Monstrous Forms: Moving Image Horror Across Media,
by Adam Charles Hart
Reviewed by Geneveive Newman
University of Pittsburg
Review of Adam Charles Hart's Monstrous Forms: Moving Image Horror Across Media, Oxford University Press, 2020. 272pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-0190916237).
Adam Hart’s Monstrous Forms: Moving Image Horror Across Media is a two-part, seven-chapter text with a monstrously large undertaking—to theorize the way horror functions across essentially every moving image medium (and some non-moving) from the 20th century to the year of the book’s publication. Hart provides case studies of film such as Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (2010), video games like Until Dawn (2015), and TV series including The Walking Dead (2010-present). Through the analysis of such film, TV, gifs, videogames and virtual reality, and YouTube and streaming, Hart argues that regardless of the medium, horror is unique for its abiding engagement of human bodily sensation.
The first two chapters of the two-part text establish a typography of sorts, linking the activities of browsing internet-based horror, watching moving-image horror, and playing interactive horror games. The central figure of these chapters is the jump scare, a shocking moment in horror media that has come to define not just particular kinds of horror film, television, and games, but is the primary motivating element of the screamer (short YouTube or other Internet videos produced solely to shock or scare the unwary browser). This first part of the text also encompasses Hart’s update on Carol Clover’s “I-Camera,” what Hart terms “Killer POV.” Killer POV is theorized across the second two chapters of Part One: “The Blackest Eyes . . . The Devil’s Eyes: Horror’s First-Person Camerawork Part 1. Killer POV” covers questions of identification dating back to early feminist film theory and the slasher cycle of the 1980s, and “The Blackest Eyes . . . The Devil’s Eyes: Horror’s First-Person Camerawork Part 2: The Searching Camera” analyzes first-person camerawork more broadly as a function in and of both avant-garde and first-person shooter modes of media-making.
Part Two, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps),” lays more groundwork, applying literary theory to the book’s central themes. In “The Monster Function,” Chapter Five, Hart melds an analysis of the Kristevan abject with the Lovecraftian tradition in horror and its iterations from literature to horror video games. “Monsters, and the Viewers Who Love Them” provides an audience-analysis mode of engaging with monstrosity and the horror genre in general. “Monster Stories/Storied Monsters” repositions Robin Wood’s work on monstrosity in relation to the monster’s humanity to the ongoing work in media of creating sympathetic monsters, allegorical figures for the most downtrodden in society. Hart critically analyzes the evolution of the monster on a formal level from its position as the reactionary figure that Wood casts it as toward the representation of oppressed communities that it has become more fully in the years following the publication of Wood’s work. For Hart, the fleshing-out of character and addition of complex backstories (often incorporating abuse, alienation, and other forms of trauma) performs a kind of maintenance of the sympathetic monster’s position in media and society. “Three Ways of Looking at Horror in 2017” considers the political investments of horror in examples ranging from Get Out to The Walking Dead: The Game.
Monstrous Forms expertly theorizes medium and aesthetics, but does so, with some exceptions, without foregrounding politics. The text does not lack a political engagement with media so much as this investment operates in the background, potentially leaving readers whose work centers the socio-political and socio-cultural elements of media less satisfied than they might be. Questions of identification in horror cinema go largely unaddressed. While Hart incorporates Clover’s reading of identification between the audience and a character on screen, elsewhere he tends to imply that identification is not at issue. More attention to how marginalized audiences (women of color, queer communities, disabled folks) interact with, experience, and are present in the texts at hand would have been beneficial. These arguments or questions remain largely siloed off into their own subsections or relegated to conclusions and the epilogue.
Monstrous Forms does not purport to be a film text about the politics of transmedia horror. That book is yet to be written at this scope and scale, although some recent scholarship approaches the topic from a more limited perspective. Nonetheless, the breadth and depth of the book as it is recommend it to scholars in the field looking to delve deeper into internet culture and to engage with what Hart terms the “sensational address” of horror, and to college instructors to assign as an accessible introduction to the horror genre in media studies. Monstrous Forms creates a wholly new theory with which to answer the age-old question, “Why Horror?”