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An Ethical Horror: Political Subtext in Early Sound Films During the Rise of Fascism

CGS Brown Bag Lecture
Nov 14, 2012
01:30 PM to 02:30 PM
402 Burrowes

Jeff Resta, Penn State

In Fritz Lang’s M, Jean Renoir’s La Nuit du Carrefour and Tod Browning’s Freaks, the exaggerated naturalist terrors of madness, mob mentality and torture became elaborate metaphors for the widespread intellectual dread of fascist revolution.

A scant decade after the most devastating war in history, sound film became a practical reality. A mass-media vehicle of previously unknown saturation, it allowed the dissemination of complex rhetoric to the widest possible audience, in the guise of entertainment. This period of intense cinematic creativity and discovery coincided with the rise of fascism in Western Europe. 

Alongside Gothic horror, a new mode of terror developed. Directors in this Naturalist mode - a proto-film-noir embracing mystery, thriller, and black-comedy genres - were keenly aware of the supernatural Christian foundations of Gothic horror, and borrowed freely from its trappings. Terror cinema, however, was much more ethically complex than Gothic horror cinema. It grew out of a deep cultural skepticism to the binary opposition of religious faith and scientific reason in accounting for good and evil.

Jeff Resta is an ABD doctoral student in Comparative Literature, with a focus on 20th-century world drama and film. He has taught as an exchange lecturer at the University of Strasbourg, France, and currently conducts after-school classes in World Mythology at the Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School. His dissertation examines the politics of popular horror in the early 20th century, and especially the role of horror genres in the development of a simplified, humanist concept of good and evil without reference to the supernatural.

Before returning to graduate school, Jeff was a playwright affiliated with Annex Theatre Company in Seattle, specializing in darkly comic drama on sociopolitical themes. In addition to numerous Seattle venues, Jeff’s plays have been produced at the Theatre of Puget Sound; at Whitman College’s Harper-Joy Theatre; by Performers Under Stress theatre company in San Francisco; by Albuquerque Children’s Theatre; as part of an “email-plays” installation at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville; at La Tea Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the New York City Fringe Festival; and at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, Scotland.

This lecture is a part of the Center for Global Studies Brown Bag Graduate Lecture Series which focuses on interdisciplinary graduate research.

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