Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Countdown to Hallowe'en 15: Mystery Thrillers of the Last Century

Still from The Lady Vanishes (1938). Image Source: Making Nice in the Midwest.

This blog often comments on how popular culture reflects the changing times. In the mid-20th century, a genre connected to horror, the mystery thriller, similarly revealed cultural shifts at that time. Several of Alfred Hitchcock's films belonged to this genre, and he crucially adapted the genre's transition into modern horror by adding noir, crime, gore and ghost story elements. His films, Jamaica Inn (1939; see it here), Rebecca (1940; see it here), and The Birds (1963; see it here) are all adapted from stories by British writer, Daphne du Maurier. Du Maurier's novels are an eerie combination of mystery, suspense, ghost story, and thriller.

Unlike pure horror stories, du Maurier's mystery thrillers play on the imagination. They leave the reader with a deep sense of creepy uneasiness, a feeling that things have gone very, very wrong in ways that cannot be remedied. When they were published, du Maurier's novels were called mystery romances, but they involved elements of the paranormal not normally associated with romance. Du Maurier rarely explained much of what was going wrong in her stories: the characters were left, along with her readers, to wonder at the meaning of her intricate catastrophes. In a way, these mysteries symbolically parallelled the history of the 20th century, with its brutal changes, social destruction, bloodbaths and genocides, which were overtly explained but to this day have not been deeply understood.

Mystery thrillers were especially popular from the 1930s to the 1980s. They involved new circumstances adversely affecting established families, their wealth and their old houses. Another common symbol in these dramas was the train, the driving mechanical force of a departing era. The train became emblematic of a self-enclosed mystery, hurtling through the darkness, on which any of the 20th century's social and economic tensions could resolve themselves in murder. Good cinematic examples which used the train symbol included The Lady Vanishes (1938; director: Alfred Hitchcock; see it here) and Night Train to Munich, a British film which as early as 1940 actually depicted a mock set of a German concentration camp (1940; director: Carol Reed; see it here; thanks to -C.).

See all my posts on Horror themes.

See all my posts on Ghosts.

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  1. Thanks for this post, ToB, and mention of some great films I'd almost forgotten.

    No one ever seems to mention Daphne du Maurier these days, but she was one of the greats. She did intimate a variety of paranormal topics in her tales, at the same time combining them with psychological suspense. An interesting observation that her themes ran parallel to 20th century "his-story".

  2. Thank you for your comment, Dia, and may I say again that your commemorations of Mac Tonnies' death this week on your blogs are beautiful, relevant and touching. As for du Maurier, yes, she awaits a new spotlight and some rediscovery I think. I expect all of a sudden Hollywood will crank out a bunch of new versions and remakes of her stories. I read most of her novels in one stretch a few years ago. I always came away convinced that she was a mistress of scenes that were deeply disturbed, matters that could not be remedied. And that weirdness, as you point out, was bound up with her presentation of troubled sex and gender relationships.

    1. Re: MT posts... You're too kind, ToB... so much of blogging seems like whispering in the dark that one is grateful if anyone notices. I'm going to probably pull down a lot of the Trans-D material before the weekend is out... in the end one just feels as if they've had a "wardrobe malfunction".

      Re: Wiki entry for du Maurier:"According to the biography, du Maurier believed the male energy was the demon that fuelled her creative life as a writer. Forster maintains that it became evident in personal letters revealed after her death, however, that du Maurier's denial of her bisexuality unveiled a homophobic fear of her true nature."

      Reminds me of a similar contemporary biographical analysis of Emily Bronte, which concluded she was an anorexic transvestite.

      Rather tragic that creative women with strength of will, intellect and character are immediately labelled "masculine" and/or are convinced themselves that they're "possessed" by masculine demons.

    2. I know! I noticed that Wiki passage! You would think that there would be a place in our cultural imagination that would include an acknowledgement of feminine creativity that (cough cough) isn't somehow derived from an innate masculinity. It's as if any woman ever sat down to paint a picture or write a book, she must be in the grips of penis envy. Old Garden of Eden metaphors die hard.

      And then you have modern psychologists concluding that if some basic feminine creativity does exist, it must simply be a type of madness, treatable with drugs and psychotherapy. Give me a break.