A friend of mine heard that I was working on an essay about my love of the horror genre and reminded me about the exhibit showing at Seattle’s EMP, Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film. If you get a chance to catch it, I recommend it. The props from actual horror films are great (though I intended to shake the Xenomorph’s hand, not grab its crotch); but the real gems are the video interviews with authors and directors working in the macabre, especially those that ask the basic question: Why do we watch films that scare us?
I watched my first horror film when I was six: Nightmare on Elm Street 3. In defense of my parents, my sisters and I were being babysat, and we watched it without their permission. Unfortunately, I spent the next year being killed by Freddie Kruger in my dreams. You could say my enjoyment of the genre got off to a rocky start.
What followed were several years of horror film gluttony, as I watched much of the genre’s oeuvre in a misguided attempt to desensitize myself to fear: Alien, Arachnophobia, Candyman, Child’s Play, Halloween, Hellraiser, Gremlins, Jaws, Poltergeist, Troll, just to name a few.
Then in 1997 I became a Christian, and abandoned the genre for the next seven years in another misguided quest, this time for holiness. Pop culture in general—and horror in particular—were abolished from my life as “secular” pursuits. Coincidentally, this was also the period when I had a hard time relating to my non-Christian friends.
In 2004, I was fortunate enough to become roommates and friends with three culturally savvy Christians; men who loved Jesus and pop culture, a most radical idea during that time of my life. And so, with a wary heart, I began to wade back into the poisoned stream of pop culture, keeping in mind Jesus’ prayer in John 17: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”
What this short essay is not:
An attempt to convince you to start watching horror films.
An attempt to defend evil.
What this essay is:
An attempt to explain why people like me are attracted to the horror genre.
An attempt to show that horror is no more, and no less, a poisoned stream of culture, and therefore, its makers and consumers are no more, and no less, capable of redemption.
If you are not interested in horror, I promise you but a glimpse into the abyss, though I’m sure you know people (probably more than you realize) who do enjoy it, and it will be helpful for you to understand why.
With no more apologies, let’s look into the dark together.
I like horror because it ridicules our false sense of independence.
“In our daily lives we are not allowed to be afraid…horror films are a socially accepted place to be afraid of the things that terrify us. You’re allowed to be scared with other people, in front of other people. It makes you feel like you are not alone in your fear.” – Eli Roth
When Adam and Eve fell in the garden, they introduced the horror genre into existence (along with comedy, by the way), though they had some help from Satan who, coincidentally, also likes to star in many of the genre’s antagonist roles.
At its heart, the horror genre replaces a loving, sovereign God with, at best, a feeble deity, or at worst, an incomprehensibly evil entity. Yet as John Carpenter rightly points out, the most disturbing source of horror is the evil that we ourselves are capable of under the right conditions.
Fear is a reality because of the independence we demanded in the garden. We learned then that the world is filled with enemies—external in the form of demons, and internal in the form of the craven desires that cause us to hurt ourselves and one another. To cope with these evils, we have created survival mechanisms—religion, army, police, government, economy, philosophy—which give us tidy rules on how to survive the evils of the world.
Horror comedies like Dead Snow, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods, Scream, Evil Dead II, and Tucker & Dave vs. Evil openly mock our ability to save ourselves. But even serious horror films work their skin-crawling magic by humiliating their protagonist’s best efforts. If you’ve ever watched a horror movie and found yourself yelling at the screen “Why did you run upstairs?” or “Stop falling, get up, and run!” you are saying that you are capable of overcoming the evils of the world through your own superior bravery and ingenuity. Surely if YOU were being chased by the thousand-tentacle abomination in the dark, YOU wouldn’t be so foolish as to run upstairs.
The director Wes Craven has probably done a better job than any in pointing out the ridiculous lengths we go to secure a sense of control…and its vanity.
In the movie Scream he gives the audience a list of ways to survive a horror movie: Don’t have sex. Don’t drink or do drugs. Never say, “I’ll be right back.” Don’t ask “Who’s there?” Never investigate strange noises. He then makes three sequels that abolish any possible hope we could have of surviving, not only in his films, but also in the world.
Horror films remind us that we are not safe. We are not independent. We do not control our fate, however well crafted our systems and defense mechanisms might be.
“Horror obliges us to look at those things we want to reject.” – Peter Straub
Probably the best demonstration of this is George Romero’s classic, Dawn of the Dead (Zach Snyder’s entertaining remake upped the fear at the expense of the social commentary). Through the use of zombies, Mr. Romero shows us our own insatiable consumerism. When we see those mindless hordes shuffling through the mall, he wants us to see ourselves. When he shows a zombie mob tearing a poor man into pieces, he wants us to picture the cars waiting outside gas stations in the ‘70s; or the millions plopping quarters into Pac-Man in the ‘80s; or the Beanie Baby riots of the 90’s; or the crowds waiting outside an Apple store for the release of a new iPhone during our own time.
Guillermo de Toro, the creator of macabre masterpieces such as Pan’s Labyrinth, says that we watch horror because it reminds us, “When something shouldn’t be…and is. When something should be…and isn’t.” We are not as we should be, and the world is not as it should be, and horror films consistently remind us of this.
While we were at the EMP exhibit, watching a video about the use of Theremin in horror, my friend Tim suddenly illustrated this very well when he told me about the origin of the word monster: “The word monster comes from the Latin word monere: to warn, or to advise.”
The horror genre, both in film and books, makes us look at the broken places of the world, places we often forget exist. It holds a mirror up to our species and finds us filled with all manner of shortcomings. Comedy accomplishes its means through the same discrepancies—between how something should be, and how it is—but only horror makes us truly feel the weight of that brokenness. Comedy mercifully lets us off with a laugh. Horror demands blood.
I like horror because it destroys our false understanding of reality.
In an age of materialism and greed, American horror films (as well as their Japanese and Thai counterparts) consistently remind us of a higher plane of existence. It is no coincidence that movies like The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose continue to find loyal fan bases—audiences perceive a reality beyond the five senses of our material world, and these movies merely cash in on those primal fears of the unknown, even as they explore what lurks beyond the boundary between spiritual and corporeal.
But not only do horror films point us to a deeper reality, they frequently upturn the norms of societal roles, especially those regarding men and women. It may surprise some of you to learn that horror films, despite what you may have been told about boys wanting to get girls to scream and then hold them in the dark, are some of the most pro-feminist films in existence.
Many of the classic horror films star strong female protagonists who do the work that cracks their male counterparts. Ripley in Alien, Laurie Strode in Halloween, Alice in Resident Evil, and Rose Da Silva in Silent Hill. In Insidious the man doesn’t step up to his responsibility without the loving kick-in-the-pants from his wife. And in my personal favorite, The Shining, the seemingly weak and mouse-like Wendy Torrance overcomes her demon-possessed husband and the evil force of the Overlook Hotel to save herself and her son.
Finally, I like horror because I like it.
Highfalutin philosophy aside, I like being scared. I like the adrenaline rush of experiencing fear in a controlled situation, when I know that 90 or 120 minutes later the experience will end, and I can return to my (seemingly) safe life. It’s the same enjoyment I get from a roller coaster, or a carnival ride, and I am not ashamed to list it among my motives in watching horror films.
This ends my thoughts on horror, and why I like it, but anyone who has been watching horror films for very long knows…they’ll probably come back.