Reviews on Letterboxd for Men (2022), a folk horror film distributed by A24, are as good an example as any of a meme that has been circling in online cinephile communities for some time: say no to “elevated horror.” “Art horror” or “elevated horror” are terms used to describe horror movies that are acclaimed for the allegorical interpretations they invite over the experience of fear that is evoked in the audience.
The impulse to interpret rather than experience horror is not a new one, approaches of this sort that see the horror film as a code to be solved are common in academic and popular writing. However, in a world where film discourse is being replaced by videos that prey on the audience’s fears of “not getting” a movie, some pushback towards this approach is warranted, and takes the form of this meme, a parodic critique of both this method of analysis and the unsubtle films that are designed for it.
This backlash is also not new; Susan Sontag famously wrote “To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’” Writing much later, Steven Shaviro gets to the heart of this impulse to interpret, identifying in theorists “a barely contained panic at the prospect (or is it the memory?) of being affected and moved by visual forms” Nowhere is this clearer than in horror; horror must be held at an arm’s length, the fear that it evokes in the body must be denied by way of interpretation and theory. The theorist represses their affective reaction, denies they are moved, in favor of developing an allegorical understanding. It is tempting to participate in this meme, to turn (with laughter) against interpretation and lean into affective pleasure in the cinema.
However, I urge caution. Interpretation, and the symbolic more generally, is something that allows our discussions of film to progress beyond the immediate, ultimately narcissistic, sensuous reaction and towards a historicizing critique of the images that we see. By asserting that the formal and narrative elements in Men mean something, and that meaning is created by form, content, and context, the experience of watching the film becomes social, it is interpolated into the communal fabric of signifiers that make up our existence as sociable beings. From this perspective, the reactions to Men are critiques of a failed film, which fails because it doesn’t meaningfully engage with the ideas it inherits. A response totally against interpretation casts doubt on the process of meaning making itself, a negotiation of affect and allegory allows for the memory of being moved while connecting to the larger social order. It’s an approach of both the intellect and the body, because of course those things are indistinct.