by Jessica Sequeira
The poster for the 1936 Mexican film The Macabre Trunk [El baúl macabro] shows a man in dark glasses and fedora holding up a bloody hand in a menacing gesture, as a pulp dream of a blonde stretches out an arm to stop him. The background is a lurid combination of yellow, purple and orange, with tilted letters in graphic novel font. Splashed over the scene is a photo of a dark-haired girl, mouth covered by a white cloth, eyes dilated in terror. It’s worth lingering over the image before pressing play, for once the film’s started, there’s no time to reflect again with such calm. In the misguided attempt to procure the blood his dying wife needs for a transplant, a doctor kills a series of young women, going for one charming victim after the next. As he loses himself in his scientific and sentimental quest, the action takes on a momentum of its own, and the wife is almost forgotten in the bloody operations of surgical instruments.
“Why am I watching this?”, the viewer may find herself asking at this point. The initial love story and concern of the protagonist for his young wife reveal themselves to be something of a MacGuffin, since as characters they are paper-thin. Nor is there much of a detective plot, even if police do pop around to make investigations. What is communicated is something other than the relationship between people; the real hero is process, the carrying out of actions, the artistic performance of murder. Blood may be sought for a nominal end goal, but in a sense this goal has ceased to matter. Indeed, process replaces result so completely that the “do no harm” Hippocratic oath becomes a parody of itself. The physician’s promise is inverted, as in his quest to provide one patient with treatment, he sacrifices a bevy of others. We discover the real heart of terror: the abstract pursuit of means that renders the end goal incomprehensible, secondary or trivial.
No claim is being made here that I’m an expert on Golden Age terror; reading the attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns in Goosebumps sent me into a panic at age eight, and it took time before I started to enjoy those psychological horror stories written around the same time as the invention of the electric chair. Reading and watching the classics, however, I’ve come to appreciate how clever the strategies of terror are. Often they use one of two approaches. Dispassionate process can be stripped of noble ends, so our sense of the why-and-wherefore of actions begins to deliquesce and rot away. Viewers become suspicious of the mechanism of plot, as with the killings in The Macabre Trunk.
Our scientist enjoys finding pale-faced, big-eyed, dark-haired young ladies, and carefully and lovingly doing them in, his duty converted into pleasure. Snuff films are the dark extreme of this tendency, the Oulipo of terror-as-process taken to its limit. Without even the semblance of a stopgap objective to later be forgotten, all delight is derived from pure extinguishing, crime for crime’s sake.
Terror can also work by retaining faith in the final outcome, but infinitely deferring knowledge of what that outcome really is. Turn the corner, and what will you find? The particulars of the uncertain-unknown-unfathomable are niggled, and viewers enjoy the provocation. Bewitchment by the unknown isn’t unique to terror, of course. Many a scientist would swear on his Bunsen burner that he entered the profession from a sense of wonder, a reaching toward territory not yet explored. In the 17th century, experimental scientists carried out investigations on transfusion, methods of blood circulation, and the relationship of soul to flesh. Carried out, and were carried away. At times, perhaps the gory act of dissection was enjoyed more than purely noble pursuit warranted. The English physician Richard Lower used to visit the cells of condemned men before execution, to ask if he might have their corpses after death. He didn’t want the conservative Royal Society to get them first, as it wouldn’t have permitted his sort of experiments. Colleagues wrote of how unnecessarily gruesome Lower’s work was, even if it did produce important results, such as his 1669 monograph Tractatus de code item de motu & colore sanguinis on the velocity and process of blood flow. [Ed. note: A delightful bedtime read.] Lower clearly enjoyed the process of working and writing, as his gorgeous descriptions of the vascular system make clear.
But here we are with that word again. What are we really talking about when we discuss process, whether in a terror film or in the circulatory system? We are speaking of technology, and our questions concerning it. Technology, or the “science of craft”, comes from the Greek τέχνη, techne-, “art, skill, cunning of hand” and -λογία, -logia. Even if technology produces objects, it is fundamentally defined as the procedure it employs to do this. Google, Apple and other Silicon Valley tech companies may have a provisional idea of what they want to produce and certain objectives, but they’re perfectly willing to swap these goals out along the way, should a more alluring proposition come along. Mark Zuckerberg may be no Mexican terror film star, but just as in The Macabre Trunk, the quest takes on its own momentum.
End results are shaped by process; this text logically proceeds at the speed my hand moves over the paper. If I had entered this onto a word processor directly, the results would have been different. (This, incidentally, may help explain some of those otherwise inexplicable self-help books, full of corporate jargon prizing motivation, drive and entrepreneurial spirit.) Even if an emotional engineer is a somewhat alarming idea, attitude and method are just as important as outcome, and help produce it. Technology is a means to create an end, and if the means can change along the way, so can the result. Techne, or craft, taps away madly on its drum demanding attention, and we get up to dance.
Take my hand, here we go now; 1,2,3:
If process is what matters
let’s give it attention
Craft is all
let’s give it attention
Lead to nothing
and that’s why they matter
Now, then. While we’re in a good mood, it seems an appropriate moment to consider anti-utopia. How to imagine an imaginary? Easy. Think of white sands, light music, waves lapping shore. Think of emerald pools and soft fields of lilac. Think of enchanted forests, twinkling constellations, birdsong. Now think of the opposite of all this. Well? The nothing you are imagining is anti-utopia. If you are still finding this hard to imagine, that is because anti-utopia does not settle into a fixed picture postcard image like Arcadia, but instead rushes along on the mental currents of process. One need not worry about this, as even if process is inevitable, it is also desirable, the opposite of stasis.
The dream of Arcadia and paradise is too still, unmoving as a corpse. A river of historical change that flows and flows, and that suddenly debouches into a body of water surrounded by palm trees and virgins, would feel it has died, and it would not be wrong. No wonder leftist theorists worry over what will happen when the fervor of protest gives way to quietude. Odd as it may sound, the process of agitating for a new reality, if that is what one wants, may be preferable to ever achieving it. Elysian fields of non-activity are the opposite of revolutionary turbulence, are almost bourgeois rest. Flux, possibility, permeability, the unknown and the state of change may be the true utopia.
Emphasis on process need not result in terror, necessarily. It might instead take the form of play or linguistic experimentation. An attention to process, a careful and conscientious consideration of how things are done, a shifting of noticing — I saw that flicker of your eyebrow — can be aesthetic rather than frightful. Enjoyment in process need not eliminate the importance of results, but it can lead one to think differently about the path to get there. And this thinking can be an active pleasure. Whether a pound of flesh or a pound of gold is found in a trunk does matter, and it would be perverse to think otherwise. But terror is process, terror is technology. And the relationship between the process, the emotion of the actor, and the end result is far more complex and recursive than may first appear.
Here, not in the random hackery of limbs, is where the true terror of such films emerges. The Macabre Trunk becomes the container holding Schrödinger’s cat. If, as we have just said, outcome determines process, but process also affects outcome, then quantum uncertainty dictates we will not really know what is inside the trunk at the end until we open it. Perhaps the emotions of the murderer will lead him to kill more ladies than he strictly needs, filling the trunk with flesh. Perhaps the process will leave him with a feeling of distaste, and he will spare more lives than he would otherwise. Perhaps he will operate according to strict Millsian utilitarianism, and be neither generous nor sparing. Or perhaps the process of killing will change him, so he sickens of the whole business and chooses to let his beloved die, loading up the trunk with winter blankets.
(Spoiler: At the end of the film, police come to the scientist’s laboratory and lift the lid. The trunk does contain decayed flesh, not directly shown but inferred by the reactions on their faces. Although we knew his supposed objective all along, the contents remained a mystery until the end.)
There was a nightmare I used to have growing up, which would vary in form. Sometimes I would begin walking up a staircase, then realize no matter how many times I lifted my right leg, my left leg, my right leg, my left leg, I was going nowhere; the staircase was infinite and I was trapped on a conduit of pure process. Other times I’d begin to walk up a staircase, right leg, left leg, right leg, left leg, enjoying the exercise, then when I reached the top would grasp that I’d arrived at a different place than intended, a different place than was at the top of the stairs at the start. When I asked myself whether or not this bothered me, I did not know, and this uncertainty itself deeply disturbed me.
Again: What does this mean? Process, and the emotion that accompanies it, deserve our greatest attention. For the real terror is that long-term end results do not exist at all, that the vague and hovering goal in the distance that gives meaning to short term acts simply blinks out its light, showing itself to be an illusion of our addled minds. This is the fear of the religious doubter, who dreads that his heaven and God are no more than figments of the imagination, will-’o-the-wisps seen in a field and mistaken for angels. The skeptical Pascal realized this, and staked his faith on the logic of process over product.
The terror for Silicon Valley types is that technology will be similarly reduced to a wager of mere process, with its end goals seen to be chimeras, unimportant or false. In the danse macabre of fragile existence, the means we choose to fill a trunk deserve our art, philosophy and questioning just as much, if not more, than the miracle we hope will emerge from inside. Marvelous or chilling as a situation may be, pleasure and humor can be found in the events. Boom-boom, bad-a-bing-ba-boom-ba.
The End: A Snuff Film
[8mm videotape recording, grainy]
A taxi carried them into the foothills, past mezcalerías and cacti. In the plaza, they stood outside shops, looking at rugs woven by hand in different patterns and colors. None were exactly the same, though all were almost identical. Shopkeepers waited, fruitlessly for the most part, a problem of excess supply and no demand. A few tourists wandered into the tiny museum to look at exhibits on the history of stone and wool in the region. They were interesting, though not overly so, and everyone knew it was a way to kill the hours. Exposed time, waiting time. One of them felt the heat on her flesh and intimated her skin was a mere cask for the soul. She had never thought this before. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For twenty pesos a second bought himself a small wallet, black with designs of playful dogs in color. Across the street a white van drew up, and men in suits and sunglasses, bodyguards, jumped out. Some politician or functionary must have arrived, a third thought. In reality it was the man they would soon face. At last a tuk tuk came and started to take them, two by two, down the desert path to a location by the dam, where goats moved in herds. As the little group increased in size with each journey, a fourth wished she had not drunk so many mezcals with chile, salt and lime while waiting. What is the best way to pass the time, the exposed time in our casks of skin, the first asked herself again. We’re still getting ahead of ourselves, though not so much as we were before. You can do one thing, then another, then another, enjoying each action, fearing and anticipating a result, then realize your conclusions about what would happen were totally wrong. They did not yet know this, however. They lined up in the baking heat and continued to wait. A fifth picked a thistle from the brush by the dam, though he did not know if it was allowed. A sixth felt her face tanning, her hair being swept by the wind. Their backs were not against the wall, for there was no wall in that desert. It did not matter. The man was now facing them. The camera was on, recording everything. Live viewers across the world were watching. Now was the moment. The man reached in his coat pocket, felt about for the handle of the hard object. No more waiting; the time had come for it to be loaded. He smiled and pulled out the pipe. “Oh calm down, all of you,” he said. “Ceci n’est pas un snuff film.”
About the Author:
Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.