Yeah, That’s Kind of a Horror Movie: Fight Club

Tyler Durden belongs among the ranks of the great monsters of film and literature.

In 1992, horror novelists John Skipp and Craig Spector wrote an article called “Death’s Rich Pageantry, or Skipp and Spector’s Handy-Dandy Splatterpunk Guide to the Horrors of Non-horror Film,” published in the book, Cut! Horror Writers on Horror Film. In it, they put forth the hypothesis that “Horror is the engine that powers every movie you ever loved.” Essentially, their point is about the oddity of horror even being classified as a genre in and of itself (horror being an emotion, and not a set of particular trappings or narrative devices); they argue that, while only those narratives which put their worst-case-scenarios front-and-center are widely classified as “horror,” all drama is about conflict, and relies on the possibility of some dark, horrifying outcome. Their primary example is Amadeus, but they list hundreds of other movies from a variety of genres that are, at heart, driven by horrific suggestions and inclinations.

In this series of articles, I’m going to rely on Skipp and Spector’s premise, and look at the ways that a number of films from other genres can be viewed in terms of horror.

Fight Club (1999)

Director: David Fincher

Writers: Chuck Palahniuk (novel), Jim Uhls (screenplay)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf

I could just about do an entire series on how David Fincher’s non-horror titles use the tone and style of horror movies to express the dark and twisted psychological spaces his characters occupy. Whether he is doing thriller (The Game, Seven, Panic Room), fantasy (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), social realism (Zodiac), or tragedy (The Social Network), Fincher employs photography, music and pacing in ways that externalize the horrific aspects of characters’ internal lives.

In many ways, the dark comedy Fight Club looks and feels the least like a horror film of anything in Fincher’s body of work. The soundtrack and cutting often have the adrenal qualities of a music video; the performances are mostly pitched towards broad humor, exaggerated dullness, or dry sarcasm; very little about this movie has the full-on eerie atmospheric tone associated with much of Fincher’s output. But comedy and horror are twin genres, rarely more than a gentle push away from blending into one another, and Fight Club’s comedy is drawn from concepts that could easily swing the movie into horror territory at any moment.

Comedy!

Comedy!

Fight Club, very faithfully adapted from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk (and the book’s minimalist style, with an emphasis on strong images, and its structural devices which reference film quite often, was a natural for adaptation), is a story drawn from and fixated on several of the classic obsessions of horror narratives: repression, conformity, doppelgangers, disease, brutality and death. In the soulless, pointless world occupied by the Narrator (Edward Norton), all human instinct and emotion is subsumed by a halfhearted, routine obsession with consumerism and cultural role playing, and the only way the character can feel entirely human and emotionally open is by surrounding himself with the terminally ill. This world is a kind of waking nightmare, with temporary respite to be found only in sleep – not a good situation for the narrator, who is suffering from insomnia.

Then two agents of chaos enter the Narrator’s life: Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Marla is like a distorted mirror image of the Narrator, a version who refuses to hide her angst, to pretend that their stained and rotting world is a happy home of thriving trickle-down success; the Narrator cannot face the truths about himself that he sees in Marla, and his response to her is a mixture of revulsion and fascination that will likely be instantly familiar to any aficionado of horror cinema. Tyler, on the other hand, is a force of raw id, an anarchist superman who promises to rid the Narrator of the shackles of structured, politicized, consumerist society; Tyler is the demon haunting the dreams of conformist, capitalist culture.

But Fight Club is unflinching in presenting the dark side of all that Tyler promises. Tyler and the Narrator’s pet project, the titular Fight Club, comes to dominate the Narrator’s life, turning him into a kind of walking grotesquerie, a mass of bruises and bloodstains, an image of animated mortality walking the halls of corporate America. All of the Narrator’s inner ugliness is now worn on the outside. This is the nightmarishly abject, truly the stuff of horror.

And, as Fight Club grows into Tyler’s true vision, Project Mayhem, the price of cultural and political revolution becomes too much to bear: the corruption and destruction of the innocent, a campaign of terrorism, and a new conformity to replace the one which is being ousted – an army of soulless servants-of-Tyler. To achieve Tyler’s paradise, first the house – mundane dystopia – has to be burned down with everyone still inside. The Narrator’s world has gone from too steady, too controlled, to the polar opposite, beyond even the illusion of control, beyond any hope of peace or comfort. The Narrator has traded one dystopia for another.

Those familiar with the story have probably noticed one major element I haven’t mentioned so far. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, now might be a good time to stop reading. This paragraph constitutes the cigarette burns at the end of the reel.

Edward-in-Fight-Club-edward-norton-562432_1600_900

I am Jack’s spoiler alert.

Switch.

I am Jack's spoiler.

I am Jack’s spoiler.

As it turns out, Tyler Durden isn’t just a new frienemy who has simultaneously simplified and complicated the Narrator’s life; he is an alternate persona the Narrator’s subconscious has created in his insomniac, narcoleptic dementia. Tyler is the man who can do everything the Narrator wants to do, whether he knows it or not. And the catalyst that finally gave birth to Tyler was the Narrator’s unrecognized attraction to Marla. Tyler is free to fight, free to rebel, and free to sleep with the woman the narrator cannot admit his desire for. When the Narrator figures all of this out, and sees that he alone can put a stop to it, Tyler begins to see him – and Marla – as a threat, and decides to take action against them. The Narrator is now at war with his alternate self.

If all of this seems familiar to horror fans, there’s good reason. There’s an awful lot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to this set-up. The third-act reveal of the true nature of Tyler is even structurally consistent with Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novel (modern readers, already familiar with the story from its many cinematic adaptations, are sometimes surprised to realize that the original work is presented as a mystery), and the taboo romantic desire as catalyst mirrors the influential 1931 adaptation directed by Rouben Mamoulian.

Of course, there are also similarities to be observed with such dual persona tales as Psycho, Friday the 13th (“Kill her, mommy, kill her!”) and Raising Cain (my wife was good enough to point out a doctor’s office visit in the latter which is very similar to a moment in Fight Club).

Tyler Durden belongs among the ranks of the great monsters of film and literature. Fight Club, whether printed on paper or on film, is a complex work that defies traditional genre classification, but much of what defines it is unmistakably the stuff of horror.

Thanks to my wife, Jennifer Cooper, for her work on the featured image.  And if you enjoyed this article, hey, maybe it’s time for you to check out The Blood Shed’s official Kickstarter!

5 Comments on this post.

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  • Yeah, That’s Kind of a Horror Movie: Blood Simple
    7 November 2014 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    […] Previous in this series: Fight Club […]

  • Josh Millican
    7 November 2014 at 11:41 pm - Reply

    I like this series; it’s smart and thought provoking. Other title for you to consider: 127 Hours, 12 Monkeys, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Trainspotting, Kids…

    • Evan Baker
      8 November 2014 at 12:21 am - Reply

      Thanks, Josh! Those are all good suggestions. I even remember talking with my wife about 127 Hours as a horror movie when we watched it, yet I hadn’t thought to include it in this series.

  • Yeah, That’s Kind of a Horror Movie: The Dark Knight
    28 November 2014 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    […] Fight Club […]

  • Yeah, That’s Kind of a Horror Movie: Kid’s Edition
    5 December 2014 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    […] Fight Club […]

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