Can We Imagine Better Work? On Aviva Briefel and Jason Middleton’s “Labors of Fear”
By Brandon R. GrafiusOctober 25, 2023
Labors of Fear: The Modern Horror Film Goes to Work by Aviva Briefel and Jason Middleton
There are arguably few places in daily life that discourage this imaginative effort to creatively envision new structures more effectively than our spaces of work. Marxist thinker Louis Althusser, for example, argued that our entire ideological system is designed to keep us from imagining different ways of working, through the operation of “ideological state apparatuses.” Our system of labor produces surplus value—and this capitalist profit—only as long as it is the only system imaginable.
It would seem that horror should have a vital role to contribute to the dismantling of this hegemony. While we’ve seen scholarly approaches to horror proliferate in recent decades, however, there’s been little attention to questions of how labor is represented, thought through, and interrogated within the horror genre. It’s into this breach that the new anthology Labors of Fear: The Modern Horror Film Goes to Work enters. Editors Aviva Briefel and Jason Middleton have assembled an essay collection that takes different approaches to these questions of work and horror, and begins the process of uncovering a discourse that has been present within horror films for decades. In their introduction, the co-editors note that our culture’s current frustrations with the conditions of work have “begun to catch up with a case that horror cinema has made throughout its existence concerning the monstrousness of work itself.”
A main argument of the volume is that this kind of critique—both of the conditions of work and of the capitalist system in general—has been central to the horror genre since its inception. Briefel and Middleton note that we can almost see this analysis in the beginning of modern horror scholarship, in Robin Wood’s 1979 essay “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” which “cast[s] the modern horror films of the 1970s as a cinema of economic decline and disappearing opportunity for American workers.” This thread is usually noticed, however, only to be dropped. In his essay “Return of the Repressed,” first published in 1978 in Film Comment, Wood notes that the cannibal family in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) “represents an exploited and debased proletariat revenging itself on capitalist society,” but he seems more interested in the ways they parody a traditional American family. Similarly, Tony Williams’s close reading of the film, in his 1996 book Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film, notes that the antagonists are “losers within the American Dream made redundant by new technology and changing historical forces,” but he then proceeds to analyze the film primarily through its ideological critique of family structures. While horror clearly serves up strong critiques against family systems, it’s striking how quickly horror scholars are anxious to move past capitalism and labor to get to the family.
Thus, one of the main accomplishments of Labors of Fear is the simple act of lingering on aspects of work, whether that be the everyday tools that slashers often use, or the domestic work that becomes a source of horror in films like The Babadook (2014), or the emotional and academic work that undergirds the drama and the horror of Midsommar (2019). It’s all presented in clear, readable prose, with a minimum of footnotes—well suited for both academics looking to use these essays as jumping-off points for their own work and for horror viewers wanting to find new ways to pay attention to their favorite films.
The collection kicks off with Marc Olivier’s analysis of the frequency with which slashers transform tools into weapons, and what this might say about class in slasher films. Olivier first notes that the popular imagination associates chain saws with slashers but that this is a relatively underused weapon throughout the 119 films from 1974 to 2019 that he surveys. But his larger point is an interesting one: these movies depict everyday objects as having the power to “turn against us or save us.” Frequently, slasher films depict the tools of working-class occupations, such as axes and hammers, as invading suburban spaces, with dramatically violent results. He concludes: “Slashers are as much about the repairman as the Boogeyman.”
This chapter launches the first section, “How Horror Works: Killing, Dying, Surviving.” The section’s second chapter, by David Church, looks at the mortician’s work that grounds The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016). Church argues convincingly that main character Tommy’s “coldly medical empiricism that also manifests as a stereotypically masculine stoicism born of emotional repression” is no match for the power born from Jane Doe’s centuries of traumatic violence. Tommy and his son then serve as “latter-day representatives of the male-dominated medico-juridical complex that committed such historical crimes.” Through this connection, Church demonstrates how work can serve as a stand-in for deeply embedded structures of power. The section concludes with Adam Lowenstein’s interesting article about how George A. Romero shifted his understanding of the type of work required for survival throughout his long-running Living Dead series (1968–2009), finally landing on an understanding of survival as expanding our conception of which species have the right to survive.
The second section turns to work in domestic spaces and other forms of gendered labor. Lisa Coulthard observes how much of the horror of The Babadook and The Swerve (2018) emerges from the underappreciated, exhausting, gendered work of the protagonists. The nature of this work is undergirded by the films’ oppressive sound designs. Jason Middleton explores Midsommar through the subject of emotional labor, connecting the emotional work Dani is expected to do for her relationship with Christian in the film with the real-world #nodrama trend. When users (usually white cis men) attach this hashtag to their dating profiles, they’re signaling their desire for a partner who does not “produc[e] a demand upon their emotional resources,” such that the relationship will “requir[e] no effort on the part of the partner.” Middleton reads Midsommar as an extended meditation on the cost of this type of work for Dani, resulting in “her cathartic final break from Christian.” The use of sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s concept of emotional work brings an interesting depth to this volume since this is a form of labor that often goes unseen, placed in a category other than “work”—just as the idea of work itself has been unseen, although frequently present, within the genre of horror. The section concludes with Alanna Thain’s exploration of the horrors of reproductive work in the 2017 MoMA exhibit Par-tu-ri-ent and the 1976 film Embryo.
The final section explores labor through the lens of race, beginning with co-editor Briefel’s outstanding essay on Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). Perhaps the most explicitly theoretical of the chapters, Briefel’s uses Henri Lefebvre’s notion of spaces of play to read Us as a critique of how American capitalism has bifurcated labor and leisure, and racialized both. Mikal J. Gaines’s essay surveys “buppie horror,” a cycle of films centering on middle-class Black or mixed-race couples whose lives are disrupted by a violent threat from without. Joel Burges’s contribution reads It Follows (2015) against the backdrop of Detroit’s “landscape of labor,” arguing that the film presents a vision of “the horror of stagnation” that is “both economic and cultural.” The volume’s final chapter, by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb, is also about Midsommar, featuring a discussion of the film through the lens of academia and the assumption of white men that their intellectual labor is worth everyone’s time and attention (Christian doesn’t come across too well in either of these chapters). Catherine Zimmer’s conclusion focuses on the current renaissance of Black horror, suggesting that scholars and viewers can benefit from paying attention to the ways in which these films are both “doing work” and are also “a product of work.” She suggests that perhaps “the ‘work’ of Black horror, both as product and as labor, is that it acknowledges itself as such and also refuses to be only work.” It’s an interesting way to conclude the volume, opening up further avenues of reflection on the themes it has introduced.
Perhaps surprisingly for an academic work with “Labors” in the title, there’s little use of Marxist analysis, outside of some citations of Fredric Jameson and a stray reference to Lefebvre. Most of the essays proceed without much reference to theory at all; the major exceptions are Middleton’s use of Hochschild’s concept of emotional labor, co-editor’s Briefel’s discussion of Us’s “critique of capitalism,” and Burges’s reliance on film theory to discuss perspective in It Follows. This reduced emphasis on theory isn’t necessarily inappropriate for a volume of this nature, one that’s supposed to open up a previously underexplored area of scholarship and lay the groundwork for further studies in this area by other scholars. Certainly the ideas introduced in this volume lend themselves to analysis through Marxist or other theoretical lenses. But without those yet-to-be-written studies, this anthology feels somewhat akin to Barry Keith Grant’s 1996 edited volume The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film—a collection that points the way toward further exploration and becomes a standard citation for the scholars who will undertake these future chapters and books.
If we hadn’t yet realized that the capitalist system of work wasn’t filling the needs of the vast majority of its participants, the pandemic brought this reality to our attention. Spaces of work became literal spaces of horror, as lower-paid workers with “essential” jobs were forced to continue laboring in public spaces, usually without the necessary protections, and certainly without the compensation to match their essential status. Labors of Fear makes a strong case that the horror genre has, in fact, understood that work is a monstrous presence in most of our lives all along, and the genre has been offering the resources to help us rethink what work can and should be.
Brandon R. Grafius is associate professor of biblical studies and academic dean at Ecumenical Theological Seminary, Detroit.
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