Metafiction has fascinated me ever since I became acquainted with the concept. Books-within-books, stories that know that they’re stories: it’s good stuff. From the comic-within-a-comic in Watchmen (“The Black Freighter”) to Mark Z. Danielewski’s mind-bending masterpiece House of Leaves (which is extremely difficult to explain simply, but is in essence a book-length collection of footnoted commentaries on a film that does not actually exist) to our fourth-wall-breaking friend Deadpool, fiction that plays with the line between the audience and the action is fertile ground for clever, twisty storytelling. Horror offers ample proof of this, and, in particular, horror made since the advent of horror cinema that is aware of the existence of horror cinema is fascinating.
Examples of this phenomenon are widespread and fall into several categories. Just in the world of film itself, there are movies that purport to be artifacts of horrific events (so-called “found footage” films fall into this camp, beginning with The Blair Witch Project), films about films that are forbidden for reasons either supernatural (Cigarette Burns, Antrum) or moral (Eight Millimeter), even films about the making of horror films (Shadow of the Vampire, The Dead Hate the Living).
Cult favorite The Cabin in the Woods is perhaps the evolutionary high-water mark of the species. Wry, cutting, and constantly, brilliantly self-referential, The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie that both contains and is about every horror movie you’ve ever seen, all of them thrown into a blender then poured into a supercollider. Both the titular story setting and the movie title itself are a wink at trope-y horror from The Evil Dead to Cabin Fever, but Woods has more up its sleeve than simple satire. I won’t spoil the film’s weird plot twists or ending, but suffice it to say that Woods takes us on a journey into what it is that is so appealing about metafiction, on one level; its appeal to archetypes and legend-structures much deeper than the merely rational.
I’d argue that the undisputed master and one of the progenitors of metahorror is Wes Craven. In a subscriber-only post for Madness Heart’s Patreon, I share my thoughts regarding horror icon Freddy Krueger and include my enthusiastic endorsement of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the 1994 piece of metafiction in which various actors play themselves. In particular, Robert Englund plays himself, fake/movie Freddy, and the “real,” archetypal Freddy, and Wes Craven – who returned to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise after a string of tepid sequels to write and direct New Nightmare – plays himself as a sort of deus ex machina figure. (This was a decade before Stephen King would pull a similar stunt in Song of Susannah, Book 6 of his magnum opus, The Dark Tower.) In 1996, Craven lent his directing chops to a film written by Kevin Williamson called Scream, another piece of memorable meta-horror in which characters in a horror movie constantly riff on and make wry observations about the tropes contained in: horror movies. After the success of Scream (and the popularity of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, another arch and self-referential affair), the way was paved for arch fourth-wall-breaking in mainstream horror.
What is so appealing about metahorror? Like all metafiction, it plays with the lines between observer and observed, story, storyteller, and reader. It supposes knowledge on the part of the viewer or reader – knowledge of the tropes being lampooned as well as the knowledge that a critical analysis of art which takes place in the middle of the action presents us with a sort of truth-paradox. The deeper truth – the deeper horror, as well – lies in the paradox itself more than a nightmare escaped from our shared Jungian subconscious (New Nightmare) or a conspiracy of middle-managers devoted to eldritch rites (The Cabin in the Woods). We’ve all got a lot to learn from the critical analysis of such paradoxes, especially given that reality itself is often given to riddles and conundrums. Metafiction, in its strange way, may be truer to life than we yet fully comprehend.