While films like Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) might most immediately leap to mind when we think of cinematic critiques of television news, horror has also often questioned the power and ubiquity of this particular mode of information – and propaganda – dispersal in its own unique way. More broadly, we only need to think of films like Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983), Terrorvision (Ted Nicolaou, 1986), or Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) for generic examples that construct TV and related media as themselves somehow monstrous or cursed. Like Tommy Lee Wallace’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) a year later, The Howling is framed by a central although at times abstracted vision of a confusing and corrupt media-dominated world.
This sense of media-created chaos is a major theme of The Howling, and it is implied stylistically before the story even begins. Through an aggressive strategy of defamiliarisation, director Joe Dante demands we look at how media messages are just constructed, and – more importantly – how they can break down, collapse, and become meaningless. Darting back and forth between behind the scenes of the busy newsroom where Karen (Dee Wallace) and her colleagues work to what is shown in front of the camera where Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee) is being interviewed, the opening moments of The Howling begin a continuing pattern throughout the film where we are asked to think consciously about how and why television images are remediated in the particular way they are. As Karen tracks a mysterious killer on the streets, her colleagues describe her as “transmitting”: they mean of course that they are recording her telephone interaction with the killer, but there is implied with this an aspect of the supernatural that evokes unspoken associations with Victorian spiritualism (itself a field that often-privileged women’s ‘unnatural’ powers). By virtue of Karen simply working in the mass media, the language employed and the kind of knowledge she is privy to over her peers somehow imbue with qualities as much related to spiritualists or psychics as to journalists and television reporters.
The framing of the mass media in a way that implies aspects of the supernatural are crucial to the overarching themes of The Howling. When she is accosted by the killer at the beginning of the film, Karen is significantly forced to watch a woman being sexually tortured on screen – there is something powerful about her witnessing in this precise way that consciously plays off her status as a television celebrity, a witch-doctor or magician who works in constructing and disseminating media images. As he tells Karen before she witnesses the source of horror that she struggles to recall throughout the rest of the film, the killer says to her “You’re different, I watch you on TV”. As a public figure, her paying witness is more about Karen as a lone individual: because of her job and her high profile on television, her eye is a public eye, even when she is the only audience to this appalling scene.
Suffering from trauma-related amnesia, Dr Wagner sends Karen to the “Colony”, a rural resort where he often sends patients to assist in their recovery. If the allusions to spirituality are implicit in the film until this point, at this stage they become more apparent: the Colony is marked by the very absence of media access, configured as an almost pagan or heathen space in its rejection of contemporary media and its defining return to the primal. If the stained-glass windows on Howard Beale’s (Peter Finch) pulpit-set suggest television is a church, the Colony have opted out and started a new religion. The Howling in many ways teases out ideas around a kind of secular mode of spirituality built around our relationship to the mass media, a concept developed even further two years later by David Cronenberg in Videodrome. There, Brian O’Blivion (played by Jack Creasey, and supposedly based in part on media theorist Marshall McLuhan) shares some aspects with Dr. Wagner: media manipulators extraordinaire are synonymous with cult leaders, a notion not that difficult to understand in 2018 where a reality television star is the President of the United States.
In its representations of television news media, The Howling explores tensions surrounding the false myth of intimacy that it creates with its viewers. At stake are questions of faith: do we believe what we’re told on TV or is it, to borrow a phrase, “fake news”? At the heart of The Howling lies a brutal interrogation of just how heavily mediated our culture was then, and arguably this is even more poignant today than it was when the film was released in 1981. The Howling is a scathing interrogation of media manipulation, and like Network it too features a tragic and spectacular reference to the death of 29-year-old US news anchor Christine Chubbuck in 1974, who shot herself in the head live on air. While Chubbuck’s death inspired two almost simultaneously released but very different films in 2016 – Robert Greene’s insightful docu-drama Kate Plays Christine and Antonio Campos’s comparatively anaemic biopic Christine, both of which I have discussed at length elsewhere – The Howling is an important yet frequently overlooked film that interrogates both the cultural meaning and the sheer tragedy of Chubbuck’s death.
For Karen, dramatic physical transformation – the visible, spectacular ‘death’ of her familiar celebrity image (followed by a literal death as she herself is shot) – is televised simply because she believes it is the only way “to make you believe”. Weeping, howling and eventually dying, however, as the film cuts across a number of diegetic viewing contexts we realise that her death was for the TV audience just another cynical spectacle to behold over dinner. “The things they do with special effects these days”, laughs one barfly, as the lesson Karen was willing to sacrifice both her identity and her life for is consumed shallowly, in precisely the manner television has trained its viewers to do. Even in the face of incomprehensible yet inescapable horror and tragedy, these cries of “fake news” – an updating of the Lügenpresse (“press of lies”) famously deployed by German Nazis in their anti-Jewish rhetoric – still endures today as a desperately clung-to antidote to reality.