Living in the Horror City: How Cinema Makes Us Paranoid

All my blog posts here ultimately seem to revolve around what the cinematic city – the way it’s used, the way it’s represented in media – does to us, the people living in the (or a) city. Significant for this notion is David Clarke’s observation, following Baudrillard, that cinema is not a constant on the screen, but fluid: it leaks out of the screen and therefore moves beyond the moment of the cinematic experience. It is because of this that he points out, “[i]f many of us have […] experienced that sudden, strange feeling whilst walking through the set of a film, this is undeniably a part of the cinema” (3). How, then, do the current developments in cinema fit in with this? There is an undeniable trend towards darker views of the world, dystopian approaches; indeed, dystopia is becoming more and more popular especially in young adult fiction, as the recent adaptations of The Hunger Games trilogy or the only just released first instalment of the Divergent trilogy show. Like most trends, this is closely related to society as well and teen’s fascination with dystopia depends on their experiences with all kinds of media in this media-dependent age: “In dystopian fiction, the world has gone radically astray at some point in the future, as authors extrapolate on current social, political, or economic trends. These novels provide teens with a look at a future they may suspect is nearly upon them, perhaps validating their worst fears” (Serafini 147). So dystopia is, in the end, only an extrapolation of current issues, current fears; therefore it’s useful to have a look at what is currently going on (in cinema and society) to figure out where that fear comes from, and how it relates to our experience of the cinematic city.

Two notions became very significant in this context in the literature that I focused on so far: the notion of the stranger and the city of horror. According to Charlotte Brunson, the city discourse may focus on specific cities, but thereby it also brings them together, making all our cities alike. Typical tropes include (amongst many others) a melancholic mood, the situationist ‘dérive’, traces of material history (in the physical states of buildings for instance), and maybe most importantly, being alone in a crowd. This is what she suggests links to the new ‘flaneur’ of the 21st century: he is indeed, instead of a stranger coming to the city, a stranger within the city, “someone who is already there, a man of the crowd” (Brunsdon 223). This then coincides with the enormous anonymity that many people experience and at times love, at times despise about the big modern cities.

What, then, is popular in cinema and television these days? Apart from the clear trend to dystopian fiction discussed above, what we get wherever we look, no matter what channel we switch to, is criminal fiction – in films and numerous sometimes exchangeable TV series, and so forth. According to James Sanders and focusing on the representation of New York, the crime film and the corresponding ‘horror city’ have undergone numerous changes closely related to current societal issues at that time. For instance in The Naked City (1948), killing was supposed to be a rare event; although there is crime in the city, ordinary life goes on as usual and happy as ever. By the 70s, though, “not even the most vigorous police initiative can redeem the city. Crime is worse than ever […] while the police have grown almost as dangerous as the criminals themselves” (370). With the interplay of cinema and reality constantly influencing each other both ways, this sentiment partly corresponded to the realities of New York as well, especially when filmmakers started to focus on specific ‘bad’ neighbourhoods rather than the city as a whole, oftentimes displaying much more blood, gore and violence than actually necessary; a new kind of genre is born.

What does this mean nowadays? If cinema (and indeed, also television) leaks out of the screen and into our streets, it is no surprise that we may feel more and more unsafe and paranoid in our respective homes. Although maybe not as paranoid as people may be displayed in films, isolating themselves from the rest of the world out of fear what might happen to them in their own neighbourhoods, the universality and anonymity of the cinematic city as well as the abundance of crime fiction available may take their toll. My recent binge-watching of Criminal Minds and the appalling suspects that are dealt with there may have temporarily turned my vision to the potential danger in seemingly harmless strangers on the street, and in the popularity of many other such programmes, we may have lost count of what specific city is the focus of CSI nowadays (Miami, New York, Vegas, what’s next?) While some shows (like Castle) introduce fun interesting characters to create a new group dynamic, generally they all seem to be rather interchangeable. If my father is unable to tell me which of those shows he watched the other night, it’s not about bad memory, it’s about them being ultimately the same even when focusing on a specific city. We need to remember, then, to watch something unrealistic every once in a while; something fantastic that reminds us that the world is not all dark, and that the neighbour’s cat is not going to kill you once you step onto the lawn. 

S. Schäfer

Literature Cited

Brunsdon, Charlotte, ‘The Attractions of the Cinematic City’, Screen 53:3, Autumn 2012, 209-227.

Clarke, David B., ‘Introduction. Previewing the Cinematic City’, in: Clarke, D.B., The Cinematic City, London 2002, pp. 1-18.

Sanders, James, ‘Chapter 13: Nighttown. The Dark Side of the City’, in: The Celluloid Skyline. New York and the Movies, New York 2002, pp. 366-398.

Serafini, Frank, and J. Blasingame. ‘The Changing Face of the Novel’, The Reading Teacher 66 (2012) 2, pp. 145-147.

2 thoughts on “Living in the Horror City: How Cinema Makes Us Paranoid”

  1. The dystopian version of the city in cinema – and the persistence as a trope – is indeed an interesting topic. Amsterdam as city of criminality has a long history as I showed in my lecture (from the early 1920s we had the crime dramas set at Zeedijk). But since Puppet on a chain and the films of Dick Maas (Amsterdamned, Don’t Disturb) there is also a horror&action version. Maas’ first horror film De Lift (later remade in the US as Down) was filmed at the apartment block Kronenburg near Uilenstede. See also e.g. his recent Sint/Saint, in which he combines slasher scenes with a mocking of Dutch traditions. He also clearly borrows from conventions of American teenager horror movies.

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