In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Murray, a transplant from New York City teaches a seminar on car crashes at a suburban Massachusetts college. He discusses it with the book’s protagonist, the head of the Department of Hitler Studies.
“We’ve looked at hundreds of crash sequences. Cars with cars. Cars with trucks. Trucks with buses. Motorcycles with cars. Cars with helicopters. Trucks with trucks. My students think these movies are prophetic. They mark the suicide wish of technology. The drive to suicide, the hurtling rush to suicide.”
“What do you say to them?”
“These are mainly B-movies, TV movies, rural drive-in movies. I tell my students not to look for apocalypse in such places. I see these car crashes as part of a long tradition of American optimism. They are positive events, full of the old ‘can-do’ spirit.”
Murray’s understanding of the car crash in American “low cinema” taps into something just as easily applicable horror/gore flicks. continuing the above quote:
“Each car crash is meant to be better than the last. There is a constant upgrading of tools and skills, a meeting of challenges. A director says ‘I need this flatbed truck to do a midair double somersault that produces an orange ball of fire with a thirty-six foot diameter, which the cinematographer will use to light the scene.’ I tell my students if they want to bring technology into it, they have to take this into account, this tendency toward grandiose deeds, toward pursuing a dream.”
Horror, especially in its slasher/splatter/torture permutations are treated as the signifiers of a civilization in decline, an archive of anti-social refuse consumed and championed by the marauding barbarians the exist below and beyond polite society. What Murray says of cinematic car crashes is true of every death in a slasher film. It is the car crash writ small, blood and limbs standing in for gasoline and twisted metal, each new and nauseating act of violence the result of the fevered imagination of a giddy micro-auteur and an ambitious make-up artist. The fictional destruction of the human body is not birthed out of a hatred of it, but a celebration of it. Our physical limits are both realized and transcended with every exploding head and impalement.
“Look past the violence, Jack. There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun.”