A Defence of Horror

Horror is an often dismissed genre of storytelling. Most scholars see all horror as schlocky and below the respectable dramatic genre. While I admit, there are some bad horror films out there, there are lots of bad dramas too. Have you seen Seven Pounds?

Despite its status as “low” art, horror is perpetually one of the most popular genres. In America, popularity of horror films has tended to spike in time of financial recession – just look at the Universal Horror films of the ‘30s, and the slashers in the ‘80s. We’ve seen it recently too, with the success of films like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. While it seems like people would want happy, escapist films in times of uncertainty, evidently audiences would rather see their fears reflected in film. If the lovers can escape from the Frankenstein monster, then we can make it through financial hardship. For the same reason, horror films represent the times in which they are made better than any other genre. The eerie moods of ‘30s monster movies reflected the uncertainty many were experiencing, and their monsters were easier to identify and defeat than the stock market. In the ‘50s, horror films often overlapped with science fiction, reflecting the Cold War and fears concerning nuclear warfare. Horror’s popularity is maintained because the stories so strongly reflect their times.

Another reason for horror’s enduring popularity is its appeal to our baser emotions – the ones we don’t like to talk about. Dramas manipulate our emotions just as much, but they tend to play to our more “appropriate” feelings, like sympathy or hope. There is nothing wrong with this of course, I love a feel good as much as the next gal, but I would argue that feeling fear in empathy with fictional characters is just as important, healthy, and fun as feeling happiness. At the heart of most horror films is a basic human fear, such as fear of the unknown (are ghosts/zombies/etc real? Where is the killer hiding now?), isolation (in space/the middle of nowhere no one can hear you scream, you’re being chased and you can’t call anyone for help), or repression (now that I’m a vampire/werewolf/Mr Hyde I can’t control my carnal desires, this murderer seems obsessed with people having sex). Many horror films also manipulate more specific fears, like ghosts or sharks, and the best create them, like showers or chainsaw-wielding madmen in hockey masks.

So why would we want our fears manipulated? Don’t we try daily to mask or overcome our fears? Well, that’s like asking why we watch sad movies: it’s cathartic. For those of you who don’t remember high school English class, catharsis in this case is essentially a purging of feelings, which leaves you feeling lighter. After having a good cry over a favourite character’s death, we may feel some lingering sadness, but we can come back to the real world and feel somewhat lighter emotionally. Horror works on the same principle, only with fear. Being frightened gets your adrenaline rushing, your heart pumping, and puts the hairs on the back of your neck on end. This is called “horripilation,” and it is just as cathartic as that cry. A good “poppy-outty scare,” as my housemates call it (or startle scares, as we called them when I worked at a horror themed amusement park attraction, which I will get to later) will cause a burst of adrenaline, which is often very effective. I however prefer an “atmosphere” scare, which builds tension through events or mood. My favourite example, and one that never ceases to terrify me, is in The Silence of the Lambs. I’ll try not to spoil too much, but you may want to skip ahead if you’ve never seen the movie. The infamous night-vision goggle scene makes me poo my pants in fear every time I see it. This is a good example of fear of the unknown: the dark is the ultimate symbol of the unknown, and you can see the pure terror on Clarice’s face while she tries to navigate the pitch black and unfamiliar basement. The audience is unsure at this point who is about to die, but you know it has to be one of them – and the tension elicits an intensely visceral response from me.

This visceral reaction is one of the reasons that so many horror films involve sexual repression or perversion. Fear and lust are probably the most carnal and physical responses a person can experience – being overcome with happiness isn’t quite the same as being overcome with terror. This is also why horror is one of the most heavily censored genres – it loves social taboos. Now, I am not criticizing this in all cases, only in films which seem to believe that shock is the same thing as horror. Stephen King, a favourite author of mine, said in Danse Macabre that he aims to terrorize readers, and that terror is the “finest emotion.” That all-encompassing, overwhelming fear is the goal of horror writer, and he has succeeded a few times, most notably in Pet Sematary – for me anyway. If he can’t do that, he’ll try to horrify us, which is closer to shock, but we’re still afraid for the character, or at the atrocity that something like that could happen. There is an element of a trainwreck here, where we can’t look away, because we’re getting a glimpse of chaos, which is exciting amidst our otherwise ordered lives. Finally, if neither horror nor terror can be achieved, King will “go for the gross-out,” for which he “is not proud.” I’m a big fan of older horror films, because they don’t show you everything, and try to scare you by building a mood and the graphic stuff often happens offscreen. These days, too many films think we’ll be scared because a character is sawing his own feet off or something. Gore, when used properly, can be very effective (see An American Werewolf in London for some marvellously handled gore), but on its own is not scary. Come on, I can see people’s insides on CSI or a medical drama; if you want to scare me, you’ll have to be more creative than that.

The best horror films are the ones that stick with you, and leave you mistrusting the darkness when you try to sleep. Some do it by making you wonder what sort of monsters could be lurking in the shadows; others, by exploring what my favourite high school teacher referred to as social taboos. Most of the most controversial horror films are so because of sexual content, although vivid torture is up there these days, and offense to religion/God was popular in days of yore. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (one of my absolute favourites) was one of the first American horror films to deal explicitly with sexual repression, and while Frederic March won an Oscar for the dual lead role, Miriam Hopkins’ role (as a woman of questionable morals) was so cut down that she didn’t have enough screen time to qualify for a Supporting Actress nod. Hitchcock’s Psycho is a great example of sexual perversion in horror cinema, but an even better (and more controversial) example is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which came out a month before Psycho and caused a much bigger stir. The main character is fascinated with fear, and films himself murdering women. He takes it a step further, placing a mirror on the top of his camera, so he can capture his victims’ terrified expressions as they watch themselves die. He watches the films later, clearly deriving some kind of sexual pleasure from it. The subject matter is disturbing on its own, made even worse by the voyeurism it turns on the viewer. Like following Norman Bates peeking through the hole in his office wall, watching a character watch himself commit murder puts the audience on the spot, as our act of watching is not too far removed from these “psychos.” We love to follow lurid and sensationalized murder stories on television; shows like CSI thrive on that, but don’t provide the opportunity for intelligent discussion the way that horror films do. We can analyze what scares us and how our fears reflect our values – and sometimes expose some “ordinary” behaviours which are maybe somewhat disturbing.

At this point, some of you may be backing away slowly, and making mental notes to avoid me from now on. Why, you are wondering, am I so excited by fear and perversion? Well, if everything thus far hasn’t been enough to convince you that enjoying horror is valid, I guess I can say that I also enjoy it because my love for horror developed in a time where a lot changed in my life, and I gained a lot of self-confidence. Until I was around 13 or 14, I was ridiculously over sensitive. I had different tastes than most people in my school, and as such, was teased. Nothing too harsh I’m sure, but I always felt that I needed to defend my love of musicals and dislike of soccer and other popular things. One of these popular things was watching horror movies at slumber parties. Do you remember attending these events, where there’d always be that one kid who always got terrified? Well, I was that kid. Once, my friends were watching Thirteen Ghosts (which in retrospect was a really stupid movie) and kept trying to force me to watch the really scary parts for laughs. I had to sleep with my parents for like two weeks. Anyway, a year later, I was hanging out with a different group of girls, and I requested that we not watch any too scary movies (I believe that The Ring was on the table), and we ended up watching a movie I was really into at the time, The Mothman Prophecies. Despite how easily frightened I was, I had this fascination for anything supernatural, and that one was reportedly based on true stories, so I watched it over and over through my fingers. But since I had already seen it, I ended up being the one who lightens the mood, making jokes and keeping the lights on. I ended up keeping that role for every (now forgotten) horror movie I watched with those girls. The next year, I watched The Shining at Halloween with a new group of friends, and I absolutely loved it. This time, we were all too engrossed in the movie for anyone to be joking, but no one seemed unreasonably afraid or upset either. It took me until I was 14, but I realized something – being scared can be fun. There’s a certain thrill that comes along with the fear and adrenaline, and I liked it. I read the novel of The Shining, fell in love with Stephen King, and a horror buff was born.

I now watch horror movies whenever I can; I’ve read books on them, and while I probably know more than your average cinema-goer, I don’t pretend to be a huge expert. There are still so many I haven’t seen – my list of must-sees never seems to shrink. When I was 16, I worked at a Halloween attraction at a theme park, where I basically put on a silly rubber mask and tried to scare people all night. That experience further enforced my earlier realization that fear is fun. There were consistently people trying to show their friends how unafraid they were, usually by making fun of the employees, and I always wondered why they would bother paying to come. The same goes for the horror movies – unless you’re a kid at a sleepover trying to help your friend sleep, why bother sitting through a movie refusing to let it affect you? People like being scared, that’s the biggest reason that horror is so popular – if you don’t want to be scared, avoid the genre. If you want that thrill where your heart leaps into your throat, shivers creep up your spine, and you find yourself wondering if that really was your reflection in the window, then relish it, and surrender to your fear for a while.

But maybe you should make sure that your night-light works first.

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  1. Recent Writing Round Up | Prodigious Leaps!

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