctly human and mobile, it unnerves humans to a considerable degree (33-35).
This theme will be repeated, particularly in The Hills Have Eyes, albeit in a somewhat different fashion. As Freud explains in his definition of the uncanny: “this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (151). Certainly this fits the meals that the undead engage it, resembling an almost animalistic (yet communal) feast upon their living counterparts. All members of the ghoul “society” are equals at the table, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, or state of decay: they all stumble forward at the same uncanny gait, and all join in the feast upon the living, “enjoying” their fill before meandering on to the next group of living humans. The relentless eating of the living is, if not a traditional meal, an uncanny meal. The living dead do not engage in basic behaviors like preparation of the food in any direct fashion, and they don't seem to particularly prefer one human over another.
Romero effectively plays the audience against itself, setting up the typical American family as a foundation of the film, before knocking them down to make way for a new shape of families. Harry and Ben reflect the forces opposed to this new order, with Harry in particular fighting any change in family dynamics that would see his control of the situation reduced, particularly when it means ceding power to Ben. In failing to adapt, Harry falls victim to his daughter, and Ben, mistaken for one of the creatures, is killed by the forces that enforce the old world order. Neither is allowed to join the great family dinner of the living dead, though the film questions how permanent this state of affairs will be.
IV. “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?”
Tobe Hooper's horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in the fall of 1974 to the drive-ins and grindhouses of America. Hooper was then a modestly established independent filmmaker, though his work tended to be documentary shorts and festival features of some repute. Hooper recalls the genesis of film: “I found myself near a display rack of chain saws...and I thought, ‘I know a way I could get through this crowd really quickly.’ I went home, sat down, all the channels just tuned in, the zeitgeist blew through, and the whole damn story came to me” (qtd. in Bloom 1). Hooper and his ragtag gang scrambled to raise money, and shoot the film the following summer, the script borrowing heavily from Hooper's research into real-life cannibals like Ed Gein. The film proved a huge success, and formed a key point in the new wave of horror that unfolded during the decade.
The film follows five young people, around twenty years old, as they travel through the back country of Texas in an old van, including nominal protagonist (and final survivor) Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns). After an encounter with a deranged Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), the group stops for gas, but are told by gas station owner Cook (Jim Siedow) that the pumps are currently empty. While waiting for the gas delivery, they decide to stop at a nearby homestead that once belonged to Sally's family, and explore the area. The characters are then picked off one by one by the monstrous Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), named for the dried mask of human skin that he wears. He dispatches them in brutal fashion, akin to a slaughterhouse, with hammer blow, meat hook, and chainsaw. John Kenneth Muir posits, “Leatherface and his family see no difference between Sally, a rabbit, or a cow. To the cannibals, they're merely ingredients . . . animal flesh is animal flesh, and meat is meat. If cows can be slaughtered and served up for dinner, so then can Sally” (61).
We can see from this treatment an element of ritual: these ill-fated young people are essentially the meat to be slaughtered; we can read the cannibal clan's treatment of them as a code for the preparation of the meat. Of particular note are the two characters dispatched by hammer blows to the skull, much as cows would have been in the old days at the slaughterhouse. Sally narrowly escapes the homestead, retreating to the gas station only to learn that the owner is brother to both Leatherface and the Hitchhiker, and she is dragged back to the house in time for dinner. She is able to make her escape during the macabre dinner ritual, due to some confusion over who should kill her, and makes good on the opportunity as the sun begins to rise at the end of the horrible night.
It is at dinner that we learn the dynamics of the family. Leatherface is primarily responsible for the acquisition of the food, assisted in some capacity by his hitchhiking brother, while Cook actually prepares the dinner for the clan and acts as the most “civilized” member of the family, apologizing at one point to the hysterical Sally (while the Hitchhiker and Leatherface mock her terrified screams). Leatherface apparently acts as the server, and is also wearing a dress, something unremarked upon by the other characters. Hooper's script does distinguish between the family members: Cook is even unwilling to murder anyone, explaining “I just can't take no pleasure in killing. There's just some things you gotta do. Don't mean you have to like it.” Contrasted with the crazed Hitchhiker or the monstrous Leatherface, he appears almost reasonable.
The strange dichotomy of the situation appears in that Cook acts as the matriarch should be expected to, entertaining the guests and cooking the meal itself, while Leatherface appears as the matriarch, wearing a dress and being the one to serve up the meal. Thus, within this family, Cook and Leatherface take the place of the matriarch of the clan, in the absence of a female presence. The two brothers take on the roles that would normally be played by the mother, as preparer and server of the meal, respectively, but neither is fully committed to the role. Both remain obvious substitutes, and the lack of a proper female figure in the household might provide some clue as to the family's downfall.
Also at the meal is the family's ancient patriarch, so old that he seemed to be a desiccated corpse in an earlier scene, who at the meal seems to lack any of the power that should be reflected in his position. He is a withered old ghost, just as powerless as his dead wife, whatever virility he had possessed long since departed. He is a symbol of this family, unable to adapt to the times, when the changes in slaughterhouse technology left the clan unemployed and destitute. If Blood Feast demonstrated the shadows lurking on the periphery, and Night saw any associations of family stripped away by a new world order, Chainsaw shows a family in the midst of disintegration, trying, and failing, to hold together some semblance of the way things were.
This family is one warped not only by their rural environment, but also by lack of feminine presence: with the matriarch of the clan long-since deceased, it falls to Cook, who forswears committing murder himself and Leatherface, who takes on the “form” and behavior expected of the woman. That Leatherface and the Hitchhiker react with mockery and yelling is simply a reflection of this new situation: they have become entirely unfamiliar with having a female at the table, as only Cook treats her nicely. This is also a reflection of the family's attempt to put off the drastic changes occurring in their world: with the mechanization of the slaughterhouses, they are put mostly out of work. Leatherface may murder hapless interlopers, but he also wears his mother's dress at dinner, trying to hold on to some sense of what, to him, is normalcy, at least in his traditional family dinner.
The preparation of the meal is never quite witnessed on screen, we do get a few brief shots of Sally's companions meeting their ends, which stands in as the acquisition of the raw materials. The two able-bodied males receive a blow to the head with a large mallet, the another girl is hung from a meat hook, and Sally's wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) has the dubious distinction of being the only person chainsaw massacred in this film. The treatment of these victims reinforces that they are viewed as little more than animals; with these killings, there is no sense of sadistic glee or any purpose beyond the utilitarian acquisition of meat, just as efficiency is the order of the day in a slaughterhouse.
The key exception to this is the terrorizing of Sally; there is no reason given for the ongoing torment, though it might be born out of the frustration at Sally's continual escapes, as indicated with Leatherface's wild chainsaw dance in the final shot of the film. We do get some small inkling of ritual with this, specifically the decision to have Grandfather kill Sally, though even that ritual becomes a parody of itself when his strength proves unable to deliver a proper blow. It is apparent that they do intend to kill Sally at dinner, they just prove not up to the task. We aren't given much sense of the actual cooking of the meal, other than that it falls under Cook's provenance, as does serving as the “respectable” face to the outside world, and making the only income the household is likely to see. While it is never directly stated, it does seem likely that the chili that Cook sells at his gas station contains some amount of human remains.
The dinner scene is longer in this film that the others, and is a considerably more active event. The set up resembles the traditional family meal, with the patriarch (the decrepit Grandpa) at the head of the table, his eldest son (Cook) and “wife” (as played by Leatherface) seated on either side of him. The guest is isolated, seated at the opposite end of the table, in a fashion quite recognizable to any astute viewer. Muir notes “that it is the dinner table where American families get together to discuss the most important topics of their lives. Eating is a form of emotional bonding and meals offer an opportunity for family members to communicate with one another. In Chain Saw, however, Sally sees the dark underneath of the American family” (62).
Cook is almost polite in his treatment of the guest, berating the Hitchhiker and Leatherface when they squeal in mockery of her pleas for help. The captive guest even has an ignored plate of food in front of her, though none of those present pay much heed to the food in front of them either, once Sally's screaming begins. This is perhaps for the best considering it is likely one of her recently deceased friends. Mark Bernard explains that “consumption is obviously not the focus of this meal as the family is apparently more concerned with tormenting Sally and each other than they are with eating . . . they forget about their food as can probably be expected given their social circumstances, argue over the labor of getting the food . . . only the Hitchhiker is shown taking a bite of the food on his plate” (419). The scene echoes a dinner with particularly insular hosts, with the guest feeling outside of the main discourse, though perhaps not under the duress of being the main course.
The dinner reflects the rituals that the family undertakes for their meals, although this is likely a special case, as live guests seem to be a rarity. The act of having the grandfather strike the killing blow against Sally also reflects the ritual: he is the patriarch of the clan, and thus is the one who acquires the food. Leatherface, who killed the others, has taken on a more feminine role as server in order to to complete the mocking ritual of the dinner, and it falls to someone else to carry out the work. While Cook is vicious in his capture of Sally at the gas station, he puts on a more civilized air, in keeping with being the one who cooked the food: he will have no part in actually killing the girl. Newman explains the family as “a parody of the typical sit-com family, with the bread-winning, long suffering Gas Man [Cook] as Pop; the preening, bewigged, apron-wearing Leatherface as Mom; and the rebellious, long-haired Hitch as the teenage son.” (75).
The scene is fairly well-lit, in contrast to Night's basement supper, and it allows Hooper to show the twisted family and the layout of the meal. It is a much more ordered event than Night or even the similarly themed Hills, acting as a direct parody of the family dinner. Hooper wants his audience to recognize what this is: not shadowy doppelgangers in a cellar, but a new sort of family unit, not so much a reaction to the perceived family values of the era, but one still trying to mimic the ideals as they understood them yet failing. Hooper understands that the dinner is much more horrifying when well lit, clearly showing the unfolding nightmare, and allows audiences to have a clearer view of the increasingly twisted shape of the modern American family.
The cannibals here exist on the fringes of civilization, not quite apart from it, and there is some sense that they want to belong to the family system, but have fallen into poverty and madness. In this respect, the dinner is framed in such a way that Sally is a piece of the proceedings, as both an audience member and main course, a special role in all these films. The strongest parallel among these films to this scene is Blood Feast; Night's undead see the living only as a meal, Hills' cannibals don't allow interlopers to join their meal, while Ramses requires his later victims to play a ritualized part of creation of the meal. These cannibals want to belong to the greater society, but they just can't seem to get it right.
V. “A nice American family. They didn't want to kill. But they didn't want to die.”
Perhaps the final great golden age horror film to deal with families and their dinners was Wes Craven's 1977 release The Hills Have Eyes. Of the directors discussed here, Craven was perhaps the most experienced, directing two previous films and working on a number of other films as an editor. He was also the only one of the directors that had a background in horror, with his seminal The Last House on the Left having been released in 1972, and was familiar with the horror genre films coming out during that era (Wooley 50-51).
In many ways, Hills followed up on many of themes Craven dealt with in his debut feature: the line between civilization and savagery, the bonds of family, and the lurking threat of violence even within the confines of modern civilization. Though it featured a more visceral brutality than the similarly-themed Texas Chainsaw Massacre, many of the same themes were at play, though rendered in starker detail still. The film failed to gain as much attention as the others discussed here, buried under an increasingly crowded marketplace that exploded in the late 1970's with the release of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Craven's film is still significant in the examination of the uncanny family dinner, but it did mark the end of an era, as the genre became more concerned with singular killers and cannibals became increasingly played for laughs.
The film follows a nominally urban extended family, the Carters, on their way to California, who stop in wastelands of the southwest United States (it's unclear if it is New Mexico, Arizona, or southern California) to investigate an abandoned silver mine willed to the patriarch Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve) by a distant relative. An old gas station owner (John Steadman) warns not to continue into the area, explaining it was formerly a test site for nuclear weapons. They head off into the wastes in their small convoy regardless, only to suffer a broken axle a few miles later.
As night falls, it become apparent that they are not alone in the desert, as a clan of deranged cannibals has taken up residence in the distant hills, raiding passers-by for food and other necessities. Using guerrilla tactics, the cannibals assault the family, killing the bellowing patriarch and assaulting the vehicles, causing even more havoc. The Carters are able to regroup and turn the tables back on their tormentors, with the help of the vengeful family dog. The motives of the Jupiter clan become horrifyingly clear here, as Mars (Lance Gordon) explains “Baby tastes good. Baby fat. You fat. Fat and juicy.” In the original script, the baby was in fact cooked and eaten, until protests from the cast and crew changed the ending. With his wife now dead, Doug (Martin Speer) is called upon to protect his child, and brutally murders Mars, as the film fades out in red splatter and horrified screaming.
What makes Hills especially interesting is the dichotomy between the two distinct family groups: the city dwelling Carters and the wasteland dwelling Jupiter clan. Tony Williams explains, “the Carter family are affluent beneficiaries of the American Dream. Dominated by overbearing, ex-law officer Big Bob Carter . . . fulminating against American outsiders, whether they are Blacks from Cleveland or wilderness hillbillies” (145). The family unit, despite being expanded with in-laws and a new baby, conforms to the general conception of a patriarchal family unit: this family fits well within the ideals of the 1950s culture, considering it was filmed in 1975. There is some friction between Big Bob and son-in-law Doug, with Bob's traditional role is as supreme head of the household and conservative standard-bearer challenged by the younger interloper.
Meanwhile, hidden in the nearby caves and ridges is another family, albeit one much more savage and brutal than their urban-dwelling doppelgangers. Lead by the hulking “Papa” Jupiter (James Whitworth), the outcast son of the gas station owner, whose brood of mutants have until now had been complacent in their murdering ways. Within this family, the conflict stems from the teenage Ruby (Janus Blythe) who opposes the actions of her father and brothers, hoping for a less violent lifestyle. Ruby is punished for this opposition, and she later turns upon her mother and brothers, choosing civilization.
Williams argues that “Jupiter's family represents repressed vengeance against a social Darwinist structure that leaves victims to fend for themselves. Jupiter's family later destroys Bob, the patriarchal beneficiary of an economic system that condemns them to starvation and historic erasure” (145). The Jupiter family is the most marginalized a group can be within the United States, pushed even further past the edge than Chainsaw's murderous family. They did have some stability raiding a local army base prior to the events of the film, but the closure of the base drove the clan to increasingly desperate measures.
Both families are solid, conservative patriarchies, but each is unable to cope with the changing world. Big Bob and Papa Jupiter are mirrors of each other: distrustful of outsiders, over-confident, hyper-masculine, each is undone by rushing into a dangerous situation without thinking: Bob goes back to the gas station alone and overexerts himself to the point of suffering a heart attack, while Jupiter walks straight in to an exploding trailer trap at the conclusion. The families themselves stand in opposition to one another: Ethel is weak-willed and passive whereas Mama is loud and violent, though both are still beholden to their powerful husbands. Likewise, the rough-and-tumble sons of Jupiter are a stark contrast to the meek and civilized daughters of Bob.
By the end, after the Carters have been pushed to the edge, the distinctions apparent at the beginning of the film are much less clear. Williams asserts of the finale: “the last third of The Hills Have Eyes reveals little difference between both families . . . civilized family values are non-existent; both families are identical. The film ends with a low-angle freeze frame red filter shot of Doug. Looking at Mars's body, he appears fully aware of the repressed violent nature that links him to Jupiter's family. Monsters are definitely within the American family” (Williams 148). The ultimate precept of the film (and Night, and to a lesser extent Chainsaw and Blood Feast) is how fragile civilization really is, and how reliant we are on our easy access to food and security, and how easily that can go off the rails.
There are many parallels between The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the films reach different destinations. Whereas Chainsaw's gas station attendant was a member of the family, directly assisting and partaking in the meals, albeit still refusing to actually kill, here the similar character, the father of Jupiter, is unwillingly complicit, and dies for his attempt to warn the Carters. Comparisons could be also drawn to the degree of desolation featured in both films: the back roads of Texas, where safety can be gained by making it back to the main road, are not nearly as disconnected as the “dotted-blue line” that makes up the road that the Carters travel; even the hope of help turns out to be the mutant Pluto.
The Jupiter clan women are distorted as well, in much the same fashion as Leatherface, becoming almost parodies of the Carter family: Mama is a fat prostitute who seemingly only drinks, contributing in no discernible way to the marauding of Carter family, nor to the cooking of the food. Ruby seeks to escape her life among the savages, being the most “normal” looking one as well, and even betrays her family at the conclusion, attacking Mars with a snake to protect the baby. John Kenneth Muir explains of Ruby, “Ruby begs Fred for food and says her family is starving. The Jupiter clan is desperate to survive, and although this in no way justifies their ruthless actions, it does make their 'evil' understandable. Like the Carters, they are fighting for survival in a world without resources. Jupe's clan does not have the benefits of refrigerators, vehicles and artificial light” (69).
The component of the dinner is much smaller in this film than the others; rather than the extended dinner sequence of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the off-screen cannibalism of Night of the Living Dead, the mutant cannibals are seen eating in only one scene. It features strong themes of family and civilization, and highlights the motive of satiating their hunger. The Jupiter family had just staged a successful raid on the Carters, capturing Bob after he suffers a heart attack, and burning him alive to draw out the other Carters.
Like the ghouls of Night, the Jupiter clan kills to eat, but cook the meat first, over an open bonfire in the midst of the desert, eschewing any modern amenities for their dining. They are the connecting thread between Night and Chainsaw, driven to consume human flesh for nutrition, but also a seemingly personal hatred of the Carters. It was never personal for Leatherface and his family; it was just their way of life that some unfortunate folks stumbled into. But the Jupiter clan, and Papa Jupe in particular, enjoy the wanton killing for its own sake, though they are desperate enough not to turn down meat when they can find it. They delight in tormenting the family, with the bonus of keeping their targets off-balance and unable to effectively fight back, and don't always act the efficiently. The hatred is engendered by the Carters standing as uncanny doubles of the Jupiter clan.
Jupiter and his sons gather around the roasted corpse, and discuss plans while casually chewing hunks of charred meat. The cannibal family is lit only by the flickering flames of their cooking fire, echoing the shadowy basement of Night. Williams lays out the scene as follows: “Jupiter and his family eat Bob's cooked flesh. Between mouthfuls Jupiter ritually speaks of annihilating his family and memory—‘I'll eat your stinking memory.’ He regards Bob as a hated symbol of a system that has condemned his own family to a scavenger existence. Living outside an affluent civilization, Jupiter's family resorts to cannibalism to avoid starvation” (148).
The dinner scene here is much less drawn out as in Chainsaw, yet it hits many of the same notes, as the Jupiter clan exists not on the margins of civilization, as with Leatherface and his clan, but outside of it entirely. No outsiders are allowed for their private dinner, feasting on the burned flesh of Bob, nor any women (illusory or otherwise). This is the domain of Papa Jupe and his sons, to enjoy their kill and discuss the next stage of their plans. No women are allowed here; we later find that Ruby has been forced to remain at the cave with Mama. Where the cannibals in Chainsaw at least held on the (twisted) illusion of Douglas's gender roles (via Leatherface's dress and Cook's personality), Hills posits a place without women, or at least women utterly without influence in the world.
Jupiter has created a world where men reign supreme by allowing Mama to remain a sedentary alcoholic and chaining Ruby up when she becomes an inconvenience. This a reaction to the disintegration of his own family: his mother dying in childbirth, and his father attempting to murder him before casting him out into the desert. However, his family proves incapable of weathering the forces of conflict when faced by their doppelgangers. Jupiter, seeing the world change, has forsaken the traditional family structure, just as his own family had forsaken him, but in doing so, has sealed his own demise. This dinner is symbolic of what happens when the social order breaks down, and families fail to adapt to changing circumstances. In feasting upon Bob, Jupiter only reinforces his own worldview, and thus will be destroyed the following morning, along with most of his family. Of the dinners we discussed here, it is the only one without a feminine presence.
While Leatherface attempted to become a female figure in the absence of anyone maternal, there are no similar attempts here. There has been a collapse into ruin with the Jupiter clan, though they obviously live even further out on the fringe of civilization. There are indications that the lack of civilization of the mutants has been caused by lack of strong female figures, Papa Jupiter's mother having died in childbirth, and his father actively trying to murder him, with Jupiter being a homicidal thug and his common law wife an alcoholic prostitute. The lack of a solid family unit here is what doomed the Jupiter clan to their fate. The Carters almost disintegrate following the death of Big Bob and the raid on the camp, but they band together long enough to rescue the baby and avenge their fallen members, thus adapting to the new world. The powerful, dominant male, the faithful if meek wife, and the loyal, city-bred children utterly fail to keep their own family from shattering under the assault, but manage to pick up the pieces long enough to fight back.
The Jupiter clan continues on its course of masculine bravado and is punished for it, though not directly by the Carter children. Only Papa Jupiter is killed by the Carters, with son-in-law Doug killing Mars, and the family dog brutally slaying Mercury and Pluto. John Kenneth Muir explains, “the Carters and Jupiter family are two sides of the same coin. Both families possess dominating fathers who rule without question. A sibling from each family dies and each family uses that death as an excuse for more hatred and bloodshed” (69). The Jupiters represent the uncanny to the Carters; they are the horrifying, yet increasingly familiar doubles to the family, as the result of the Carters' descent into savagery. The patriarchs fail to fulfill their roles of protecting their clans. There is little enough food for the Jupiter clan, demonstrating his failure in that regard, and the Carters are failed by Big Bob, who rushes off on his own only to be undone by a heart attack, a failure that itself provides the family Jupiter with much-needed sustenance.
The Carters do prove themselves “superior” in one sense: though they do engage in terrible violence against their foes, they do not succumb to cannibalism, though even this minor victory might be undone if they remain stuck for long, their vehicles and supplies largely destroyed. They destroy their trappings of civilization, give way to their dark urges, but are never tempted to truly become the Other. For all their ruthless brutality, the Carters never stoop to consuming the flesh of their opponents, though they do blow up the corpse of their dead mother as part of a trap, and thus retain some small degree of humanity in the cold, dark world. While the Jupiter clan fails to truly adapt to changing circumstances, clinging to their old ways, the younger Carters successfully adapt and survive, living to dine another day.
Horror films allow us to stare into the face of the Other, showing us that the Other is just a reflection of the world in which we live. Each of the films examine the breakdown of the family structure against the forces of evil, whether they be a crazed cultist hiding out in suburbia, families fighting for survival and their way of life on the fringe, or the dead rising all around to consume the living. Horror cinema often acts as an examination of current event, and these films go a step further, digging into the underbelly of what it means to be “family” in a time when traditions seemed to be slipping into the abyss.
These tales of horror examine the problems of adaptation in changing times, as well as how the veneer of civilization, the very family itself, can wither away so easily under duress. It is no accident that food, and in particular family dinners, are at the center of each of these narratives: they are the impetus for the antagonists' actions, be it symbolic (Blood Feast), sentimental (Chainsaw), practical (Night), or some combination thereof (Hills). The directors use the family dinner as a potent image of the family unit and its relation to larger society, and place it into a cultural moment while still horrifying audiences. It is no accident that there are few more universal symbols than that of the family meal, and it still stands as a powerful symbol of peace and tranquility within modern American culture.
The family dinner is perhaps the ultimate example of human civilization: even on the frontier, the family unit is able to enjoy a simple meal, a moment of peace and civility. These films warp this concept: the meal becomes a macabre double of the ideal, the family a horrifying group of murderers, the civilized veneer of humanity lost in the madness of the wilderness. Blood Feast first turned the idea of the family dinner, even one as personal as a wedding banquet, into one of horror. The Night of the Living Dead transformed the entire landscape into a grand supper for a new “family” made up of insatiable ghouls, while a family breakdown occurs in a murky cellar among parents and a child. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre takes things further, positing the conflict between the old and new worlds, as the breakdown of the family and its links to the old ways widens ever further, with the loss of female presence and abject poverty serving to unhinge what order remained. The Hills Have Eyes casts the conflict in stark contrast, but still draws one thin line in the sand that the civilized do not cross, and posits the triumph of the civilized over chaos, in part due to their capacity for adaptation. Each of the films features some commentary on the family and its eating habits, and these ideas symbolize the internal conflicts facing society during the tumultuous decades during which the films were produced.
The filmmakers each sought to examine the state of the American family, and found a common symbol with the cannibal clan. With a foodways methodology and an understanding of the uncanny, we are able to gain some insight into how these directors saw the breakdown of the family. Each dinner sequence gives us some sense of how these uncanny families placed themselves in the world, what their behaviors regarding food entailed, and an understanding of how the directors saw the existential threats to the family itself. Cannibalism became a shroud to mask the examinations of the nature of the American family in this period, examinations that went deeper (and darker) than most other works that posited a true picture of American family life.
Lewis, Romero, Hooper, and Craven each had a story they wanted to tell, and each brought their own worldview to the work, and their own fears and anxieties. Though the simple act of dinner, we are given a sense of the world across those fifteen years, and the unique horrors that everyday life brought forth. They understood the power of the images they put to film, and knew that their audience would react on a primal level to the twisted familiarity of the nightmares unfolding on screen. These were more than cheap scares, revealing deep-seated far more potent than cannibal countryfolk, revealing just how broken families were beneath the surface. It is not as though the 1960s and 70s broke apart the family; rather, it just made the long festering wounds that much more obvious, and these films had the foresight to recognize just how deep the rot went.
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