Dead Teenagers

If movie science has taught us anything, it would be that young and old alike enjoy seeing attractive teenagers disemboweled, eviscerated, gouged, bisected, skewered, impaled, crushed, burned, dissolved, and otherwise pulverized into puddles of Clearasil-stained viscera.   I suspect this impulse reaches back to our earliest days as primates.  For the beta males and females destined to live in the shadow of prime breeding stock, the sight of a cocksure or megafertile competitor slipping on a banana peel and then being devoured by crocodiles was no doubt a cause for great rejoicing.  And, as high school is often little more than the veldt regulated by hourly bells herding kids from the creek to the berry patch, it is no wonder that films about teen torture and extermination remain so popular, both with those in the midst of this process of social-sexual culling and with those irrevocably scarred by the process earlier in life.   

Many were introduced to the “teenie-kill” film in the 1980s when the great floodgates of repression opened to give us the classic “slashers.”  Here were dozens upon dozens of movies, written and directed primarily by boomer age personnel, that were completely conversant in Freudian scenarios of psycho-sexual dysfunction (even if they inherited this logic via Psycho rather than Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality).  And, even when critical responses varied wildly (from Robin Wood’s famous id/superego inversion argument to Carol Clover’s “final girl” thesis), no one doubted that first-tier wackos like Jason and Michael as well as their various one-shot cousins were the walking wounded of castration anxiety, that all horror was in some sense a return of the repressed.  In one of the few victories for academic film theory, such readings have become relatively mainstream even within journalistic criticism of the genre.

But of late something peculiar has happened in teenie-kill land, a change perhaps best illustrated by the Final Destination franchise.  If you have missed all four installments in this series, each film follows the same basic architecture:  group of teens together socializing >> one has a premonition that they are all going to die unless they flee immediately >> they flee immediately >> a horrible disaster does in fact happen, but the teens escape just in time >> one by one the escaped teens die in increasingly convoluted and gory scenarios >> the end, see you next year.   The basic message is as old as a gypsy cackling with her tarot cards at the edge of the forest: when your number is up, your number is up.

But what is most perverse about the Final Destination films is that they are so utterly unperverse, more proof that the unconscious is slowly dying out.  Increasingly rare in those under 30, the unconscious is probably now wholly non-existent in anyone under 20. What Freud so brilliantly created by having the audacity to define a hundred odd years ago is now becoming increasingly vestigial, a psychic coccyx of sorts, attached to the few remaining souls who grew up under the burden of 20th-century psychosocial repression.  And before any young ones take offense, let me emphasize that this is probably an extremely positive development for the species as a whole.  From what I can see, the unconscious basically only gave us modernism and serial killers, both of which we could probably live without at this point. 

Why is the unconscious evaporating?  There’s no way to know for sure, but it's probably a combination of things-- a fetid swamp drained at last by more fluid familial structures, the aftermath of the sexual revolution, liberal education, and the Internet’s ability to actualize any and all erotic scenarios in seconds.  The ability of social media to exteriorize, network, and thus collectively work through every epiphenomenal event in one’s psyche probably helps too.  With “hook-up” culture and “friends with benefits” disarticulating sex, not just from reproduction, but even any lingering affiliation with emotional life, who has time for repression anymore? 

In this new world of manifest desire, dressing up some sexually arrested weirdo in a trademark costume and having him chase horny teenagers around a lake would just be goofy—something that only your dopey parents would find scary.  And so we have the Final Destination films, movies marketed as “horror” that are really something else entirely, even if it is not exactly clear what that something else is yet.  In what would appear to be a first for the “horror” film, the Final Destination franchise is not only mostly sexless but also seems to have no “monster” of any kind.  One might argue that the monster in the films is “death” itself, a relentlessly stalking reaper that can be momentarily tricked but never denied.  But there is really nothing creepy, “uncanny,” or even very unsettling about the films’ portrait of “death” making his list and checking it twice.  Even the “premonitions,” the movies’ only nod to otherworldly powers, are more narratological than supernatural—giving us the basic premise and then linking the various kill sequences.  With a philosophy no deeper than that ridiculous Ray Bradbury butterfly story, the movies appear to exist only to illustrate again and again that shit does indeed happen—wholly independently of the any malevolent entity, agency, or spirit.  

One critic dismissed The Final Destination, currently slicing and dicing on HBO, as “death porn” (apparently he has never seen Hostel II—now that’s death porn).  Actually, The Final Destination plays more like “insurance porn,” featuring a Rube-Goldberg array of fatal mishaps seemingly designed to shock, astound, and perhaps even arouse a convention of usually sober and deadly-accurate actuaries.  What are the odds that a healthy non-drinking/non-driving 19 year old is going to drop dead?  Pretty low…unless they accidentally drop a kid’s plastic water-gun on a lever that starts draining the swimming pool and then, through another elaborate ballet of unlikely physics, drop their lucky coin into the water causing them to give chase down to the drain which, now building in p.s.i. pressure, creates a vacuum lock on the guy’s anus until—after great struggle—the suction finally pulls out his intestines, stomach, and esophagus, runs them through the pipe, and then has them explode out of the glass meter housing to plop on the poolside cement.  

But perhaps Freud is still alive after all, and The Final Destination is aligned—not with the familiar ladder of psychosexual development—but with an earlier and even more fundamental lesson of psychic life.  I once heard someone say her child was experiencing “envelope issues”—a term I had never heard before. Turns out this was a rather clinical way of saying the kid (I forget at what age) had cut himself pretty badly for the first time and was just now realizing his precious, precious ego resided inside a body that could be punctured, injured, hurt, and otherwise compromised.  So perhaps The Final Destination—wholly asexual and thus de-monsterized—is merely about reliving and perhaps mastering the bummer of bodily vulnerability, replacing the enigmatic psychodrama of the Oedipal subject with a depthless spectacle of material bodies crushed in the material world, no more no less. 

The opening credits certainly suggest as much.  Credits are of course crucial in establishing tone, and The Final Destination begins—not with the ominous music one might expect in a “horror” film—but with bone-crushing music that accompanies what are meant to look like real-time MRI’s of bones actually being crushed.  In other words, the credits do not set up any enigma or prepare us to entertain the psychosexual limbo of the “fantastic,” but instead simply start delivering on the franchise’s overall contract--—imagine what it would look like, from the inside no less, to have a metal ladder go through your skull, to have an engine block hit you in the back of the head; to have snapping barbed-wire rip you in half.  See it below...if you dare!

These are all “horrible” scenarios, to be sure, but it is unclear if they are actually “horror” in the old 20th-century repression model.  We still enjoy seeing teenagers slaughtered, certainly, but these films suggest that pleasure may at last be disarticulated from our genitals, replaced—as with so many other aspects of our antiquated psychic life—by an obscene spectacle of pure fascination--that's what it looks like, what it really looks like, to have a drivetrain go through your chest.  Horrifying, yes, but kind of awesome as well. 

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