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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

East Asian and Western Horror and Religion

The Autobiographical Portion
To situate this discussion, I should relate that I typically have less patience for supernatural horror than for the realistic. As a young child, I found the classic Universal monsters terrifying, but the advancing maturity that would dispel werewolves, vampires, and Santa Claus was no match for the sheer panic that Norman Bates caused me. To me, a realistic horror film will always be scarier than a supernatural one; that is, shocks and jump scenes aside, a realistic premise will always be scarier than a supernatural one because the bar for suspension of disbelief is much higher for a supernatural premise.

My taste for the supernatural does ebb and flow with the calendar, though. In the summer, for example, I find that I am more willing to soak up the unmemorable and formulaic slasher films of the 1980s and to catch up on the trends of mainstream genre offerings. Inversely, that reflective mood of the colder months raises my interest in the supernatural. I find myself drawn to the seasonally appropriate antiquarian ghost stories of M.R. James, or chipping away at my list of critically acclaimed but still unwatched supernatural horror films. That reflective state makes it easier to become absorbed in a work's atmosphere. Yielding to that atmosphere requires a suspension of disbelief in order to timetravel back to where and when hauntings and folktale monsters seemed more plausible.

My first experiences of the East Asian horror style were mediated ones: The Ring and The Grudge, both of which are American remakes of Japanese films. Despite the Americanization, the aesthetic and premise of each film is distinctly East Asian, belonging to a unique canon of horror films that has achieved international appreciation as a distinct subgenre . Dutifully, I sought out the original films, but in general, the supernatural premises had little impact on me. More recently, however, I've been interested in the relationship between Western and East Asian horror, and my own relationship to both. Through this ongoing project, I've discovered a few very enjoyable titles, and a new entry into my all-time top 10 horror films (Fruit Chan's Dumplings (2004)).


East Asian and Western horror cinema reflect different bars for the suspension of disbelief, based on the relationship to religion and the supernatural in their respective cultures.

In terms of demographics, "The West" is difficult to characterize. The United States has an estimated rate of atheism or non-religion as low as 4%, while statistics in Europe are much higher, around 20-30% in the UK, and 20-60% around the continent. Sweden and Japan are both reported at a 60-70% rate of non-religion, while Vietnam alone claims a rate in excess of 70%. East Asia tends to be less religious than the US, but the statistics are skewed by the operating definition of "non-religious", which can encompass atheism, agnosticism, major non-theistic religions, and the non-identifying-but-still-spiritual. For example, the reportedly minimally-religious Vietnam is 85% Buddhist, a non-theistic tradition.

The key difference between East and West is not the number of adherents to any religious tradition, but the nature of the various traditions themselves. The West is primarily dominated by Christianity, the most prevalent of the Abrahamic religions. East Asian traditions are grouped under the heading of Taoist religion, though Buddhism embodies an intersection of the Dharmic (the heading for Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism).

The Christian tradition revolves around central characters which represent external loci of the human experience. The exemplary lessons of Biblical figures and the drive to please God or follow the example of Christ draw attention away from the present and focus it on an external validation, with an eye to the goal of an afterlife.
In contrast, the East Asian traditions focus on something more immediate: the nature of the world and the proper way of being in the world. They can be described as a recognition of the order of Being and Nothingness, or as philosophies of living in harmony with the order.

So we have juxtaposed two predominating perspectives on the supernatural. In the West, there seems to be a natural world that may be influenced by external supernatural agents, where supernatural events can be attributed to the actions of agents that are circumscribed within intelligible definitions, e.g., acts of God, Satanic temptation, earthly visitation by Christ.
In contrast, the East Asian traditions exemplify the perspective of a supernatural world, where supernatural forces exist rather than intervene. In Western mythology, there appears to be a much brighter line between the natural and the supernatural. The Christian supernatural is defined by its strangeness, its difference from the natural. Christian history is sketched out in miracles and great paradigm-shifting events. The East Asian traditions are much subtler. They represent a perspective that sees the supernatural and the magical in the everyday. Concepts like ancestor veneration, animism, karma, meditation, and reincarnation are passive concepts that orient one towards a supernaturalist perspective on the world, an acceptance of the interconnectedness of all things. Note the difference between meditation and [the predominant interpretation of] prayer: the latter is a communication directed at something external, the former a reflection on the internal. Or consider the practice of ancestor veneration: the supernatural idea of continued influence in the world by the dead is fairly ancillary to the ritualized exercise of reinforcing, demonstrating, and feeling respect and appreciation for the importance of family. These practices speak to a perspective/lifestyle that observes the importance of human experiences through a lens of wonder and reverence, without bogging down in the consideration and validation of an externalized narrative of divine will and intervention.

From the outside, it seems that the nature of East Asian traditions as "perspective," rather that "belief structure," allows them to retain their relevance despite varying degrees of true literal belief among practitioners. That is to say, the literal truth of the supernatural seems to be less essential in the East than the West.

Comparative Horror Cinema

The West has dealt with its Christian mythology in horror films differently over the span of a century. The first 50+ years were dominated by adaptations European folk legends (vampires, werewolves, ghosts), These inevitably came into conflict with the forces of good wielding Christian faith in defense (the vampire's weakness to the form of the cross, etc.). The subsequent era of The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and Rosemary's Baby (1968) among others represents a radical shift. The religious horror themes draw on Satanic possession and the arrival of the Antichrist are much, much darker than their predecessors. Note that these are situated within a larger trend in cinema around the 1970s towards darker films that were more realistic, that depicted the world as ugly as it really is. Perhaps something about the darkness of these three films makes them more believable. In any case, these films lack any kind of levity, as though they are true stories, from an alternate reality.

By "alternate reality," I mean no disrespect to those whose religious beliefs encompass the possibility of events like those described in the above films. Still,I think one would be hard-pressed to find a Christian in the vast American mainstream who considers these films to be more than fantasies. And from this point forward, the religious horror output has been having to deal with the fantasy/reality conundrum as a matter of course. The average narrative presumes a secular world, then has to convince its audience and its characters otherwise. This fact suggests that the United States, with it's 96% rate of alleged religious conviction, still presumes a secular world on screen. I don't mean to moronically insinuate that any Christian faith that doesn't literally accept its historical baggage is somehow disingenuous. I only indicate that Christian mythology, on film, is no longer anything but a trope, a stock storytelling device.

The East Asian supernatural horror film reveals a different approach to the horror cinema experience. The ghosts, hauntings, and curses of traditional folklore are abundantly represented, but they are rarely independently antagonistic, as opposed to Western demons and monsters. Ghosts, hauntings, and curses are more commonly used as elements of a greater morality tale. They are supernatural vestiges of some wrongdoing, like a stain left on the world, and the characters of the film are drawn into conflict with the supernatural elements because they have some preexisting relationship to / culpability for this turmoil of the spirit world.

With no intercultural experience to speak from, I cautiously posit that in these compared storytelling traditions, the bar for the suspension of disbelief is lower in East Asian cinema than in Western. I think, given the nature of Eastern spiritual thought and its pervasiveness as culture and way of life rather than just religion, that films which draw upon those traditions are naturally more sincere in their use of supernatural themes. Because of this sincerity, I find it easier to be drawn into a film's world. Western supernatural films play too heavily on the audience's skepticism of its own cultural heritage, and such feats of dramatic irony or cheap twist endings are typically disappointing.

If someone could again handle Western mythology with the earnestness of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (Sweden, 1960), I would be very impressed.

In closing, I recommend films like Kwaidan (Kobayashi, 1964), and Takashi Miike's "Box" from the Three... Extremes anthology (2004)and his "Masters of Horror" installment Imprint (2006). Each is presented in surreal, dreamlike style suggestive of ancient folk tales. The effect, particularly in Kwaidan, is in my opinion a great cinematic accomplishment and an alleviation of the burden of disbelief.

By way of a valediction, I ask: is it spirituality merely to keep an eye out for omens, to celebrate the rituals of holidays, to observe tradition, to hope, to embrace nostalgia, and to make note of coincidences? I think I could do with a bit more of all of that.

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