We shut the lights down, letting the TV flicker grey as the only source of illumination. I remember the scratchy blanket over our legs. Saturday night, soggy cookie crumbs slid down the glass, blue-tinged with milk residue. I was eight years old when I sat on that couch with my mother, breathing air sweetened by chocolate and dough, breathing sharp bursts as my whole body cringed. I shook my head back and forth, back and forth. On the screen, Zelda's spine had already twisted, the ghost Pascow had already warned Louis, and the child Gage Creed, freshly resurrected from cursed Micmac burial grounds, now gripped his father's scalpel in chubby knuckles. Gage had already killed his neighbor and mother; now he came toward his father, laughing, growling, but Louis was ready. He jabbed the syringe into his son's throat and forced the plunger down with his thumb. Gage howled, and it was a baby's voice that cried out.
"I don't like it, mom!" I said. "Stop it! Stop it!" I clutched the blanket to me, and she paused the VCR. Gage's face froze on the screen, distorted behind black and white fuzz bars.
"It's ok," she said and hugged me. "It's just a movie."
This wasn't my first horror film, not by a long shot, but this was the first time a movie bothered me. I'd seen The Blob, Halloween, Friday the 13th, but Pet Sematary was different. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees never hurt kids. Gage Creed, on the other hand, got creamed by a truck, then his dad stabbed him in the neck. I suddenly inhabited a different world, one where bad things could happen to children. I don't know how long we sat with the movie paused, but my mother and I stayed up, talked about reality, about living and dying, about fiction. She pressed play again, and we finished the last few minutes of tape with the lights on.
I'm a horror fan and have been for as long as I can remember. Something in my blood wants to feel terror, revulsion, and the anticipation of a jump-scare, but these traits are not unique to me. Horror stories have endured across continents and through millennia: the yokai terrorized Japan; the djinn scorched the Arabian deserts; the wendigo cannibalized North America. Though science now explains the natural phenomena and abnormal circumstances previously relegated to supernatural forces, even in modern society these stories thrive on page and screen. Though many sneer at the genre, considering it to be only one rung up from pornography, I propose that horror has true value. I argue that beneath the gore, horror hangs flesh on human fears, allowing us to internalize our mortality, and in doing so, it highlights our humanity and lifts us out of fear.
In his famous paradox of horror, philosopher Noël Carroll asks why some people purposefully expose themselves to negative images and emotions. When asked why he started watching, my uncle Ryan Crowe, an avid horror fan who has dabbled in ultra-low-budget filmmaking, stated that as a child, "I'd be really scared, but I'd be intrigued enough by it that I'd want to be scared again." This answer, I like to be scared, is the same direct (though incomplete) reaction most horror fans give when non-fans confront them with that broad question why watch scary movies? A better question would be why do people like to be scared? This is the question psychologist Glenn D. Walters answers in his essay "Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror Cinema." Here Walters states that horror's popularity is based on three factors: tension (generated through terror, gore, suspense, shock, and/or mystery), relevance (for example, exorcism movies probably won't scare a nonreligious person), and unrealism (the fact that certain creatures or events are impossible or improbable provides the psychological distance that allows enjoyment) (Walters 7-10). These three factors came together for me as a kid watching Pet Sematary. The tension I experienced came from the shock of Gage's circumstance, the gore of his attacks, and the terror I experienced as the film drew closer to its finale. Gage's young age made the story immediately relevant to my kid self. The unrealism presented itself in the resurrection curse and in the poor choices of the main characters; after all, people don't come back from the dead, do they? And who, in real life, would keep burying stuff over and over waiting for a new result? Though these primary elements are key, Walters warns, "asserting that these three factors account for the popularity of horror films is like arguing that people like candy because it is sweet" (Walters 18). Boiling horror's popularity down to these factors is an oversimplification. Every horror fan comes to these films with a different set of experiences and a unique set of fears that stem from personal belief systems shaped by their memories. Watchers may identify with the fiend or victim, have either high or low empathy levels, experience varying degrees of fear, and may seek or avoid physical sensation or physiological arousal. Therefore, the individual watches for any number of reasons. The broad scope allows faces to be drawn on his/her fears, identifying the terror source, so that the watcher can name and conquer it.
That naming a threat can give one power over it is an idea present in much folklore (such as Rumpelstiltskin), as the unknown or interstitial provokes a primordial sense of dread in humans who fear nonexistence, or death, above all. Philosopher and psychologist Stuart Hanscomb describes this in his essay "Existentialism and Art Horror," when he states, "We often look for truth in art, even if it makes us uncomfortable... fear and disgust are emotionally appropriate for an art form that in certain senses mirrors our ontology" (Hanscomb 15). These fears, at least in part, may have some survival benefits; for example, many may fear the dark (a form of the unknown), because enveloped in blackness, they cannot see potential predators. Fear of the interstitial, however, tells more about human nature, thereby leading to a better understanding of how humans relate to horror films. Horror villains manifest most often as in-between entities that defy categorization, and the viewer's inability to name or classify the beast is the reason that the monster is both feared and relatable. Frankenstein's monster classically embodies this interstitial nature; comprised of corpses, he is dead yet lives. Horror monsters, then, are literal interpretations of human enigma. Since fear stems from the unknown, using horror film to understand what scares us (including what scares us about ourselves) provides a weapon for overcoming fear through explorations in self-definition.
Film especially suits such exploration due to its inherent power to make its captured images significant, even without man's consent, as movie and TV culture expert David Lavery notes in "The Horror Film and the Horror of Film" where he describes all film as horror "at least potentially" (Lavery 49). "In the movies things have their way with man.the movies depict an almost inhuman world." He goes on to cite film theorist André Bazin. "The real force of the movies was 'centrifugal,' focusing not on man but rather throwing him outward into the frontiers of the world beyond the screen" (qtd in Lavery 50). Images on film, the ghosts that haunt each frame, declare themselves to the viewer; they do not ask for permission to be representative, even in benign movies. Power over these images, then, rests with the filmmaker, not the viewer, which constitutes risk when watching films of the horror genre. Director and writer John Landis explains in the documentary film The American Nightmare.
When you're watching a Hitchcock movie, and you are in suspense, you are in suspense as the direct result of being in the hands of a master, a master craftsman, who is manipulating the image in a way to lead you where he wants you to go, and I think that's kind of a comfortable scary feeling, whereas in some of the films we're talking about. the people making the movie are untrustworthy.You're watching it and you're not in the hands of a master, you're in the hands of a maniac!
Horror films are unique in that their success depends on their ability to cause unease, to pluck the viewer from comfort and lead him or her to a place she or he does not want to go. These filmmakers, disregarding film conventions and the emotional well-being of the intended audience (helpless, alone, and, for maximum effect, watching in the dark), present imagery akin to brutal invasion, forcing the viewer to internalize the ideas presented, which more often than not, spill over the boundaries set by society. Fear of death, of losing control, of being forgotten, all fears manifest themselves here, and it is up to the viewer, then, to decide how to confront these terrors, and so defend and define the self.
However, the triumph that comes from self-definition, from naming and conquering fears, does not apply to all horror fans. Many adopt a nihilistic attitude, as David Sanjek writes in "Fans' Notes: The Horror Film Fanzine." These fans "identify with repulsive imagery.no [character] escapes the taint of inherent depravity" (Sanjek 156). For these fans, according to David Pirie, "evil is inextricably twined with good, the [characters'] violence is circular, and ambiguous" (qtd in Sanjek 156). Rather than cataloguing their fears to triumph over them, many who approach horror in this way identify with the fiend because of its impurity, its interstitial nature, essentially acquiescing to this trait of horror film, fear, and (ultimately) humanity. These fans see civilization dying around them, in life and in film, and revel in its demise.
Whether watching through the lenses of nihilism or mastery, horror fans possess a unifying affinity for the genre, with especially strong ties to low-budget B-movies. Poorly made movies (real stinkers, I mean), find receptive viewers in horror fans, because, as Randall Colburn of B-Rated Movie Reviews says in Best Worst Movie, a documentary on the Troll 2 following, "What we want from film is honesty and sincerity. We want to feel like these people really care about what they're making even if it is really awful." Horror journalist M.J. Simpson continues, "That's why Ed Wood is still so highly regarded, because Ed Wood wasn't just making trash. He really believed in what he was making, and that makes a big difference" (Best Worst Movie). As an example, fans of Troll 2 have crossed state lines and international borders to attend sold out, standing-room-only screenings of this film they've seen many times before; they've made Troll--themed video games, written movie script sequels, and tattooed movie scenes on their bodies. Lacking the funds for quality effects, B-movie making relies instead on the creativity of the team involved in making the films. When a B-movie shines, it's not due to flawlessly written dialogue, artificially tanned actresses, or CGI; it shines because the filmmakers, actors, and crew invest their souls in making it gleam. Fans will gladly overlook plot holes and badly-delivered lines if they feel sincerity in the filmmakers' attempts. The sense of the "everyman" is prevalent in the horror genre, embodied this embrace of B-moves, and it is this egalitarian quality that speaks to fans, making the films attainable and inspiring fan-made short movies. Horror films, especially the B-movies, are of and by this earth, rather than the outer reaches of Hollywood cinema.
This viscera, this tangibility, makes horror a lasting presence in society and culture. Horror touches the most vulnerable parts of our imagination in a way that causes physiological responses. According to Crowe, "It's like a weird gauntlet of fear, knowing that you can be out of it in an hour and a half. That's what I love. The value is just going in there and letting out an emotion that you usually have to keep in, to be scared." When asked what specifically he has learned from horror, Crowe states, "I've learned what kind of person I am. I know what bothers me, what I can handle, what I can't." Director and writer Wes Craven supports this sentiment, describing horror as "boot camp for the psyche" (The American Nightmare). For Crowe, for me, and for many other fans, horror has led to greater self-awareness and articulation of fear. The genre has aided my understanding of real world horror and prepared me to handle difficult situations through mastering fear; it takes a lot to scare me now or to even make me anxious. When I watch horror today, I come to the films with a new set of experiences and from a different place than I did as a kid. When I watch Pet Sematary for the tenth time, it doesn't bother me that Gage gets put down at the end; that's his sleep, his release. What bothers me now are the adult fears, its representations of solitude, shame, and loss. I'm taken more by the little deaths in the movie's first half: the housekeeper's suicide, the inescapable memory of sisterly betrayal, the big red truck blowing down the highway, and that empty baby shoe skittering across the asphalt.
Lindsey Walker writes fiction, essays, and poetry from her home in Seattle, where she is working toward her bachelor's in creative writing. She has received two national League for Innovation Awards in the fiction and essay categories. Her work has appeared a little in print and a lot online, most recently in The Far Field and Third Wednesday and will be featured in the upcoming edition of Raintown Review. Visit her at lindseywalker.wordpress.com
The American Nightmare. Dir. Adam Simon. Independent Film Channel, 2000. DVD.
Best Worst Movie. Dir. Michael Stephenson. New Video, 2009. DVD.
Crowe, Ryan. Telephone interview. 24 Feb. 2012.
Hanscomb, Stuart. "Existentialism and Art-Horror." Sartre Studies International 16.1 (2010): 1-23. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Feb. 2012.
Lavery, David. "The Horror Film and the Horror of Film." Film Criticism 7.1 (1982): 47- 55. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Feb. 2012.
Pet Sematary. Dir. Mary Lambert. 1989. Paramount Pictures, 2006. DVD.
Sanjek, David. "Fans' Notes: The Horror Film Fanzine." Literature Film Quarterly. 18.3
(1990): 150-159. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Feb. 2012
Walters, Glenn D. "Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror Cinema: An Integrated-Interactive Model." Journal of Media Psychology 9:2 (2004): n. p. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.