Friday, 3 August 2012

Meanwhile, in Cambodia

There is of course much academic speculation about ghost stories, and the broader, related genre of horror fiction. Much of this talks - quite reasonably - about complex sociological factors that lead people to enjoy being scared, disturbed or otherwise made to feel uncomfortable.

Conventional wisdom has it that people are entertained by fictional violence, in its various forms, when the real thing is remote. Crime writer Denise Mina said as much recently:

"People are interested in crime fiction when they're quite distanced from crime," she said. "People in Darfur are not reading murder mysteries. 
"I think people are afraid of crime if they're quite safe. People rehearse being afraid. It is about distance and experiencing those primeval emotional responses in a safe environment."

Distance is the key word. Crime fiction is relatively 'close' if it concerns someone being murdered,  because we know this could happen to us or someone we care about, though it is very improbable. At one further remove is horror fiction of the non-supernatural kind, with its crazy backwoods serial killers or  'slasher' movie anti-heroes terrorising small town America. At one further remove still is supernatural horror, with the ghost story arguably representing the most refined (or diluted) way to experience not crime as such, but menace. Of course, reaching the conclusion that I prefer the most 'genteel' version of sublimated violence might indicate a certain bias on my part...

Anyway, by this logic, a society that has experienced terrible collective trauma should return to 'normality' (and I'll just sidestep the whole issue of what constitutes normal, here) by stages that can be traced in its popular fiction. Supernatural horror, and ghost stories in particular, should be more popular than conventional crime thrillers. And this does indeed seem to be the case in Cambodia, which has been producing horror movies - mostly supernatural I think (not all Khmer titles are translated in this list).

I've only seen one Khmer horror movie to date, and I thought it was well-crafted. It is not supernatural, but it's two English titles - The Vanished; Mind-Haunter - are suitably ambiguous. And judging by all the trailers out there, the ghost story is now thriving in Cambodia, as it seems to be across much of eastern Asia. I choose to see this as promising. Just as the rise of the Gothic novel signalled the rise of a more orderly and prosperous Victorian society, following the upheavals of the first four Georges, so the Asian horror movie suggests the emergence of confident, urban societies from post-colonial turmoil.

Also, I have to admit I'd like to see a horror movie called Annoyed.

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