Tag Archives: horror movies

Why Horror?

Some people wonder why I like horror. Well, “like” is hardly the proper verb here, I’d rather go the passive route—why I’m compelled by horror. That fits better. But isn’t compel a transitive verb? What’s the object? It really depends on the circumstance—compelled to read, watch, or look at. Quite apart from grammatical imponderables, I keep finding myself coming back to horror and I frequently wonder why. Mathias Clasen may have answered that question for me. Why Horror Seduces is a fascinating study that considers biological and psychological explanations for why we’re compelled to watch or read or play horror, even when we find it distasteful. And it’s not just excusing bad behavior!

As fairly weak creatures that are prey as well as predators, human beings have always placed a high value on security. We’ve driven most of our predators to extinction, but we still have other people to worry about. And microbes. And things that come from space. And, after all that, we still die. These are, realistic or not, things we must face. Horror allows us to confront them and assists us in considering “what would I do if…?” Clasen delves into an evolutionary theory of horror—we’ve evolved to need it. Negative emotions are some of the most ancient, leading us to self-preservation in a hostile environment (something our own government is teaching us anew even now). Watching or reading how people cope in such settings provides us with valuable information. In other words, horror is a learning opportunity.

From that perspective, it doesn’t feel so bad to have written a book about horror movies. I’m participating in the long struggle of humankind against forces that are out to get us. As with most things evolutionary, we need not know why we do them for the whole thing to make sense. Our brains reward us for behavior that is conducive to survival—we like to eat, sleep, and reproduce. Reward centers in our heads go crazy. Then we go to the theater to see the latest, greatest horror film. What may seem counterintuitive here is that we are engaging in a similar kind of activity to other atavistic survival techniques. Watching these movies, reading these books, (and for those who do so, playing these games,) has a basic biological utility. Who knew? And once I get brave enough to crawl back out from under the bed, I may feel better about myself for admitting I like horror.

After Dark

So many spooky things happen at night. If you’ve read much on this blog you’ll know I blushingly confess to a horror movie addiction. So much so that I wrote a book about it. Friends occasionally feed this fear by sending me stories of strange, nocturnal happenings that are frequently posted on the internet. All kinds of odd creatures roam the night: dog-men, goat-men, lizard-men (and they mostly seem to be male, for whatever reason). It’s enough to keep you inside once the sun sets. Of course, if you read this blog you know that I’m an extreme morning person. Sleeping in, for me, means getting out of bed at 4 a.m. instead of 3:00. Yes, it’s often dark at that time of day, and horror movies teach us that demons are particularly active around 3 o’clock. But then the sun comes up, and everything’s okay. Until the next twilight.

Now that December’s here, I find myself out in the dark more than usually occurs for a guy who gets up so early. After the time change—for which there exists no logical reason—it’s dark by the time I climb off the bus from my day job in New York City. The other day I was compelled to drive after dark. It was only just after 6 p.m., but that’s getting late for me. I scan the road looking for deer. A thought occurred to me—what if I see something weird cross the road? What would I do? A few moments later I was startled to see a woman and child beside the street. I was prepared to stop since—and this is apparently an unknown fact—it is the law in New Jersey to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. The young boy then made a dash in front of my car. The woman grabbed him and yelled. They weren’t crossing as they struggled at the roadside, so I slowed down but drove on. “That was weird,” my wife said, “that boy was in his bare feet.”

It was 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside. This wasn’t one of New Jersey’s famed haunted roads, even. It was a comfortably affluent suburban street. The image stayed in my mind. There’s only so much you can do when driving in traffic. Yes, it was night, but this is New Jersey—there’s always traffic. Did anybody else see what we saw? What was happening here? Why was I so afraid? Fear is the most honest of our emotions. Without it no organism could long survive in this hostile world. After nightfall even governments are at their worst.

Creating Annabelle

You might go crazy trying to piece it all together. The buzz for The Conjuring had a spinoff prequel, Annabelle, in the making even as the movie hit theaters. Love it or hate it, horror makes money. A more traditional sequel, The Conjuring 2, is leading to two further spinoffs, The Nun and The Crooked Man. And this summer a prequel to the prequel, Annabelle: Creation, came out. Only Annabelle isn’t really so much a prequel since it doesn’t have to do with Ed and Lorraine Warren. In any case, I finally had a chance to watch Annabelle: Creation and found it one of the more stunning examples of the genre in a long while. Intelligent, intricate, and slotted into the series in ways that required serious thought, it works as a stand-alone film or as part of a series. And, like much horror, it is deeply invested in religion.

First of all, the orphans moving into the Mullins’ large home are from a Catholic orphanage that has been closed. They are overseen by Sister Charlotte, so we expect religion to interdigitate with the horror here. Confession of sins, prayer, and crucifixes appear amid the unfolding lives of the girls in an isolated house inhabited by a demon. Some of the tricks we’ve seen before, but there’s enough new here to reinforce the thesis that religion and fear are close kin. Despite all this, and having a priest on call, no exorcism takes place. The doll, Father Massey declares, is just a doll. After the house has been blessed, there’s no need to fear. Of course we’ve already seen what comes next so we know the priest is wrong.

Some people watch horror to be scared. Others of us watch it looking for something a bit deeper. Not for everyone is religion a source of fear. We do, however, tend to cling to our beliefs because the world is such an uncertain place. We’re aware that we won’t last forever. Horror exploits that openly and without shame. Threats are constant and unrelenting, even if contrived. Religion is often a place to find consolation in the face of fear, so it becomes even more frightening when the place to which you’ve fled is the very place that’s out to get you. Annabelle: Creation is aware of this dynamic. The crucifixes, the Bibles, the prayers—none of this helps. What’s more, the girls manage to pull themselves together for safety when there are no men around. The real danger, after all, is inhuman.

Amityville

Surely one of the most controversial haunting stories of my own lifetime was that which came to be known as The Amityville Horror. After the tragic deaths of the DeFeo family in 1974, the next occupants of the fatal house, the Lutz family, claimed to have experienced 28 days of terror before moving out in the middle of winter and taking no belongings with them. Their story, written by Jay Anson, became a sensational bestseller. Published just four years after the unexpected cinematic success of The Exorcist, a movie was quickly signed and it was all the talk of my high school before I was quite at the stage of watching real horror films. By the time I got around to seeing the DVD, the tropes were so well known that it wasn’t really that scary. I realized that I had never read the book.

Whether you find Anson’s account scary or not probably depends on your level of belief in demons. Although he concludes his book with the suggestion that a combination of ghosts and a demon plagued the Lutzes and their priest, the focus of the narrative is clearly on the demonic. Fr. Mancuso suffers because the demon wants to keep him out of the house. The multiplication of flies, the constant waking up just after 3:00 a.m., and the smell of excrement all point to demonic activity. The book does have its share of historical inaccuracies and embellishments. It has been declared a complete hoax by some while others claim that at least some of what was described in the book happened to the blended family that called it home for less than a month. If you don’t accept demons, there’s little here to frighten you beyond a couple of benign ghosts.

As with any story claiming supernatural activity, we’ll never really know what happened. The Amityville Horror is often classified as a novel now. Our minds are conditioned to reject anything so terribly out of the ordinary that it is difficult to accept what you’re reading. The DeFeo family was undoubtedly murdered in the house by one of their own. The Lutz family did buy and then abandon the house in fairly short order for such an expensive purchase. There was a priest involved. The question marks hover about the supernatural elements, as they generally do. These are the ghosts and demons of the rational world which we inhabit. We safely confine them to fiction. Then we sleep at night with the lights left on.

Haunting Toyland

Although it hasn’t always been this way, one of the most characteristic aspects of the modern horror film is the sequel. Some franchises spin into countless sequels and remakes, until their iconic anti-heroes become household names. The Conjuring diegesis participates in this somewhat, but instead of having a repeat fiend, it’s a theme that comes up time and again, tied together by the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren. I’ve written about The Conjuring before, as well as The Conjuring 2. Prior to the sequel there was a prequel of sorts—more properly a spinoff—Annabelle. Not attaining the critical regard as its originator, Annabelle nonetheless did quite well at the box office, as horror movies often do. The idea behind the movie was to give some backstory to the doll that appeared in The Conjuring.

According to the Warrens, there really is such a haunted doll. Technically it’s not haunted. They call it a conduit through which a demon seeks to entrap a human soul. This past summer a prequel to the prequel, Annabelle: Creation, received higher critical marks than its initial installment. All of this is to say that I had to see the original Annabelle in order to try to make sense of this whole series. Despite its failings, the movie once again shows the interlaced nature of horror and religion. It opens in a church and the priest, Fr. Perez, makes several appearances in the story as the Form couple struggles with the demon inside the doll. Pregnant and vulnerable, Mia Form is traumatized when two cult members invade and then die in her home. Annabelle Higgins, one the intruders, dies holding the doll, bleeding into it. She and her accomplice are satanists, trying to raise a demon for nefarious purposes. (I suppose those are the only kinds of purposes to raise a demon, actually.)

The plot takes various twists and turns, never veering far from the main conceit that the demon wants Mia’s soul. I won’t give any spoilers in case any readers are even further behind in their movie viewing than me. Suffice it to say, this is one of the most thoroughly religious horror films I’ve seen. The Conjuring 2 will pick up the story again with the Warrens and a demon disguised as a nun (and a sequel to both The Conjuring universe and the nun are in the works). Critics are certain religion is dying. If popular culture is any measure, that conclusion is far from certain. Sometimes it’s a bit preachy, but it’s there in horror. Even a possessed doll knows that.

Making Excuses

Those of us who watch horror are often asked “why?” Many of us have a difficult time answering that question. To be sure, there are those who like thrills, blood, and violence, but some of us do not. We can’t seem to help ourselves—watching those in difficult, dark places hardly seems edifying, and yet we do it anyway. After reading Jason Zinoman’s book with the supernaturally long subtitle, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, I may have gained a little insight in my own case. Zinoman is a film critic, so he has an automatic excuse. What I found interesting among the narratives of the directors and writers of modern horror is that these were largely men who grew up with absent fathers. Not all of them, of course—demographics are never so neat—but enough of them to start to discern a pattern. The world can be a scary place without a father.

It’s no accident that some religions use the father image to refer to God. Amid the chaos and uncertainty of life that has evolved to benefit the aggressive, the more contemplative often experience fear. Having grown up without a father, I think I might have a better idea now about why I watch what I do. As I’ve often told family and friends, I do not like being scared. Startle moments in movies bother me. I don’t like blood and gore—I’m squeamish both in real life and in the diegesis of the film I’m watching. Yet something compels me to keep coming back. Is it related to the fact that many of those who gave us the classics in the field (and yes, there are bona fide, canonical members even in this genre) know this same sense of childhood alienation that I did? The missing father is, in our culture, a source of horror.

I don’t mean to overly psychologize what Zinoman is doing here. He’s telling the untold story of the auteurs of the field. Some of them are familiar and others less so. They tended to grow up reading H. P. Lovecraft—I’m more of a Poe fan, myself, although Lovecraft still manages to deliver an existential angst that will do in a pinch—and they found ways of expressing the anxiety of being alive. Most of them are highly intelligent people. Some have even been professors. They learned to tap a deep source of fundamental fear that speaks to some of us on a level that other emotions don’t. I still can’t say why I enjoy a good horror film, but maybe now I’ll be able to do so without feeling like I need to make excuses.

Theoretical Monsters

We’ve had a lot of rain lately. One rainy night over this past weekend I talked my wife into watching Dracula with me. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this classic myself. Difficult to believe that it was ever scary. This is the film that launched the horror genre that has become such a major part of the entertainment industry. It has the right mood for a rainy night. Movies were paced much more slowly in the 1930s, and viewers are given ample time to drink in what’s happening. In some current day films the cross-cutting in action scenes is so rapid that I really have no idea what took place. Dracula is slow, stately even. Thinking back, I believe this was the first monster movie I ever saw, so it has a resonance with me. When Renfield balks at the huge spider web in Dracula’s castle, the vampire quotes from Leviticus—“the life is in the blood.” Monsters are religious creatures.

A year ago in January, with the help of two colleagues, I proposed a new unit for the American Academy of Religion annual meeting—Monsters and Monster Theory. After working on this proposal a couple of months (strictly off work time for me), the new unit was declined by the academy. We decided to try again. This year our exploratory session was approved. The idea had come to me when I noticed that papers on monsters and religion had been on the rise, but there was no central forum to discuss them. They were like zombies without a shepherd. Not being an academic, I couldn’t start the session by myself. Now the society agrees that we’re worth at least one meeting room and a couple of hours to see whether the topic might become a recurring one.

Some people, I’m well aware, find this combination odd. Religion, after all, is about sweetness and ethereal light. Being nice to one another. Things like that. Monsters, on the other hand, inhabit the dark. They’re creepy and unsettling. They’re also wonderful metaphors for so much of life. What some of my colleagues have come to realize, and the academy seems to be backing us up on this, is that if anyone can understand monsters, religion can. Psychology will continue to try. Literature will continue to create them. Scholars of religion, however, are those who would like to bring some order to a chaotic world. We study monsters to learn about what it means to be human. It has been raining quite a lot lately.