Horror Films Are Murder
By Ross Thompson
What Are You Looking At?
Why do we watch horror films and what is it about the creative mind that dares us to be scared, to see just how far our adrenaline glands can be pushed? The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology describes fear as:
Usually characterised by an internal, subjective experience of extreme agitation, a desire to flee or to attack and by a variety of sympathetic reactions.Yet, one wonders why anyone would wish to monkey around with such feelings, why the filmgoer longs for the biggest scare of their life; advance word of mouth on 1999's The Blair Witch Project was that it was the most frightening film ever made, and though this claim was somewhat dubious and ultimately unfounded, this sideshow call did not stop punters from flocking in droves to give their nerves a sound thrashing. In simple terms, filmmakers have come a long way since the days of the tacky Drive-In exploitation picture, learning along the way that as long as there are audiences queuing for the new scary ride, there are ways to exploit the darker recesses of the human mind and means of pushing the right schematic buttons.
Alfred Hitchcock summed up this argument succinctly when he said:
As far as I am concerned, you have suspense when you let the audience play God.Most of the reason that we enjoy a good horror flick stems from a rather sick breed of schadenfreude; since Jamie Lee Curtis first screamed her lungs out in John Carpenter's seminal film Halloween, the viewer has relished the idea of seeing characters onscreen in peril, partly for the thrill of the chase--knowing full well that the girl being chased up the stairs will find that the attic door is locked or that the window is too small - and partly because it makes us feel safe. At the end of a typical horror movie, the killer is in turn killed or the evil force is confined and somehow we can leave the cinema and return to our homes unafraid that the same thing may happen to us and equally unconcerned for the numerous victims that we have watched die.
In many ways, the horror film is much less complicated than the real world; the cinematic killer always has a valid motive for their actions, whether it be revenge, insanity or something of supernatural origin. In the real world, it seems that tragedies happen for no reason, or certainly not reasons as convenient as those lobbied in horror pictures. Therefore, we feel safe because we are allowed a sense of balance that is not readily available in our own society; until they turn up in the inevitable sequel, the killer is vanquished and normality returns to the sleepy, suburban town where the murders have taken place. In real life, the killer is not always caught or brought to justice; for many, the bogeyman or the big, bad wolf is still on the loose.
Do You Like Scary Movies?
Secondly, from a Christian point of view, it is strange that we should derive pleasure from watching other people in trouble. As viewers, we have become accustomed to the formulaic cliches of the horror genre, a make-believe world where God is only introduced in the form of stereotyped priests warding off demonic forces with large crucifixes. It seems that the devil has all the best lines; recent films such as End Of Days and Stigmata are tired, unsubtle examples of the genre, as they give more room to Satan and his hellish cohorts to flex their muscles and wreak havoc, but mention little of the redemptive love and immense power of Jesus Christ.
The horror film is a world where transcendence is not found in the birth and death of Christ, but in silver bullets and very large explosions; victims and indeed the killer are not treated as human beings, but as potential bodies ready to be bumped off in various gruesome ways, and this leads us back to the question of why we derive so much enjoyment from watching characters onscreen being led to their untimely deaths. At the beginning of Wes Craven's Scream, his clever-clever retake on the genre - a reinvention of his career that spawned numerous imitators - the viewer is faced with the familiar set-up; a pretty girl is alone in a house that is conveniently far away from any other houses and is soon taunted by a prank caller/s who asks her if she likes scary movies.
This line is both a question to the Drew Barrymore character and to the audience, a cue that very bad yet very conventional things are due to happen, that much running, screaming and blood on the patio will ensue. These scenes work to jar and disturb the viewer because they offer us a chance to peer into a horrible situation from the comfort of our seats; although this is soon knocked down by tongue in cheek humour, this is a dark form of voyeurism, a chance to stare at victims in trouble, a motif that has popped up in everything from Psycho to Jaws.
What About The Children?
This complicity would not be so unsettling if it was not teenagers who were at the core of these films. Children have always been exploited in art, literature and film as victims of one form of evil or another, whether it be the drowned child in Frankenstein or Cole in the recent intelligent shocker The Sixth Sense. Yet, in these cases, children have always suffered due to the misdeeds or neglect of others; the horror genre strays into more tricky ground because it implies that disaffected teens are bumped off because they have sinned. Teenage victims in films such as Halloween, Scream, and the dreadful I Know What You Did Last Summer series may contain the same cheerleaders and football jocks as Happy Days-like sitcoms, but they are now dealing with all-new lures of drug abuse, alcohol and sex.
It is a popular riff of the slasher genre that the chaste teenager always survives while those who indulge their adolescent desires are the ones who are murdered in atypically grisly ways. Though this has become something of an in-joke, it suggests that these teenage characters have sinned in some way and are being duly punished for their misdemeanour; in the horror genre, characters who succumb to sex have fallen and are killed off soon after or occasionally in the actual act of falling. The most outlandish example of this came in the form of the Nightmare On Elm Street series--also introduced by Wes Craven--in which children are afraid to go to sleep as a killer is stalking their dreams; their imaginative desires are turning to harm them.
The messages that these films send out are all wrong, as teenagers are tortured and erased for their sins, a moral that holds little optimism or hope. In the horror genre, sexuality is turned into something seedy and ultimately wrong, a factor of human identity that inevitably leads to harm. This goes deliberately against the fact that God blessed us with our sexuality as a gift, but always to be used in the right context of marriage. Secondly, this rather twisted portrayal of crime and punishment omits any of the hope of the love of Christ, which can redeem us from any mistake that we may make.
The question is why we choose to watch these pictures; it is strangely fascinating why we long to see other characters in trouble, why we long for more explicit bloodletting onscreen--something The Blair Witch Project neatly side-stepped--and why we term this concoction as entertainment. There is no doubt that everybody loves a good scare, but maybe we should look a little closer at the messages that these films are sending out. To paraphrase Hitchcock, we may be playing God, but we are not making a very good job of it.