ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 1 – WHY SCARY MOVIES?
"I don't watch horror films (don't even want to), so I'm asking those of you who do - what is the attraction to watching films about fear, torture, cruelty, evil, and death? It isn't something that I want to see. Why do you?"
-- A Family Member I Won’t Name, posting on Facebook
Her taste is 1) curious, 2) suspect, and 3) curiously suspect (i.e., limited to Christian movies and, of all secular programming in the world, SMALLVILLE), and she’s made no secret of her distaste for the films I make, the films I watch, and the films I write about. I intend to make her proud, nonetheless: among other topics that will be covered here, movies designed to scare deviants like myself into the nearest Church will be among them. I won’t be talking about fucking SMALLVILLE though, now or ever, because fuck you, SMALLVILLE.
But sure, let’s tackle the question, because it’s one that’s near to my heart and fills me with joy. Why scary movies?
Everyone has a different story, and mine began in the notoriously-haunted Hagerstown apartment building where I spent the first eleven years of my life. I was part of the early HBO generation, back when the same movies would appear three times a day; the opportunity to watch ZORRO THE GAY BLADE on seemingly infinite loop was as corruptive as it was educational. As much I might have discovered Film as a medium at this young age (and was likewise planted in front of the television for the generation-defining moment that was MTV’s initial launch), it took my parents’ irresponsibility in allowing me to watch the cable premiere of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON to steer me down the twisted paths I continue to tread, both as a genre enthusiast, and a struggling independent filmmaker.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON scared the fucking shit out of me. There’s literally no better way to put it (though such literalism is thankfully relegated to the description rather than the event itself). I had terrible nightmares afterward, and found myself constantly asking my father hard questions about death, responsibility for one’s actions when Free Will is supernaturally suppressed, and why the sight of Jenny Agutter in an NYU t-shirt made my ding-dong feel funny. He struggled through the first two, and pretended not to hear the third. His chief contribution to an interest that would become – to his great regret, I have to add – a lifelong passion, was when he comforted me at the bedside during a total freakout following TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE’s climactic tale. That creature on the airplane wing can’t get you, Erik. You know how I know? Because Daddy can’t afford one. Those pretend monsters cost more than Daddy makes in a year. The lightbulb that popped up over my head reflected blindingly off a brow that I would rarely see again in such kindly fashion as the years went by, and our differences became as pronounced as my love of Horror. Wherever you are, Dad, it was a good face.
For most people, this is entertainment rather than a lifelong Mission Statement, and on that superficial level, everything starts and ends with personal preference. Our enjoyment of films is derived from those we somehow connect with as individuals. Comedy makes us laugh; Drama makes us cry. Action flicks get the blood pumping and Comic Book Movies prompt aspirations of heroic virtue. The intent is a manipulative one, specifically designed to generate an emotional response (and squeeze a few bucks from our wallets), but in the case of Horror (capital-H), the genre is unique in that it’s intensely desirable to some, and thoroughly repellent to others. It’s like country music: there’s rarely a middle ground, except for the undeniable fact that country music sucks and you’re fucking wrong if you believe otherwise.
There are numerous schools of thought. Some argue that Horror films are cathartic, as they allow us to confront our fears in a healthy, non-violent way. Some folks would claim it's -- for them -- the same sort of adrenaline rush as sex, or extreme sports, or sky diving. Irritating authors of groan-worthy psychobabble (like me) hold that monsters present an Inciting Incident that forces nobility and courage to become personified ideals, as represented by heroic lead characters resisting Evil to the last.
And some people just like to be scared.
I’ll never forget an evening early in my life, waiting for my Dad to finish his shower and take his place on the sofa beside me for our nightly ritual: reading our way through The Lord of the Rings, a chapter at a time. The television was on as I sat there, waiting, when all the sudden, an advertisement for a network showing of the first FRIDAY THE 13TH appeared on the screen. It was a series with a notorious reputation back in the early 1980s, and though I’d not seen a single one, I knew the iconography: Jason, hockey mask, machete. But while I grew accordingly tense through that very short but very effective advert, I wasn’t prepared for the final shot of a muddy and deformed frog-boy leaping from the water to pull a teenage girl from the safety of her canoe. I ran from the room in utter terror and sobbed to my bemused parents, who calmed my nerves by leading me into the relative safety of Middle-Earth – a place I was suddenly aware was also populated by muddy, deformed mutants, to say nothing of spectral wraiths and pond-bound corpses. My teachers grew concerned by the Jason-inspired Crayola drawings their precocious and proficient second grader was producing in art class, and the older neighborhood kids took this opportunity to play a terrible prank I’ve never gotten over: one involving local sightings of Jason Voorhees that were communicated to a young (and skeptical) Erik, followed by the planned “discovery” of my neighborhood friends in the woods behind our building, all tied to trees with their throats slit, the sight of which was punctuated by a masked monster who leaped from the bushes to get me. Flash forward these many years later, and I think I’m still trying to relive that trauma on my own movie sets.
We all want to experience situations or heightened emotions that can't otherwise be known without life-changing circumstances that no one really wants to invite upon themselves. I love watching Leatherface stalk idiot teens from the safety of the couch in my TV room, but keep the real life Texas Chainsaws away from my sternum, please. Besides, isn't this what all fiction -- written or performed -- is all about, anyway: escapism? A consequence-free peek into dark corners from a safe vantage point? Every genre features some sort of primal conflict, even the most innocuous, family-friendly kind. STAR WARS or SPIDER-MAN might be pretty wholesome stuff that you can watch with a seven year-old, but when you really get down to it, these are movies about guys and girls trying to protect the world from murderous, rampaging monsters, or Mad Scientists whose experiments have gone awry -- which is, at its core, no different from Horror, delivered in a kinder, gentler package. FRANKENSTEIN. THE INVISIBLE MAN. THE FLY. The only difference is the absence of spandex.
Besides, who are we kidding? Who doesn't rubberneck at a car crash? Raise your hand if you're above that sort of thing, but keep it in mind the next time you get stuck in heavy rush hour traffic because everyone on the interstate is slowing down to eye-rape that minor fender bender on the side of the road. There’s no need for FACES OF DEATH when you can search for episodes of WORLD’S WILDEST POLICE VIDEOS on YouTube.
People want to experience things that are unique and completely outside their frame of reference. Look no further than the fact that THE WALKING DEAD is (was) one of the highest-rated shows on television. It's a soap opera, masquerading as Horror, but with all the violence expected of a modern take on George Romero’s most famous work. Someone like my Father might reject AMERICAN HORROR STORY as appropriate Prime Time television, and yet the influence extends to “prestige” programming as well. After all, Horror, both in concept an execution, doesn't have to be confined to the supernatural (or SUPERNATURAL). Do you consider LAW & ORDER: SVU to be Horror? It certainly dances on the edge, and also dives over it. Millions of people are watching shows about sex crimes every week, despite the fact that the scenarios, once stripped of the rather obnoxious melodrama, are ripped straight from the headlines. If that’s not your particular cup of tea, reruns of TO CATCH A PREDATOR – which is entertainment disguised as investigative journalism – are playing somewhere, even as I write these words. Scary stuff -- now give me more! says the middle-aged woman who earnestly believes that the glorification of a violent murderer like Michael Myers is offensive, but makes sure to TiVo Lifetime’s remake of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC because OMG, the brother and sister have sex, LOL
Fear and sex are akin, really: both offer an extreme emotional and physical response followed by release and euphoria. Go on a roller coaster; it's the same thing. Notably, we see that most fans come to Horror as children -- around the same age that roller coasters are similarly discovered -- and that adult fans are those who became addicted to the rush at a young age. Kids are constantly testing their limits and exploring the boundaries of their known universe, seeking the fences and anxious for a peek over the side. Show ten kids a movie that terrifies them, and despite whatever nightmares and perceived phobias their parents might have to endure for the first forty-eight hours, eight out of ten of those same kids will go right back to the well and want to re-experience that same movie. And they'll want more. Scream on the roller coaster, then queue up for another ride. It's rare and wonderful when entertainment can have a profound emotional or psychological effect; in most cases, the films that have the most memorable impact are the ones that scare us.
There's the somewhat conservative opinion that some of the stuff is "better" or "less offensive" than the rest. I've seen it argued that Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll & Mister Hyde are "literature," and thus their filmic representations are more worthy of merit than, say, NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN. Toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe. DRACULA is an oft-told story about creatures who drink human blood from sleeping victims, and who can only be dispatched via beheadings and impalement; Victor Frankenstein builds his Adam from corpses he's cut up and stitched together; Mr. Hyde is the Inner Rapist given free rein. Horror has existed from the beginning of the oral tradition – Beowulf is the rough sketch for my beloved, traumatizing FRIDAY THE 13TH, you know.
And doesn’t Horror inspire a child to read? There’s a reason why Stephen King fans cite their teenage years as the period in which they discovered the author’s vast -- and despite that retirement threat back in 2004, ongoing – body of work. I myself began reading Gothic literature before I was ten despite the school librarian’s adamant insistence that the content was over my head; she had a perm, so fuck her opinion. I realized early on that comic books weren’t limited to Spidey and The Hulk (though I did realize that the latter was simply the werewolf story set in a Spandex Universe). Soon I had conned my mother into buying me the graphic novel adaptation of CREEPSHOW, which not only became bus-ride reading material for me to enjoy with my similarly-infected friend Tanessia, but also allowed me the opportunity to say I WANT MY CAKE, YOU FUCKING BITCH in a scary, preteen Monster Voice when I read the first story aloud in my Language Arts class, to a wonderful chorus of gasps.
Crack your Bible if you’re looking for gentler, more spiritually-nourishing prose. You won’t find it. The Horror bug bit those guys, as well. Even Faith-affirming, “relevant” films my Unnamed Family Member enjoys are nothing if not the same scary shit you’ll find in a Jack Chick tract, where the Benevolent Santa Claus in the Sky is just waiting to subject you to a lake of fire as punishment for crimes that were already ridiculous two thousand years ago. Seemingly innocuous faire like LEFT BEHIND betrays the fetishizing of outsider punishment, and that ecclesiastical heavyweight, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, is really just Torture Porn repackaged for Christians. And what's wrong with it if it is? THE EXORCIST is considered one of the most terrifying films of all time, and author William Peter Blatty’s objective had less to do with scaring the Hell out you as it was with scaring the God back into you. The Bible is the first bestseller, and it's filled with more Horror than, say, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, which is just a film about a supernatural kiddie killer, rather than some sort of spiritual call to arms. In The Bible, God is the supernatural kiddie killer. Consider The Good Book, reinterpreted: it becomes a tale of the scary acolytes of a cruel and jealous spirit, committing all manner of cruelty on normal people living out their day-to-day lives, with everything culminating around said spirit manifesting in the form of an unkillable zombie. It's all dependent on one's frame of reference, of course, which means that anything can be classified as Horror -- it just comes down to what flavor you like best. And come on, Church Kids: how many of you remember that moment when boring old Sunday morning suddenly got interesting once you began finding all those wonderfully smutty, disgusting parts in the Old Testament that Reverend Joe never included in his weekly sermon…?
So why Horror movies? Why scary stories? Is it because, deep down, we're all perverted sickos? Is it the Roman notion of providing grisly arena battles to keep our inner animals sated? Is it a love of realistic gore FX, or monster make-up as an excuse to vicariously experience pain and deformity? Are Horror filmmakers, deep down, snuff film enthusiasts? Is all of this hyperbole? YES.
Because some people just like to be scared.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)