The popularity of contemporary horror is such that even “Masters of Horror” like Italian director Dario Argento are hired to do episodes in low-budget TV series of that name. Horror, as a sub-section of film theory in general, is well established in all of its tropes and themes to the point of being old hat. One of the more helpful recent studies on horror is Linda Williams’ attempt to situate the genre within a three-category grouping she terms “the body genres.” Along with melodrama and pornography, Williams argues that these three film genres aim to achieve a distinctly physical reaction in its viewers. Melodrama is the “tear-jerker,” horror is the “fear-jerker,” and pornography is the “j***-off.” For a film in one of these genres to be successful, it ought as a rule to provoke sorrow/happiness, fright, and arousal, respectively. Horror makes particular use of diegetic bodies (bodies within the films) in its attempts to effect fear in the viewer’s body. The episode “Jenifer” evokes this along with the now-classical horror trope of the monstrous feminine.
Typically in horror, a display of desire or sexuality – especially on the part of a woman but also applicable to men – is the immediate precursor to death in the film’s narrative. Once you see someone about to get it on, you know someone is about to meet his/her end. Insofar as films in general presuppose a male spectator (Mulvey, again), horror utilizes viewer engagement to exploit repressed male fears of women (i.e., the castrated other), whether it be the monstrous feminine, the Medusa figure, the V-dentata, or whatever. “Jenifer” takes this fear and maximizes it by conflating the dreaded effects of desiring the woman into the monstrous feminine body and hinting strongly at the V-dentata. The V-dentata theory from ages past is evident first of all in Jenifer’s face and second in the literal castration that she enacts upon one of her male victims. The males in this episode irresistibly desire Jenifer, though they are at the same time also terrified of her and repelled by her. In this way, what Jenifer arguably represents more than the horrific, monstrous feminine is the even more horrific male desire for the feminine. Even fully aware of the imminent fate she will inflict upon the man, he cannot get away from her and indeed doesn’t try to do so. Freud argued that castration anxiety encouraged male fears of women, fears that men negotiate by either objectifying women or idealizing them; two sides of the same coin. The fact that the male protagonist in “Jenifer” is a police officer (an authority figure of the “law,” a key concept in Freud) all the more solidifies his castration anxiety. As one who wields weapons in law enforcement, he maintains patriarchal boundaries that define social order. His inability to maintain personal order leads directly to his failure as a cop and eventual fate at the hands of his own desire, viz. Jenifer.
Other types of films make attempts to collapse the distance between the spectator and the screen, essentially either fooling the audience or persuading the audience that the film is dealing with real enough concerns that warrant entrance into its world. A recent look at Bresson’s film Au hasard Balthazar is arguably one of these films, one that many argue is reaching for transcendental themes that usurp the distinction between the viewer and the viewed, the subject and the object, and invite the viewer into its world, which is also the real world. By its attempt to “transcend” the “real” world even by using it as a springboard into a realm of meta-ideas, such a film as Bresson’s may also aim to transcend such bodily reactions as a horror film/episode like “Jenifer” wants to elicit. It is most likely exactly this dependence on bodily reactions that keep these body genres alive and well. As stated above, horror theory is well established to the extent that there seems in some ways little else to investigate other than contemporary illustrations of classical theory. The genre’s continued popularity is manifest (like the other two genres) in the numerous low-budget films and serial programs, not to mention amateur internet material, that are being produced constantly. It seems to be the bodily addiction to these genres that maintain their popularity above the non-body genres.