It’s a Strange World, Isn’t It? ‘Peeping Tom’ and ‘Blue Velvet’

With Halloween right around the corner, our televisions and theaters are filled with horror movies. Today, most horror films are filled with excessive, gratuitous gore and violence; with such realistic special effects as an audience, we either avidly watch the spectacle or avert our eyes in disgust. In Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Robin Wood cites the 70s as the golden age of the horror film because films were more violent and disturbing than ever before. With the end of the production code in the 60s, the horror films of the 70s had the luxury of showing brutal violence and gore. Rather than showing the murder and violence new and stimulating in the 70s that continues to be common today, Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom and David Lynch’s 1986 Blue Velvetboth made outside of Wood’s golden age of the horror genre—explore something more terrifying than blood, guts, and even monsters: the monstrous nature of human beings.

Although Wood cites Hitchcock as the father of modern horror, Peeping Tom is an equally interesting precursor to the 70s horror movement Wood discusses. Peeping Tom came out the same year as Psycho and similarly dealt with a very different idea of the monster in horror films; there is no longer a non-human monster but instead, a disturbed, monstrous human.

The opening sequence of the film is from the point of view of the camera lens. However, this is not the lens of Peeping Tom‘s filmmaker, but the lens of the protagonist/antagonist, Mark. From the first shot, the audience shares the point of view of the monster. Mark films himself murdering prostitutes and obsessively watches the films of his crimes in his dark viewing room.

As the film goes on, it reveals the beginning point of Mark’s disturbed behavior; Mark’s father was a prominent psychologist who used (and filmed) Mark as part of his experiments on fear. We see films in which his father obsessively documents Mark’s life and induces fear by placing lizards in the bed and flashing lights in Mark’s eyes while he’s sleeping. Wood asserts that the interesting horror films of the 70s “are characterized by the recognition not only that the monster is a product of normality, but that it is no longer possible to view normality as other than monstrous.” Peeping Tom begins to touch on the idea that images of normality (the family structure and man) have now become monstrous. In the film, the image of a normal family, as illustrated by Mark’s relationship with his father, is destroyed. Family is seen as a perverted and destructive force in Mark’s life as evidenced by his father’s experiments. Subsequently, Mark sadistically transforms into a voyeur to master his own fears caused by his father’s incessant torment.

As an audience, we not only witness Mark’s atrocious murders, but we are also placed in a position to identify with Mark’s  tortured childhood. Mark is not a typical monster, but a normal man who was made to be monstrous. By allowing us to understand and identify with the killer, Peeping Tom confronts us with the uncomfortable notion that we too are capable of such atrocious crimes.

David Lynch’s Blue Velvet—which was made in the 80s at a time that, according to Wood, was the “decline” of the genre—goes a step further than Peeping Tom in paving the way for a horror renaissance by shattering any images of normality and uncovering the menacing world in which we live. The opening sequence of Blue Velvet is extremely stylized. The camera cuts between white picket fences with beautiful rose gardens, children crossing the street and a 50s-style fire truck complete with a friendly waving fireman and Dalmatian—images stereotypical of an idyllic town. The sequence ends with a disturbing spinal injury that brings home the protagonist, Jeffrey. The spinal injury suffered by Jeffrey’s father is a jarring end to an initially upbeat sequence. Similarly, Jeffrey’s walk through his lovely neighborhood is disrupted by the discovery of a severed human ear. These images begin to destroy the idyllic, normal town that Lynch portrayed in the opening. The severed ear leads Jeffrey to a world of kidnapping, torture, and rape lead by the savage criminal Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

The sugary naiveté of the characters and the stylized opening sequence stand in stark contrast to Frank’s maniacal world of torture. By contrasting these idealized images with the graphic, gritty story of the severed ear, Lynch draws attention to an incredibly dark and disturbing world that exists below the surface of our lives. As an audience, we identify with the all-American Jeffrey and his quest to solve the mystery of the ear. Unlike Frank and Peeping Tom’s Mark—whose character is monstrous at the film’s outset—Jeffrey is portrayed as a force of good and honor, tied to the idyllic neighborhood. This image of an honorable Jeffrey is crushed when he watches from the closet and does nothing as Frank rapes and brutalizes Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Jeffrey’s sick and twisted nature exhibited by his voyeurism becomes more apparent as he begins a grotesque romance with Dorothy, which includes Jeffrey  undressing at knife point and beating her (upon request) during intercourse. What is more disturbing is Dorothy’s account of sex, “You put your disease in me,” which portrays an intimate act as something sick and diseased. Jeffrey, once a symbol of normality, is now committing “monstrous” acts.  

Wood claims that “violence, whether actual or implicit, is so powerfully and obstinately inherent in human relationships.” What is terrifying about Lynch’s film is Jeffrey’s (and by proxy, our own) participation in the violence and depravity of Frank’s world. Although Jeffrey asks, “Why are there people like Frank in this world,” Jeffrey is less horrified by Frank than by his own resemblance to Frank. Jeffrey’s horror at his own use of violence is clear when he breaks down crying as he relives his violent sexual escapades with Dorothy.

Even though Frank dies in the end, the neighborhood still appears to be idyllic, and normality seems restored, we saw just how easily Jeffrey and normality became monstrous. Although Jeffrey apparently has chosen to forget his capacity for evil, we as an audience cannot; having identified with Jeffrey, we are left with shattered views of our realities and ourselves. Forcing us to identify with the villains, Peeping Tom and Blue Velvet are truly horrifying because they make us fear that evil that lurks within us as well .

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