Anna Powell, Deleuze and Horror Film

Review by Don Anderson

Anna Powell, Deleuze and Horror Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005).

[1] Anna Powell's book Deleuze and Horror Film makes a firm mark on what is quickly becoming known as "schizoanalytic film theory." Following in the footsteps of other Deleuzian film theorists like Steven Shaviro, Powell argues that "[w]e cannot maintain the distanced gaze of subjective spectator at objective spectacle, but respond corporeally to sensory stimuli and dynamics of motion. Fantasy is an embodied event" (205). The claim she routinely makes in her book is that horror films offer the most viscerally prominent works of cinema and are thus likely candidates for a theory that takes as its starting point the argument that "[t]he body is not separate from the mind, but forms part of a perceptual continuum" (22). Powell moves from the Deleuzoguattarian schizoanalytic project to the Bergson-Deleuze theories of time, duration, and movement, and emphasizes how each highlights the "fluid becoming[s]" of the cinema viewer who is physically affected by the images on the screen (207).

[2] One of the most pleasing aspects of the book is Powell's obvious love for the genre she writes about. Again, like Shaviro's work and Joan Hawkins' recent writing on the horror film, Powell's analyses are guided by a deeply personal and perhaps idiosyncratic choice of films (being British she discusses some highly underrated films that passed under the radar in the States such as British director Richard Stanley's brilliant Hardware). Unlike some earlier academic theorists of the horror film, one never has the impression that the horror genre is merely an exclusively academic research interest. Such books as those by Shaviro, Hawkins, and now Powell beg the question: is a Deleuzian approach to film more effective if the viewer is personally invested in their focus of inquiry? It would appear that an intimate involvement with film in place of the clinical distance performed by more psychoanalytically trained theorists is required to perceive the molecular becomings and, following Powell, the "corporeal responses as our senses stimulate the neuronal networks linked to organs like the heart (pace, pulse-rate), the genitals (warmth, tightness, moisture) and the lungs (depth and rapidity of breathing)" (5). Indeed, how can one experience any of the above from a distance?

[3] My only criticism of her choice of films is that she provides little engagement with truly shocking horror cinema. Powell's definition of "horror" is obviously far more open-ended than other writers on the subject. I had hoped to see Powell work with directors like Mario Bava, George Romero, and Italian horror/cannibal/zombie/giallo films, "splatter" films, underground/art-house horror, and even standard fare like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most of her choices of films fall under science fiction, thriller, or classic horror. While I personally enjoy films like Hardware and Mulholland Drive, their inclusion here makes the book's title misleading. I would agree that all the films referenced contain "horrific" elements, but they are not commonly defined as horror films themselves. Powell should have at least spent more time discussing why she thinks such films may appropriately fall under the category of "horror." Powell's choices of films seem more determined by her personal taste than genre. Powell's book reads like it should have been titled "Deleuze and Anna Powell's Favorite Films." Whether this is considered an error on her part or not the films are interesting and worth a look, but they simply undermine the book's title. Nonetheless, I still enjoy a writer who is working from personal interest. Perhaps this book doesn't even need the word "horror" in its title?

[4] While on the subject of the book's title, Powell's book also misleads one to believe it is a book squarely focused on Deleuze. Her theoretical apparatus early on is primarily taken from the joint work of Deleuze and Guattari. Theorists who tend to over-privilege Deleuze when working with the two authors have contributed to a serious point of contention in Deleuzoguattarian studies. Despite the awkwardness of the neologism "Deleuzoguattarian," the term at least includes both authors and aside from mentioning "Deleuze" first, is more accurate than the singular and misleading "Deleuzian." I also want to point out that Powell actually spends more time working with Bergson in the later half of the book than Deleuze. While this is interesting and helps one understand the crucial theoretical differences between Bergson and Deleuze, one wonders if this book should have included Bergson in its title. Therefore, I think it is important to point out that this isn't really a book on Deleuze alone. While it may seem like I am being hard on the book's title, I think it is important to remind ourselves that a title is what attracts a reader in the first place. A title will, sometimes unfortunately, over-contextualize an author's project. The current climate of Deleuzoguattarian studies demands a revision of how academics treat the two authors. Further, Powell's book demonstrates the difficulty in working between Deleuze and Bergson since they tend to overlap in Deleuze's later work. At the end of the day, this isn't a book on Gilles Deleuze, nor is it a book on horror cinema as it is popularly defined.

[5] What separates Powell from Shaviro is her lack of polemics. Shaviro's The Cinematic Body was almost as ruthless in its condemnation of psychoanalysis as its principal source of inspiration, Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus. Despite my reservations about Powell's early demarcation of psychoanalysis and schizoanalysis, which she demonstrates by a questionable reading of Psycho from both perspectives, it becomes clear by the conclusion that Powell is not interested in dismantling or doing away with psychoanalysis entirely. Her rhetoric never reaches the sarcasm of Shaviro, or the revolutionary tone of Deleuze and Guattari. My reservation with her dual reading of Pyscho is that, at least at a rhetorical and structural level, it does construct a reductive opposition between the two approaches, almost as if the two cannot co-exist. Therefore, because this section appears early in the book, I found my reading somewhat haunted by this strange opposition constructed early on. By placing psychoanalysis and schizoanalysis as diametrically opposed, I fear schizoanalysis may appear too programmatic or formulaic. Further, and more importantly, such a dichotomy may allow the mechanics of psychoanalysis to offer a difference that will threaten to obstruct the open possibilities offered by schizoanalysis. Like other theories that are symptomatic of postmodernism, such as deconstruction, schizoanalysis functions best as an open system that is not seen as opposed to anything, but is instead open to everything. The last thing I think any Deleuzoguattarian scholar wants to see is schizoanalysis become another "school" alongside formalism, new historicism, or reader-response theory. I prefer to think of schizoanalysis as a "process" or "event," not a way of "reading." Similar to Derrida's reminder that deconstruction is not a way of "reading" texts because deconstruction always comes from within the text itself, schizoanalysis should likewise be a process that uncovers the already inherent connections, fluxes, and flows of a text.

[6] Regardless, Powell writes in her conclusion (while cleverly referencing The Blair Witch Project):

Deleuzian analyses are not intended to supplant social or psychoanalytical Film Studies with an alternative orthodoxy. They seek to challenge, but also to supplement, existing methods, by transversal readings located in the interstices between the two. Rather than seeking to replace more traditional methods of analysis by a new orthodoxy, Deleuzian/Bergsonian aesthetics may fruitfully be used to both extend and critique extant ways of reading. From where I am now, I advocate an interstitial, transverse connection across existing approaches, whilst continuing to push the frontiers of the field further. I feel it is definitely time to re-draw the map of existing horror Film Studies, but not kick it away just yet. (208)

Just as molarity and molecularity co-exist, so may a reading that emphasizes the molecular design of film function alongside one that focuses on the film's molarized placement within ideology. Because so much Deleuzian/Bergsonian and schizoanalytical analyses focus on patterns, affects, molecular assemblages, and lines of flight, there is still room to step back and view these elements in their molarity. I wish Powell had included more of the above material early on in her introduction.

[7] Powell's book is made up of two parts. The first includes two chapters that engage with schizoanalysis as it applies to horror cinema. Powell's primary foci are the Body without Organs and the many styles of becomings witnessed within the horror oeuvre. She begins her study with re-readings of horror classics like Psycho (already discussed above), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While she continually references Deleuze's cinema books here, her focus remains on the schizo aspects of the films. Of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Powell writes, "Partly set in an asylum, [the film] deals overtly in anomalous states. These are presented as both mental and physical by the distortions of the actors' movements and the forms of the scenery" (31).

[8] What some may find troubling about Powell's writing is that although she expertly unpacks the complexities of both schizoanalysis (becoming, Body without Organs) and the cinema books (movement-image, time-image, duration) her discussion of the films that exhibit these traits often read as step-by-step plot synopses. She generally maintains the use of Deleuzian terms like "diagrammatic component," "duration," "anomalous space," as in her discussion of The Haunting, but this occurs within numerous paragraphs of plot summary. I would rather have seen Powell isolate key moments in the films that represent Deleuzian/Deleuzoguattarian concepts and spend more time explaining these concepts alongside their manifestation in the films. By the time I was halfway through the book I became too conscious of Powell's pattern of unpacking her theoretical apparatus and then analyzing the film at a distance from her apparatus. This forces the reader to make too much of a cognitive leap from her apparatus to the film itself. At its worst, this division between apparatus and film too easily allows Powell to make tenuous claims such as referring to Jack Nicholson's character "Jack" at the end of The Shining as "becoming-ice," or Freddy Krueger's glove of knives as a "becoming-weapon" (wasn't his gloved hand already a weapon?) without further explication of how these becomings actually maintain the integrity of the term as described by Deleuze and Guattari. Becoming suggests agency and I see little agency in Jack's "becoming" ice. He just freezes to death. The random use of "becoming" loses the subtle complexities discussed in the becoming plateau of A Thousand Plateaus. In parts of her book, Powell does display an understanding of becoming, but there exist moments, such as those above, where she misuses and overuses the term. With her discussion of the films being sometimes too separate from her analyses of Deleuze and Guattari, "becoming" occasionally loses its meaning. However, in Powell's defense she may have felt some pressure to summarize the films for those who have not seen them.

[9] Because horror films can often seem to offer literal depictions of Deleuzoguattarian concepts such as the Body without Organs and becoming, Powell discusses those films that seem to resist such concepts. She writes that:

Hellraiser delights in displaying the parts of Frank's [the film's antagonist] horribly literal body-without-organs, bit by glutinous bit. He painstakingly sticks it back together again only to have it re-decimated. His trajectory serves to throw the Deleuzian body-without-organs into sharp relief by its complete reversal. More than anything, Frank wants his own, molar body back after its radical dispersion. His kind of body-without-organs and its unnatural life-in-death is the apex of reactionary horror rather than the aspiration of anarchic radicalism, and he will never attain the Deleuzian kind. (87-88)

Powell further suggests that Hellraiser "gravitates against the amorphous possibilities raised by Deleuze's model" (92). By showing the ways that such films as Hellraiser resist the Body without Organs, Powell's book functions as a lucid introduction to Deleuze and Guattari. It is moments such as this that her book performs a kind of analytical role-reversal so that Deleuze and Horror Film is no longer a book on horror using Deleuze, but a book on Deleuze using horror (my criticism of her definition of "horror" being put aside for a moment). Such maneuvers strengthen her analysis and reinforce her authority as a Deleuzian scholar. Ultimately, and much to the reader's satisfaction, Powell suggests such films "serve to clarify what true becoming is not by presenting its converse" (my emphasis, 92). Following such analyses, the reader gains valuable insight into the meaning behind the Body without Organs via horror cinema. Having briefly discussed David Cronenberg's Videodrome, I was surprised Powell did not make reference to Eva Jørholt's extended examination of Cronenberg's work and the Body without Organs in Micropolitics of Media Culture. I would have liked to have seen Powell spend more time with the Body without Organs in horror cinema. It is a difficult concept to synthesize with cinematic imagery and it would have been worthwhile had Powell taken more time in her attempts at the BwO in horror film. Along with Jørholt, there have been other expert uses of the BwO and horror; for example, Patricia MacCormack's article on necrosexuality in this issue.

[10] Perhaps the most valuable contribution of Powell's book is its theorization of how certain horror films can seem to "get under our skin," something Shaviro applauds her for in his dust jacket review of the book. Like most rabid viewers of horror films, I have always felt that horror films do not function on gore, abjection, and torture alone. I recall the first time I saw Dario Argento's film Suspiria. I could not put my finger on what disturbed me so much about the film. I had seen thousands of grisly murders in movies prior to Suspiria. Despite Argento's seemingly choreographed murder sequences, I was for the most part desensitized to murder scenes. Nonetheless, I was completely terrified by the film. In Powell's Deleuzian reading of Suspiria later in her book, she focuses on color, mise en scene, movement, and sound as elements of cinema that operate beyond representation. In what is one of the most succinct and powerful passages in her book, Powell writes:

Deleuze's work on the types of movement-image offers a new film/philosophical approach to the aesthetics of horror. This response demands a degree of detachment from the terrifying drama of horror narratives. It rarely fixes symbolic meanings onto images. It also looks elsewhere than the researches of film historians who map the cultural context of the film's production and distribution. At the same time, though, it enables awareness of a more primal level of experiential engagement via its focal shift from representation to movement and its affect on the machinic sensorium. (150)

This last line echoes what I suggested earlier concerning the possibility that an intimate engagement with film functions best with a Deleuzian reading. After following Powell's analysis in her second part of the book, I began to question how exactly does the feeling of fear work in a Deleuzian reading? By removing representation and focusing on the affects and intensities outside their respective codings, a Deleuzian reading may not account for what attracts horror film fans to horror films—that is, to be scared. Thus, I found it distressing to read that Powell suggests that "[f]or Deleuze, the extreme reaction induced by the affection-image is more potent than the explicit violence of the action-image. Scenes of terror, corpses and blood may actually appear on screen, but are not necessary for the aesthetic affect" (119). However, throughout her book I could sense that Powell was not ready to completely ignore the harrowing images of gore and terror found in horror films. This sense was confirmed in her conclusion where she bluntly refutes the assertion that a "Deleuzian approach might appear to remove the horror from horror films" (206). She attributes this to a "tension between the optimism of haecceity, the affective 'this-ness' or immanence of process, and the downward spirals of horror" (207). What becomes clear after reading Powell's book is that Deleuze and Guattari offer a way of engaging with the visceral and embodied experience of horror films that does not focus on representation (corpses, blood, guts, torture, etc), but rather on affect, intensity, becoming, movement, and disorientations of temporality. Such an understanding is absolutely necessary in a genre where appearances are not everything and where the affect of fear is not solely the result of molar representations, but includes the very molecular phenomena that Deleuze and Guattari focus on in their work.

[11] Like Claire Colebrook's Understanding Deleuze, Powell offers the reader a concise and helpful glossary of Deleuzoguattarian terminology. Unlike Colebrook, Powell's definitions are not necessarily here to assist the Deleuzian novice, but are defined within the context of the horror film and Powell's overall project. Like many other books that apply the work of Deleuze to a specific research focus, Powell's work here is a cogent explanation and explication of Deleuze's work with and without Guattari. However, her analyses of the films themselves remain disappointing. It is nonetheless to her credit as a fan of "non-traditional" cinema that Powell has successfully brought Deleuze out of his high-art tastes and shown just what his work has to say about films like Suspiria, Natural Born Killers, Jacob's Ladder, and Hellraiser.

Works Cited

Colebrook, Claire. Understanding Deleuze. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles & Félix Guattari. "1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…" In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Hawkins, Joan. Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Jørholt, Eva. "The Metaphor Made Flesh: A Philosophy of the Body Disguised as Biological Horror Film." In Micropolitics of Media Culture: Reading the Rhizomes of Deleuze and Guattari. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2001.

MacCormack, Patricia. "Necrosexuality." In Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 11 (2005).

Powell, Anna. Deleuze and Horror Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.