Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Death and the Horror Film

My apologies for a late blog this week. I have a good excuse though. Cindy was informed of a death in the family and we had to leave town for the funeral.

In light of that, I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about my feelings on death and horror movies. However, having dealt with death on a very real, emotional level for the past two days, forgive me for not sitting down and working through something new on the subject. While I'd like to, my heart's just not up for it.

Instead, I thought I'd post an excerpt from "Horror Movies 101," a four part essay I wrote a couple of years ago for the webzine, Great Society.

If that feels like a cop-out, I apologize. I hope telling you that next week's blog will be a nice, long, NEW one about the origins of the logo and poster for Women's Studies will be something of a consolation.

Oh, and if enough people want to read the rest of the "Horror Movies 101" essays, I'll post the four parts here on the blog. I wrote them, so I'm biased, but I think they're a pretty good read, especially with Halloween right around the bend.

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One man’s art is of course another man’s shit pot . . . Someone opposed to (horror) films could say, “Why would someone want to watch such things? And don’t give me all your over-intellectualized, thematic gobblty-gook about final girls, sexual undertones or inside evil. I’m not buying it.”

Perhaps all the psychological and literary analysis is just a bunch of horseshit. Maybe I’m just searching for a way to defend my own sadomasochistic fetish for watching films that glorify death. In the end, maybe the horror film is proof that in a society where beheadings in the name of religious fanaticism, ethnic cleansing, and “shock and awe” are acceptable behavior, art is truly imitating life. Maybe humanity is afflicted with some sort of terminal social disease, and the horror film is just a reflection of that. Yet, since death is all around us, why make movies about it?

Most of us seem to be hardwired to try to see the bright side and avoid the darkness. Perhaps it’s connected somehow to our survival instinct. Trying to see the light is our mind’s way of keeping us alive. No one wants to die, even as release from pain and suffering. The idea of death especially in western culture is not a very happy one. There are entire realms of business and commerce capitalizing on the fear of death. There lies the paradox and the problem of modern horror movies, which in many ways are a very American genre; Americans as a whole seem to have big problems with death, a subject inherent to the horror film’s very nature.

Death of course, is the only certainty you really have in life. You can’t stop it. You can’t change it. You can try to put it off, but even that can blow up in your face. Everybody dies: you, me, even the guy down the street with the Lexus, the big house, and the hot wife. Death is the one thing we all have in common. It figures people should find that reassuring, yet few do. Why? Because death is the big unknown, and most people, Americans in particular, hate not knowing what’s coming next. It destroys the perfectly crafted illusion of control we’ve built around ourselves.

To sit in a theatre and watch a horror movie demonstrates a willingness to surrender control, if only for a little while. A loss of control is a loss of power, and powerlessness makes us children again, lacking the logic to rationalize away our fears or the strength to fight them off. Yet what children lack in logic and strength, they make up for in the resilience of curiosity and imagination. The horror movie allows us a safe environment (or excuse) to indulge a childlike curiosity, to take a look at the fearful unknown, and to ask “What if?” What if the shadows on the wall are more than just shadows? What if the boogeyman is real and awake and waiting? What if grandma isn’t sleeping restfully in her grave? What if death isn’t an end but a horrifying new beginning?

Still, that hasn’t answered the question: Why do so many people like horror movies?

After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 2001, American culture braced for sweeping changes that never came. Terror had become the norm. Irony and violence in the media were figured to be the casualties to the discovery that we weren’t invincible to the horrors of the world. As a horror fan, I feared the genre would die a quick homogenized death. After all, in a world of real horrors, who would want to watch fake ones? Strangely enough, quite a few people do. Horror movies have consistently enjoyed success since September of 2001. As Hollywood continues to make them, people continue to flock to them despite nightly newscasts of terror, carnage and death. Now, how do you explain that?

The fears of the “post 9/11 world” are irrational, uncontrollable fears. The Boogeyman, long thought dead, has been brought back to life as a face-wrapped madman who may steal our life away with a homemade bomb, a poison chemical, or a viral strain. He wants to kill us for no reason except that we’re there and he hates us. Only this isn’t just a movie. It seems a real possibility.

So, maybe by watching a horror film, we can be afraid of something that isn’t quite as real. Slashers, zombies and a little ghost in a well seem a lot less frightening than a fifteen year old Muslim girl with a box of nails and broken glass mixed with C-4 strapped to her chest. Movie monsters are a fear that only grips us for a couple hours. After the credits roll, we can leave those Boogeymen behind. Just as someday, the Boogeyman of the Islamic extremist will also be left behind as the communist and Nazi ones were before him.

Yet again, that hasn’t exactly answered our question: Why do so many people like horror movies?

“Curiosity killed the cat,” the old saying goes, but it’s been known to mess up the human pretty bad too. Besides a strong dislike of losing control, Americans also hate to be left in the dark. We want to know what, how, and why. We want to know what’s behind the locked door, under the bed, and in the dungeon, even if we’ve been warned not to look. A horrible mix of arrogance and curiosity usually compels us do so no matter the warning. Yet we get horribily offended when we don’t like what we see.

The Ring, the popular American remake of the Japanese horror film, is about a VHS tape that will kill you seven days after you watch it. In the beginning of the film, a young girl brags to her friend about having watched the film a week before. It’s not too hard to guess what happens to her shortly afterwards. Her death sparks off a journalist’s interest in finding the tape. She does and as she pops it in the VCR, the audience is screaming at her not to do it.

Yet, put in the same position, who wouldn’t watch the tape? I don’t know if anybody else remembers playing “Bloody Mary” when you were a kid. Supposedly, if you went to a mirror, turned out the lights, and then said Bloody Mary three times, the ghost of “Bloody Mary” would show up and kill you. What usually happened was your friend would tell you to go do this. After ten minutes worth of peer pressure, you’d finally relent and on the third “Bloody Mary,” your “friend” would open the bathroom door and scare the shit out of you.
They even made a movie about it called Candyman. Only instead of saying “Bloody Mary” three times, you had to say “Candyman” five times. Once you did, the ghost of a slave (played by the always excellent Tony Todd) who was lynched for loving a white woman came and killed you with his hook hand. At age sixteen, nothing scared me more than Candyman. Besides utilizing the “Bloody Mary” legend, it illustrates how over time, even the simplest horrors can evolve into myth. It also utilizes our knowledge and belief of urban legends in much the same way as The Ring.

The Ring scared the hell out of me in a way that no movie had in years. And it wasn’t the damn little girl or the story that did it, though both are creepy. No, what freaked me out for days afterwards was the dead girl in the closet. We don’t see what happens to her, but while her mother is describing how she found her body, we get a flash of her corpse huddled in the corner of the closet with this look on her face. I’m getting the shivers just writing about it now.

However the girl was killed, she looked like she was caught in the grip of a terror that would have driven me insane. The way her body is posed, you can almost imagine that the poor girl died of fright. I could spend all night describing it, and I couldn’t get across to you how horrible it is. Ultimately, we find out how she died and what killed her and though it’s pretty bad, I was almost relieved to see it because it wasn’t near as bad as my mind tried to imagine. Still, I was days getting over that girl in the closet.

People like horror movies for the same reason they like roller coasters, mountain climbing, swimming with sharks, or base jumping. They do it because that fear of death is in each and every one of us, and deep down we all know it. Horror movies allow us a chance to beat the reaper, even if only vicariously, to take the craziest risks in the world without really risking anything, to ask “What if?” and know that no matter the consequences on screen, we’ll be okay. We do it because though our minds resist it, our hearts always want to know what the girl in the closet sees right before she dies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In high school, I left a friend's house and had everyone wandering the neighborhood for a few hours with me because I wouldn't go back inside after seeing the beginning of Candyman. I've had trouble watching horror movies ever since. I, for one, would like to understand the attraction better, so please keep the rest of your four-part series coming! I'm also hoping that bring in a horror movie will help me get over my irrational fear of them.
- Tara*