“That’s sweet,” a friend of mine said when I told her.
“It is,” I replied. “It’s the kind of sweetness you sometimes get with kids that’s somehow even sweeter for the tang it has of morbidity,
So always risk your skin, she said, and never fear losing it, cause it always does some good one way or another when the powers that be deign to take it off us.
—Ali Smith, How to be Both
until his mind
could climb into
the open flesh and
—Jorie Graham, At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body
The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.
—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
On this sofa the aunt cannot but be murdered.
—Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street
For a few weeks, whenever I walked from the train station to my house, I passed a dead pigeon. The pigeon lay rotting next to the footpath at the base of a tree, below a powerline, and each day someone—a child, I guessed—left a fresh bunch of flowers on its upturned chest, picked from the bushes nearby.
“That’s sweet,” a friend of mine said when I told her.
“It is,” I replied. “It’s the kind of sweetness you sometimes get with kids that’s somehow even sweeter for the tang it has of morbidity, like orange juice.”
“You should write that down,” she said.
Now I have.
Each day the child picks (kills, beheads) new flowers with which to decorate the carcass. In doing so, the bird’s death—random, ugly, meaningless—becomes incorporated into a ritualised and aestheticised practice: an ordered system in which the bird’s death is the centre, for which it is the cause. The death is given meaning. The child’s world seems a little less cruel.
In Psycho’s infamous shower scene, a woman is stabbed to death without the knife ever touching her body; the stabbing is an illusion created by rapid cuts. She is quite literally cut to death.
In her poem The Age of Reason, Jorie Graham describes plot as a knife. In the same way anatomists dissect the cadaver to better understand the workings of the body, we might understand filmmakers as dissecting life to better understand experience, using the knife of plot to make the necessary incisions—to cut. As Hitchcock puts it: “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?”
The child severs the flowers. The filmmaker cuts between shots. The poet breaks the line. Each amputates the thing—subject, object, idea—from the real, freeing it to become representational; therefore controllable; therefore intentional; therefore meaningful. When we see something in a work of art, we know it has been included for a reason, to serve some function in relation to and for each other and the whole (to paraphrase Deleuze). In art, the question of whether or not there is a creator is never in doubt.
True crime is having a moment. “Is Our Growing Obsession With True Crime a Problem?” asks a BBC headline from 2019. Likewise, the Ringer, in 2021: “We’re Watching More True Crime Than Ever. Is That a Problem?”
From these headlines we can infer that, well—probably, yes. But it is not an especially new one. True crime has its origins in the loose-leaf pamphlets and ballads covering local crimes and executions that become popular in sixteenth-century Britain; we might just as easily trace it back to the first public execution. A podcast does less damage than a beheading, whatever ethical concerns we might have.
Here is roughly the order of mental operations I imagine true crime—be it a podcast, TV show or guillotine—inspires, that make it so uniquely compelling:
1: Thank God that wasn’t me.
2: It could have been me.
3: It could still be me.
It is this third response, I think, that gives the genre its power, because it is the one that is actionable, and which the product can best mobilise to its own ends. In the case of the public execution, it is mobilised through fear to inspire a conclusion which goes something like: Don’t break the law, or: Don’t be a member of the French aristocracy.
A TV show’s aims are different—it just wants to keep you watching. It does this with suspense: with cliffhangers, red herrings, twists and turns—the knife of the plot—all of which promises to end in some sort of, if not resolution, at least conclusion. In enmeshing their subject’s death in such a narrative framework (an ordered system in which their death is the centre, for which it is the cause), the conclusion they lead us to draw is quite different from that of the public execution:
4: If it is me, someone will be there to tell the story.
This, I think, is why some true crime can be so strangely comforting to watch (murder mysteries, too); it promises the continuation of our stories, even when we will not be there to see them told. Perhaps it is also why crime media is popular as hell with the elderly (Midsomer Murders is about to enter its twenty-third season), as is religion.
The whodunit has its formula: the red herring, the murderous butler, the lineup of suspects before revealing the killer. So do the slasher, the true crime show, the police procedural (there it’s literally in the name). That this is all a kind of ritual sacrifice is not a new idea—it was the plot of The Cabin in the Woods—but at least when it comes to fiction, this sacrifice is representational, not real. Neither is it new to posit that any atrocity depicted in a movie (or book, TV show) about which there is a moral panic will pale in comparison to the atrocities one can read about in almost any newspaper (though often not the newspapers publishing stories about the moral panic) being committed around the world daily, often with the implicit or explicit approval of the very people who are most vocal about their outrage over the movie (or book, TV show). But I think it is at least a little new (though with Titane’s recent win at Cannes it will hopefully seem a bit less strange) to say that artistic treatments of death, even the tasteless ones—especially the tasteless ones—can be fun, consoling, even liberating; a fact having much to do with their treatment of the body.
In the season one finale of Euphoria, the Arcade Fire song My Body is a Cage plays over a montage cutting between an abortion, a figure skating performance, an armed robbery and a passionate kiss. The song also appears in a TV spot for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—a movie about a man who ages backwards and dies as an 84-year-old baby—and an episode of the medical drama House M.D. A two-part Degrassi episode dealing with body dysmorphia shares the song’s name, though the song itself is not used.
There are many ways to feel trapped in a body. There are far fewer to get out of one. To steal a phrase from Judith Butler, it seems we must find ways to work the trap we are inevitably in.
Hence, the slasher.
The slasher takes the body and, through acts of stylised—aestheticised, ritualised (ala Cabin in the Woods)—violence, transforms it into the raw material with which the film tells its story; the knife of the plot becomes a finger on Freddy Kruger’s hand, or a chainsaw wielded by a serial killer in a secluded house in Texas. The body in these films is not static, immutable, or even respectable: it is a fragile and at times comically gross bag of bones, blood and goop, held together by the flimsiest of fabric, liable to rip and tear and spill out onto carpets, tiles, camera lenses. This is all the more shocking for how essentially and recognisably it is true.
Is it any surprise that a form so expressively and transgressively rooted in the body—in breaking open the “cage” of the representational body, without regard for those wanting to police its depiction and use—would become the medium for so much vital political protest, from David Cronenberg to Jordan Peele to Jennifer Kent? Or that a form which so flagrantly exceeds the bounds of good taste would become (like melodrama and grand opera before it) a hotbed of queer expression, from Julia Ducorneau to Amy Seimetz all the way back to the likes of Jean Genet? Or that there might be something comforting about getting together in a roomful of people to watch a roomful of other, fictional people getting murdered in various absurd, fiendishly-choreographed but essentially predictable ways, gasping, screeching, catching one another’s averted eyes and giggling in befuddled shock—in a genre that manages to take a site of as much pain, shame, and existential anxiety as the body, and transform it into a source of communal joy?
To summarise: the world is fucked and everybody dies. I hear there’s a new Scream move out, does anyone want to go?