Phobia Therapy

I don’t like being scared.  That’s why I watch horror.  You see, many people deal with fear by running away from it.  Embracing artificial fears, however, prepares you for the horrors life will inevitably throw at you.  We humans have created an artificial environment for ourselves with many natural dangers removed.  For example (and there are always exceptions) we’ve been able to seal ourselves up in our homes and wear masks in public to avoid a killing virus.  For the most part we’ve destroyed our large predators.  As a society we tend to avoid the things that make us afraid which, in turn, makes us fragile when we have to face truly frightening situations.  I wouldn’t suggest becoming a fear junkie, but experiencing scary scenarios can diminish the overall  fear factor.

People often make assumptions about those of us who watch horror, even though it is the majority of Americans.  We’re seen as creepy people who lurk in dark places, unable to get along with our fellow human beings.  Perhaps it’s true, or perhaps it’s a reasonable coping technique.  I tend to think of it as a spiritual practice.  Spirituality is often about feeling, but it’s not completely divorced from rationality.  Often it has to do with that gut feeling that this is really real.  This is something that my years on this weary old globe have taught me is true.  Many times it’s this way in the face of evidence.  Others have trouble believing it, although some bearded guy alone on a mountain top says it’s true.  So life goes.

Spirituality is important.  I have many humanist friends and they are often uncomfortable thinking about spirituality.  It seems dangerous, a superstition that somehow survived enlightenment.  Enlightenment, however, is itself a spiritual idea.  There’s something inside of us that makes us who we are.  Whether it’s something physical or something else, it requires nourishing in order that we might thrive.  We expend a lot of energy arguing about the right (only right) way to do it.  The way to be a more spiritual person.  To me it seems that it’s about discovering what replenishes us.  What makes us into better people.  You find that and you feed it.  Spirituality comes in many forms and shapes.  Some of us have it fed by what others dismiss as mere horror.  There’s more to it than meets the eye, however.  I watch it to learn not to be afraid.


Day of the Lord

The kindly folks at Horror Homeroom recently asked me if I’d review the new movie, The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord.  Since I’ve been occasionally writing on religion and horror for them for a couple of years now, they knew I’d be interested.  The review just dropped and you can read it here.  Since this blog is a less formal place I’ll say a bit more about the film here, while encouraging you also to read the review.  They won’t be the same.  The movie, which is independent of any of the big studios, is hands-down the most theological horror I’ve ever seen.  That’s because it’s fully based on a religious idea.  It consists almost entirely of dialogue, so some will doubt it’s horror at all.  What is being said, however, can be quite scary.

Using only two characters, the movie would work well as a stage play.  The story revolves around a couple on a romantic weekend getaway.  Far from any other people, they’re enjoying a fancy cabin in the woods when suddenly he (Michael) reveals to Gabby (her), that he’s God.  Not all the time.  In fact, he’s come to her at this moment without Michael even knowing it because she’s going to die that weekend.  He wants to ensure she can get to Heaven.  Throughout the weekend Michael switches back and forth between being himself and being God.  Gabby fears she’s trapped with a psychopath, but as God Michael knows things about her that she’s never told him.  They discuss the problems with God’s existence and the issue of theodicy as Gabby slowly comes to accept she will die there.

My Horror Homeroom piece has spoilers, but I won’t put them here.  Horror fans might claim this isn’t horror at all.  There’s no bloodshed, very little violence, and no monsters play a role (unless you count the Devil).  Still, it is psychologically tense and it raises some scary questions.  I was raised as a Fundamentalist.  The fear implanted early that you might die not right with God has stayed with me all through my years of working in religious studies.  From my perspective this was a pretty scary film.  The script is very well written.  So much so that I wonder if Jared Jay Mason, the writer, hasn’t taken a course or two in theology.  My formal review gives quite a bit more detail, but you might want to watch the movie also.  I found it surprisingly effective.


Rats

Small town living had its benefits but one of them wasn’t seeing movies.  In the seventies, before the local mall came in, there were scattered movie theaters about.  You could sometimes see reruns on television, if you were free and awake when they were aired.  VCRs weren’t widespread and DVDs and streaming were decades away.  One horror film I very much wanted to see was Willard.  Released in 1971, it did quite well at the box office.  I was only 9 at the time so I never saw it and by the time I became aware of it theaters had long lost interest.  Kids were still talking about it years later, probably from television showings.  When my second resurgence of interest in horror came around, it was still difficult to find.  The DVD wasn’t available and it took some time for it to appear on a streaming service to which I subscribe.

I have to wonder how we got through the seventies, but I finally had a chance to stream it.  The story, since there was a new millennium remake, is probably familiar.  A young man (the eponymous Willard) who doesn’t fit in eventually befriends some rats in the run-down property of his once opulent home.  He teaches them to understand him and eventually has a virtual army of rodents.  He’s a good lad, however, and only uses the rats to redress social inequities.  His boss, a real old school bad guy, stole the steel mill from his father and is trying to drive Willard out.  You can see the boss’s fate coming from afar.  It’s not much of a horror film by present-day standards, but it does have its moments.  It would likely have more impact had I seen it fifty years ago.

The theme song from the sequel, “Ben” (also the title of the next movie), performed by Michael Jackson, rose to number 1 on the charts.  Those of us in the seventies knew it was a song about a rat.  Well, at least some of us knew.  Horror, despite its detractors, often influences mainstream culture.  Indeed, Willard seems to have had some lasting knock-on effects, including the remake just into the new millennium.  Movies from the seventies, although some are excellent, often bear the brunt of the malaise of that period.  Did we ever think big, boxy cars were attractive?  Were men really such chauvinistic pigs?  Still, the story is a good one.  I wasn’t really interested in the 2007 reboot, but having seen the original I’m now curious.  It is, at least, fairly easy to find.


Not Really Nervous

Embarrassment is a not uncommon reaction.  People who knew me as a religion professor or who now know me as a volunteer leader in my local congregation wonder why I watch and read horror.  It helps to know that you’re not alone.  Mathias Clasen is an author I’ve mentioned before.  I read his first book on horror and I was excited to see his A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies, recently out.  I’m not really a very nervous person in this particular regard.  As those who know me will attest, I’m nervous in many aspects of life, just not this one.  Still, after having heard the author describe what his university sponsored fear lab does I was curious how he’d approach horror for the nervous.

Clasen is an academic who clearly enjoys writing.  He’s fun to read.  He admits to being somewhat nervous around horror himself, not watching horror alone.  In fact, the book has several tips—such as not watching horror alone—on how to survive the experience for the curious but cautious.  What I inevitably take away from studies such as this is a couple of things: watching horror isn’t something only I do, and it’s actually good for you.  Studies (and here’s where Clasen is able to point to actual sources) have repeatedly demonstrated that horror has adaptive benefits.  Kids like scary stories, and there’s a reason for that.  The interest in horror generally peaks at the onset of adulthood and tends to decline from there.  Some of us, however, are perhaps arrested at that stage.  Or rediscover it.

There’s a great utility in being able to discuss horror intelligently.  Another point Clasen addresses is that horror is often intelligent but since those who don’t watch it often set the social standards it’s addressed as if it’s juvenile and unsophisticated.  Yes, there’s trash out there.  There is in every genre.  For many people, however, the popularity of slashers in the eighties forever defined horror as naughty teens getting murdered by a bloodthirsty maniac with some kind of blade.  That’s only part of the picture.  Horror has a history as old as cinema itself and the earliest exemplars were based on literature.  It has been an innovative genre from the beginning and when a particularly noteworthy horror film comes out critics and pundits are quick to relable it as a thriller or drama or anything but horror.  We need to give horror its due.  It’s always a pleasure to read a book by someone who has an appreciation of what horror has to offer, even if he’s nervous about it.


After This

It didn’t rock the critics, but it is distinctly creepy.  After.Life came out in 2009 and quickly fell from sight.  It’s an interesting movie nevertheless.  Any film that features an undertaker, for one thing, gets edgy.  The story of a young teacher who never really felt loved and who is killed in a car crash sounds tragic enough.  Then she finds herself conscious in the preparation room where the funeral director, Eliot Deacon, talks to her, assuring her that he can speak with the dead.  As the movie progresses we begin to wonder if Anna, the teacher, really is dead or if she’s being killed by Deacon for having given up on life.  His name is suspiciously religious, fittingly for a film that deals with such a topic as the afterlife.  Overall, however, it’s pretty bleak.  One of Anna’s students also sees her after she dies and Deacon befriends him, offering to teach him his trade.

Although the critics didn’t like it, it is spooky on many levels.  Not the least of which is the question never satisfactorily answered of how to know when you’re really dead.  The movie presents the soul as a fact, and even dead bodies can move around when the situation merits it.  Death is one of those areas that religion generally enters.  Some secularists maintain their lack of religious thought even in this situation, but many people find religion helpful at this ultimate transition and the soul seems entirely natural then.  It’s unclear in the movie whether Deacon is good or bad.  He’s certainly obsequious, accommodating the wishes of families even when unreasonable.  With the dead, however, he takes a firmer stance, having to convince them that they’re no longer living.  The movie’s a bit confusing in the case of Anna—we’re never really sure if she’s dead or not.

Even with commercial interruptions (it’s free to watch that way) I found myself getting caught up in the story.  Deacon kept asking what it is the living really want.  He’s shown throughout doing the work singlehandedly, from picking up the bodies, to embalming, to even digging the grave.  His loneliness is ameliorated by his ability to speak to the dead, each of whom he photographs and puts on his bedroom wall.  Religion may be behind the soul, but no obvious religious talk pervades the film.  I have to wonder if this might not be the reason it fails to frighten its many critics.  Horror that uses religion effectively often becomes successful.  Those that avoid religion like, well, death, often fail to convince even secular critics.


Brooding

Horror was undergoing a serious development beginning in 1968.  Into the seventies many boundaries were being crossed and new areas of fear were opened.  David Cronenberg is known for his body horror.  Being the squeamish sort, I don’t always seek out his films, but I’d been curious about The Brood for several years.  A holiday weekend afforded the opportunity to see it and, in a strange way I’m glad I did.  The story concerns a psychiatrist who helps his patients embody their neuroses physically in order to deal with them.  The patients manifest in their bodies their deep-seated rage, generally from childhood parental issues.  Those of us who grew up in broken families may seem to wear them on our sleeves, but I suspect most people have issues that were unresolved from that complex parent-child relationship.

The interesting thing here is that there is really no antagonist in the film.  Dr. Hal Raglan isn’t evil, but he does have secrets.  He tries to help his patients, but one of them, Nola Carveth, has major, well, issues.  Abused by her mother, she enters Dr. Raglan’s institute while her husband cares for their five-year old daughter.  Nola’s rage, however, bears a brood of small, gargoyle-like children who, when she focuses her anger on one person, attack and kill them.  Her parents, their daughter’s school teacher, and even Dr. Raglan receive her rage, all murdered by these children born purely from herself.  This strange kind of parthenogenesis makes for a distinct form of body horror.

It’s pretty clear that there is a critique of therapy going on here, but also a kind of therapy is being offered.  I’ve had people ask me if I watch horror as therapy and I freely admit that I do.  The movies I watch are often self-care, or even a spiritual practice.  Many people suggest that horror portrays a negative view of life.  Others of us tend to think of it as more metaphorical.  And besides, the message is often an upholding of conservative social values.  This particular film is difficult to interpret in that regard.  It was written after Cronenberg had gone through a divorce and that makes sense of the central conflict of the movie.  Parenting is as difficult as it is life-changing.  While The Brood may not give solid parenting advice, it may offer a way of understanding ourselves.  If a film does that, it can’t, in my opinion, be all bad.


Mag Dash

I don’t do much magazine reading.  Back when I had more time (mainly before buying a house), there were a few with which I attempted to keep up.  Mainly, however, I’d buy a particular issue that I wanted to keep.  I suspect that’s because I’m a book reader and my time for pure reading is limited.  Strange thing for a professor/editor hybrid to write, but there you have it.  Each year I “pledge” a number of books to Goodreads to keep me honest, and achieving that goal adds a kind of friendly pressure on my reading time.  Magazines don’t count, and mostly I never read the whole thing.  My current book project is an analysis of the movie The Wicker Man.  This led to some magazine reading.

Horror movies, especially, have been traditionally treated as ephemera with little lasting cultural value.  Fan magazines, therefore, often provide most of the periodical treatment for some of these “B movies.”  The Wicker Man suffered legendary distribution problems and that may have been what prompted Cinefantastique to devote all its feature space to this particular movie back in 1977 (the movie came out four years earlier and was still struggling).  The article is a lengthy one, not quite to the extent of The Atlantic, but still several pages.  It was the origin of the much repeated epithet “the Citizen Kane of horror films.”  To read this I had to locate a copy of the magazine.  There was, fortunately, a seller in Beloit, Wisconsin who wasn’t extortionate (thank you!).  My experience in buying print materials from the seventies has often proven the opposite.

Occasionally someone glimpsing my books will cattily ask, “Have you read them all?”  No.  But then not all print matter is for reading all the way through.  Reference materials, for example, are consulted.  The way my mind works, I need to keep things around so I can find them again.  Studies have shown that retention for electronic media isn’t as reliable as it is for print.  That may change some day as we evolve more and more into extensions of our machines, but for now I use it to justify keeping books.  Since I can’t predict the future, I never know when some forgotten tome might come up again in a new project.  That has happened a few times already while working on my small book on The Wicker Man.  And that includes magazines with good articles.  This one is a keeper.


Numbers Game

I once asked a movie expert—this must’ve been when I was regularly on a campus somewhere, but not Nashotah House—how many movies had been made.  He sighed and said “There’s no way to know that.”  What I was thinking at the time was the Motion Picture Association of America (now the Motion Picture Association) number that comes near the end of the credits.  I wondered how many of those there were.  Of course, the number keeps changing.  It doesn’t account for television movies or straight to video, although, I see it does now include Netflix.  In any case, I was really interested in the statistics.  I still am.  I may not be a math person, but big numbers are intriguing.

The more I read about movies, and I seem to be moving in that direction, the more I realize how nobody can be an expert on all of them.  Even those of us with decades of experience watching horror can’t keep up with that genre.  Many of the books I’ve read are by authors whose families don’t like horror, so they have to carve out time alone to see the films.  This is on top of their jobs, which for some, admittedly, is film analysis—perhaps they’re the lucky ones.  I selected many films to discuss in Holy Horror.  There’s no index of the Bible in films, as useful as such an index would be.  As I continue to watch, and sometimes rewatch, I keep finding more and more material.  At some point, however, you just have to say “what I have written, I have written.”  But how many movies actually engage the Good Book?  There may be a way to know that, but it will take a lifetime of research.

Speaking of large numbers, the stats for how many Bibles are sold each year is a phenomenon unto itself.  It seems inevitable that it would find several of the cracks in American culture and leak in like rain water.  At times it’s the antidote to horror, while at others it’s the dote itself.  Holy Horror was never intended to be comprehensive.  It limited itself in intentional ways.  As I was writing it my naive question kept coming back to me.  When I research a topic I like to read as much written on the topic that I possibly can.  Of course, I spend over eight hours a day for most of the year doing something else.  The number of days like that, I suspect, is frightfully large.


Next Books

The other day an older friend asked about my writing.  My answer was brief because it’s complicated.  Not because I do it from three to four a.m.  Not because many of my older friends don’t know what a blog is.  No, it was complicated because my next book is about a movie few Americans know, especially many of my friends.  I really don’t know many horror fans.  Academics, yes, but normal folk, no.  This is a little odd because statistically most adults like horror.  I feel I always need to explain why I bother writing such books.  (There is a reason and there’s even a book I’m working on to try to explain it.)  It’s easiest, in such circumstances, just to say “I’m keeping busy with it.”

The fact is the draft of my book on The Wicker Man is done.  It has been for a few weeks.  None of my published books are the same as their drafts initially were.  (This is the difference, say, between a dissertation and a first monograph.  Let those seeking advice take note.)  The draft follows the approved proposal pretty closely, but I now kind of do research backwards.  Or at least while the book is in process.  Unlike a professor with a library and sabbatical and summers off, I find my sources as I write.  My books, despite what might seem a narrow focus, range pretty widely.  My reading goes in directions not even I anticipated when I began.  Ideas lead to other ideas.  Soon there’s enough of them for an entirely new book.  So I’m reading my draft and reading other books and creating the Frankenstein monster that will be a codex.

Every time I reach that point where I say, “this will be the last book I need to read for this project,” only a matter of days later I find another.  And another.  Book writing involves both creativity and distillation.  It takes a lot of books read to make one book written.  All writers know that.  Some have trouble knowing when to cut off the research because, and this is a truth for all of life, there’s always one more.  The very month of my doctoral defense a new book on Asherah was published.  The external examiner brought it to my viva.  Obviously he knew that I couldn’t have read it by then (it had to be in German, of course).  It ended up on my bibliography.  So I plod along with my book already written, but not yet begun.  I said it was complicated.


Everything’s a Nail

Taking my first, tentative steps into horror analysis, I had read a great many monographs on the subject.  I had watched many horror films over the years, but since my family has no love of the genre, and since habitually under-employed I can’t afford to pay for many, my quota is fairly modest.  I’ve missed out on many.  When I could afford it, I started out with either movies I’d heard of when younger but had never watched, or packs of ultra-cheap B (C or D maybe) movies that nobody has ever heard of.  As I lamented recently, British films were rare—Hammer, which held the English reputation for horror, was the undiscovered country.  Then I saw that Peter Hutchings’ Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film had come out in a second edition.  (The new edition contains three of Hutchings’ other articles as well as the original text.)  I had to read it.

Although I’ve not seen many of the movies discussed in the book (again, access issues) it was fascinating nonetheless.  Hutchings considers the elements of gender and Britishness in his readings of the films and there’s quite a lot there.  Horror is generally seen as a conservative genre (it tends to uphold typical social values) and for many Hammer and other films this meant that male prerogative was important.  Equally important, however, is that horror often disrupts this hierarchy.  There are strong, and even fatal, women here.  Horror embodies the acting out of the complex world of fear between women and men.  The study, as befitting a revised dissertation, is laid out chronologically for the most part.

Some readers of this blog have kindly pointed out ways to access Hammer films in the US.  Now all I need is the time.  I’ve been able to keep up with my reading, at least.  And this was a worthwhile book to read, even without having seen much Hammer.  It surprised me, however, that their list of classic horror wasn’t longer.  Having read about Hammer for many years,  I suspected their output was massive.  Instead it was mostly just impactful.  The essays following the main body of the book make the point that British horror was/is distinctive.  These days a lot of international cooperation takes place in the movie industry, and national cinema is becoming more global.  We could use a little less nationalism just about now.  So I’ll continue my quest for Hammer and try to make my way through the movies I really should add to my repertoire.  It’s a good book that can make you want to do that.


Horror Show

The horror film history narrative runs something like this: although there had been some scary movies in the silent era, the term “horror” was first used to describe Universal’s 1931 release of Dracula and Frankenstein.  Some other studios got in on the action and creature features were a staple of US cinema until the fifties when they began to peter out.  By that point a UK horror industry took off, largely due to Hammer Studios.  While these Hammer offerings often remade the standard creature features, they also branched out into less commonly explored areas such as films set in contemporary times focused on the occult.  This phase faded in the sixties just as “modern horror” was taking off with classics like The Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby.  Modern horror quickly grew.  Further divisions can of course be made, and the modern period has gone through several transformations as well.  It’s a rich coffer.

There’s a real problem with this, however, for those who might’ve missed a decade or two somewhere in there.  Many of the UK films are still not available in the US for anything like a fair price.  Part of the reason for this is copyright law, but another is apparently the ignoring of demand.  I saw maybe one Hammer film (on TV) growing up.  Saturday afternoon fair was more often American B movies like Zontar the Thing from Venus.  I’ve got a hankering to watch some of those Hammer films, but even in the 2020s they’re difficult to find.  Even with the internet.  Often the DVDs are (because of differing copyright laws) coded so they can’t be viewed in North America.  You can buy a player to see them, but when you think of the inevitability of streaming it hardly seems worth the cost.

Streaming might be the solution, but much of the Hammer oeuvre doesn’t stream in the US, at least not that I’ve found.  If I’m wrong please let me know in the comments!  You see, I spend time reading about horror and when you do this recommendations often arise.  Some Hammer classics are as expensive as the academic books that discuss them.  Is it possible to be a horror connoisseur?   And can you truly be a connoisseur without sampling what’s on offer overseas?  We tend to forget that the world is culturally divided by copyright laws.  If nobody’s watching the movie anymore what’s the harm in making it free?  If people do want to see it, why not sell it to them at industry standard price?  Even trying to watch horror, it seems, has become a horror show.

Photo by Michael Mouritz on Unsplash

Author Talks

Author talks are one of my favorite perks.  While work obligations mean I often can’t attend, I was glad to have caught this week’s visit by Mathias Clasen.  Clasen has been writing books on horror movies for Oxford University Press, and his talk strangely made me feel less alone.  Let me explain.  First of all, lots of people came.  Yes, Halloween is merely days away, but I get accustomed to thinking I’m the only one who watches horror.  Nobody close to me does.  Learning that many colleagues enjoy the genre was a boost.  Clasen runs the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University.  Their survey of Americans found that 55 percent liked horror films.  I’m actually in the majority, which felt affirming.  

The Recreational Fear Lab studies various aspects of why people seek things that make them afraid.  This ranges from thrill seekers to those who cower in the corner of a theater to watch the latest slasher.  There were several takeaways from his talk.  One was that two main types of people subject themselves to horror: “adrenaline junkies” and “white knucklers.”  Adrenaline junkies are pretty self-explanatory—they like getting scared for the rush of it.  White knucklers, on the other hand, enjoy steeling themselves from fear while subjecting themselves to it.  They try not to scream, but keep control.  I was putting myself in the latter category when he mentioned that further research had revealed a third personality type: the dark copers.

Dark copers are those who use horror as therapy for themselves.  I immediately knew this was my group.  Some people, for whatever psychological reasons, find horror movies therapeutic.  They help us cope.  Interestingly, and in line with other materials Clausen has published, horror is good for people.  It has many benefits and if we deprive children from any stressful situations in their young lives they tend towards neurotic behaviors when they’re faced with stress as adults.  The Recreational Fear lab is a place for the scientific study of voluntary fear experiences.  They operate by grants and have many programs of study from a variety of disciplines.  And some of them watch horror.  Perhaps because when I started this blog I tended to write mostly about religion, I suspect many of my readers don’t really care for the horror posts.  They’ve been there from the beginning, however; my first month I wrote about werewolves, zombies, and Barnabas Collins.  Religion and horror are closely related, even if it makes me feel a bit alone to say so.


Skin In

It took me back to my younger years.  Tanya Krzywinska’s A Skin for Dancing In: Possession, Witchcraft and Voodoo in Film.  Wide ranging and insightful, this book was a delight to read.  Published in 2000, it discusses many movies that I watched in the eighties and which had somehow managed to be overrun by other stimuli since then.  I like to think that, even if recall isn’t instant, that we never truly lose the books we’ve read or movies we’ve watched.  (Some we may wish to forget, but that seems a sure way not to achieve that goal!)  As her subtitle says, Krzywinska’s book analyzes possession, witchcraft, and voodoo.  Since there are so many examples of these the discussion has to be selective, but she’s got a keen eye for choosing evocative films.

As any of my regular readers know (both of you!) I don’t really review the books in my “reviews.”  I limit myself to about 500 words and I don’t like to give spoilers.  A Skin for Dancing In would require quite a few words even to summarize.  Krzywinska covers demonology, possession, sacrifice, paganism, witchcraft, voodoo, and more, in several movies.  What really struck me in reading this was that she comes to a similar conclusion to what I’ve found—people learn about these things through film.  Scholars tend not to write much about such things (although this has improved somewhat since the turn of the millennium).  The average person doesn’t read academic books, and since culture has become “rational” there’s not much talk about such things from discoursing heads.  Still, movies.

These topics make for great movies.  One of the points I’ve made in my own work is that what we know about demons comes from the cinema.  It seems that we should pay close attention to what movies tell us.  They’re the “public intellectuals” that many academics want to be.  A Skin for Dancing In is a good example—it’s compelling, if a little academic, but very hard to find.  It’s difficult to lead public discussion if your book is limited to university libraries and those who have access to them.  Of course, you don’t need a talented scholar to tell you how to watch a movie, but I was reminded here of many films I thought I had forgotten.  And what’s more, I have a deeper understanding of how they fit into the larger world of cinematic possession.  This is one of those books I wish I’d found sooner.


New Monster

The Babadook is a horror film about loneliness.  Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, it has an arthouse cinema feel to it.  I missed it when it came out in 2014—it didn’t receive major billing and publicity in the United States—but it gained critical acclaim as intelligent horror.  It follows the small family of Amelia and her son Samuel, who has special needs.  I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers here because I think you should see it if you haven’t already.  Amelia’s husband died in a car crash taking her to the hospital to have their first child.  That haunting tragedy drives the film.  And when you throw a monster called the Babadook into the mix, loneliness and sleeplessness make the dark something to fear again.

With wonderful acting, the story of childhood monsters highlights the continuing plight of single mothers.  How are you supposed to survive when you have a child that requires constant supervision and yet you need to make ends meet?  And if sleeplessness begins to distort your sense of reality all kinds of things seem possible.  

Hollywood hasn’t been a friendly place for female directors.  This film was shot in Australia.  I’m not sure that sexual parity is better there, but this movie is a great example of what can happen when a woman shows what horror means to her.  Not too many horror movies have female directors, yet.  It seems to me that women have many things to fear and have much to show us about what horror can be.  It seems to me that loneliness, although often part of horror, isn’t often the focus.  We would rather look away than to see it because it’s too painful.  Horror compels us to look at what we’d rather not see.

Aside from all of this, the film gives us a new monster.  The Babadook was invented for this film and although we don’t have to worry about whether it’s real or not, the issues it brings to the fore certainly are.  There is darkness inside people.  Even those of us who try to do what is right struggle against it.  Often it takes quite a lot even to admit as much.  This movie lets the dark out and finds a new narrative path through which it might flow.  Although a box office success—earning more than it cost—The Babadook is still little known.  It should be discussed more because intelligent horror has some important lessons to teach us.


Next Trick

Book contracts make me happy.  For my next trick, I’ll be writing a book on The Wicker Man for the Devil’s Advocate series.  This will be a short book, and hopefully priced down where individuals can afford it.  The Devil’s Advocate series was initiated by Auteur Publishing some years ago.  The series covers individual horror films in about 128 pages.  I pitched the idea of The Wicker Man for a couple of reasons.  One, Auteur didn’t have one in the series.  And two, I’ve been working on holiday horror for some time.  Holiday horror encompasses movies where a holiday features in the story, generally in a significant way.  Think Halloween, or April Fool’s DayThe Wicker Man takes place during a pagan celebration of May Day, falling neatly into the category.  You may see, in coming weeks, posts about various Wicker Man books.

While still in the horror genre, this next book will be a departure from the supernatural horror of Nightmares with the Bible.  Demons are frightening, no doubt, but Wicker Man is more about how religion can motivate people toward evil.  It is part of what has been termed the “unholy trinity” of early folk horror, classed with Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  This “unholy trinity” overlaps in time another famous threesome: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  There can be little doubt that modern horror really began in 1968, which also gave us Night of the Living Dead.  Folk horror utilizes both folklore and the landscape—generally rural—as the basis for its fear.  And you can’t get much more isolated than Summerisle.

The hope is to get this book out in 2023.  That will be the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Wicker Man.  Although it came out when I was eleven, I didn’t see it for another thirty years at least.  By that point in time I’d watched and read about enough horror to find out about and appreciate this particular, indeed, peculiar movie.  I was blown away the first time I saw it.  It is quirky but stunning.  Christopher Lee maintained throughout his career that it was his best movie.  I haven’t seen all of Lee’s movies (who has?) but I’m inclined to agree.  I’ll be getting to know this movie in some depth over the next several months.  Having watched it many times already, I’m drawing a map for a journey to Summerisle. You’re welcome to come along.