I’m always interested in what horror looks like and what it means at any particular moment—what it says about anxieties brewing in the larger culture, and it’s in that spirit that I want to point out an interesting refrain through several high-profile horror films of the 1970s: Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971), The Stepford Wives (Brian Forbes, 1975), Jaws (Spielberg, 1975), and Halloween (John Carpenter, 1975).
In The Stepford Wives, the protagonist Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) moves to Stepford, Connecticut, where she soon notices women are, well, different—obsessed with cleaning their houses, for one thing. Joanna is a photographer: she’s intelligent, ambitious, and curious, and so much of the film involves her looking—the camera dwelling on her very human stare, as she tries to figure out what’s going on in her town. Joanna’s encounter with the “monster” at the end of the film is all the more horrifying, then, because what Joanna finally sees is her own robotic double—and as she looks in horror, her lifeless twin looks back with empty, soulless, black eyes. Joanna will soon become this “thing,” killed by the men in the town who sacrifice real women for inanimate, submissive machines.
Later that year, in the summer of 1975, the most successful film of the decade would be released: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Sharks and women may seem far removed from each other, but Jaws’ monster, like that of The Stepford Wives, is defined by its absolute lack of any living, feeling sentience—and by its black, lifeless eyes.
In perhaps the most famous scene of the film, Quint (Robert Shaw) describes his experience on the sunken U.S.S. Indianapolis—stranded in the water for five days as sharks killed six men an hour. The shark, he says, from the depths of traumatic experience, has “lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at you,” Quint continues, “he doesn’t seem to be living, until he bites you and those black eyes roll over white.”
Shaw may have been improvising this speech, but Benchley’s original novel has at least seven explicit references to the shark’s black eyes—its “black and abysmal” eyes, its “black fathomless eye,” its “vacant gaze.”[i]
Both The Stepford Wives and Jaws, moreover, make very clear the contrast between the human and the inhuman look. The scene in which Joanna sees her inanimate double involves a shot / reverse-shot sequence, as the camera looks at Joanna—the living Joanna—and then looks from her perspective at the eyes of her lifeless double. Similarly, the frame above from Jaws starkly contrasts the “black and abysmal” gaze of the shark with the very human look of Brody (Roy Scheider).
The inhuman gaze finds its epitome in what is arguably the first slasher film, and yet a film that is thoroughly indebted to predecessors, not least to The Stepford Wives and Jaws. The monster at the heart of Halloween is not an inanimate robot or a killer shark, but a man consistently described as a “thing,” and “it.” And this thing has lifeless black eyes.
Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) famously describes Michael Myers as bereft of humanity, and he does so by describing his eyes. He says that when he first met Michael, “there was nothing left—no reason, no conscience, no understanding, even of the most rudimentary life or death, good or evil, right or wrong.” Loomis says that the child he met had a “blank, pale, emotionless face—and the blackest eyes.” Loomis describes these black eyes as “evil,” but a better description of Michael is that—like the robotic “wife” and the shark—he is simply empty, mechanical. “Evil” implies the presence of humanity, and Michael is like a machine—as Loomis admits when he refuses to call him a man and refers to him intentionally as an “it.”
So what ripples through all three of these iconic 70s horror films is the lifeless black eye, the vacant eye, the “doll’s eye,” mentioned by Quint in Jaws and embodied in Joanna’s nightmare at the end of Stepford Wives. And what this black eye evokes, and what’s horrifying in these films, is not just the inanimate but the mechanical—the “thing” divested of all reason, conscience, and purpose. The robot, the shark, the killing “thing” are all terrifying because they are mechanical.
In light of this particular horror at the heart of these three films, it is important to look at an underrated and understudied film that ushered in the decade—the first film that Steven Spielberg directed. Based on the short story by Richard Matheson, Duel (1971) is about a truck that for no sufficient reason, and with no visible driver, relentlessly follows the protagonist (Dennis Weaver).
Tellingly, in the documentary, The Making of Jaws, Spielberg says that one of the reasons he agreed to direct Jaws was that it struck him as a successor to Duel. The shark, he said, was just like the truck—and he felt the narratives were virtually identical. (Tellingly, Benchley describes the shark at one point as a “locomotive with a mouth full of butcher knives,” stressing the mechanicity of the shark.[ii])
In the 1970s, then, something lifeless, nonhuman, and mechanical emerges at the center of the horror tradition—and in two instances, it is a literal machine (truck, robot). So . . .why? I only have time to offer a brief speculation, but the 70s, of course, infamously saw the end of the post-World War 2 boom, as the western world (especially from 1973-75) was stricken with economic stagnation and recession. Looking back, the decade was clearly the moment when American manufacturing and industry began to die—and the world we now live in, the world of global capital, was born. Life went from (relatively) simple to complicated. Economic relationships went from (relatively) clear, direct, and tangible to unmappable. Where were the jobs going and why? Did anyone know and was anyone in control?
The world (like the truck in Duel) was suddenly beyond the grasp of regular people, and we were all confronted with the hostile machinery of an inexplicable world—an increasingly nonhuman world represented, I think, in the “black and abysmal” eyes of 70s horror monsters.
[i] Peter Benchley, Jaws (Ballantine, 2013; original published 1974), pp. 277, 287, 290.
[ii] Benchley, Jaws, p. 258.