When I was a child, I NEVER liked to watch horror movies or read horror stories. (And yes, I am treating film on an equal footing with written stories here. After all, film is also, in part, a written art-form.) I did not like to be scared, or be kept awake at night in fear of things that I knew were imaginary but that gave me the willies nevertheless. Fairly recently, however, I discovered the pleasure of watching horror movies on television where, now that I am well into adulthood, they do not scare, but amuse or interest me.
I much prefer the horror stories based on the idea of the supernatural since I don’t really believe in them. I generally dislike the ones about mad killers or stalkers because their existence in the world is more plausible. Even worse are the so-called slasher films apparently based only on a celebration of sadistic gore, which might encourage such in the real world. Yick and eek. That said, a couple of years ago, I finally watched Psycho and was fascinated to find it as much a crime/mystery story as a horror film, with an almost O’Henry-like twist when the Janet Leigh character is killed only after she decides to do the right thing (return the money). And the shower scene was much less frightening to me than it had been when shown alone in clips or trailers. This year, I even allowed myself to catch the tail end of Halloween, and most of The Nightmare on Elm Street (on T.V.), without ill effect.
Every year now, as a run-up to Halloween (one of my two favorite holidays, the other being St. Patrick’s Day–non sequitur: did you know that Halloween is also Samhain, the Celtic New Year?), I spend October watching whatever classic horror films I can find, usually on Turner Classic Movies. [Another aside: the first year that I did so, I was tickled to find that Buffy the Vampire Slayer had, in its very first year, toyed very playfully and creatively with almost all of them.]
In honor of today (October 31st), I shall briefly list some tropes and devices, natural and supernatural with which writers of the horror genre play:
1. “A basket full of kisses for a basket full of hugs”: variations on The Bad Seed (the sociopath who is charming and takes people in, but will kill to get what he or she wants; often presented, as in Poison Ivy or some of the Babysitter films, as the outsider who inveigles his or her way into a family in order to replace one of its members);
2. “Enquiring minds want to know”: variations on Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Frankenstein or The Fly (the scientist who becomes obsessed unto madness by his pursuit of experiments that the scientific community does not accept as valid, or whose experiments go awry, endangering himself and everyone else);
3. “Curiosity killed the cat”: variations on Pandora’s box (someone uncovers a long lost artifact or totem with dangerous properties attached to it–could be a poison; could be a curse; could be a spirit let loose);
4.. ..But why will you say that I am mad?”: variations on The Tell Tale Heart or The Turn of the Screw (stories that turn, ultimately, on whether the protagonist is the victim of supernatural happenings or losing their mind. Eg. In Theodore Dreiser’s The Hand, a murderer is certain he is being threatened with vengeance by the man he killed while doctors explain it as physical illness. Is it physical illness brought on by his guilty conscience or truly the hand of his victim?);
5. “That’s the thing about prophecies–they’re tricky…”: A prophecy is usually subject to misinterpretation. Greek myths about the oracles, and even Shakespearean plays (eg. Macbeth) are rife with prophecies misinterpreted or misunderstood by those who hear them. This prophecy problem is plainly referenced in the first season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, when Buffy goes below to meet the Master because of a prophecy that she will do so. But, he informs her that prophecies are tricky–if she had not come down, he could not go up into our world. Also, though the prophecy also states that, in the encounter, she will die, Xander revives her with CPR, and she then confronts and defeats the Master–who, apparently, has also not taken account of the trickiness of prophecies;
6. Vampires, zombies, cat people, werewolves: Zombies seem to me to be rather one-dimensional entities with not so much room for character development. Admittedly, my viewing or reading of this genre has been minimal. But the definition of a zombie–“a will-less and speechless human capable only of automatic movement who is held to have died and been supernaturally re-animated”–would support my view. Vampires and zombies are very popular these days. Though vampires have been somewhat more interesting than zombies, in my opinion both have—or should have–reached a point of over-saturation and subside for other tropes. Ditto the werewolves (except for Oz, of course!) But mine seems to be an opinion of one.
As presented on film, Vampires, cat people, and werewolves have a psycho-sexual context–the animal within us–that keeps them somewhat interesting. Though it would be more so if those that used them created some new interesting play with them rather than repeating over and over the same basic story.
There are many other tropes–the haunted house (or apartment, or old hotel); the spirit that calls one; spiritual possession requiring exorcism etc. The most interesting of these, I think, are those that are somewhat ambiguous, applying a psychological or philosophical underlay. (I found the Exorcist interesting not because of the horror but because of the priest’s struggle concerning his faith. Of course, I first saw it in black and white on a six by eight inch t.v. screen.)
Those that I find the least interesting are the attackers–be it Michael Myers or Freddy, who, like the Terminator, are machine or machine-like in that no matter how many times you do something that should kill them, they just won’t die and keep on coming. It may work in the moment to scare, but it is a cheap way to do so, without much more than that visceral fright to make it interesting.
There is much more that could be said or analyzed, but I have been tippling as I wrote the last part of this—my own unusual but pleasant and quiet Halloween celebration–along with much consumption of dark chocolate. And so I will end my post here and go off to watch the remainder of horror movies at my disposal this evening.
p.s. Alfred Hitchcok (whose horror has extensive psychological undertones) and Stephen King (whose works have extensive sociological undertones) would require entirely separate and extended posts for which, at the moment, I have neither time nor sufficient sobriety to address… . 😉