When I was a child, I had terrible nightmares. Like, so bad I became a chronic insomniac because, well, it was simply better to be awake and tired than try to sleep and be woken up anyway by horrific images. I think I barely remember watching Alien when I was very young, but not all of it. Other than that, I really wasn’t exposed to anything that would cause me to have those nightmares, but I still had them. The most vile of which was a giant cooked lobster chasing me up a never-ending telephone pole. I guess I had a bad experience with seafood as a kid.
Somewhere in the early teens, I decided I had had enough. I didn’t like horror movies. I watched Nightmare on Elm Street through my fingers when I was twelve. Boy oh boy, that one did a number on me for sure because he gets you in your dreeeeaaams. I’d talked about horror movies with a friend of mine before where she described the scene in The Howling where the guy is digging into his skull and pulling out a bit of his brain. I remember her gleefully terrified tone, her hushed words. It was talking about something taboo, something forbidden.
Although we never had money, we did have HBO. Back in those days, that was a big deal, man. To me, it meant that I had unrestricted access to horror movies at night. When I sat down, I steeled myself to watch a movie, not through my fingers this time, but to really watch it. Every frame. Every image. And to remind myself that, “It’s only a movie.”
The movie I had picked was The Hitcher, starring C. Thomas Howell and Rutger Hauer. It helped because I loved Rutger Hauer from Blade Runner (which has its own horrific elements, but that I didn’t quite grasp the nuances at the time of watching). He brought the villain, John Ryder, to life for me in a way I have never gotten over. There were parts that grossed me out (such as Thomas’ Hawley almost chomping down on a finger in a diner), and parts that horrified me (when Nash got pulled apart by the semis; who cares if they pulled away? My overactive imagination let me know what that looked like!), but in reminding myself that it was just a movie, it didn’t scare me. Oh sure, there were thrills and horrors, but in confronting my fear, I defeated it.
No surprise, The Hitcher is my favorite movie of all time. I’ve watched it hundreds of times. I continue to watch it when I don’t know what else I’m in the mood for. It has imprinted itself on my psyche in a way that I’ll never forget. I may end up going senile and forget my husband, the love of my life, but I’ll never forget The Hitcher.
After that experience, I became a horror movie fan. I’m reminded of a scene in A Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon where the boy of the title runs into his (imaginary) friends who happen to be run down versions of the famous Universal movie monsters. How he’s comforted by the horrific. How they are his friends. That’s how I feel about my slasher movies, about my Jason, my Norman Bates, and my Leatherface, and my Jim Ryder, and yes, even Freddy. He might be the unruly guest at my mental party who breaks a window (dreeeaaaams) now and again, but he’s still welcome and a lot of fun to have around.
This is important for me in particular because I learned a valuable thing through horror: the only way to conquer your fear is to face it. That has applied to so many situations it’s ridiculous, and I learned it in a ridiculous way. There’s been several studies about why people watch horror, and one thing that it comes back to is the ability to face what is a scary in a safe way. Oh sure, there are some people who love the gore only. Those are the same people who watch the Faces of Death series with glee, something which I abhor. I don’t want reality; I want fantasy. There’s been studies about the sex-death link, and about the adrenaline rushes which come with watching scary movies. However, there’s been no one theory (or even set of theories) that cover why people watch horror movies. It turns out, somewhat magnificently, that everyone has their own individual reason.
My particular horror love comes in the form of slasher movies, with vampire movies a close second. (I have a thing about biting people, heh.) The slasher movie often has its own mythos. Look at the Friday the 13th movies, for example. The first one was Jason’s mom, but then the mythos took off as Jason came back from the dead. Each successive movie puts another spin on the mythos (sometimes to terrible effect, but it’s still canon). Each movie builds on it, making Jason into our modern day Hercules, in a way. We make myths out of these characters. Freddy’s another great example of the ever evolving legend. Michael Myers as well. But there are smaller slasher films which never give us an explanation of why the killer is doing what he’s doing, or if they’re supernatural or anything. The Hitcher is one such example (how does he get the severed finger into the fries? How does he always know where Jim Hawley is?), Black Christmas is another, and so is The House on Sorority Row.
The ever expanding mythos leads us deeper into the psyche of the killer most of the time, such as in the Saw series. I think that’s what gets some of us hooked: the story behind the story. We want to know why the killer is demented, to really understand it. There’s so much evil in the world that we don’t understand. I think the artists who make horror movies delight in figuring out the ways our psyches work, to give us a scare… and to help us understand and accept that these real life evil things happen. I think it’s their attempt to figure all of that out.
Then, there’s the art. Oh sure, there’s bad acting that’s often quite fun to make fun of, but quite often, there’s art and beauty in the actor’s performances. The fantastic acting is what made Get Out the hit that it is. The subtlety and nuances in the actor’s performances brought another level to a horror movie that might have been exploitative. There’s the cleverness of the script writers, trying to make the “same old horror tropes” new and interesting, like in Scream or Cabin in the Woods. In those, you can sense the writer behind the scenes giving us a bawdy, cheeky wink while they’re trying to scare you. Oh, and then there’s my favorites: the practical effects. Tom Savini is a god on Earth. He brought Mrs. Voorhees’ kills to gruesome life. When that arrow went through Kevin Bacon’s throat, I gasped the first time I saw it. It looked so real. The zombies in Dawn of the Dead? Fantastic! So unreal, but terrifying.
These people make the grotesque beautiful, and that’s something not a lot of people can do. They breathe life into people’s nightmares and hold them up for everyone to see. “Why are you scared?” they ask. “Is it fear of the Other? Of Nature? Of business? What do you see?” Just as many slasher films started out as moral tales--the final girl is always the virgin who doesn’t drink or do drugs, and the misbehavers get whacked--the message behind horror films changes from decade to decade. They reflect society’s fears in a way that is acceptable to society. Zombie films are almost never about zombies. They’re almost always social commentary. In the original Night of the Living Dead, it was fear of the Other in the form of racism. Dawn of the Dead it was consumerism. A character even observes that the mall, where the heroes are holed up, is a place that’s familiar and comforting to the zombies because it was a place they knew well in life. Day of the Dead it’s a reflection of the attitudes of the 80’s, that greed is good, and that the young will devour the old, as the new, evolving zombies devour the people in the film.
It’s not just zombie films either. Werewolves often symbolize the struggle within a man between his civil and feral natures. Vampires? The sex-death link. The Stuff, which is one of my favorite cheesy films, is about consumerism yet again. Slasher films are generally a fear of the Other. They’re modern fairy tales. They’re the warnings being told to the younger generation by the old, “Don’t step off the path. Don’t have irresponsible sex. Don’t do drugs. If you do, the Boogeyman will get you.”
In the end, horror movies are not just about getting a cheap scare--or at least they shouldn’t be. I do tire of the “loud-noise-sudden-movement” trick hack directors keep pulling. They’re about the story and what it means to you. They’re about confronting terror head on. They’re about heeding the warnings of our elders, and learning from their mistakes. They’re about discussing our society, and where our society is leading us. They are, ultimately, about people. They are about our fears and failings, and the struggle to overcome them. They are learning about the worst part of yourself, and choosing to deny or embrace it. And they are about our triumphs and victories when good does ultimately overcome evil.
Because even though I love a downer ending, good should always overcome evil in the end. The monster is defeated and the final girl gets away, ready to start her life anew having learned what strength she really possesses.
Alana Melos, Author: https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B00U2L1VNC?redirectedFromKindleDbs=true