Recreational Terror (Isabel Cristina Pinedo 1997)

Isabel Cristina Pinedo, 1997. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. Albany: State University of New York Press. (177 pages)

Pinedo’s book has its origins in her personal likes and beliefs. The author says that, as a child, she was fascinated with horror movies and later on, during her academic life, she became a feminist. She points out to the fact that combining feminist criticism to the liking of horror movies is a controversial position and one which encounters theoretical problems. The reason for this is that feminist criticism tends to depict the horror movies as a male-oriented narrative which often subdues women, a reading she disputes. The author will focus on what she calls postmodern horror films and her reading will draw on structural and feminist theories in order to interpret them.

One of the most admirable positions in Pinedo’s book is the fact that she is aware her reading has limits, and that it will only work for some specific horror films. She manages to avoid a flaw that is very frequent in film criticism, i.e., trying to encompass a whole tradition with one single explanation. The author says, “not all postmodern horror films bring to fruition the feminist potential of this genre” (p.6). Pinedo’s main thesis demonstrates that much critical writing on the horror genre assumes the pleasure associated with horror movies belong to man. Positioning herself on the other side of this reading, she suggests that the encounter with terror is also a pleasurable experience for women. She argues that horror/slasher films create an opening for feminist discourse by restaging the relationship between women and violence, not only women as objects of violence, but also women as agents of violence when they turn the tables on their aggressors. Pinedo is not interested in gendered readings which claim that these are masculine prerogatives or those which associate female aggression with lesbianism.

Although Recreational Terror is a fascinating book, it is also very short one, and for this reason some arguments are not developed enough to convince readers who have another take on horror film classification. In order to establish what she calls ‘classical’ (pre-1960s) and ‘postmodern’ (post-1960s) films, Pinedo draws on the previous work of Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A cultural History of the Horror Movies (1989), and gives it a twist of her own (Tudor does not address postmodernism). When Pinedo tries to tackle the thorny issue of defining and situating postmodernism her argument becomes problematic. She claims that postmodernism is an amorphous, non-dichotomous, break down of institutions, failure of the Enlightenment project, crisis in post-industrial society, crumble of the idea of progress, collapse of organic narrative, where the universal subject (read, white, male, heterosexual, monied) deteriorates. Although she does not pin it down in time and space, Pinedo claims that postmodernism is a ‘cumulative outcome of repetitive historical stresses including the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Cold War, Vietnam’ (p.11) and their opposites, anti-war and liberation movements. Pinedo says that, ‘in principle postmodernism erodes all (sic) binary oppositions’ (p.12) but later on she reduces her scope to the boundaries between art and mass culture, which is much more down-to-earth.

The author’s ‘classical v. postmodern’ classification of films seems to understand the ‘modern film’ merely as high-art and therefore not accountable in her reading. To classify modern films as high-art and then try to ‘challenge de canon’ with a new category defined as ‘postmodern’ seem to be just a matter of names, and theoretically a dead-end position. The problem with postmodernism is that it is terribly similar to modernism and earlier forms of post-structuralism, particularly in relation to the post-structural opposition with the open and closed text. While the closed text seeks narrative closure the open text refuses to resolve conflicts and contradictions, but exposes them. There is nothing in this proposition that has not been dealt with by the deconstructive text or the avant-garde and this craving for the use of postmodern categories is the greatest shortcoming of this book. Pinedo could either have expanded her ideas on the meaning of postmodernism or have done without it, the argument is not convincing, fragmented in a postmodern way and it undermines a potentially brilliant feminist reading.

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