It’s October. The crisp smell of autumn is in the air. The leaves are changing. Pumpkins are ripening. You can buy delicious cider in almost every store. Pumpkin chai tea is on the market. The frosty mornings and misty evenings cast magical spells. The harvest moon is bright. The days just demand snuggling under a warm quilt and reading a good book. It’s pretty much my favorite time of year. So, for the rest of October, I will be taking a break from my analysis of criticism and writing about something very dear to my heart.
Freak-tastic Horror films.
Horror has a bad reputation for being anything but literati-favorable. Like many genre works, it’s shelved as a niche or novelty subject, something the fans can enjoy but not something that influences intellectual discussion. Horror is too dark, too exploitative, and too weird to really fit into the same categories as high-brown films like 8 ½, The Virgin Spring, and Citizen Kane. But, (and completely ignoring the fact that The Virgin Spring was remade as an exploitation horror film) this analysis of horror only touches the surface of what makes the genre what it is. It ignores all that is truly cerebral, groundbreaking, and artistic in the genre. So, from now until Halloween, we will be looking at the deeper, more intelligent meanings behind of some of the greatest horror classics of the movie world*.
One of the biggest complaints about horror is that it encourages immorality. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to see why people often think this. Characters in horror films are often, when not downright unlikable, at least lax in the moral area. Many horror films then end in a bloodbath. The formula many non-fans see is this:
assholes + creepy situation = slaughterhouse
I would be the first to admit that many horror movies, especially the worse ones, can be nothing more than mindless bloodbaths for the morbid and slightly-demented of us to enjoy for the base pleasure of it. However, to classify all horror films as immoral would be a grave injustice to the genre. In fact, most horror films function primarily as morality fables. One could argue that some of our earliest horror stories were moralizing fairytales, with witches, werewolves, and monsters, imparting valuable life-lessons through shock and violence. One of our most cherished cautionary tales, Little Red Ridinghood, is in fact a werewolf story.
Like fairytales, horror stories use archetype and the fear of the unknown to caution audiences about morals. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, director Don Siegel used the concept of alien invasion and the horror of losing one’s identity to parallel the fear of a very different invasion –communism. The 1950s paranoia of losing one’s society to a covert infiltration of Others is much more palatable as a story about intergalactic pod-people than about communists. It abstracts the fear of invasion and corruption into one of subconscious, nightmare terrors of the unknown.
Horror also can illustrate ideas about class conflict and social justice. In one of my favorite horror movies, Night of the Living Dead, Romero uses the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse as a means of making the audience question their own prejudices. How many people, in a time of danger, are casualties not to the danger itself but to the misapplied panic of others? Without spoiling the film, the ending leaves this question with the viewers for long after it is finished. Similarly, John Carpenter’s b-grade horror-thriller They Live! is about autonomy in an increasingly controlled society. The film, in a biting send-up of trickle-down economics, focuses on a homeless worker who discovers that the ruling elites of the world are actually alien creatures. The movie even ends by expressing horror’s unique ability to shake up sleepy minds, by the alien newsmen discussing how horror movies should be banned, presumably for revealing the reality of evil.
The reality of evil is a major part of horror, and one of the few genres that dares to address it. In order to have a monster, one has to ask what makes a monster? What is the nature of evil? Horror points out the dark side of every person, situation, and community –the manipulative forces of media and advertising (They Live!), the monster lurking in the suburban community (Halloween, Scream, Blue Velvet, even Donnie Darko to a certain extent), or the reality of a spiritual world. Horror often tackles the question of whether or not evil is a spiritual force (Rosemary’s Baby, Suspiria, The Exorcist), the result of human corruption often through suffering or societal problems (Sleepaway Camp, Friday the 13th, Carrie, Audition), the remains of wrong actions in life as a ghost or presence (Ju-On, The Orphanage), an exterior force outside of human norms and understanding (Alien, The Thing, Night of the Living Dead), or simply a fact of the natural world that exists through unfeeling fate or the brutality of nature (Final Destination, Jaws). How the directors answer the question of evil dictates how the audience can look at the idea of horror as a reality –which it very much is.
Horror is not a construct of the especially morbid or socially perverse. Horror is something that humans have had to exist with since the beginning of life. Whether it is natural disasters, nightmares, wild animals, accidents, the unknown, social injustice, or the simple recognition of one’s own mortality, horror is a very real aspect of human life. In horror movies, the directors offer ways to consider this phenomenon.
In Rosemary’s Baby (one of my favorite films of all time), the director, Roman Polanski, and author, Ira Levin, deal with two levels of evil: social and spiritual. Set in the backdrop of a post-Christian society, in the year the New York Times ran its famous God Is Dead cover, and Pope Paul the VI visited America, the film asks the question of the reality of a spiritual world. Is God dead? And, if so, what would take the place of God? (The film does answer this, explicitly.) The titular Rosemary believes that her neighbors have found their answer in Satanism. Whether or not a spiritual world exists is secondary, in her mind, to whether or not people live as though a spiritual world exists. In this sense, the story affirms Dostoyevsky’s famous quote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” In this case, Rosemary is under the belief that someone will try to kill her baby, and whether or not there is a God or a devil is secondary to this threat. The belief is what matters, although the film’s ending does leave no ambiguities about what is real and unreal.
On another level, Rosemary is threatened by a different horror: social injustice. At the heart of Rosemary’s Baby is a conspiracy story. Rosemary believes there is a plot against her, but she is repeatedly discredited and told to be quiet and trust the menfolk. No matter how great the danger gets, no matter what she discovers, those around her repeatedly brush aside her concerns as the histrionics of a pregnant woman. Her husband and doctor even have say over her very pregnancy, telling her to not inform herself, not to speak to her friends, that they would know more about her body than she would herself. The real horror of Rosemary’s ordeal is that everywhere she turns, someone may be a part of this plot, and that even innocent people will not believe her. While in real life women are not subjected to possible satanic rape and demonic forces, women in domestic abuse situations and the victims or rape have often been discredited and blamed by society. The story uses the horror elements to illustrate the real horror of being trapped in an abusive situation, and not having a way out, as well as asking audiences to question what part they play in social injustice. How complicit are those who, if not a part of the acts, allow the acts to occur?
Rosemary’s Baby is, simply put, a masterpiece in subtlety, as well as very real horror. It has a Hitchcockian sensibility regarding suspense, and boasts a strong cast and this really terrifying, eerie soundtrack. The soundtrack alone gets some people. It’s certainly worth a watch for those who think all horror movies are blood and guts and no artistry. But, They Live!, Night of the Living Dead, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are all culturally relevant commentaries on social issues, and worth viewing in order to really understand the conflicts present in the eras the films are addressing.
Next time, vampires, werewolves, teen slashers…
*Why movies? Because I like horror movies.