Dr. Hill’s reanimated corpse pushes its severed head between the legs of a beautiful, restrained girl in a surreal sexual encounter in Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1989). A pile of undead entrails stops attacking Lionel so that it can perch on a bathroom sink and admire itself in the mirror in Braindead (Peter Jackson, 1992). Nola uses her teeth to pierce the birthing sac of the unborn child in her external womb, tearing it open so she can lick her new murderous troll-child clean in The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979).
I love horror. LOVE. When it’s pulled off well, it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
So what is at the heart of horror? Why do we like it? Thoughts anyone?
The other day I was writing a pitch to submit to an online mag, in hopes of having Shame the Devil posted in their Indie Horror section. The site wanted original copy, so I had to think of an angle. Something about horror. I wound up talking about safety, or rather, a lack thereof. Not the safety of the characters in a story, or the safety of the author’s choices in subject matter, structure or story elements, but the safety of the audience. The reader.
I started out with a quote from Eli Roth, which reads, “I think horror should never be safe, whether it’s violent or nonviolent.” He’s saying the audience must be removed from safety, no matter how it’s done.
I told the story of how when I was twelve, my father showed me Ridley Scott’s Alien. I was scared during the movie, deeply. It was a good thing. A good experience overall. But when the movie was over, I was terrified to leave my parents’ presence. I was too afraid to leave the livingroom and go anywhere else, where the lights might be off, and death might be lurking in the shadow. That feeling, the one I had after the movie, was not a good thing. It was negative, no doubt. I felt no thrill in working to swallow my fear and go to my room.
But still, it was good overall. I remember the experience fondly. Why is that?
Why do we watch horror movies? Why do we ride roller coasters? Dive with sharks? Skydive? Sometimes, do we invite danger just for the sake of having it there?
Some say that we like to taste terror without actually having to endure it. When you ride a roller coaster, you know you’re in no more danger than when in rush hour traffic. Probably less, in fact. When you watch a horror movie and see horrific things happen, no matter how far you suspend your disbelief you never experience those things in the fully negative way you would if they were actually happening to you.
Zombies are very popular right now. Think about how the people in them seek out and build shelters. They erect walls or hide behind ones they can find, and take potshots at the undead that wander toward the smell of living meat. They get just behind the safety line and seek out thrills. You can think of plenty of examples of similar behaviors in human beings, I’ll bet, having nothing to do with zombies.
When the walls fall, we delight in seeing the characters endure terror. And it’s the same if you’re listening to your friend tell the tale or if you’re watching it on AMC. It’s primal, and there’s little point in postulating theories why we’re built that way. Is the misfortune of others pleasing to us? I doubt it. We don’t love to hear about pain. Does it prepare us for our own hardships, and help us visualize the struggles of others? Likely yes. Is it simply entertaining, the way a story about any conflict is? Certainly.
But is that really what we want with horror? Do we just want to watch another form of conflict? Perhaps it is gory, or perhaps there is a hideous monster in it. Maybe it’s just horrifying, without using tropes like those. My favorites are like this. ‘Psychological Horror’, it’s termed. But what makes the element of horror, all on its own, good?
If you haven’t seen Lars Von Trier’s film Antichrist, do. In the film, you watch two characters isolate themselves in response to enduring a terrible loss. You watch them interact, you listen to them talk. You see them open up and what awful things happen when their edges start to fray. The movie is excellent for a number of reasons. It’s well-made all around. Beautiful in the extreme, intensely intimate, structured and shot with shocking imagination and speckled with metaphor. All of these things make it good. But these things are found in movies of other genres. We can find concrete reasons why it’s good cinema. But why is it good horror?
It’s good horror because it makes you feel bad. You experience a movie that is pleasing, simply and squarely. You don’t want to stop watching. But on some level, it makes you feel awful. It gives you, not shows you, horror. Where a hero movie bolsters confidence and righteous satisfaction, where a science fiction movie piques curiosity and passion, where a romantic movie melts your heart…horror degrades you. It makes you want relief. It makes you cringe inside and wish that you could shrink away.
People who enjoy this are a different kind, I think. It is akin to acquiring a new taste. The willingness to endure displeasure because you may achieve a greater pleasure. Like death metal or bleu cheese, people don’t often love it, really love it, without learning to first.
Many people watch horror because they like being scared the way we’re scared by a balloon popping behind us. You know people like this. They love the “horror” movies that rely on audio that drifts to silence followed by a loud noise and sudden scary image. The same thrill you get when someone uses a joy buzzer on you. In my opinion, this is not fun. Movies like this annoy me. It isn’t horror, it’s surprise in a horror setting. These people are part of why I rarely show horror to anyone whom I don’t know to already be an addict. Enjoyment comes from knowing the other person you’re sharing the experience with is getting a similar appreciation. When that isn’t there, well… it makes a horror flick a bad choice for say, a date with yours truly. Unless an hour and a half of silence from me will make me more attractive to you (quite possible).
Other people however, like me, watch horror with a depth that transcends any thrills like those. They get lost in the heaviness of the character’s agony. They feel it sympathetically. And though it is a negative feeling, they come out of the experience when the story is done and feel good for it. Really good.
Another good example is the movie The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005). For people who like horror thrills for the usual reasons, this is a fun movie with some scares, and a cheap/disappointing ending. For people who dig deep into the dark of the story, it is a claustrophobic nightmare that constricts your chest and won’t let you out, and the ending is so full of hopeless despair that when the credits roll you almost splooge in relief.
People who dig into dark movies become so fond of them they start to love the tropes, simply out of positive association. I love cheesy horror. It’s not good. It’s just bad. And it doesn’t make me feel bad. It just is bad. Movies like Basket Case, Zombie Strippers, or Night of the Lepus are incapable of inspiring deep feelings, save perhaps a deep desire to switch them off (if you’re not me). B horror is a safe place. It’s like watching a sitcom. It has more to do with ‘horror’ as a genre title than an actual emotional response.
But not all cheese is cheese. Some cheese belongs on a bologna sammich. But some cheese goes right on the table with the expensive wine.
Movies like Martyrs, Let The Right One In, and Suspiria are horror of very high quality. It’s classy stuff. The thrills and carefully constructed plots give more space to the feel the filmmakers are trying to create, rather than being themselves the primary means of titillating the audience. Though all the tricks of the craft are still in play, the real payoff is in the mood that is conveyed.
One of the most horrifying movies I have ever seen is a French film called Irreversible, which contains a rape scene that is so effectively terrifying, I could barely finish the movie once the scene was done. That movie ruined my day. But I still keep on recommending it to my horror movie-loving friends, because it really, really made me feel. There is no escape from that movie, if you’re into it at all. Some folks subtract themselves from a movie if at any point it doesn’t meet their liking, but others like myself willingly keep their disbelief suspended just to see if there’s anything to be offered, even if they encounter turn-offs along the way. Irreversible hurts the soul to watch.
Horror should never be safe, no matter what it’s about. When it’s real, and it intends to truly give you horror and not just show it to you, it has to remove you from your safe zone and drag you through something…well, horrible. The better it is, the longer it takes you to come back around and be okay again. It’s a strange cycle to volunteer for. Hurting yourself for the satisfaction of healing.
Sort of twisted, isn’t it?