Since immigrating to America, my father has come to love nearly every aspect of American consumerism—corny sitcoms, cheap Amazon gadgets, movie theater popcorn—except horror films. He doesn’t reject them out of faintheartedness, but instead out of general repugnance for the genre on every level, from narrative to ethics to aesthetics. When pressed, he claims that it’s the nonchalant portrayals of death that disturb him, yet he enjoys action and thriller movies. He says the genre’s supernatural inclinations make it too unserious, but he loves fantasy and science fiction in their non-threatening forms. None of my siblings’ attempts to redeem the genre in his eyes have budged him even an inch. He just hates horror.
It now seems to me that my father’s aversion is emblematic of a general incompatibility of horror cinema with the Soviet mindset. Admittedly, his point of view is far from universal among post-Soviets; today, horror flourishes in Eastern Europe, and even my mother can be easily convinced to watch a scary film. Yet the horror genre was mysteriously absent for most of the Soviet epoch. Even as many Western horror villains hailed from Eastern Europe, both literally (in the case of vampires) and symbolically (in the case of zombies, frequently interpreted as representations of communist ‘groupthink’), art from the Soviet sphere itself remained remarkably unhaunted. Ghouls and demons occasionally sprung up (most notably in Yershov and Kropachov’s 1967 adaptation of Gogol’s Viy) and classic horror tropes became more common during Gorbachev’s rule in the ’80s, but the genre never achieved anything approximating its iconic status in the West. Even though its absence is partially due to the censorship of ‘escapist’ and ‘bourgeois’ foreign imports, this explanation is not wholly satisfactory, as periods of relaxed censorship before and after Stalin saw Soviet filmmakers drawing inspiration from every foreign genre except horror. The closest Soviet filmmakers got was sci-fi, but the fantastical ‘Others’ of Soviet space flicks were friendly or ambivalent rather than villainous, oddities rather than monsters. Horror movie villains were more alien to Soviet cinema than aliens themselves.
While horror proved useless to Marxists in Eastern Europe, it was extremely valuable to Marxists in the West. In the 1970s, the film critic Robin Wood spearheaded a renaissance of the American horror movie. Taking up the mantle of a genre frequently derided as trashy escapism, Wood argued that horror was actually the most progressive modern genre, giving voice to society’s repressed desires to dismantle the capitalist patriarchy. In his essay An Introduction to the American Horror Film, Wood asserts that horror movies, much like Freudian nightmares, covertly express revolutionary impulses capable of dismantling the unjust structure. Wood reads horror’s diverse and protean monsters as a manifestation of society’s repressed desires; he sees the vampire in Nosferatu (1922) as symbolic of repressed homosexuality, the inbred family of cannibalistic slaughterhouse workers in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as the oppressed proletariat, and the infiltrating aliens of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) as a repressed ideological alternative to communism. Even if these films seem reactionary in their portrayal of oppressed groups, the viewers’ attraction to the monster, rather than the boringly normative protagonist, renders the films subversive despite themselves.
Following Woods’ proposition, does the sparsity of horror films in the USSR mean that it was a fully liberated and just society? The ongoing oppression of workers, women, sexual minorities, and non-Russian ethnic groups throughout Soviet history suggests otherwise. Yet while oppression was far from eradicated, it was negotiated differently in the Soviet context than in America. The construction of a society without exclusion, though ultimately unsuccessful, seemed distinctly possible and even near at hand during certain moments in Soviet history. Frequently, such hopefulness coincided with cultural openness, and Soviet filmmakers chose to pull from cheerful foreign genres—life-affirming Hollywood comedies in the ’20s, optimistic American sci-fi in the ’60s—rather than nihilistic horror films.
Furthermore, the very concept of repression, which played a central role in the Western left’s interest in horror, was foreign to Soviet Marxism. Wood’s essay drew on a synthesis of Marx with Freud, asserting external social oppression and internal repression as dual processes maintaining an unjust social structure. Horror movies are therefore a valuable manifestation of the connection between external control and self-regulation and the necessity of destroying both in a successful revolution. But while Marx was crucial to the Soviet system, Freud was irrelevant for Soviet authorities and citizens alike—his work went out of print after the ’20s. Woods’ Freudian reading of entertainment as a “partial sleep of consciousness” which allows repressed and oppressed desires to announce themselves is therefore ill-suited to the communist model of media as political awakening. In Exorcizing the Devil: Russian Cinema and Horror, Josephine Woll writes, “the fears and anxieties underpinning horror films—of the uncanny or supernatural, of chaos, of the irrational—contravene a materialist philosophy that holds as self-evident the primacy of man as a social and rational being, who acts primarily out of motives of material interest.” The idea of repression both contradicted the governing principle of dialectical materialism and the reality of Soviet life, in which self-regulation paled in comparison to overt external regulation from the state. Freud’s analysis of the bourgeois family applied tenuously to the communal domestic life of cramped farms and apartment buildings. Michael Myers poses more of a threat roaming the suburb’s detached single-family houses than waiting for the lift in a 3-story Khrushchyovka.
There was one fear which Soviets and Westerners shared: the fear of death. The dominance of atheism in both cultures dispelled the belief in an immortal soul, leading to the repression of the wish to live forever. But the two cultures’ answers to this question reflect the difference in their treatment of repression. In the West, the desire for immortality was sublimated onto horror villains like vampires and zombies, monsters whose bodies survived the deaths of their souls. In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, the desire was realized: Lenin’s body, preserved in a complex process which retained dynamic aspects such as skin-softness and joint-flexibility, became functionally immortal, living on in form after the death of his soul. If I could be a Soviet filmmaker and make the first Soviet horror film, it would go like this: Lenin’s soul returns to his body in the mausoleum, he awakens, stands—and screams.