Challenging existing ideas about "postmodern" horror cinema, Matt Hills uses Tesis to generate some novel theses of his own. Pointing to the film's suggestion that fan practices can be important to academic research, Hills argues that postmodern horror films "bid for different audiences, position themselves differently in market terms and participate (or not) in the circulation of cultural capital."
Thinking of Tesis as postmodern horror
The region 2 DVD release of Alejandro Amenábar's Tesis (aka Thesis or Snuff, Spain, 1996) includes film notes by Roger Clarke. These describe the film as horror with "a delicate postmodern touch." Clarke comments that the film is "all about libraries and seats of learning and a fatal secret, something that Umberto Eco would recognise." In what ways, then, might we follow Clarke's commentary and consider Tesis to be an example of "postmodern horror"?
This is a picture that reflects on film and media studies-no accident, then, that much of it is set in a University Mass Communications department-as much as it reflects on what it means to be a horror fan. Its main protagonist, Angela (Ana Torrent), is a media student, while her classmate Chema (Fele Martinez) is a dedicated fan of horror. Together, Angela and Chema get caught up in investigating whether snuff movies are being made within the confines and cloisters of the University. At the same time, Angela is also researching representations of violence for her thesis. Hence the film's various titles.
Tesis can be characterised as "postmodern" for a number of reasons:
- It makes horror, or more specifically, the production and circulation of violent media representations ("snuff movies"), its self-reflexive and narrative focus.
- It represents horror audiences (fans) within its narrative world, examining how fans constitute a subculture and how they are stereotyped in broader culture.
- It draws on academic debates over violent representations, withholding images of carnage (the film begins with a black screen, provoking its audience's desire to see an accident that has occurred) and representing sadomasochistic and voyeuristic versions of masculinity. Film theory runs alongside and behind the film's narrative, blurring the lines between unpopular theory and popular culture. It is thus no accident that Clarke's notes invoke the figure of Umberto Eco-semiotician, scholar and the writer of upscale but popular fictions that assume or disseminate some knowledge of theorists and academia (eg, Foucault's Pendulum, Name of the Rose).
However, the notion of something distinctive that could be labelled "postmodern horror" has recently been challenged by Andrew Tudor. Tudor notes that "there has been a proliferation in use of the expression 'postmodern horror' as an apparently unproblematic descriptive term... But for the most part, recent horror movies have been dubbed 'postmodern' with little or no discussion of what that involves or implies." Tudor is also critical of attempts that have been made to define "postmodern horror" cinema, since almost all the qualities put forward as distinctively postmodern seem to have appeared in earlier horror films. Postmodern horror has been defined by Isabel Pinedo as displaying the following qualities:
[U]nremitting violence in everyday life; blurred boundaries and endemic danger; rationality questioned and authority undermined; rejection of narrative closure; extreme violence which "attests to the need to express rage and terror in the midst of postmodern social upheaval."
And as Tudor acerbically concludes: "None of them is qualitatively new."
The further distinctions of postmodern horror
Perhaps, then, we need to adopt different or more detailed markers of "postmodern horror," and Tesis may help here. Rather than "authority being undermined," it is possible that "postmodern horror" partakes in what sociologists have dubbed "risk society" by reflecting a multiplication of expertise, where scientists and academics no longer necessarily hold sway as expert figures (or even as figures whose expertise is challenged but who remain the narrative focus, as in horror's "mad scientist" subgenre or thematic thread). Instead, expertise is democratised or pluralised.
Several theorists writing on the contemporary horror genre have noted its links to risk society as well as to postmodernism (see, eg, Lupton 1999 ). Tudor has distinguished between "secure" and "paranoid" horror cinema: where the former typically possesses narrative closure, with horrific threats being diegetically dispatched and contained by authority figures, the latter (which Tudor does not rigorously date-stamp or periodise) "presupposes a thoroughly unreliable world" where "expertise is at best ineffectual, while established authorities are no longer credible protectors of order." This notion actually prefigures Pinedo's thesis, despite Tudor's own later criticisms of this. However, what I am interested in here is that Tudor links "paranoid" horror not to postmodernism as a discourse, but rather to concepts of risk. It is worth quoting him at some length here:
If the discourse of paranoid horror makes sense to its users...then that is because their everyday social world has become increasingly characterised by heightened anxiety and perception of risk... Living in a "risk society"... brings with it a culture of anxiety, and some part of the articulation of that culture is to be found in its characteristic conceptions of the horrific... Indeed, it is my most general claim that the transition from secure to paranoid horror is part of the social processes that that many have sought to understand as distinctively "postmodern," though I would prefer Giddens's... terms "high modernity" and "late modernity" since his related account of trust, risk and security links more directly with my conceptualization of secure and paranoid horror.
Tudor, then, links "risk" horror to the idea of "postmodern" horror, even while using the first term to displace the second. Like Tudor, I too am linking notions of risk and postmodern horror, but contra his argument, I am not convinced that a clear or definitive substitution of terms is possible; "postmodern horror," in my view, needs to be seen as reflecting elements of risk society, but (again unlike Tudor's account) without entirely diegetically undermining forms of authority and expertise.
Postmodern horror, on this reading, reflects instead an expansion and a qualitative shift in different types of expertise and authority whereby knowledge does not belong to any one caste, institution or cultural group. Authority and knowledge in postmodern horror is thus not undermined; instead, it becomes multiple, contested and conflictual, existing with and without institutional sanction. Postmodern horror stages conflicts between many types of expertise (often broadly institutional versus non-institutional knowledges, as in films such as Halloween [USA, 1978] and the later Scream franchise [USA, 1996, 1997, 2000], as well as in media-saturated films such as Ring [Japan, 1998] and the The Blair Witch Project [USA, 1999], where the symbolic authorities of mediation are carried and contested). In Tesis, academic expertise and fan expertise clash and are occasionally synthesised (as Chema assists Angela), but narrative questions remain over whether the audience can trust either form of expertise. Is Chema actually a weird horror fan intent on voyeuristically pursuing Angela? Are certain academic figures, including Angela's creepy thesis supervisor, implicated in the abduction of students?
The horror genre, in its classical and other forms, has always had an unusually close relationship to representations of expertise and knowledge. Some definitions of horror make the pursuit of diegetic knowledge central to recognising the genre, eg, that proposed by Noel Carroll. More recent work has also hypothesised horror's relationship to knowledge:
Operating at one perceived limit of popular culture, horror is often characterized as a debased if not unhealthy genre. Yet I would contend that it is a genre which takes knowledge and learning unusually seriously, recognising that knowledge...can be both enlightening and deadly... [N]o other genre elevates academics, librarians and other scholars to such central and indeed heroic status.
Tesis certainly continues this horror tradition of representing scholars, libraries and fatal secrets. In this it is not distinctive, and Tudor's comment on weak definitions of postmodern horror might again seem relevant. But unlike classical or modernist horror, Tesis centrally contrasts academic, institutional knowledge with horror fan knowledge.
It is to a fan, Chema, that Angela turns when she needs access to violent films, and through whom she attempts to understand how such films are viewed and with what consequences. It is Chema who analyses the technical details of the snuff movie that Angela discovers, noticing small cuts in the recording and also ascertaining what camera type was used. Fan knowledge is therefore validated by the mystery aspect of the film. (Although it could be suggested that Chema's knowledge of media production is technical rather than fan-based knowledge, I would argue that the film powerfully and semiotically links this to connnotations of Chema's horror fandom.
It is also worth noting that theorists of media fandom have discussed technical knowledge as one part of "fan" expertise; see Abercrombie and Longhurst ). However, at the same time as validating horror fandom, Tesis draws on negative stereotypes of "geeky" fans by suggesting that Chema is not all that he seems, and may have an unhealthy fixation with Angela...as well as possibly being involved in the film's snuff movie conspiracy.
And unlike the films and books referred to by Darryl Jones, Tesis does not easily mark out its academic characters as heroes. Academics are victims (killed by viewing the "lethal" snuff movie), obstacles to Angela's investigation, and helpers who, again, may not be all that they seem. Throughout the film, both fan and academic switch narrative roles, seeming alternately to act as villain or helper to Angela. This switching indicates that neither fan nor academic expertise can be fully trusted, viewed as authoritative, or prioritised. Authority is not undermined, per se, by this self-reflexive narrative process.
Instead, Tesis works narratively to question different types of expertise, while still valuing certain (fan/academic) expertise at given moments. Ultimately, the film appears to suggest that horror fandom should not be demonised or stigmatised, since it is fans who are able to display qualities of detachment, self-reflexivity (considering why they are interested in horrific representations) and media analysis. On the contrary, it is the general non-fan audience that the film's conclusion implies may have a hypocritical and unhealthy interest in gore and grue.
There isn't just one type of postmodern horror
Tesis is more than just postmodern. It seems to me that we need to distinguish between different types of "postmodern" horror. For instance, does the Scream franchise do the same things as Tesis?
Both the Scream films and Tesis are self-reflexive or meta-fictional, being horror films about mediated horror and its conventions. And both deal with conflicts or syntheses between types of authority; Scream questions/utilises institutional authority in the figures of Dewey (David Arquette), a cop, and Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), a media professional, and questions/utilises fan expertise in the figures of Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and Sidney (Neve Campbell). Both Scream and Tesis ponder whether fan expertise or formal institutional authority are most useful in coping with media-saturated societies.
And yet, Tesis, from its very title onwards, wears its badges of academically-influenced virtue rather heavily. Scream announces itself unashamedly as a scary movie, whilst Tesis carries connotations of dry scholarship (a "problem" which one imagines occasioned the film's circulation in some territories as the rather more exploitation-friendly Snuff!).
It seems helpful to consider which intertexts are drawn on by a "postmodern" horror film, and hence which intertextual knowledges are either cued or assumed on the part of audiences. Scream's postmodernism is premised largely around references to other (usually contemporary) slasher/stalker films. What I would call its "reflexive cultural capital" is thus most significantly pop cultural or fan cultural in remit. As revealed in the opening scene, what really counts as knowledge here is knowing who the killer was in Friday the 13th (USA, 1980). Fans are part of the narrative solution: it is by becoming a fan (using fan knowledge) that characters are empowered to fight back against killers. As Steven Jay Schneider notes in his work on Scream: "Sidney's insider knowledge of the stalker subgenre...enables her to anticipate the killer's improbable return and break with convention by finishing him off in unambiguous fashion."
And what counts as knowledge and expertise by the time of Scream 3, unsurprisingly, is as much intra-textual across the franchise as filmically intertextual. Reflexive cultural capital therefore becomes "proprietary"; it is knowledge about the film series.
Tesis, however, does not appear to possess quite the same type of reflexive cultural capital. It therefore seems unhelpfully abstract to describe it only as "postmodern horror." For what is distinctive about this film (though it is not a cultural process unique to Tesis; cf horror fiction such as the work of Kim Newman, and horror films such as Urban Legend [USA, 1998] and Urban Legends: Final Cut [USA, 2000]) is its specific citation and questioning of academic practices and knowledges as well as fan practices. Although Scream pits fan knowledge against other forms of expertise/authority, it does so without drawing on academia as an intertext or as a significant source of institutionally-sanctioned authority. The classroom discussion of sequels in Scream 2, for example, does not introduce us to any important academic character. Academic authority is pretty much overwritten by fan knowledge; film studies class is an opportunity for genre fans to speak out as genre fans, plain and simple. Academia is largely absent in Scream's populist worldview.
By contrast, Chema's fandom in Tesis is located in the private sphere, in his apartment and its paraphernalia, while academia and academics form a far more significant part of the narrative world. Rather than transposing fandom into "Final Girl" knowledge-a textual manoeuvre that makes horror fandom powerful by abstracting it from its real sites of cultural struggle and disempowerment in the face of state censorship-Tesis examines horror fandom rather more unromantically and critically.
The transposition of fan knowledge into Final Girl know-how is a romantic gesture to the extent that it fails to consider horror fan knowledge as something that is developed in the face of media regulation (that is, censorship) as well as via media access. In this version of fan knowledge, horror fandom is falsely made universal; its embodied agency is greatly exaggerated since forms of cultural power that act, structurally, to obstruct the development of fan expertise are entirely ignored.
Tesis does not sidestep these issues; it remains attentive to the obstacles and stigmas that culturally afflict horror fandom. And it casts the same unflinching eye at academia. The "reflexive cultural capital" ostentatiously (even anxiously) on show here is that of a University-trained writer-director: Amenábar reportedly failed his University's direction module and named the killer in Tesis after the tutor who failed him. Regardless of such biographical matters, and of a desire to get even in terms of proving directorial ability and academic worthiness, Tesis's "postmodernism" has a different cultural location, range and interaction vis-à-vis its intertexts when compared to Scream's emphasis on film knowledge over and above other forms of non-populist expertise.
I suppose I am asking if we need a sociology of filmic postmodernism and intertextuality here, a sociology that would allow us to ask questions about the different cultural capitals of filmmakers and audiences, and about how film, even horror/thriller films, can work to mediate those educations and knowledges. Such a perspective would enable us to distinguish just whose postmodernism is at work- postmodernisms of academic theory being used for arthouse and subcultural audiences, as well as for upscale "mainstream" audience demographics, and existing alongside postmodernisms of pop cultural knowingness that fantasize away issues of cultural power by making popular culture all that protagonists need to know in their life and death struggles.
Taking this step would also allow us to explain why certain types of "postmodern horror" are valued by academics while others are often devalued: some postmodern horror pushes academic theory into a circulation, however limited, in popular culture, where other postmodern horror more aggressively promotes non-academic fan expertise. Tesis does the first of these while applying an academic approach to representations of horror/violence and its fan audiences. It is a good example of what I would like to call "popular theory," by which I mean academically-inspired insight that circulates outside the academy in a pop-cultural, narrativised form. Tesis's title may seem forbidding and dry (part of the film's apparent need to prove its University credentials), but this is a story about a thesis, and a thesis-made-story. This is popular theory. In short, it is exactly the kind of film that I, speaking sociologically as a horror fan and media studies academic, should appreciate, like and value.
Valuing Tesis and its representations of fandom
I appreciate Tesis for its contrast between protagonists; the male horror fan versus the female non-fan student researching media representations of violence. This contrast is captured with striking economy through an early sequence which alternates point-of-view shots; when viewing the geeky horror fan through Angela's eyes we hear her classical music (playing on her personal stereo), a soundtrack that abruptly cuts to the fan's audio-field on the cut to his PoV. He is listening to loud, aggressive rock music. The clash of male and female viewpoints, fan and non-fan, is hence also marked out as a clash of cultural and subcultural capitals within the film, with the horror fan's knowledge being counterposed to the student's more "legitimate" cultural capital carried in and by her thesis. His devalued rock music battles her "legitimate" classical music, standing in for and mapping this broader struggle between cultural forms of expertise and authority.
Gender is also relevant here: it is a male fan that is semiotically linked to horror's "underground" transgressions and violent representations, while the investigating student is female. This implies that legitimate or "mainstream" culture is feminised and set against the masculinised "authenticity" of fan subculture; a stereotype that has possessed much currency in a range of fan discourses and not just horror fandom (see Thornton 1995  and Jancovich 2000 ).
Without celebrating fandom as a superior type of knowledge that can heroically triumph in life-or-death struggles (like Scream and its ilk), Tesis nevertheless suggests that fan practices and knowledges can, and should, be important to academic research- not as objects of study or as weirdly alien ways of knowing, but as complimentary and adjacent forms of cultural knowledge. But Tesis does not evacuate questions of cultural power: horror fandom still remains "underground." Whereas the University library can legitimately house, and police the distribution of, a collection of violent media representations, horror fans' video collections remain culturally improper and stigmatised.
Fandom remains semiotically linked to a "geeky" and masochistic masculinity, one which is contrasted to the powerful, sadistic and eroticised masculinity of the character Bosco (Eduardo Noriega). Tesis does not, therefore, singularly link fandom and masculinity; it also suggests that masculinised fandom corresponds to a devalued type of disempowered or "failed" masculinity. This splitting of masculinity does not, ultimately, represent "good" and "bad" variants, but works instead to indicate the unstable ascription of pathology to masculinity, since we remain unsure until the narrative's conclusion whether the masochistic fan or the sadistic non-fan is an example of pathological masculinity. Both are depicted as voyeurs at certain moments in order to maximise this audience hesitation.
I also appreciate Tesis for its beginning, despite this being rather obvious given the film's thematic focus on representations of violence. The opening sequence withholds a representation of gore, thus challenging the viewer to consider whether they had expected or desired to see the missing scene of carnage. It is as much through devices such as this as through diegetic discussions and representations of academic practice, that Tesis presents itself as popular theory.
The power and desire of the (fan) audience's gaze is implicated and questioned within a linear, realist narrative rather than through distanciation or breaking the frame. It is not just our gaze that is challenged or rendered "perverse": the film's representations of academia also suggest corruption and (literal) failure of vision, not least in relation to Angela's thesis supervisors. Angela's first academic mentor is seemingly killed by the violent representations of the snuff movie that he watches by accident, while her later supervisor also fails to perceive certain threats at the film's denouement. And the latter character appears as part of a narrative puzzle; is he linked to the production of the snuff movies, and if so, in what way? It is through this narrative enigma that academia is linked to perverse, corrupt desire as well as to connotations of control, and rational system-building.
And I value Tesis for its ending, which despite being rather moralistic and hectoring, suggests that "normal" media audiences, ie, not "weird" horror fans, are also perversely interested in media violence. As yet another sacred binary falls by the wayside, the film again indicates its status as popular theory. It is intent on challenging commonsense assumptions of horror fandom's "evil" or "sickness," representing (rather than imagining away, as Scream arguably does) issues of cultural power and hierarchy, while placing questions and debates in film theory in a narrative, realist frame. It is popular theory. And it helped establish a reputation for Amenábar by addressing issues of mediation, media fandom and media studies that have transnational relevance. Indeed, it is striking that much totemic transnational horror in recent years, Hideo Nakata's Ring as much as Tesis, has taken the topic of mediation as a guarantor of transnational relevance.
Postmodern horror and its different intertextualities
I have been arguing that "postmodern horror" can still be usefully defined and discussed. My necessarily brief definition here has focused on the decentring of authority into multiple types and non-institutional/institutional forms.
But very different types of authority are intertextually drawn on and narratively activated in films commonly described as "postmodern." Films like Tesis mark out clashes between fan and academic knowledge, whereas films like Scream tend to celebrate fan knowledge over other types, while also marginalising institutional expertise in its academic form and prioritising other forms of institutional authority (the police and media professionals).
Consider, for a moment, one possible intermediary between my two filmic examples, Candyman (USA, 1992). Here is an example of Hollywood horror that does focus on academic knowledge and features postgrad students and academics as its hero-protagonists. Despite carrying several markers of being a "prestige" horror project (director Bernard Rose, its adaptation from a Clive Barker short story, music by Philip Glass and so on), this film lacks the qualities that I have linked to "postmodern horror." It might rather be thought of as "quality" horror of a modernist bent, since its central use of academic expertise depends on this expertise failing, narratively, in the face of supernatural powers and forces.
Candyman's use of academic heroes is not centrally concerned with conflict between different socially-located and culturally-located forms of expertise, eg, fans versus/with academics or fans versus/with various other professionals. Although it could be argued that the film stages a conflict of authority and expertise between the predominantly black residents of Chicago's Cabrini Green housing projects, who believe in the reality of the Candyman, and those predominantly white academics who treat the Candyman as a myth/narrative (see Pinedo 1997 on "race horror"  and Halberstam 1995 ), what is staged through this ethnic and class conflict is a cliché of horror that is in no way distinctive to a postmodern decentring of expertise: the clash between rationality and metaphysics. Rational academics are just plain wrong, Candyman tells us, and must pay the price for their foolishness (something that is even more starkly explored in Barker's short story).
This is a classic theme of horror that persists in much contemporary horror cinema. Not all films made after a certain historical marker point become magically or transparently postmodern, just as not all films that can be usefully described as postmodern are equally or similarly so.
To take another (and final) example, although Urban Legend (1998) and Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) can be thought of postmodern according to the model I have started to put forward here, in that both stage conflicts between academic and fan/student expertise, neither film accords the same weight to academic intertexts as does Tesis.
These films also hover in a particular way between the postmodernism of Scream-where academic expertise is rendered absent-and that of Tesis, where academic knowledge is partly validated and partly shown as corrupt or questionable. Like Tesis, both the Urban Legend films make academic figures into narrative puzzles, challenging viewers to perceive academia either as a monstrous threat (intertextually, via the figure of Freddy Krueger actor Robert Englund as Professor Wexler in Urban Legend) or as a safe form of authority and wisdom (via a character named Professor Solomon, played by Hart Bochner, in Urban Legends: Final Cut).
Whether academic expertise can be trusted or not is thus one of the major enigmas and issues of each film and its engagement with risk society. However, alongside this dimension, each Urban Legend film tends to use academic expertise in relatively superficial intertextual ways; academic discussions of film in Urban Legends are rarely theoretically-focused, while Urban Legend's Professor Wexler (Englund) lectures with the glee of a showman, as the film labours to make its obligatory lecture scene interesting.
By contrast, Tesis positions its academic "reflexive cultural capital" as something to be consistently displayed rather than as a faintly embarrassing diversion to be dealt with in one or two key scenes. Thus, although Urban Legend, Urban Legends: Final Cut, Scream and Tesis may all be thought of as postmodern horror (unlike Candyman, I would argue), this should not distract us from analysing the different weighting and performativity of their various intertextual references.
To assert that postmodern horror is self-reflexive, or that its representations undermine authority, are sociologically and textually abstract arguments. Surely we need to consider, as I have only started to here, which forms of authority and knowledge are foregrounded or glossed over in different types of po-mo horror, and how this may be linked to the cultural careers of different films. And by drawing self-reflexively on different ranges of intertexts, instances of "postmodern horror" bid for different audiences, position themselves differently in market terms, and participate in the circulation (or not) of cultural capital. Marginalising film theory intertexts and maximising fan intertexts for mass and youth audiences, or playing up academic credentials and subject matter for world-cinema audiences, are different aspects of genre which suggest that what I have here termed "reflexive cultural capital"-or what could also be labelled "intertextual cultural capital"-is not just about the banal blurring of boundaries. Tesis points me to the thesis that types of postmodern horror work to restore boundaries and barriers between different film audience niches, demographics and taste cultures. Whose horror genre postmodernism is Scream? And whose is Tesis?