Horror Movies 101: Fear, Death and the What If? (Part 4 of 4)

Writer/director Lonnie Martin concludes his multi-part series exploring the horror film genre.  Lonnie’s company, the award-winning Ningen Manga Productions (www.ningenmanga.com), is currently producing Women’s Studies.   You can keep track of his production notes at womensstudiesmovie.blogspot.com

Well class, time has grown short. That’s always the way it is, isn’t it? Just as the conversation gets good, some “thing” comes along and cuts it short. If it were up to me, I would stay here forever discussing horror movies. Unfortunately, the pounding of the thing on the other side of the door has reached fever pitch, and I fear the barricade we’ve built won’t hold it off for much longer. All we can do is light our torches, grab our sticks and stones, and pray to whatever god may or may not be out there that the end will be quick. The same as our prehistoric ancestors did eons before when the maw of the beast was closing in.

To say this look at horror has been complete would be a gross understatement. We haven’t discussed ghosts (Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Haunting), revenge themes (Carrie, I Spit On Your Grave, The Hitcher) or paranoia (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Videodrome, The Thing). Monster movies that don’t feature werewolves, vampires, or zombies got the short shaft. Nor have I touched on horror’s new wave, including the pseudo-documentary (Blair Witch Project, Session 9), Asian remakes (The Ring, The Grudge), and the torture movies (Hostel, Saw)

A film I do have to discuss before everything is said and done is Evil Dead. To leave it out would be to skip out on one of the most influential and important horror movies of the modern era. The film’s director is Sam Raimi, who recently did a couple of little films you might have heard of, Spider-Man and Spider Man 2. First of all, it could be argued that Evil Dead more than Halloween is the Homo Sapien of the modern horror movie’s evolution. Where John Carpenter’s film is more sophisticated slasher than anything else, Raimi’s film covers much more horror genre ground with overt supernatural themes, extreme gore and hyperrealism.

Perhaps hyperrealism is the wrong word. Anyone who has seen the movie, which concerns four young people who go off to a cabin in the woods only to be confronted by “the Evil Dead,” understands that reality is thrown out of the window fairly quickly. Plus, the low budget effects and over the top acting make for an experience that’s as much camp as carnage. The audience ends up laughing as much as, or even more than screaming, an aspect Raimi capitalized on with the two sequels, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness.

Yet despite the bad acting, insane storytelling, and mostly ineffective special effects Evil Dead works. It’s scary. Even as we’re telling ourselves how stupid the whole affair is, there’s something unnerving about the horrors Raimi presents us with. These include demon possession, rape by plants, and worst (or best) of all, an unseen something that races through the woods and bangs open doors as it pursues its victims. All of these things are done utilizing top-notch camera work such as eerie point of view shots that make us the assailant. Raimi’s sense of style is what elevates the movie from complete trash into something that — dare I say? — is artistic.

One man’s art is, of course, another man’s shit pot. Evil Dead could easily be cited as an example of how horribly exploitative the horror film is. Someone opposed to these films could say, “Screaming, gibbering zombies with mutilated skin vomiting all over each other before melting into greenish goo? Why would someone want to watch such things? And don’t give me all your over-intellectualized, thematic gobblty-gook about final girls, sexual undertones or inside evil. I’m not buying it.”

Perhaps all the psychological and literary analysis is just a bunch of horseshit. Maybe I’m just searching for a way to defend my own sadomasochistic fetish for watching films that glorify death. In the end, maybe the horror film is proof that in a society where beheadings in the name of religious fanaticism, ethnic cleansing, and “shock and awe” are acceptable behavior, art is truly imitating life. Maybe humanity is afflicted with some sort of terminal social disease, and the horror film is just a reflection of that. Since death is all around us, why make movies about it?

Most of us seem to be hardwired to try to see the bright side and avoid the dark side. Perhaps it’s connected somehow to our survival instinct. Trying to see the bright side is our mind’s way of keeping us alive. No one wants to die, even as release from pain and suffering. The idea of death especially in western culture is not a very happy one. There are entire realms of business and commerce capitalizing on the fear of death. There lies the paradox and the problem of modern horror movies, which in many ways are a very American genre; Americans as a whole seem to have big problems with death, a subject inherent to the horror’s very nature.

Death of course, is the only certainty you really have in life. You can’t stop it. You can’t change it. You can try to put it off, but even that can blow up in your face. Everybody dies: you, me, even the guy down the street with the Lexus and the hot wife. Death is the one thing we all have in common. It figures people should find that reassuring, yet few do. Why? Because death is the big unknown, and most people, Americans in particular, hate not knowing what’s coming next. It destroys the perfectly crafted illusion of control they’ve built around themselves.

To sit in a theatre and watch a horror movie demonstrates a willingness to surrender control, if only for a little while. A loss of control is a loss of power, and powerlessness makes us children again, lacking the logic to rationalize away our fears and the strength to fight them off. Yet what children lack in logic and strength, they make up for in the resilience of curiosity and imagination. The horror movie allows us a safe environment (or excuse) to indulge a childlike curiosity, to take a look at the fearful unknown, and to ask “What if?” What if the shadows on the wall are more than just shadows? What if the boogeyman is real and awake and waiting? What if grandma isn’t sleeping restfully in her grave? What if death isn’t an end but a horrifying new beginning?

Still, that hasn’t answered the question: Why do so many people like horror movies?

After the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, American culture braced for sweeping changes that never came. Terror had become the norm. Irony and violence in the media were figured to be the casualties to the discovery that we weren’t invincible to the horrors of the world. As a horror fan, I feared the genre would die a quick homogenized death. After all, in a world of real horrors, who would want to watch fake ones? Strangely enough, quite a few people do. Horror movies have consistently enjoyed success since September of 2001. As Hollywood continues to make them, people continue to flock to them despite nightly newscasts of terror, carnage and death. Now, how do you explain that?

The fears of the “post 9/11 world” (as opposed to the “post 6/26 world”) are irrational, uncontrollable fears. The Boogeyman, long thought dead, has been brought back to life as a face-wrapped madman who may steal our life away with a homemade bomb, a poison chemical, or a viral strain. He wants to kill us for no reason except that we’re there and he hates us. Only this isn’t just a movie. It seems a real possibility.

So, maybe by watching a horror film, we can be afraid of something that isn’t quite as real. Slashers, zombies and a little ghost in a well seem a lot less frightening than a fifteen year old Muslim girl with a box of nails and broken glass mixed with C-4 strapped to her chest. Movie monsters are a fear that only grips us for a couple hours. After the credits roll, we can leave those Boogeymen behind. Just as someday, the Boogeyman of the Islamic extremist will also be left behind as the communist and Nazi ones were before him.

Yet again, that hasn’t exactly answered our question: Why do so many people like horror movies?

“Curiosity killed the cat,” the old saying goes, but it’s been known to mess up the human pretty bad too. Besides a strong dislike of losing control, Americans also hate to be left in the dark. They want to know what, how and why. They want to know what’s behind the locked door, under the bed, and in the dungeon, even if they’ve been warned not to look. A horrible mix of arrogance and curiosity usually compels them do so no matter the warning. The problem arises when they don’t like what they see.

The Ring, the popular American remake of the Japanese horror film, is about a VHS tape that will kill you seven days after you watch it. In the beginning of the film, a young girl brags to her friend about having watched the film a week before. It’s not too hard to guess what happens to her shortly afterwards. Her death sparks off a journalist’s interest in finding the tape. She does and as she pops it in the VCR, the audience is screaming at her not to do it.

Yet, put in the same position, who wouldn’t watch the tape? I don’t know if anybody else remembers playing “Bloody Mary” when you were a kid. Supposedly, if you went to a mirror, turned out the lights, and then said Bloody Mary three times, the ghost of “Bloody Mary” would show up and kill you. What usually happened was your friend would tell you to go do this. After ten minutes worth of peer pressure, you’d finally relent and on the third “Bloody Mary,” your “friend” would open the bathroom door and scare the shit out of you.

They even made a movie about it called Candyman. Only instead of saying “Bloody Mary” three times, you have to say “Candyman” five times. Once you did, the ghost of a slave (played by the always excellent Tony Todd) who was lynched for loving a white woman came and killed you with his hook hand. At age sixteen, nothing scared me more than Candyman. Besides utilizing the “Bloody Mary” legend, it illustrates how, over time, even the simplest horrors can evolve into myth. It also utilizes our knowledge and belief of urban legends in much the same way as The Ring.

The Ring scared the hell out of me in a way that no movie had in years. And it wasn’t the damn little girl or the story that did it, though both are creepy. No, what freaked me out for days afterwards was the dead girl in the closet. We don’t see what happens to her, but while her mother is describing how she found her body, we get a flash of her corpse huddled in the corner of the closet with this look on her face. I’m getting the shivers just writing about it now.

However the girl was killed, she looked like she was caught in the grip of a terror that would have driven me insane. The way her body is posed, you can almost imagine that the poor girl died of fright. I could spend all night describing it, and I couldn’t get across to you how horrible it is. Ultimately, we find out how she died and what killed her and though it’s pretty bad, I was almost relieved to see it because it wasn’t near as bad as my mind tried to imagine. Still, I was days getting over that girl in the closet.

People like horror movies for the same reason they like roller coasters, mountain climbing, swimming with sharks, or base jumping. They do it because that fear of death is in each and every one of us, and deep down we all know it. Horror movies allow us a chance to beat the reaper, even if only vicariously, to take the craziest risks in the world without really risking anything, to ask “What if?” and know that no matter the consequences on screen, we’ll be okay. We do it because though our minds resist it, our hearts always want to know what the girl in the closet sees right before she dies.

I guess I’ve taken you as far as I can on this little journey through horror cinema. The thing on the other side of the door has quieted, but I’ve seen enough horror movies to know he’s still there. Before I face him, I want to thank you for listening. For the uninitiated, I hope I’ve piqued your curiosity enough to encourage you to go out, rent some horror flicks and draw your own conclusions. For the horror junkie, I hope I’ve maybe pointed out some things you might not have thought about. At the very least, I hope I didn’t offend your sensibilities.

No homework on the last day of class, but here’s the final exam. All the answers are easily found with a little work, but see how much you know without looking. I’ll never know if you cheat, but the monster will know.

And it won’t be near as forgiving as I would.

Final Exam (email lonnie@ningenmanga.com for the answers.)

1. Who is a boy’s best friend?

2. In what city is the Théâtre des Vampires?

3. Where is the safest place?

4. What does Regan MacNeil call her ouija board “friend?”

5. What is “one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history?”

6. When do the dead walk the earth?

7. What is the actual name of Camp Blood?

8. In what English tavern will you be warned to “stay off the moors?”

9. Who was killed on October 31, 1963?

10. What do you see before you die?