As I suggested in a recent post here, horror movies have long had their detractors. Links have repeatedly been suggested between violence in film and violence in real life (anyone reading in the UK will remember the Bulger case, and how the phantom of the murderers’ viewing habits was raised yet again after their recent releases) and for many, the possibility of copycat crime is still very real. Hell, Blockbuster Video even disposed of the horror genre in their stores altogether in the not-too-distant past – replacing it with ‘thrillers’ or something similar, and even insisting on their own cuts to movies in order to agree to stock them. Horror became the genre that dare not speak its name.
Blockbuster’s prudishness aside, things seem vastly better in the present day. Horror is thriving. Enforcing outright bans on films is made tricky by the presence of torrent sites (rights and wrongs of not-paying-per-view aside) even in those far rarer instances when the BBFC get it wrong, for the BBFC of today is a far more tolerant animal than the BBFC of the 1980s. We also have a burgeoning DVD and Blu-Ray industry making releases, re-releases and remasters easily available, aided and abetted of course by the internet, with its wealth of sources and (ahem) a large online community of vocal fans.
All this said, the possibility of censorship and outright bans has never gone away. Horror movies still fill certain sections of the population with bemusement and sometimes outright disgust. The insinuation remains that there must be something wrong with people who want to watch this kind of thing…well, allowing for the fact that ‘horror’ is a huge genre which is growing increasingly broader, I’ve always been a passionate defender of horror films, and a believer in adults having access to any material they wish: we know the difference between fantasy and reality, after all, and as such horror should be just as permissible as any fantasy medium. And so on, ad infinitum.
What my defence of horror doesn’t do is to explain my own interest in and passion for horror movies. Okay, I want the genre to be accessible to all adults and I don’t believe for a second that the genre can be blamed for crimes, or similar. That’s all established, but it says nothing about my tastes, and it now strikes me as strange that I’ve never really took the time to consider something so integral to my personal life. My usual glib response – that I was born very close to Halloween – doesn’t quite cut it, does it?
So why horror? Why do I, or you, or we, variously enjoy sitting through depictions of torture, murder, agony, fear, unequal threat, malevolent supernatural forces, unstoppable foes, psychological trauma or insanity?
There is a good deal of academic study which suggests reasons for the enduring appeal of horror, both in literature and in film: writers like Julia Kristeva and Judith Halberstam, to name but two, are theorists on the subject. However, this ain’t an academic essay, and although I may overlap with existing theory in some places, the following thoughts are things which make sense to me, as a horror viewer.
Firstly, I think horror is a safe arena, a place to play out dimensions of human experience which have been largely excised from everyday life, or which remain a real, unwanted danger if they haven’t. Death itself, for instance, has largely disappeared from the domestic sphere. We have industries and protocols for dealing with the dead where once the deceased would be laid out at home after being nursed at home, and would be washed and dressed by (usually female) members of the family. But even though death has been co-opted by officialdom, it’s there still – as are all the experiences and feelings surrounding the subject. There seems to be a part of the human psyche which needs to reacquaint itself with death and suffering – perhaps satisfying some manifestation of the ‘forewarned is forearmed’ idea, or at least playing with mankind’s morbid fascination for its own limitations. People will crane their necks to look at roadside accidents on account of this morbid streak; horror movies allow people to safely and harmlessly explore dangerous, tragic and unsettling events without actually gawking at real tragedy. It’s a vicarious means to explore human concerns which – especially for Westerners – we routinely repress or remove.
Death and suffering never leave our sides, but there are other pressing concerns played out via the medium of horror films which do change over time: Communist paranoia gave us the horror of soulless automata and the in-group/out-group anxiety of films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers; mindless consumerism gave us Dawn of the Dead and They Live; corporate corruption brought us Alien. As the mindless consumerism motif gave way to the AIDS panic, the contagion aspect of zombification was brought to the fore – now zombies were virus-carriers, and they could chase you. Again, horror films reflect and refract current social fears, ramping up the impact with allegorical monsters, fantastical situations and an emphasis on humans attempting to make sense of their situations – and to survive. By engaging with current concerns and fears through a responsive medium, people can try to make sense of the world they live in. That ‘torture porn’ has been so prevalent in recent years suggests that modern times are difficult times indeed, and that people feel significantly disempowered…
But that is only part of the puzzle. As much as horror fluctuates according to what’s going on in the world at large, it would never have its enduring appeal if it didn’t also entertain us! People like stories, have done since time immemorial, and for millennia stories have made no distinction between the gruesome and the uplifting. Think of the fate of Prometheus in Ancient Greek myth – punished for stealing fire from the gods by being bound to a rock, where an eagle pecked out and ate his liver every day – only for it to grow back in time for a similar fate the following day. To return to my first point, death and suffering were part of everyday life and this was amplified in traditional storytelling. Stories have always been ambiguous, and it’s only in relatively modern times that we’ve trimmed away all the disconcerting parts of tales. To illustrate this, let’s remember that Cinderella’s ugly sisters hacked off their toes in the original story, in their efforts to wear the slipper…
Perhaps, then, it is horror’s detractors who are aberrant, and, in promoting a sanitised version of the world, deliberately misunderstand human nature. Like all good storytelling, horror balances the gruesome with drama, humanity, catharsis and black comedy; there is pain and suffering, and there is also redemption and solidarity in abundance. Horror works because it works with human concerns, is responsive to change, and permits vicarious experiences in a safe, entertaining format where – if it’s a good movie – a good story is married to a willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not just children who need or like tales, and as a horror fan, I still like the imaginative world woven around the genre. So, for me, THAT’S ‘why horror’…