Keisner, J. (2008). Do you want to watch? A study of the visual rhetoric of the postmodern horror film. Women’s Studies, 37, 411-427.
Keisner examines feardotcom, a 2003 horror movie, through the lens of visual rhetoric. She categorizes feardotcom as a postmodern horror film, for which she presents four principles (borrowed from Isabel Cristina Pinedo):
1. The presence of a man/monster that disrupts an already violent social order.
2. An unclear distinction between good and evil.
3. The understanding that survival depends on adapting to the disrupted surroundings.
4. A disinclination toward closure (412).
Keisner focuses on the appeal of horror films despite (or due to) their tendency to be masculine texts.
Keisner begins by stressing the importance of the visual in horror films. She writes that horror films tend to have weak character development and dialogue, and that these traits shift the emphasis to the visual even more strongly than in most movies. In keeping with the genre, the film feardotcom relies more on visuals than plot, character, or dialogue to affect the viewer. In brief, the film’s premise is that a sociopathic doctor tortures young women while posting videos of the torture on the Internet; visitors to the in-movie site www.feardotcom.com are asked if they “want to watch.” If they click yes, they see more of the torture, but 48 hours after they enter the site they are literally scared to death themselves by a supernatural force.
Keisner points out that it is primarily through the movie’s use of visual rhetoric that its goal of scaring the audience is realized. She quotes the director as saying that he “use[d] special effects to layer subtle, small elements that are hardly noticeable, but which play upon the audience’s psyche and strengthen the suspense and uneasiness of the experience” (414). Keisner notes some of these elements—dark backdrops, darkness, constant rain—create the feel of a nightmare (414). Citing Anne Marie Seward Barry, Keisner writes that image can inspire emotions before it is understood by the thinking parts of the brain, making it a particularly important device for inspiring horror (415).
As Keisner notes, the visual nature of the movie is paired with its premise. In the fictitious site www.feardotcom.com, viewers choose to see the graphically violent images by responding to the prompt. They are then complicit in the torture and eventual murder of the subject. Keisner alleges that viewers of the movie are similarly complicit (although hopefully not in a real murder): even though our society decries the increasing violence in our media, by watching the movie, we indicate our approval of such violence and our desire for more.
Keisner also examines the misogyny present in feardotcom. She points out that most horror movies objectify and terrorize primarily women, and asserts that “a close study of postmodern slasher films […] implicates the postmodern slasher film as a projection of masculine desire. Audience members who are female identify with the objectified image of a woman while the male viewers identify with the movie’s main protagonist, who, more often than not, is male” (420). Relying on Mulvey, Keisner suggests that the castration anxiety of male viewers is assuaged by the punishment of female characters. She cites studies of horror movies that reveal that torture and death scenes of women tend to be much longer and more graphic than those of men, and points out that male viewers report that “enjoyment is heightened when in the company of a distressed woman” (422), while female viewers report more enjoyment when in the company of men who seem in control of the situation.
Keisner’s piece is valuable in its examination of both explicit and implicit arguments in feardotcom. Explicitly, the argument is that we should be scared, and that through our participation we are complicit in the increasingly graphic violence we see in popular culture. To me, the implicit arguments are more interesting. Keisner asserts that we learn how men and women should act, think, and feel by viewing horror movies; we learn what is valued in each sex. Keisner writes that “while some critics argue that the postmodern horror movie can provide a safe, pleasurable outlet for experiencing terror, an analysis of the social context and gender discrepancies in emotional responses proves that the horror movie creates a man’s world, ultimately empowering men while females, on and off the screen, are encouraged to see themselves as victims” (426).