July 27, 2011

Being Scared: Jason Zinoman on his book Shock Value

Carrie White’s hand explodes out of the grave, an appropriately iconic image for the cover of Shock Value, a new book chronicling how a handful of young filmmakers revolutionized the horror film genre in the Seventies.
Investigating a generational shift in the understanding of what scares us, author Jason Zinoman tracks the lives and early careers of, among others, George Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Brian De Palma, Dan O’Bannon and Wes Craven, and examines the genesis and impact of such films as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, The Exorcist and Night of the Living Dead.
Frankenstein films are hardly mentioned in the book, if only to note the failing fortunes of Hammer Films, whose polite gothic chills were being superseded by a new breed of brutal, modern horror films.
I asked author Jason Zinoman if he might reflect on his inspiration and motive for writing Shock Value and the work involved. I asked him what he had learned from his research and if he would revisit or expand on the horror genre in the future. His answers are fascinating.
I am delighted to have Jason Zinoman as a Guest Blogger…

When I asked George Romero what part of making his debut hit Night of the Living Dead was he most proud of, he responded instantly: Finishing. Considering the impact the movie had on the world, that answer seemed strange when I first heard it, but no longer. Doing anything for the first time is hard, and while I had tried writing books several times over the past decade, I always hit a dead end. I recall being particularly disappointed after abandoning a biography of Shel Silverstein, which I think would make for a wonderful book. I am convinced that Shock Value was the first book I completed because of the reason I wrote it in the first place. It was a book that I desperately wanted to read.

To be more specific, I wanted to read a book about the great scary movies of this fertile period rooted first and foremost in reporting. I am a critic who has a strong perspective on these films, but in talking to those who made them, I tried to keep an open mind and follow my curiosity. So I did not set out to redress the fact that Dan O’Bannon’s contributions have been overlooked or to explain that the influence of Hitchcock is more complicated than has been presented or argue that Brian De Palma’s movies are more personal than critics have given him credit for. That’s just where my reporting led me. As I talked to more and more actors, writers, directors, producers, publicity people, etc, certain narratives started to emerge and I developed stronger opinions about what made these movies great or scary. But they began with on the ground interviews plus a deep immersion in the journalism about horror movies from the 60s and 70s. I read as many books and articles about the genre as I could, but the material that I really focused on first was what was written at the time. My goal was to tell a story that recreated the business, cultural and intellectual climate that gave rise to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween.

The biggest challenge and frustration is that some of the key players had died (William Castle) and others were very difficult to get a hold of. Getting in the same room with a few of the main characters was very tough. And then figuring out a way to get them to recall events from long ago that had in some cases hardened into lore could be even harder. There were many road-blocks. Some of the directors I needed to interview three or four times and others I really worked hard to talk to those who knew them when they were young: Family members, girlfriends, classmates, etc.

I probably ended up interviewing half of the USC Film School class that included John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon to get a sense of what they were like. What kept me going throughout the process of working on the book, which took four years of off and on again work, was that I was never at one moment bored of the subject or anything less than excited to work on it. Horror is endlessly fascinating to me, but also personal, since some of my most vivid and pleasing memories are of being scared. This is a book that aims to tell other people’s stories, but it’s rooted in an interest in my own, which is to say: Why do I like these movies so much? What scares are the most potent? And why?

What I learned is that the truth can often be elusive, but you can get closer to it the more perspectives that you have. And while these artists were working in very different circumstances, they shared many of the same pool of ideas and influences. Generally speaking, I think these movies are far more personal than many critics think they are, and while the auteur theory is a helpful prism to analyze horror, it has limitations. In many cases, I found the tensions between two artists or traditions more revealing the intentions of just one. Over the course of writing this book, many of its sources passed away (Forrest Ackerman, Dan O’Bannon, William Fraker), so I was glad to have worked on the book when I did. That said, it’s not the final word on this period of horror at all. The subject is far too complex and rich for that. And I am not done with horror. I love getting scared as much as I ever did and horror is growing larger every day. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Brooklyn-based, Jason Zinoman is a theatre critic for The New York Times and he has written on various topics for Vanity Fair and The Guardian. Recently, Mr. Zinoman wrote an insightful and highly recommended series called How To Fix Horror for the web magazine Slate.
Shock Value: How a few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror, published by The Penguin Press, is in bookstores now, and available from Amazon through The Frankenstore.

With Thanks to Trish Collins of TLC Book Tours.


Wich2 said...

...and for a reverse shot of that cover art:



Anonymous said...

Thanks for featuring Jason on your blog!

John Rozum said...

It's an excellent book and came at the exact time I was looking at my shelves of books on horror movies, which are arranged more or less chronologically by subject and realizing that I didn't have anything on this crucial turning point that came along in 1968 and the effect it had on what followed. As someone immersed in the genre and who has given a lot of thought to that dividing line that separates what most of us consider classic horror from modern horror, I was concerned that I wouldn't learn anything new, but I learned quite a bit, and Jason's presentation of the material makes for an engrossing read. I finished the book in two sittings. I highly recommend it.