In Defense of Horror

My shoes crunch the stale popcorn as we walk up to the movie theater. On a whim, we decided a movie was the best way to finish off our Friday night. The smell of butter wafts through the air and I could hear the sizzle of cooking hot dogs amidst the hum of neon lights and not so private conversations. My mouth was already salivating at the thought of munching on a movie-sized box of SweeTARTS.

“Okay, what do y’all wanna watch?” I asked as we stepped in line. One friend wanted to see the new comedy about a man who pretends to be a female contestant at a beauty pageant to pay off his mob debts. Another wanted to see the new action film starring Jason Statham who cuts a bloody path through Cairo to find his kidnapped god-daughter. My recently single friend wanted to see the tear-jerker about an arranged marriage that starts bitter and grows into love only to have the husband die at the end.

I let the conversation go on for a few minutes before gathering up my courage, “How about the new scary movie?” Pandemonium breaks out:
“No! I don’t want to be scared!”
“It looks so fake.”
“I won’t be able to sleep.”
“Are you crazy?”
At least the broken-hearted friend was met with polite groans when she voiced her movie choice.

Aside from my grandmother whom the gene was passed down from, I can count the number of people who enjoy horror on one hand. At most, my friends tolerate my macabre taste once a year during Halloween. “Fine, but not too scary,” they usually say.

Given the choice, most people prefer birthday parties to haunted houses and inspirational documentaries to sad news reports. We simply prefer being happy over sad, scared, or angry. We don’t mind sad love songs now and then, or aggressive team sports when the mood strikes. However, we seem to have an aversion to horror that borders on hostility, and religiously avoid situations in which there is the slightest chance of being scared. Sometimes we even become angry if we are terrorized. Many of us wouldn’t feel remotely comfortable scaring our acquaintances through pranks.

This disdain of horror makes it all the more powerful and sinister. For example, a person who doesn’t mind the doctor will have an easier time receiving a shot than a person who is terrified of everything medical. Further, when we avoid horror we also avoid the things we should be paying attention to. Take a person terrified of becoming fat. He may be so distraught by the idea he refuses to think about it. By not thinking about it, he will also not pay attention to what he eats or the condition of his body. He just avoids the issue altogether and is trapped in a state of perpetual anxiety while his health declines.

Horror is the mirror with which we express our outrage and are moved to protect what we cherish. We are startled into awareness. Show footage of greasy black sludge that used to be the town’s reservoir and people will begin to care about what local factories are doing to their drinking water. Hear young children talk about being beaten nearly to death because of the color of their skin and suddenly racial issues seem less abstract. The artist creates horror to first illuminate, and then to move us emotionally towards action. The latter may be as simple as asking questions we’ve never asked before or examining our lives at a deeper level. It may also spur us to take more monumental undertakings when we see a tremendous injustice.

Not everyone experiences horror in their lives and not every generation is faced with it. However, without a standard to judge our moral outrage, we are lost in a sea of relativism that often falls short of giving us the insight we need. If you’ve never experienced the consequences of a failing education system, how can you feel strongly about maintaining and improving it? How can you have a clear idea of what is needed?

Lives lived in ignorance, or worse yet denial, is dangerous both to the individual and society. If you don’t know about the child next door being sexually abused it makes your day easier but does nothing to improve the situation. If you don’t acknowledge the extermination of an entire people, it turns morality into a manageable conceptualization and no effort is needed on your part. Is it not often the case that those who have known neither hunger nor war are those who are usually the loudest in proclaiming no fear of them? If you’ve ever felt the knife-like pain in your stomach from crippling hunger, your awareness of such horror would make you less likely to walk past a starving child.

Real horror shatters illusional barriers with which we protect ourselves from the sometimes darker side of reality. This barriers also protect us from feeling responsibility for ourselves, our lives, and our world. True, there are gratuitous examples of horror media with the primary goal of entertainment. A naked woman being stabbed after running through the woods or a gory evisceration are just a couple examples. But these cases aren’t really horror. They don’t frighten you aside from the momentary jump when the killer pops out of the shower. They seek to distract and entertain, not to terrify. The true measure of horror is the unease felt by the audience long after they leave their seats and the examination of a value system taken for granted.

A good example of horror is a short film called “Attack of the Brain Sucker” directed by Sid Zanforlin. It begins in the bedroom of an adolescent girl playing with her classic horror movie figurines despite being repeatedly told by her parents to go to bed. While playing with “The Fly” and “The Thing From the Black Lagoon”, she hears a noise from the closet and stops her play to investigate. (This ignores one of the primary rules for staying alive in a horror movie: If you hear a noise and you’re alone, don’t try to find out what it is.)

The child creeps towards the closet and just as she slowly reaches for the doorknob, the door suddenly swings open and her older brother jumps out. His decaying face startles the audience but goes unnoticed by his younger sister. He grabs her and begins urgently saying they need to leave because their parents are about to take her to the same place they took him. She tells him to leave her alone and go away; their parents get angry every time he visits. He says he won’t ever leave and wants to protect her-that he’ll always be with her. He says again “It’s time to go,” and starts dragging her towards the door.

She starts fighting back and screaming when a noise catches their attention. A brain-sucking alien has entered the room and is making its way over. Her brother is no match for the alien and falls to the floor while trying to protect his little sister. Out of desperation, the little girl grabs a fire poker and swings widely, knocking the alien unconscious. She falls to her knees crying and the mother enters the room. As the scene pans out, the audience discovers it’s actually the father whom the little girl almost killed in a state of delirium.

In the next scene, the child is being held down in a chair by an orderly. Next door, a doctor is assuring her parents that this five-minute procedure is safe and will rid their daughter of the delusions and horror movie obsession she’s been suffering since the suicide of her brother. The doctor walks back into his patient’s room and picks up a long metal spike. He slowly walks over to the little girl who is screaming for help because all she can see is an alien coming toward her to suck out her brain. As their daughter screams and cries, the parents wait almost stoically next door. The father, to his credit, in mild concern calls out “It’s alright honey. Everything is going to be alright.”

While the audience is spared the visuals, we watch the doctor’s back as he suddenly stabs and starts stirring. We hear the screaming stop and a squishy sloppy sound as he works. The sound is similar to mixing a bowl of ground meat and raw egg with a metal spoon. After a few minutes, the doctor sits back and sighs in approval “There we go,” as he drops the blood-covered spike onto a nearby medical tray with a clang.

The girl, who appears comatose, is taken back to the car with a swollen left eye while the doctor eases the concerns of her parents about the after effects. From her dissociative point of view, sounds are muffled with cotton and sights are smeared with Vaseline. The last scene is the ghost-like delusion of her brother holding her hand in the backseat of the car, “I told you I’d never leave you.”

The film rolls: “On January 17th 1946, the first transorbital lobotomy was performed in a doctor’s office in Washington, D.C. The operation lasted ten minutes. It was believed mental illness would be cured as ‘easy as curing a toothache.’ By 1967, 2,500 lobotomies were performed in Canada and over 5,000 in the U.S. Over half were to children under 14 years of age. It wasn’t until 1977 that they were deemed illegal”.

What were the parents thinking? What was the doctor thinking? How could the parents have trusted the doctor? What happened to the little girl? The film turns the parent-child, sibling-sibling, and patient-doctor relationships inside out. It also examines the mental state of grief from the perspective of a child and how the mind attempts to deal with loss. Further, it illuminates how the grieving process is sometimes misunderstood by surrounding people. The medical profession isn’t painted in a particularly flattering light and a procedure once lauded as progress is made to seem barbaric. It makes you wonder what practices are used today that in twenty years will follow the same road.

Horror consumes what we value and spits out something mutilated. We are faced with the raw truth of our emotional landscape regarding what we take for granted, what we assume, what we deny, and what we neglect. Experiencing the horror of a murdered family through a novel, you realize the importance of your own family. You start thinking about how you should live your life in the best way according to that particular value challenged by horror. You start to think about how to be a better family member and take actions towards those ends.

Once we’ve looked into the mirror, we are forced to examine ourselves in full light. By experiencing horror in a relatively safe way, we learn about our own reactions to it. We can learn to manage and react in a way we deem virtuous. Rather than run, cower, or lash out in the midst of the chaos we can train ourselves to take a deep breath, center, and persevere. We become stronger people by paying attention to what we value and how to live accordingly. Every soldier shoots a gun before going off to war. Though nothing can thoroughly prepare for the real thing, each learns what a gun feels like and what a bullet being fired sounds like.

The various modes of horror allow us to explore the less pleasant aspects of our existence and come to terms with them. It allows us to come to terms with ourselves. Aristotle believed virtue was a practice and I agree. If you never do your homework, study, or go to class how can you hope to pass the pop quiz or even the final exam? Because that’s what life throws at us-random tests of our character and virtue. Difficult situations that test our metal and determine what kind of person we are. The results determine what kind of world we live in. How will you react if your boss wants you to cut corners on a construction project to save time? How will you react if you find out your local politician was embezzling funds from your child’s school? Living doesn’t just happen, it takes work. How can you know how to live and what world you want to live in if you’ve never thought about either? The allegories, the metaphors, the twists, and turns are all homework.

If we close our eyes out of fear, terrifying things are allowed to happen unchecked. Further, when we close our eyes to darkness we also lose our ability to see light. Beauty and light become out of reach if horror and darkness get swept aside. Each is inextricably woven into the other and you can’t strive for beauty if you don’t know how to distinguish it from horror. You also can’t know what your relationship is with light if you’ve never faced darkness. Read a news article about an abusive parent who was arrested on charges of negligent homicide and you’ll have a better idea of what it means to be a good parent. By opening your eyes to darkness, you become closer to the light.

All over the world, horror and anything associated with it is being thrown into the basement. We would prefer to live in a safe and predictable world in which we can disappear anytime through entertainment or distraction. But we don’t ever really disappear. We’re like children covering their eyes and thinking their invisible to the world. Whether or not we face horror, it still exists and if we hide from it our ability to face it is weakened. And a world without a sense of horror is a world doomed to embody it.