What Truly Frightens Me About Horror Films (Part 1?)
I recently found myself in a Facebook discussion with my Senior English teacher about horror and what draws me to the genre. She has never been a horror fan, finding much of its offerings disturbing or difficult to watch – specifically the attitude many of the films in the genre take toward women. And although I wish it weren’t so, she has a point; Women are often the targets or victims in horror movies (especially slasher films – more on them later), and I chalk some of that up to laziness on the part of some filmmakers who don’t put sufficient thought into their movies. Since most horror movies involve some kind of monster or monstrous behavior, women often become shorthand for the most vulnerable among us, glomming onto our narrative need to protect them or allying us with a hero-figure who fulfills that role. But to me, that’s not what horror is about nor what has drawn me to watch these movies since I was a boy watching them late at night on HBO with the volume turned down so my parents wouldn’t know.
And for the record, we only have two genders from which to choose, so one of them is going to have the upper hand in any movie – I’m not saying she’s wrong, I’m just saying it’s not necessarily sexist.
All Work and No Play…
Mrs. Schoene (I have the hardest time calling her by her first name) and I specifically discussed “The Shining,” a movie so unmistakably a horror movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick – one of the most respected filmmakers of all time, but one which ultimately focuses its attentions on the helplessness of the Wendy character (Shelley Duvall) and her young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). And although Mrs. Schoene agreed with me that the movie was not endorsing this antisocial behavior on the part of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), for her that concern lingers. And we’re talking “The Shining” here, the gold standard of horror films, where the case can be made that it’s not about violence toward women. If we had been talking about several other well-respected horror movies like, say, Argento’s “Suspiria” (or “Opera,” etc.), or Carpenter’s “Halloween,” or Dante’s “The Howling,” or Aja’s “Haute Tension” I know I could explain to her all day that the violence toward women was incidental to the story, but it would be harder to refute her point. I mean, it is there, it’s just a matter of how we interpret it, right?
Not that it matters, but most of the horror filmmakers I know are jovial provocateurs, not excited by watching anyone suffer outside of a fictional context and then only if it makes for a good movie. And as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, all dramatists are sadists anyway, as we strive to create lovable, believable characters only to torture them. Sometimes to death.
I really appreciate how Mrs. Schoene approaches this subject, with an open mind. And the conversations is forcing me to think a great deal about what drags me back to this genre, and why I’d rather watch a sequel to a rehashed horror flick over the best romantic comedy ever made any day.
Paralysis by Analysis
Analysis is the enemy of anything that hits us in a primal way, and I would argue that horror is the most primal genre we have. I can tell you a joke (“what’s worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm? The Holocaust!”), and you’ll either laugh or you won’t, but if we pop open the joke’s hood and poke around at its moving parts, it ceases to be funny. And horror, functioning on our most animal nature, is no different. I’m sure that looking for the hidden code lurking under the punchline has never stopped a serious comedian to noodle over it, so here we are. But as I rolled Mrs. Schoene’s presumed question (some version of “what makes you bent enough to seek these movies out?”) around in my head, if I boiled down the kind of horror that draws me to its least common denominator, it came down to this (as you have doubtlessly already figured out):
Your body isn’t your body, and your mind isn’t your mind.
And that concept intrigues me, and perhaps is the root of my love for this genre. Why?
Maybe I’m just a control freak and can think of nothing worse than my body and my mind being used for any purpose other than me living my own life. The unfortunate truth is that our minds and bodies ultimately aren’t our own to do with however we see fit forever – eventually time runs them both down and we all die, something we’re all terrified of as well. Horror just hangs a lantern on that unfortunate fact for us, and allows us to temporarily defeat the ravages of nature, walking out of the theater still under the assumption that our minds and bodies are still under our control. They do seem that way, don’t they?
But when I ignore the slasher subgenre (which Stephen King once said was an allegory for conservative/parental rage at liberal/adolescent behavior, the greatest threat being bodily death for moral weakness), I think that the real horror lies in the fear that one’s body and mind truly might not be their own. Here’s a quick list of some movies that explore this theme:
- “Night of the Living Dead” – Your body is just food for the dead.
- “John Carpenter’s The Thing” – Your body only LOOKS like your body, it’s actually an alien’s body.
- “Videodrome” – Your mind is the plaything of someone else, and all of your perceptions are potentially false.
- “Saw” – Your body and mind are your own trap, set by a crazy person, and you must destroy one to save the other. Which will it be?
- “The Silence of the Lambs” – Your body is nothing more than Buffalo Bill’s costume. Of course he has to cut it off of you to make it. Oh, and Hannibal Lecter already has your mind.
- “Ringu” – Watching this videotape, which you know you want to do, will grant someone the right to take your body from you in a matter of days.
- “Dracula” – Both your mind and body are a bauble for an immortal (and immoral) monster to do with as he pleases.
- “Alien” – Your body is nothing more than an incubator for a hungry alien. Oh, and food too.
- “A Nightmare on Elm Street” – Your mind is no longer private or safe, but the place where a psychopath will find and kill you.
- “An American Werewolf in London” – Your body and mind will become a different creature that does terrible things, and it’s out of your control. See also: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
- “The Blair Witch Project” – You gave over both your body and mind the moment you stepped in the forest.
- “The Shining” – Your mind is a switch that can be turned to “murder” at any time.
To me, all of this is much more frightening and compelling than mere death in the narrative sense because it does more than take our life – it disrespects and destroys our nature. It challenges and corrupts what we take for granted about ourselves. Getting offed by a psychopath with a knife sounds awful and painful, but knowing that at the end the entire meaning of my existence was forever changed and distorted disturbs me far more.
The best and most frightening bogeymen hone their skill for finding a unique aspect of our mind or our body or both, something we all take for granted and that’s the thing they take. Or they always had us and we just didn’t know it (see anything by David Cronnenberg).
Now I’m not so reductive as to propose that this encompasses all of horror, it’s just the beginning of a pet theory at best. And there’s a second part that definitely draws me as well, a taboo-violating itch that gets scratched by watching these films when they’re truly transgressive. I’m talking about you, “Cannibal Holocaust,” “Nekromantik,” and “Antichrist.”
A Note on Transgression
Every horror fan eventually tires of the criticism leveled at the beloved genre: That it’s debased, that there’s no redeeming social value in it. On the genreally-cool KPCC radio program “Film Week,” host Larry Mantle excoriated “The Human Centipede” without having seen it, and the critic who reviewed it spoiled the end in his review with a dismissive chuckle. The implication was that no respectable NPR-listener would sully their brain by watching the most debauched film ever made.
From this point of view, it’s as though the genre exists only for demented children or serial-killer wannabes. But like any microcosm, niche, or special interest group, horror fanboys and fangirls are more like fans of any genre of music or art, desiring to see aspects of the art pushed as far as possible. You can chart a straight line from Elvis to The Beatles to Pink Floyd to The Sex Pistols to GG Allin and movie fans are no different. And in the case of horror, we’re simply desensitized to what’s come before and we want something that will genuinely surprise, scare us. And when it really works, like when I saw “Let the Right One In” for the first time at Fantastic Fest in 2008, the power of a great or extreme story catches me offguard and makes me realize that I haven’t seen it all. Yet. Maybe it’s all brain chemistry, and genre fans are looking for the best way they know how to get a dopamine reaction mixed with a spike of adrenaline – by being genuinely scared and genuinely surprised at the same time. Check out Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good for You for more on this subject.
To those people who accuse horror fans of moral transgression, I would remind them that these are movies, made by consenting adults acting in fictional situations. I’m sure there are horror fans out there who sit in their dank basements next to their police scanner, eagerly awaiting the next crime scene they can crash – but I don’t know any of them. To like something in fiction is not the same as liking it in the real world.
Where to Draw the Line?
That’s a question everyone answers on their own. You don’t like “torture porn?” Don’t watch it, but it’s dangerous to assign one’s personal dislike as a blanket condemnation of the merit of an entire genre. We should always remember that most films fail to satisfy even the basic premise that drew us into the theater. Personally I’m not the biggest fan of “slasher” films, not because they disturb or offend me, but because they too often telegraph their scares, and I can’t remember the last time I saw one that caught me offguard. Then again, I was fairly sick of serial killer films when a friend tricked me into seeing David Fincher’s “Se7en,” and that one really stuck.
To this day, the two most disturbing films I’ve ever seen are not considered horror films as such. They are Pasolini’s “Salo: 120 Days of Sodom,” which was an allegory for Italian Fascism set in the Italian countryside and “Titicut Follies,” Frederick Wiseman’s disturbing 1967 documentary film chronicling the goings-on in an asylum for the criminally insane in Massachusetts.
And for the record, “Salo” (the only film I’ve ever seen that made me feel physically ill) taught me that my body was nothing more than a vessel for pain and suffering that would entertain the depraved Italian upper-class, and “Titicut Follies” taught me that my mind was closer to the tipping point into a kind of insanity than I had ever thought possible. And that was just the guards at the asylum.
As for Mrs. Schoene, I made her a list of horror films that I think she might like, or at least that might give her an idea of what makes them great. “The Shining” was the first one she watched. Hopefully she liked it enough to continue this experiment.