Food for thought: my problems with this excerpt

I am going to take a different approach to this than I think many will because, while I enjoyed the reading as a whole, I would like to focus on an argument that I found extremely unconvincing. The argument in question that really got to me is on page 21. He describes the thought process of filmmakers as they decide what species of animals to cast in screenplays. Here are a few things I picked out. Bulliet writes:

“Today’s audiences are uncomfortable with portrayals of wild mammals – note the stress on mammals – as dangerous to humans.”

“Reluctant to present the hunting of mammals as acceptable or cast wild carnivores as villains, filmmakers have cast less closely related vertebrates – birds, snakes, alligators, dinosaurs, sharks – as frightening animal adversaries, hoping as they do so that audiences will be willing to accept screenplays that located a malign intelligence in the often peanut-sized brains of these menaces”.

Bulliet makes a critical assumption here. In fact, his argument in this section depends on it. He assumes that audiences are uncomfortable with the idea of hunting mammals being acceptable. Ignoring people for whom this is obviously not the case and enjoy it as a hobby, I would argue that with the prevalence of violence on television and in video games, people are about as desensitized as they can get. In addition, the genre of film he references here is the genre of Anaconda and Jaws: in other words, the genre wherein numerous people are killed in nasty, gruesome ways by some unseen predator. It doesn’t matter if it’s Bambi’s dad; if he’s goring teenagers at Make Out Point, few people outside of PETA will draw issue with his killing. But therein lies the issue; which is more threatening, Bambi’s dad or Jaws? Which one is a horror writer more likely to write about?

Bulliet presents his argument as though audiences have some sort of moral qualm regarding mammals in horror movies, he even implies that audiences would reject a screenplay featuring a mammal villain. People, to use Bulliet’s example, would indeed be less likely to watch a horror flick about a killer tiger, but I posit that it’s not because they perceive mammalian camaraderie or intelligence within the tiger, it’s because tigers simply aren’t frightening unless you’re being mauled by one in real life! The reason people would reject such a screenplay isn’t about morals, it’s a very black and white issue; visually, mammals are not horror film material.

Filmmakers don’t just want an animal that kills in a scary and unfamiliar way–mammals have an eating process very identifiable to us, as opposed to snakes swallowing their food whole or ants carrying you off to feed to the queen– they want something that would still be scary when written in comic sans. In addition to the fact that people get mauled by mammalian carnivores all the time (So we get desensitized), there are no deep-seated human phobias against mammals like there are with snakes and spiders. Simply put, bears, tigers, elephants, etc, do not give us the heebie jeebies. It’s not about intelligence or cross-species sympathy. It’s all about what’s visually scary and impactful to the viewer, ie what will gross the most at the box office.

Bulliet also ignores what is, to me, the crux of this issue – censorship! That’s right. Film censorship was extremely common until, in 1952, the Supreme Court ruled that films fall under the first amendment right to free speech. Before then, detective shows would depict the detective standing over the body (blood was never shown), the camera angled so that the viewer did not need to see anything unsettling. I imagine that the likes of Jaws eating the little boy and his yellow raft would have fallen under that label. With the censors down, producers were suddenly given new license to push past the government established boundaries of yesteryear. This is why we see Them! in 1954 and later Alien in 1979. It is not, as Bulliet suggests, the natural evolution of filmmakers trying to distance sensitive and uncomfortable audiences from “evil” mammals. It is simply filmmakers finally being allowed to push the boundaries that, I would wager, they had wanted to for a while.

Ironically, Bulliet himself reinforces this for me by referencing birds. This, I can only assume, is a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963). Birds aren’t visually frightening like snakes, but Hitchcock is a master and could –make- them scary. If someone could write a convincing screenplay about a killer Shiba Inu or Fennec fox (I exaggerate here, but I hope my point has been made), I think people would watch it regardless of how intelligent a species is. Bulliet misappropriates a lack of diversity within a specific genre to a deliberate, thoughtful exchange between a progressive audience and amenable filmmakers.

That was a long rant, but I can basically sum it up in a couple sentences for all you TL;DRs out there:

It isn’t that audiences are uncomfortable with mammals in the villain role and filmmakers respond by casting non-mammals. It’s that mammals are not perceived as threatening and therefore a film producer whose goal is to scare will not cast them, as they make for an unconvincing monster in all but a few, rare, unique circumstances. It all comes down to what makes money.

I hope it came through as clearly as I intended. I don’t know why it bothered me so much, but something about this is like watching an episode of “Ancient Aliens” wherein Dr. Georgio “Crazy Hair” Tsoukalos tries to convince me that the likes of Da Vinci and George Washington were actually extraterrestrials. Tell me I’ve lost the complexity of Bulliet’s argument. I’d like to hear that because it would make tomorrow’s discussion more interesting for me. If my argument did not make sense to you, please let me know in the comments section and I will try and rephrase my ideas. But in the mean time, I leave you with this:

5 thoughts on “Food for thought: my problems with this excerpt

  1. I agree completely with your argument in this post! Some of your points exactly crossed my mind as I was reading this section in Bulliet’s work. The gore and horror movies of the modern era are only scary because they play on peoples common fears. I have met very few, if any, people who would list tigers, bears, or gorillas at the top of their list of fears, unless of course as you mentioned they were actually attacked. Whereas almost everyone is afraid of snakes or spiders or both (for me it is spiders!). I particularly liked what you said about mammals have similar feeding/digestive habits to us. The basis of fear in many cases is just the fact that something is different. People have a natural fear of change and the unknown and mammals just don’t provide enough in that category to be considered scary to the majority of the public. I may have strayed a little bit away from your arguments but I think everything you said here was spot on. I think Bulliet might even have some second thoughts with his arguments after reading this. Haha.

  2. I had the same problem with that argument. I think the prevalence of non-mammals in horror movies has more to do with the fact that non-mammals tend to be scarier because they are so foreign to us. Beyond that, there are plenty of movies with mammals as the bad guys. Recently “The Grey” with Liam Neeson had wolves as the scary animals. Going back even further, “Cujo” had a St. Bernard, possibly one of the least frightening dogs, as the monster. Non-mammals are easier to make scary in a movie, which explains their prevalence I think. It takes better film making to make a dog seem scary. I think Bulliet was way off on that one.

  3. I’m glad this piece of Bulliet’s argument raised some eyebrows – or maybe hackles is a better word? We will certainly explore this critique in class. In the meantime, it’s useful to think about humans as predators. Indeed I’m struck by Bill’s choice of wolves as a background image for his blog, and I’m posting some reading suggestions on this topic on the newly created, “Books for the Blog” page. Connor’s confession about a primal fear of snakes and insects opens another line of inquiry we’ll be returning to many times in the weeks ahead.

  4. I agree that Bulliet makes some stretches and assumptions that lack credibility. As you said, the fact that mammals rarely play villains does not to be seeded in sympathy we have for our mammal brothers. As a director you want the audience to have little to no connection to your villain otherwise you risk losing credibility. Phobias come from fear of something different or unknown hence the use of scaly monsters in film. This being said, I do believe that film does take advantage of some mammalian bond humans possess. In this defense, Bulliet addresses the evolution of the King Kong character matching our increasing compassion for animals. In this instance I believe the compassion for King Kong would be less evident for audiences if our heroine was crying over the body of a giant humming bird.
    Your argument does make sense as it addresses one of the many assumptions made in the reading. Bulliet excels at providing evidence that seems to prove his point but that can be explained by other means. You proved this with you example of censorship and with that I think you proved that our bonds with mammals are less apparent than Bulliet would have us believe.

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