Horror films: the ultimate humanity.
She pants, breathless from running as she reaches the deadbolted front door. She’s so close to outside, to safety. It’s within reach, and she’s fought this hard to get away. We see the strain, the terror, the hope on her just-prettier-than-girl-next door face as her fingers try to work the lock despite her panic. One, two of them turn. Just one more ‘click” until escape — and then the killer’s knife sinks deep into the wood above her fumbling hand.
I fucking love horror movies. Mainstream slashers, supernaturals, campy classics and psychological thrillers: give ‘em to me. Vampires, serial killers, aliens, possessions? Sign me up. Zombies? I’m your girl. I love the genre, Nosferatu to Scream 5 and everything in between, partially due to its breadth. The “horror” category spans so many interesting stories and characters and times and places. It can be funny (Shaun of the Dead), it can be terrifying (Funny Games) and it can really make you think (Psycho, anyone?) It’s all all ages game, too. Sure, most of them fall in the PG-13 to R range, but some amazing horror movies are geared toward kids (The Monster Squad, ParaNorman) and some are so intense that many adults can’t get through them (Audition, The Devil’s Rejects). I’m not saying they’re all gems or even diamonds in the rough…I saw The Happening, ok?
What keeps me, us so engrossed? What does this genre give us aside from — or in spite of — it’s variance? We’re talking about a film genre that dates back to the beginning of motion pictures and deep into the human history of folklore and storytelling. It’s not just me; our species is into this. Some would argue it’s a fixation on spectacle: the gorier, the more realistic, the better. Perhaps it’s just a the monetization of the ancient practice of explaining the unknown. Or, specific to films in particular, that it’s the predictability of the plots that draw us in like a spooky comfort blanket. These theories has some merit and are worth thinking about, but I don’t think they paint the whole picture. If I ask what your favorite food is, you wouldn’t answer delicious, versatile, reliable. You’d just tell me pizza. The best explanation on the power and prevalence of horror films is like that. It answers the question you asked rather than giving you individual reasons why.
We love horror because it addresses the ultimate human fears: death.
It’s physical death (of ourselves or our loved ones), emotional death (loss of self) and individual death (loss of choice/freedom). That’s the conflict, the struggle in every horror movie you’ve ever seen. I didn’t come up with this theory, not in the least, I first heard it articulated a 2009 documentary, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. This universal truth of people using horror to say hi to the elephant in all our rooms is paramount. It’s the root of what we are and share as humans, as family members, as individuals. It’s a conflict we’re all bound to face at least once and probably more. And after millennia, we still struggle with it internally and at a cultural level. That we explore it through modern mass storytelling isn’t surprising, but it might make us think about Zombieland in a different light. Horror is about humanity.
Death is more intrinsic to the human experience than anything else. More so than love. Definitely more than love. How many poems, songs, movies, novels posit whether love exists or and even what it is? Love is a huge piece of being human, for sure, but it’s not guaranteed, not defined and not definite. Death is.
But we don’t don’t talk about it — I mean, really talk about it — under normal circumstances. It takes a too-close call or just-close-enough for a loved one to get us to reflect and share about how ridiculously fragile and temporary we are. (Or in some cases, just the right combination of whiskey, a late night and trusted companions). We go through our days boldly, unabashedly alive and unwilling to acknowledge the impermanence of that state. It’s one of the reasons our species thrives: we refuse to accept to die until we actually do. But the conversation around death, the acknowledgement that we all share this one thing, everywhere and all the time, we dance around it most of the time even though it shadows us constantly. Horror picks up death and looks at it under the light of entertainment. Sometimes it’s a clear, honest light, and sometimes it’s the kaleidoscopic light of satire and most often it’s the comforting mix of fear, humor and survival as a trio of spotlights. But horror looks at it, presents it to us in narratives that allow us to be comfortable to address it. The power of that can’t be denied, regardless of how many Zombie Strippers and Troll Hunters may make us think otherwise.
Of course, love stories are powerful artifacts of our species as well. History is told by the winners, they say, and semi-epic romances will stay at the forefront undoubtedly. But they’re too often the Gone With the Wind of the real human experience and not the 12 Years a Slave version. They tell our condition in the way we want to remember it, not in all the gristle and ugliness and beauty of human nature and behavior. Horror will continue to work in the lowlight and shadows, doing the dirty work and reminding us of what we spend most of our time gratefully, productively, turning a blind eye to, ready for us to turn said eyes its direction when we’re ready to.