In Defense of Horror

I’ve heard the argument that there’s no need for horror movies because there’s enough horror in this world already.  Perhaps, but perhaps not. What is horror?  Bing’s search engine defines it as an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.  Okay, that doesn’t really help.  What is horror as a genre?  To cheapen a genre I love, we could say that horror is fiction-stuff marketed to manufacture fear, shock, or disgust.  But horror movies do this by departing from reality, by placing us in far-flung scenarios that aren’t emotionally troubling – at least not in the long run – because they’re so blatantly fictional.  The horror we see in movies really has nothing at all to do with the horror we see in real life.  There are very few witches, vampires, and monsters traipsing about North America, and while there are murderers, there aren’t many methodical, superhuman, Michael Meyers-esque serial killers like the ones we see in slasher movies.  People will say that we’re an apathetic nation, desensitized by horror and violence.  But often times, entertainment violence is grounded in pure fancy; it bears no semblance to the problematic, and often violent scenarios we find in the real world.  If I were concerned with avoiding real world horror, I would be more likely to cut myself off from action movies or any movie involving any kind of war – whether it be The Force Awakens, The Hunger Games, or Saving Private Ryan. 

Aside from reading and blogging about horror, I did a number of other recreational things when my holiday break began.  I watched the first six Star Wars and saw The Force Awakens three times, mostly because Michael likes Star Wars and I’m a moderate fan and a supportive girlfriend, and I started exercising again, which was nice.  Go for the cardio.  As I stated in my last post, I started building virtual amusement parks on a game I used to play when I was 15, which has become an addiction I don’t want to kick.  And I started reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  There was only one thing I patently didn’t want to do on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  (Okay, well, maybe I didn’t want to watch Star Wars, but there was one other, major thing I definitely didn’t want to do on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day).  I basically refused to pick up Man’s Search for Meaning.  I will finish it, but it was too much for a holiday.  And it was too much because large parts of it epitomize what horror really means.

So-named horror books and movies, however, are another story.  I contemplated reading one of the horror anthologies my sister bought me for Christmas when I went to bed on the night of the 25th.  I haven’t gotten around to it, but my dad and I did watch the 1960’s cult classic, Black Sunday, on Christmas Night.  (Blog post to come.  I need to watch it again).  That was nothing I couldn’t handle on Christmas Night – a Satanic witch rises from her grave 200 years after her death and tries to inhabit the body of a woman who looks just like her, so she can reign supreme.  I don’t think the amount of horror in the real world makes this fare less palatable. If anything, such stories serve as a distraction, or maybe a sort of focal point or release mechanism, for the anxieties that the real world does provoke.  I was intrigued by the film, but never emotionally unsettled, even when they nailed the mask of Satan onto the witch’s face.  The directing of the scene is truly excellent; the camera angle and background music escalate the tension making the scene not more realistic, but more fanciful.  The scene never troubled me when I slept.

What really troubled me was Man’s Search for Meaning, and I’m not done with it yet.  Don’t misread my intent: I’m not saying people shouldn’t read books like Man’s Search for Meaning.  I’ve been meaning to read this book for quite some time now, and the philosophy Frankl espouses is (predictably) brilliant.  In some ways, I guess it should be uplifting, but I find the book so very hard to read.  If you’ve not read the book, Frankl details the time he spent at concentration camps – Auschwitz and Dachau – during the Holocaust.  He depicts the starvation, the sickness, the torture by the guards.  What really struck me was when he recalled being roused from a good dream to find himself in an abysmal concentration camp at the crack of dawn.  Have you ever woken up from a good dream and thought, “Damn, that wasn’t real?”  Now imagine that happening in a concentration camp. The transition from sleep to waking would be inconceivably brutal.  We need not avoid horror films because things like concentration camps have existed.  Indeed, the best horror films can’t begin to mimic this real life horror, and don’t intend to.  They are two different examples of the word horror entirely.

After the first night I started reading Man’s Search for Meaning I woke up thinking about the Holocaust.   I’m a “bed worrier,” a less-than-creative phrase I’m making up right now for someone whose concerns amplify when then lights are off, at night.  If I wake up in the middle of the night, I’m likely to turn any trivial problem into some overstated conundrum and perseverate over it until sleep overtakes me again.  Life always seems darker and more sinister at night.  So Man’s Search for Meaning seemed especially dark and sinister.  I was half-awake, half-asleep, imagining suffering, emaciated people and the sheer emptiness, dark brutality and hopelessness that would accompany such an existence.  Dante’s hell is less scary, but perhaps that’s because it’s fiction.  Maybe because it was night, and maybe because everything is scarier at night, I contemplated not reading the book anymore as I squirmed in bed.  It’s an inspiring story of how humans can rise above circumstances, and so far Frankl has provided some beautiful quotations about love and choice.  But it’s so hard to read about what life was like in a concentration camp.  Whenever I pick up the book – which I’ve done only twice now – I feel like I’m entering the darkness.  I never feel this way when watching a horror film, because horror films don’t mimic the horror of the real world.

After binge-watching The Walking Dead, I had a dream that I was in a zombie apocalypse.  On the bright side, I found refuge in a functioning outpost of survivors.  On the downside, everyone at the outpost had to take turns going on runs – fighting the zombies to get food and supplies.  In my dream I felt a feeling I’ve never felt in real life – the darkness and dreariness that accompanies the possible onset of imminent death.  I suppose one who serenely accepts his or her fate evades this feeling, but in the dream I clearly hadn’t done so.  It was very evident to me that I might die the next day, killing zombies, and the world seemed all the emptier and more formidable for it.  I felt an emotion in sleep that I doubt I’ve ever felt in waking life.

Heaven forbid I have such a dream about the Holocaust.  A dream, of course, would never allow me to really conceive what life was like in a concentration camp – but thank God for that.  Man’s Search for Meaning is far more troubling than The Walking Dead, and probably more troubling than any horror movie I’ve ever watched.  It epitomizes the word “horror” and makes the genre-specific label for movies about monsters and haunted houses seem inadequate.  Which is to say that what the genre’s made of isn’t really horror at all; it’s the darker side of fantasy.  Perhaps this is why horror author Stephen King wrote so much fantasy early in his career; the two genres overlap almost seamlessly at times.

And I don’t think that we’re as desensitized as a population as critics would have us think.  I don’t think this highly fictional, imaginative horror numbs us.  It’s simply that numbers and figures don’t provoke much pathos for anybody.  We can hear that 6 million Jews and 11 million people died in the Holocaust.  We know it’s awful, but numbers often don’t incite strong sentiment, which is why in the documentary Paperclips a group of middle school students endeavor to collect 11 million paperclips to provide a visual representation of those deaths.  Such representations drive the point home, as does literature. I think even more fanatical horror fans than myself could read Frankl’s account of the Holocaust and be deeply troubled, despite having viewed a pantheon of murder movies.  One cannot prepare you for the other.  And, for as much horror as there is in the world, to what extent are we all really exposed to it?

I’ve had some difficulties in life, but starvation is horror.  Unchecked plague is horror.  And, of course, genocide is horror.  Frankly, I think the only reason we call the horror genre “horror” is because we’re often so far removed from the worst of what life has to offer.  And I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be deeply troubled, by the horrors of our times or times past, and still indulge in a good ghost movie, even a slasher flick.  I’ve written in a previous post that horror, for me, puts life into perspective, and I stand by that.  My woes don’t seem so awful compared to some of the dreadful situations presented in horror movies.  And, if we avoided any films that mirrored real-world horror, we’d have to avoid any movie with brutal death, like, as I mentioned, The Force Awakens and the entire Star Wars franchise.  War, poverty, and dictatorship certainly mimic real-world horror more than Satanic witches.

And let’s presume for a second – which I doubt – that horror movies do provoke the troubling sense of dread in an individual that horrific real world situations provoke.  I would argue that if they did, they wouldn’t be so popular; there is an extreme difference between scary and horrific.  But let’s say they did.  Would they not provide an entertaining opportunity to help us learn to process and deal with the sometimes negative emotions induced by the real world?  Could we not, on a smaller and more fictional scale, work out the problems that face us on a larger and more realistic level?  Indeed, the world, as a collective entity, sometimes seems ill-equipped to process and smoothly handle the horrors that the real world provides.  Maybe we need to be exposed to more outlets that provoke this emotion, so we find healthier ways to deal with fear.

But I maintain that horror movies are a mere deviation.  As I’ve argued in previous posts, sheer evil does not exist at the heart of most horror movies, and when it does, first, it takes highly fanciful and unrealistic forms, and second, it provides ample fodder for philosophizing and contemplating evil, and even human malice, as a troubling phenomenon to be understood and grappled with.  Horror movies are the fantasy film’s more awkward and angsty cousin, or the black sheep of the drama family.  That they’re labeled “horror” films in a world that can seem, at times, horrific enough, does not detract from their merit.  In fact, in art, we recreate that which we have trouble understanding in real life.  Perhaps, if fictional horror does bear any semblance to the real world, it can help us start understanding human motives and the insidious underpinnings of vengefulness and atrocity.  Perhaps, indeed, our struggling world has a use for the genre, after all.

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In Defense of Horror

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