Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Horror of Yellow Journalism

My response to last week's hatchet job run by The New Republic is less about the merits of the horror genre, which have been explored earlier and better than I could in Wicked Horror, Grave Matters Magazine and The Horror Honeys, than it is about the journalistic laziness behind the Buzzfeed-esque "What It Says About You If You Enjoy Horror Movies."

Now, this isn't the first time people have taken cheap shots at horror. It's one of pop culture's many low-hanging fruit: Fantasy fiction ("Harry Potter encourages satanism!"), role-playing games ("Dungeons and Dragons will drive you crazy!"), anime ("Pokemon will give you seizures!"), and more recently, video games ("Grand Theft Auto breeds violent crackheads!") have all taken turns coming under fire for, as far as I can tell, simply being a form of entertainment not everyone can agree on. Pearl-clutchers will always argue, "I, personally, do not find any amusement in this, therefore it must be of the devil!" but that doesn't seem to be the case with Alice Robb and the remorselessness of her clickwhoring. 

This is a new, insidious kind of hate-mongering. It's one thing to rally against something one feels is a bad influence on society--at least that requires personal conviction. Self-styled "journalists" like Robb are out throw rocks at others purely for profit's sake, and worst of all, they abuse public trust to do it. I'm even aware that this is exactly what Alice Robb and her editorial gatekeepers want--for us to generate buzz over her story, which I'm not linking here--but hey, we all get to voice our opinions. We don't all get to pass them off as fact in an established publication, that's all.

Yellow Journalism: You're Doing It Right

It's ironic that The New Republic, of all titles, agreed to run a story like Robb's. Remember Shattered Glass, that movie starring Anakin Skywalker that was all about TNR maintaining its journalistic integrity in the face of scandal, after discovering one of its writers had published blatant lies in his stories? It was filled with all this great Sorkin-like dialogue about how journalists are supposed to be accountable, conscientious, and thorough. It's a shame Stephen Glass wasn't around for the rise of online media, otherwise his brand of "fascinating over factual" journalism would have probably gone over well with TNR's current roster of editors. 

"We're all going to have to answer for what we let happen here. We're all going to have an apology to make! Jesus Christ! Don't you have any idea how much shit we're about to eat? Every competitor we ever took a shot at, they're going to pounce. And they should. Because we blew it, Caitlin. He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed them all as fact."

Isn't that a great quote? The thing is, "What It Says About You If You Enjoy Horror Movies" is a work of fiction. And it was printed as fact. On purpose. I can't tell what's sadder: That they picked an easy victim in the horror fanbase, or that this is The goddamn New Republic, in-flight magazine of Air Force One, and they turned their back on the selfsame standards they used to champion. I'm well aware that the metrics for measuring success between print and digital content are vastly different, but the two should intersect when it comes to standards. Wheaton's Law still applies across all mediums.  

Are you sure you don't remember this movie? Here's a hint: It came out the same year as the most recent study cited in "What It Says About You If You Enjoy Horror Movies"--that is, over eleven years ago.

Actual Journalism: You're Doing It Wrong

Common sense says you don't cite outdated research and statistics in anything: Not in your college thesis, and especially not when you're writing for The New Republic. It's one of the first things you learn as a cub reporter. Actually, it's one of the first things you learn in sophomore-year Journalism class. Whenever I push my luck and reference studies five years or older in an article, I rightly get the side-eye from my editors. 

So as you can imagine, it's especially dangerous to pass off decades-old psychiatric studies as recent fact, because discoveries--and debunkings--in any field are made so frequently. Hey, you know what else was a hit in eighties-era psychiatry? So-called repressed memories of ritualistic sexual abuse. Everybody and their mother suddenly remembered being felt up by satanic cults, and it created a hysteria at the time, until trauma researchers later Mythbuster'd the shit out of it. 

My point being: academic publications are not like fine wine that you get to bring up again 30-odd years later. Some of the studies Robb cited used films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer in experiments, which should give you a clue as to how relevant they are today--i.e. as relevant as Jennifer Love Hewitt is today. Where are the interviews? Where are the more recent studies? What does this article do, apart from contribute more noise to the echo chamber?

In another tweet, Robb jokes, "I'm coming for romance fans next." I'm using the word 'joke' loosely here, because I can't tell for sure if the tweet itself is a joke, or Robb was joking about pursuing the story. Either way, this falls short of outright trolling your readers, which is fine if you're Barstool Sports, but not if you claim to be any kind of credible publication. Bloggers and columnists can afford to be indifferent to critical feedback, maybe; journalists can not. 

And I'm just putting it out there: The title is misleading. The introduction is scattered and poorly constructed. Alice Robb, you're as terrible with segues as you are with researching stories. You could literally replace The Babadook with any other recent horror title and it wouldn't make a difference. And since when were Avatar and The Passion of the Christ considered horror films? But I digress. 

Anthropology: You're Also Doing It Wrong

Why are long-haired ghost women so prevalent in Japanese horror? Why are slasher films almost non-existent in Philippine horror? The answer to both is the same: Horror is largely cultural. It's also a your-mileage-may-vary kind of thing, in that what counts as "scary" differs from person to person. In short, horror films are as varied as the people who enjoy them. To say definitively that aggressive, thrill-seeking, unsympathetic men are the target audience of horror films is misleading, because it raises too many questions: Which horror films are you referring to, exactly? What sub-genre? In what country? In what context in what country during which these horror films were produced?

If you only ever liked things that didn't offend your sensibilities, you're either lying or lobotomized. We, as people, are not all supposed to like nice things 100% of the time. That's why words like "saccharine" and "cloying" exist in our vocabulary. If we can get sick of beautiful things, then it stands to reason that we can also learn to like unpleasant things. Oddly enough, Robb has a degree in anthropology, but can't seem to grasp this basic component of human behavior. 

Just because a work of art or fiction doesn't stimulate you in a positive way doesn't mean you can't have a positive reaction to it: Horror is not algebra or Rogue from the X-Men; it does not have transitive powers. You are not an ugly person for appreciating ugly images or sounds, as depicted onscreen on in print. Rooting for the bad guy does not, in fact, make you a bad person. Admitting you have darker impulses does not mean you're about to act on those impulses.

At worst, a horror flick's a cheap thrill. But at its best, horror can be a subversive weapon, a cautionary tale, or a safe space to explore our dark side. It's supposed to make you uneasy when it raises hard questions or confronts you with your worst fears, because no one is supposed to feel comfortable when they think outside the box or step beyond their comfort zone.

Go home, Alice Robb. You're neither a horror film fan nor an authentic journalist, and you're giving both a bad name. 

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