This piece was initially published on Much Ado About Cinema in October 2019.
October is finally upon us! It’s the time for cozy sweaters, making everything taste like pumpkin and, most importantly, horror films. Of course, sometimes it can be hard to decide what to watch, and if you are anything like me, one is never enough. That is why, for each week in the month of October, Much Ado About Cinema’s Monster Mash series is providing you with a double feature program and delving into why and how they go together like fava beans and a nice Chianti.
For our second Monster Mash, we’re delving into the power of television told through vaginals body horror in the horror classics Poltergeist and Videodrome.
Tobe Hooper’s 1982 classic Poltergeist is a harrowing tale about a family’s desperation when facing the supernatural. The Freelings are the typical American family, comprised of a father (Craig T. Nelson), mother (JoBeth Williams), two daughters (Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke), one son (Oliver Robins), and a golden retriever. Together they live in a picture-perfect and newly-built suburban community where all of the houses share the same floor plan and everyone has a beautifully manicured lawn. But something wicked is bubbling up underneath the shiny veneer of perfection. Ghosts begin to take over the Freeling’s house and their youngest daughter Carol Anne (O’Rourke) is abducted. They must turn to supernatural experts to save their daughter and their family, but not before the entities that occupy their home raise some hell.
Hooper’s terrifying ghost story is a commentary on the destruction of Ronald Reagan’s America. Just as Nelson reads a book about the problematic president, the domestic space crumbles around him. No amount of masculinity can stop the paranormal from claiming what they believe is theirs. But the obsession with the perfect suburban love brings about the chaos; the community is built on an old graveyard where the headstones were moved but not the bodies. Respect for the dead is thrown out the window in the name of capitalistic desires.
Horror master David Cronenberg is a master of psychosexual body horror, and his 1983 film Videodrome is no exception. It follows Max Renn (the now absolutely horrible conservative James Woods), president of a trashy TV channel that shows porn and violence all day. However, the channel needs more in Renn’s eyes, and he begins seeking out new sources of content. He’s able to hack into a satellite broadcast of a channel named Videodrome that shows gratuitous violence, torture, and even murder. Renn believes this is just what his channel needs, until he begins to realize there’s something even more sinister to Videodrome.
After Nicki, his lover played by the perfect Debbie Harry, disappears after saying she’s going to audition for Videodrome, Renn delves into a world of sadomasochism, warped flesh, and oozing hallucinations. He learns that the broadcast may be more real than he anticipated. A mad doctor, Dr. O’Blivion, wants to replace every aspect of everyday life with television. However, his intentions turned evil in the hands of others who want to control the human mind. Renn falls right into a battleground where the weapon is TV, the so-called new flesh, and the strange vaginal opening in his stomach.
Double Feature Name: All Hail The Televisual Flesh
At first, Poltergeist and Videodrome seem like completely opposite films. Poltergeist is about family and ghosts, while Videodrome is about sex, violence, and media. However, they share a common thread in their use of television as a source of horror. Both films were released in the early 1980s, and while television wasn’t a brand new concept, it was finally becoming ubiquitous in households across the United States. The power of television was taking hold, especially after the use of live broadcasts during the Vietnam War. It only makes sense that horror extrapolated upon that power and used it as a tool of fear; television was a great unknown, after all.
In Poltergeist, television morphs into something much more sinister than just a way to watch the ball game. Carol Anne speaks to ghosts through the static-filled TV and it is the only way that the family can communicate with her after she is abducted. That electric box, even when turned off, sits in the background like a specter of misfortune. It looms as an object of fear, a portal to speaking with the dead, and a tool of horrors. In Videodrome, television is a mechanism for bringing people sex and violence. Cronenberg is more explicitly creating a commentary on the power of television and its power to convey violence. But, like in Poltergeist, television becomes a tool of horrors and a portal from our reality into something more evil.
It is not only through televisual images do these films convey their horrors. They also rely on sexual body horror, specifically repulsive images that resemble vaginal openings. Cronenberg often creates horrific vagina-like openings in his characters that further the trope of the monstrous feminine body. In Videodrome, Renn develops a vaginal opening in his stomach where people can insert fleshy VHS tapes into his new cavity. He becomes a walking VCR that can be penetrated by those in power. The power of Videodrome takes his masculine body and renders it into something feminine.
In Poltergeist, the closet where Carol Anne disappears transforms into a massive monstrous vagina that must be entered to save her. Wrapped in a rope—that reads as an umbilical cord—her mother enters the closet vagina to save her daughter. They are then “birthed” out of another portal, covered in red goo that reads as afterbirth. Again, the vagina becomes something monstrous, and like the TV, a portal into the unknown.
As Dr. O’Blivion says in Videodrome, “Television is reality, and reality is less than television.” Each of these films grapples with that statement in some way as television serves as a portal into a new, terrifying version of reality. But TVs aren’t the only portals in each film; both also create repulsive images of vaginas that are also used as entryways into unknown worlds. This unlikely double feature will have you staring at your TV in disgust and curiosity, ready to dive into whatever hides just behind the screen.