Tag Archives: horror movies

Come Forth

the_lazarus_effect_2015_film_posterHorror movies provide a strange consolation at times such as this. When evil has overtaken democracy, it’s almost like strategy, watching how fictional characters deal with things that are wrong, things that are too close to real life. The Lazarus Effect has been on my watch list since the last sane presidential administration, but need finally dictated that I watch it. The premise is clear from the title—Lazarus is universally known as the dead man who came back to life. A group of medical researchers at a university in California find a way, through direct stimulation of the brain, to bring dead animals back to life. The idea is that they will give surgeons more time to resuscitate critical patients if they can get the formula right so that it works on people. An evil corporation steals their discovery and they have just a few hours to replicate the experiment to prove they are the ones who perfected it. Predictably one of them (Zoe) dies and her fiancé brings her back to life. Mayhem ensues.

Those who’ve seen Pet Sematary will find many similar ideas covered here. Those who come back from the dead are somehow distorted versions of their former selves. Those who do the resurrecting end up dead at the hands of the modern-day Lazaruses. There’s not much unexpected here except that Zoe, a Catholic, ends up in Hell. There’s quite a bit of talk about religion versus science—what really happens when you die. Zoe, despite being a practicing Catholic, has never been forgiven for her childhood sin of setting a fire that killed some neighbors in the apartment building. Religion and horror sharing the screen is something fairly common, but it is seldom as forthright as it is here.

Resurrection—necessarily a religious concept—is a frightening prospect. Horror films have shown many times that this is a miracle that just shouldn’t happen. At least not on this plane. (Those who’ve watched Re-animator know how bad the consequences could be.) Scientists, generally unbelievers in the cinematic world, just can’t accept either an afterlife or death. Using technology to challenge a godless fate, they inevitably end up losing. So it is in The Lazarus Effect. Some biblical scholars have suggested John’s rendition of the story is a kind of biblical horror tale. I mean, Lazarus had been dead four days in the warm climes of the Holy Land. His resurrection seems to have ended up well, however. Then again, there is an inherent difference between science and religion. Neither one, however, is now really in charge.

By Any Other Name

nakedundeadGood and evil. Well, mostly evil, actually. No, I’m not talking about Washington, DC, but about horror movies. Cynthia A. Freeland’s The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror is a study that brings a cognitivist approach to the dual themes of feminism and how horror presents evil. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Like many philosophers Freeland is aware that topics are seldom as straightforward as they appear. Feminists have approached horror films before, and other analysts have addressed the aspects of evil that the genre presents, but bringing them together into one place casts light on the subject from different angles. Freeland begins this process by dividing her material into three main sections: mad scientists and monstrous mothers (which allows for the Frankenstein angle), from vampires to slashers, and sublime spectacles of disaster. Already the reader can tell she’s a real fan.

One of the simplistic views of horror is that these kinds of movies—particularly slashers—are misogynistic by their very nature. Feminists, including Freeland, question that assumption. Horror is a genre with a decidedly checkered history. Some films do feature mostly female victims to male monsters. Not all do, however, and even those that do may be saying something other than the obvious. Looking for the locus of evil in these movies provides a lens that focuses the meaning somewhere other than the surface. This is one of the benefits of philosophy—probing questions may be asked and unexpected answers may result. Along the way you can have a lot of fun, too. Especially if you watch horror movies.

A large part of the criticism probably arises from the fact that film making was, for much of its earliest history, run by males. That’s not to say women couldn’t do the same thing men were doing, but the opportunities simply weren’t there. Most film makers, I expect, have trouble getting out of their heads to think about how someone of a different gender might perceive this kind of movie. Fear, we are told, is “coded” feminine. It seemed natural to such film makers to put the female in peril since both women and men would respond to it. Since then it has become clear that fear isn’t coded for gender. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of modern horror is that we all have cause to be afraid. Fear is no respecter of gender. Freeland’s analysis, now getting on in years, correctly looked ahead in many respects. Especially concerning the ongoing presence of evil.

Hopeful Horror

joneshorrorI don’t make New Year’s resolutions. To my way of thinking, if I’m aware I’m doing something wrong, I try to change it at that point, rather than waiting. Needless to say, then, I’m up to my old habits of reading about horror movies. Actually, Darryl Jones’ Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film goes a bit broader than just the cinema. As the subtitle indicates, this charming book also addresses narrative fiction as well and the result is quite engaging. Divided thematically, Jones considers the various types of horror without delving into pretentious theorists to give him academic credibility. Here is a true fan who’s capable to sharing the excitement of the genre. Along the way, accompanying the usual observation that horror and religion share considerable conceptual space, he makes the point that in movies horror is one genre that makes use of academics as characters of authority. Sure, there are others, but in this realm to be educated is a benefit, whether the plan is to take over the world or to stop some evil force from doing the same.

I’ve been watching movies that can be broadly classified as horror since I was young. And I had admired—emulated to some extent—the professors and scientists I saw in those presentations. When a monster was on the loose, you went to find an expert to learn what to do. At the risk of contradicting myself, theorists have been suggesting that one of the problems with post-truth is the death of expertise. Anyone can be an expert these days. The question, “Why should I listen to you?” is on every self-appointed smarty’s lips. Earning a doctorate, the horror world tells us, gives you access to some kinds of knowledge that others don’t have. Problem is, zombies don’t respect such learning. They only want brains to consume.

It never seemed to me that watching horror was a means of learning. As a kid escapism is part of everyday life—taking things seriously is for adults. Growing up, however, I kept my love of scary movies in reserve. Little did I realize that it was a form of training. Now university-affiliated academics are finally able to begin admitting that they find monsters compelling. More than that, they actually learn something from them. Although not a resolution, I see myself reading further books about horror movies this year. It may be a naive hope, but it would be wonderful if they were all as insightful as this one has been.

Possessed by Work

Now that I’m safely ensconced back in the daily work routine, I spend some time thinking of the scary movies I had time to watch during my “free time.” Well, I actually thought about them then, too, but I had so many other thoughts to write about that I kept putting it off. That, and the fact that some of the movies were about demonic possession and the juxtaposition of holidays and demons just didn’t seem to fit, kept me from expounding. Why watch such movies at all? It’s a fair question. I tend to think of it as part of a larger thought experiment—wondering what such movies might tell us about being human.

stanthony

A few weeks back I wrote about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, based on the true tragic story of a young woman who died after a prolonged exorcism. After that I watched The Last Exorcism, The Rite, and The Possession. (I’m such a cheerful guy, as you can see, and this may be why I inhabit an isolated cubicle at work.) This array of movies, held together by the common chord of the reality of demonic possession, also brought together the standard sociological division of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. The Last Exorcism is a Protestant-based treatment of what is generally considered to be a Catholic subject. That connection is affirmed in The Rite. The Possession, however, gives us a Jewish demon and a rare representation of a Jewish exorcism (acted by Matisyahu, no less!). What emerges from watching all of these films together is that demons are an inter-denominational problem, even in a scientific world. Carl Sagan wrote about the demon-haunted world, and it continues to exist, it seems.

But these are movies we’re talking about. Not reality. Nevertheless, The Rite and The Possession are also said to be based on true stories. We do live in a mysterious world. Evolution has developed reasoning as a practical way of dealing with life in a complex ecosystem. It is a survival mechanism. So is emotion. We sometimes forget that both thought and feeling are necessary for survival in our corner of the universe. Neither one is an end in itself. We can’t quite figure out how these two features of the human brain work together. There are, in other words, some dark corners left in our psyches. I suspect that’s why I find such movies so interesting. They’re not my favorites, but they do serve to remind us of just how little we know. And that’s a scary thought, given how we’ve learned to possess this planet.

Engendering Fear

menwomenchainsawWe live in fear. At this point in history, it seems, with good reason. Horror films, apart from being considered low art, teach us to deal with some of these fears. I hadn’t been reading about the genre for very long before I began to notice the repeated references to Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. This is Carol J. Clover’s seminal study of gender theory and horror. Probably best known for first identifying the trope of “the final girl,” Clover gives much more than that to the conscientious reader. Her chapter on possession movies is among the most insightful that I’ve read. And yes, she does make a very good case for the final girl.

Using theories of gender, she explores why both boys and girls (the former numerically more obvious) flock to such disturbing movies. Although she suggests masochism has something to do with it, is isn’t simply that boys enjoy seeing girls suffer. Quite the opposite. Boys often see themselves in the place of female victims. As with most things associated with gender, it’s far more complicated than it seems. In that sense, this is a book for our time. We live in what George Banks calls “the age of men,” and while Mary Poppins can hardly be called horror, the underlying narrative bears some warning tones. Men, left to their own devices, will seize what power they can grasp. We’ve spent the last five decades teaching men that this is no longer appropriate, only to have that message wiped away with the final trump. Horror can be remarkably pro-feminine. Business, as we’ve seen over and over, is less so.

Not having ever formally studied gender theory, some of the intricacies of Clover’s argumentation were no doubt lost on me. I was, however, able to gather a remarkable amount of appreciation for the subtexts in many of the movies I’ve watched. Gender, you see, touches everything we do. It behooves us to be aware that careless, or thoughtless support of misogyny does not lead to the results that many men suppose. Some horror movies are truly difficult to watch. Not all conform to the standard expectations. What Clover has shown, however, is that often the women are able to draw from a depth of strength to which the male characters lack access. They don’t do so willingly. In fact, they are often reluctant. When the horror is at its end, however, the final girl emerges triumphant.

United Hates of America

horrorfilmHorror comes in many forms. Some people may wonder why I watch horror movies and read scary stories. The election results tell the story. As we descend into four years of horror, I was reading Peter Hutchings’ The Horror Film. At least I feel somewhat prepared. Or course, I’m still in shock. So I turn to horror shows. One of the things I found in Hutchings’ book was the idea that this kind of movie is a collective nightmare. The thing about nightmares is that sometimes reality is even worse.

It’s difficult to think straight sometimes. When I was a child I was taught that hatred was evil. Hate itself was a bad word, close to, maybe even worse than, swearing. What horror shows us clearly is that hatred leads to results we’ll only regret. Being bullied because you’re a little guy, or because you’re female, or because your sexual orientation is different, is something far too common. It seems it may be institutionalized now. No wonder so many horror movies take place in insane asylums.

Don’t mind me, I barely slept. I woke up in a country I no longer recognize. Or maybe recognize a little too well. The thing is, I feel sorry for Peter Hutchings’ The Horror Film. It is a worthy little book. I learned a lot from reading it. In fact, some of what I learned may come in very handy in the next few years. Zombies, after all, are called the walking dead. And I can’t really see the future at all. Maybe I’m just waiting for the curtain to part. Maybe I’m still asleep. I’ve seen enough horror movies to know how that scenario ends.

Frightening Faith

sacred-terrorBack when I first started this blog, I regretted that I had read Douglas E. Cowan’s Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen so long ago. You see, I try hard to post on a specific book only once—there’s really no rule about that, but I read a lot and don’t like to play favorites. Since it had been a year or two since I’d read it, my memory was a touch hazy about the details at the time. I did a post anyway. Now that we’re in the thick of fall, and my daily commute both begins and ends in darkness, I decided to read it again. This particular book is validating for a guy like me. Many scholars feel they need to apologize for such low brow peccadilloes as watching horror movies. I mean, don’t scholars read all the time? And when they’re not reading, surely they have better things to do with their time than watch cheesy exploitation films? My generation, however, has started to come to terms with this basic disconnect. A few of us have somehow made it past the bouncers.

Cowan’s book is the one I first read that dared make explicit what many of us feel—religion and horror are not so different. As a sociologist of religion Cowan brings a specific lens to the subject, and his book analyzes different societal fears (sociophobics) that these movies address. And even though he admits being a bit squeamish, he brings an impressive number of films to the table. The fears of hoi polloi, it turns out, are often the very same ones religion seeks to redress. After reading his book the first time, my list of must see DVDs grew. The same happened this time around.

It requires a certain maturity of character to both realize and admit that horror meets a deep need. We don’t like to feel vulnerable. More than once, armed with my Ph.D. and years of training my rational faculties, I’ve still ended up sleeping with the lights on. I can tell fact from fiction, but there’s an itch that horror scratches which other genres just can’t reach. As much as I enjoy science fiction on the screen, its debased little brother has fingernails just the right length. As Cowan points out, fear is one of the primal human emotions. The world we’ve constructed hasn’t eliminated fear—although I can’t recall the last time I saw a cougar or wolf in the wild—but has constructed it as more of our own making. In our own image, I might suggest. And since nobody likes to be alone during a scary movie, it gives me some comfort to know that Dr. Cowan is out there, somewhere, watching with me.