Horror is a topic that I am interrogated on often, usually with what I consider to be an undue amount of poorly-concealed judgement. Why? Why do you choose to watch horror films? What could you possibly get out of them?
I have been the object of disgusted looks, as I summarize the plots of David Cronenberg films to my friends. Co-workers have come to me confused, after I suggest they check out The Witch. I am asked it most often by my father, who shows a mix of bewilderment and concern when the (kinda-definitely awful) Evil Dead remake comes up in the “Recently Watched” selections of my Netflix account (of which he mooches off me for).
I consider it a fair question. There is virtually always a horror film showing in your local theatre, and almost all of them are, at least in my opinion, awful. Broadly speaking, the horror movies that get wide releases, the ones that are pushed the furthest into the general populace’s consciousness, can be rightfully written off as schlock. The Bye Bye Man, Flatliners, Friend Request: these are films that rely heavily on jump scares and only feature a candy wrapper-thin layer of atmospheric intensity. They exist for no other reason than to scare, and essentially serve no higher purpose than a walk-through of one of the PNE’s various haunted houses (which, it should be noted, I did for the first time this year. A clown let off an air horn in my ear and I was not pleased). On top of this, there is a general sense of depravity inherent to the genre, which can certainly evoke a sense of skepticism – especially in Christian circles, as Hannah DeVries points out in her 2016 Mars’ Hill article.
So what exactly does horror have to offer?
In a Q&A hosted by the New York Film Academy, the revered filmmaker, John Carpenter, says of horror: “It’s an all-purpose genre, because it keeps changing… every few years it morphs into something else. It brings a sense of malaise of the age in which it’s made.”
Taking a brief look at Carpenter’s filmography, (specifically his earlier entries), illustrates his argument. Carpenter’s films, while eerie and occasionally terrifying, all serve a deeper purpose than to scare. This may be their superficial purpose, yes, but they also cause the viewer to ask, why does this scare me?
Analysis will reveal many of his films to be a product of late-20th Century’s individualism and Cold War paranoia. Take, for instance, 1978’s Halloween, in which Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) runs from neighbour to neighbour, begging for someone to give her shelter from psychopath Michael Myers. Our stomachs drop a little bit more with every door that she knocks on, as we watch her community actively ignore her cries for help. What is frightening about this sequence is not so much the masked murderer stalking our protagonist as it is the society in which Laurie lives, one that is indifferent to their neighbour’s well being.
Carpenter’s other masterpiece The Thing (1982) operates on a similar plain of paranoia, telling the story of an Antarctic research facility that is visited by a shape-shifting alien parasite. The scientists working in the isolated location find themselves distrusting their associates, unsure of who is human and who is an otherworldly replica. The witch hunt that ensues actively mimics the McCarthyism present in post-WWII American Life, an insidious distrust of the Other, the outsider, which, as Cold War propaganda leads the individual to believe, could be anybody. As modernity progresses, these themes of individualism, isolation and social distrust only become more relevant.
Isolation in particular is a common theme in horror film, with the genre often giving voice to the outsider or social outcast. The aforementioned Halloween is a prime example of this, with Laurie being less interested in high school sexual exploits than her friends are, who tease her about this constantly. But intelligent horror film goes beyond Carpenter. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are films which use psychological terror to emphasize the marginalization of women in society. Similar themes can be found in more contemporary films such as The Babadook (2014) and Under the Shadow (2016). The anxiety and loneliness of adolescence, meanwhile, can be found in films like The Exorcist (1973) and Carrie (1976).
Denying oneself the horror genre is understandable. By definition, it is disturbing and grotesque, and is not necessarily what one may want to fill their mind with. But to label it as “trash” is nothing short of ridiculous. At its best, it forces the viewer to look at an aspect of their self, either at a societal or individual level, and see a truth about themselves that they would rather not look at. There is a hideous side to the human condition – a vast majority of Christians will agree on this much – and while many horror films may act as a celebration of human depravity, others exist as meditations on the fallenness of the human condition in a way that no other genre can. What should scare you about horror film is not the high schooler getting dismembered by a chainsaw or the ghost that suddenly jumps out of a polaroid photograph; what should scare you is the humanity that is present in the genre and its entirely true portrayal of the self and the human condition. And you should not like what you see.