Horror of the “gothic” variety that occupied so much of the conversation between Byron and the Shelleys (these would be the conversations that ultimately gave rise to Frankenstein) has traditionally traded in some easily recognizable tropes. Among the most common are your haunted places. Swamps and moors are always a little scary. Graveyards and crypts, of course. Transylvania.
And then there’s haunted houses. Dark mansions, castles on top of hills. Abandoned homes where terrible things once happened. Subdivisions built on top of Indian burial grounds. And so on. All these are other places – places off the beaten path, away from the streetlights, places removed from the guaranteed security of the normal. The message is clear, whether spoken or not: stick to convention – in place, in dress, in action and deed – and all will be well. Stray from the well-lit path and bad things can happen.
Not all artists bent on scaring the shizizzle out of us see the world in quite those terms, though. In particular, Tim Burton seems to see the conventional as a threat to bore us to death, and he finds redemption and a powerful beauty in the darkness. David Lynch is equally suspicious of normalcy, only whereas Burton finds it mainly soulless and empty Lynch sees it as sinister, a locus of profound menace.
(Note: As I’m neither a film studies scholar nor a real expert on either auteur, feel free to jump in with insights, arguments or elaborations of your own.)
Burton’s most memorable assault on convention came early in his career with the woefully underappreciated (at the time) Edward Scissorhands. All the houses are the same in ways that the neighborhood’s vibrant pastel palette from Hell can’t quite disguise, and the action illustrates the mind-numbing homogeneity of life in the ‘burbs. This is Burton’s vision of normalcy, and while it’s shiny and orderly and clean and even pretty in its own way, it’s a life without depth or texture. The visual field, like the emotional and spiritual landscape, is perfectly flat and two-dimensional.
Emotional, social and moral meaning enter this world only when the Frankenstein’s monster of the story – Edward, the freak from the haunted mansion on the hill, appropriately enough – finds his way to town. As it turns out, the construct/”monster” is creativity embodied, and for a time he brings the community novelty and joy. Then convention turns its ugly gaze on him, and the horror story begins a the thuggery of normalcy insists on driving out that which it does not recognize.
The world of darkness and death is a lot more interesting in films like The Corpse Bride. And who better to direct Batman Returns, a film where workaday Gotham is largely oblivious to the fact that its own dark spawn are waging a battle both for the soul of the city and for their own souls, which have been twisted by the city.
There is salvation in the oeuvre of Tim Burton. There is redemption. There is joy and happiness and beauty. But they’re not to be found in the places that most people look for them.
David Lynch’s cosmography is a little less hopeful. Whether examining a small town or a booming metropolis, he can’t help noticing that there’s always a seamy underbelly. Twin Peaks is an idyllic little town where you can always find friendly folks and a good cup of coffee (and hot). Fayetteville, NC (where Blue Velvet was set) may not be anybody’s idea of idyllic or beautiful, but it’s pretty “normal,” as America goes. And Big Tuna, Texas is apparently so pathetically dull that, in the estimation of one Wild at Heart character, the repulsive Bobby Peru is just about the most exciting thing to ever happen there.
But Twin Peaks has an evil spirit problem. The depiction of the debauchery loose after dark in Fayetteville was such that Lynch was allegedly encouraged never to come back. Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru is about as appalling a human being as you’re likely to see in a theater near you. And Lynch’s big cities are just about as uplifting as his small towns. The more normal and unassuming a place, the more likely it is to be haunted – either by the darkly supernatural (a frequent an element in these narratives) or by real people who are even worse.
To summarize, Lynch has a butt-ugly view of big towns, small towns, and one would presume everything in between. Hopeful types unwitting enough to wander into one of his films are rarely given anything to feel optimistic about (although I suppose you could argue that the vision at the end of Wild at Heart affords a bit of really confusing closure for Twin Peaks fans). At times it seems like he actually hates the people watching his work (that’s certainly the case in the scene that closes the final episode of the Twin Peaks television show), and at a minimum he has no qualms whatsoever about betraying the implicit trust between storyteller and audience that most American moviegoers take for granted.
In other words, normal Americans live in a horrorscape, and the best they can probably hope for is to live out their lives blissfully unaware of it, because ignorance is as close to happiness as they’re likely to get.
So, Happy Halloween to all of our normal, regular, happy American readers. As night falls on Samhain and the veil between our world and the world of the dead grows thin, perhaps you can take some secret pleasure in the idea that, in the estimation of two of our greatest filmmakers, your lives are as haunted as those who live in any village in any dark corner of Transylvania…