The scary reality of horror movies

Michael Meyers is murdering Annie Brackett. He is strangling her from behind in her car and she is screaming. And now she is straining forward to honk her car horn, trying to call for help. But to no avail; Michael Meyers is too strong. He is dragging her towards him and cutting her throat with his knife. She keels over finally coming to rest, eyes eccentric, head ajar, on the steering wheel of her car. The car horn lets out a long beep.

All of the above are characters in John Carpenter’s chilling 1978 classic, Halloween. It is considered one of the best horror films ever made, and indeed one of the most influential films ever made. But popular culture references aside, the question remains: Why watch horror films and television shows at all, when the purpose of this genre is, by definition, to terrify us? As the Halloween season comes to a close, I think that it is especially appropriate to discuss.

A piece entitled “Zombies in the Time of Ebola: Why We Need Horror Movies Now More Than Ever” ran about a week ago in New York Magazine. And while the piece is oversimplified and vague at certain times, and I daresay sensationalist at others, the author’s main point—that horror movies are important because they allow us to recognize and confront our fears through abstraction and metaphor—is valid.

Take Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger for example, who kills people only when they are dreaming. Through him, the filmmakers channel our near universal fear of nightmares and take away our one coping method: dreams are not real, so even if they are scary, they cannot hurt us.

Another example would be the demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist. The movie presents a monster that cannot be defeated by the logic or denial that we usually use to cope with fear. Father Karras can defeat Pazuzu only when he fully believes and indeed makes himself completely vulnerable to him.

Contrast both these examples, however, to the situation in the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes, the premises of which prevent it from being engaging. An unlikeable family drives an unreliable car through an obscure part of the New Mexican desert (where people have been disappearing), avoiding the main highway in favor of a dirt road without cell service (because unfriendly strangers without communication capabilities at isolated gas stations are certainly to be trusted) and only after their car breaks down and they split up are they finally attacked. Most people cannot imagine themselves in even part of this situation, and, as a result, the film succeeds not in frightening but in disgusting us.

This is the most important distinction to make: when I say that people should watch horror movies even if they have to hide their faces a few times, I am speaking of films that are excellent examples of cinematography that are simultaneously excellent examples of horror. And it is worth noting that some of the best examples of horror are ones that do not involve violence at all. As Orson Scott Card says of all the kinds of ways we become scared, “dread is the first and the strongest.”

It is incredibly difficult to have objective and mature discussions about things that unsettle us, about mundane horrors, such as race relations and economic discrepancy. Horror films force us to confront our greatest fears, and though the scenes in these films are fictional, the fear that we feel when watching them is genuine. So the practice we have of dealing with discomfort is also genuine. A discussion about LGBTQ issues does not seem so bad when one has just seen Leatherface murder someone with a chainsaw on screen.

The best horror villains are the ones we can relate to; they are the ones that imaginatively distort something we think we know and present that same thing back to us in an altered state. The scariest situations arise either from the dramatic irony of our knowing more than the soon-to-be victims or from the suspense of knowing just as much, or even less than they do.

And this ability to relate to horror through empathy is the singular most important element of the experience I am explaining. As Stephen King writes, “we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

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