Ask me: questions about horror from Vince (part one)...

>> Thursday, October 14, 2010

As the week's questions-and-answers session goes on, we come to the next item. Vince wants to know:

What is it about the horror genre that draws you to it? I read some books classified as horror, but find almost all horror movies either too graphic, too stupid, or both. What makes a good horror movie, in your opinion?

Wow. That's actually a pretty heavy set of questions to unpack. I've been trying to think of an answer to all of this since Vince posted it. Matter of fact, I think this is actually going to be a two-fer, two whole posts out of those two questions.

As for the first question, what draws me to horror? Well... wow, okay. I suppose there's probably some awful psychological tangle here to be untied: one might posit that my attraction to horror in its various forms goes back to a fairly miserable adolescence, and beyond the obvious fact that horror offers an acceptable-ish way to sublimate destructive impulses, horror also deals with facing and in some sense controlling various kinds of, for want of a better word, unpleasantness.

To take a pretty basic f'r'instance, the classic David Cronenberg horror flick The Fly is a cornerstone example of body horror, something that probably afflicts all of us to varying degrees through our lives and especially in those horrible teenage years when uncontrollable forces are twisting our bodies and minds into these new, unfathomable critters. Embodying that in cinematic form lets you do all sorts of things; what it lets you do if you're the person making The Fly is probably pretty obvious, but as the person who's watching The Fly you're also gaining control in various ways. You can eject the videocassette, for one thing. You can look at it and say, "Hey, however bad my acne is, at least my teeth aren't plopping out and I'm not having to eat by vomiting digestive juice on my food and drinking it up." You can watch the transformations happening to somebody else and get whatever perspective you want out of it. And so on.

Horror also, like most genre fiction, plays to empowerment fantasies. I don't want to belabor that one because you end up with a lot of horseshit about how everybody loves Dracula because who doesn't want to be Dracula, sexually vital and superstrong and irresistible and so on. Which is maybe true insofar as most movie versions of Dracula go, but insofar as the "real" Dracula goes, we're talking about a decrepit Satanic living corpse who looks like a rotting senior citizen when he hasn't fed, has a criminal physiognomy, and has to sleep in dirt. But Van Helsing, on the other hand, is a badass, and who can't root for Harker, Seward, Morris, Lord Godalming and the Harkers as they fearlessly face down malefic powers of darkness and unutterable evil and actually nail it to the ground with a hammer and big pointy stick?

Or, to summarize: horror may be the ideal genre for people with control issues.

That's the big ol' psychoanalytical explanation: I was unhappy, nasty stuff was an escape in various ways and a way of claiming control over things (at least imaginarily speaking). But there may be happier, less psychodramtic explanations that I'd rather dwell on. For instance, I kind of think gross stuff is neat. Which may reflect some other psychological defect, but, you know, whatever. I'm okay with that. Also, I have a really sick sense of humor, which, again, may reflect some deeper disorder but I prefer to think it's just a sick sense of humor.

That last bit sort of merits some unpacking, too: the line between sick-funny and sick-gross (or sick-scary) may merely be a matter of tone, which is why so much horror is played for laughs (e.g. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the Evil Dead movies) in a way that, say, science fiction really doesn't lend itself to. I don't mean that you can't have funny science fiction (see also: Douglas Adams), but funny science fiction (much like funny westerns or funny detective stories) tends to be science fiction-plus-gags, while funny horror tends to go directly to what's completely absurd about the situation itself (along with whatever gag). Horror and humor overlap, in other words, with the difference being tonal, and I have a wonderful illustration of it: consider somebody who survives a shipwreck and has no food whatsoever unless he resorts to cannibalism--is that funny or what? That's not a rhetorical question: is that funny or what? Because the answer depends on tone: that particular scenario is exactly the premise of a classic Far Side cartoon and a (in)famous Monty Python sketch, and it's the premise of a infamously nauseating Stephen King story (spoilers at link).

Thinking about that also suggests something else: that "horror" perhaps isn't so much a genre as it is a tone or approach. Written one way, a science fiction story about an alien entity impregnating the unwilling crew member of an interstellar space vessel and rapidly gestating is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and written another way it's a terrifying creature feature. (In fact, speaking of Alien and the difference tone makes, it might be worth observing that Dan O'Bannon recycled part of Alien's plot from his earlier comedy collaboration with John Carpenter, Dark Star: specifically, both movies feature extended and plot-significant sequences in which somebody is pursuing a potentially dangerous extraterrestrial interloper through the guts of a spaceship, which is handled as goofy slapstick in one movie and claustrophobic terror in the other.) This may be why horror lends itself so readily to "split-genres" (e.g. weird west); it's also why quite a lot of horror is classified as something else (the aforementioned Alien, the "thriller" The Silence Of The Lambs, et al.) while a lot of stuff that really isn't horror at all gets classed as horror because of traditional horror elements (e.g. Zombieland, which is essentially a road movie that just happens to have the living dead moaning around in it--ironically, considering the movie's title, you could almost take the zombies out of it and have nearly the same movie, although it would be much more obviously derivative at that point; oh, and lest you get the wrong sense from that: I loved Zombieland).

We'll pick up the next matter--what makes a good horror movie?--tomorrow, if that's alright. Thanks for the question!


vince Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 9:04:00 AM EDT  

Thanks Eric. An intelligent and interesting response.

I think you're right that, at least to some extent, horror is a tone. I hadn't really thought about O'Bannon's recycling of the "pursuing a potentially dangerous extraterrestrial interloper through the guts of a spaceship" from Dark Star, a movie that I really like.

I also agree that genre fiction plays to empowerment fantasies, although I never actually viewed horror fiction from that perspective. That may be because I wasn't really introduced to horror fiction until much later in life. My fiction of choice was science fiction from an early age. It combined my fascination with and love of science with my need to escape my life.

Eric Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 9:23:00 AM EDT  

Thanks, Vince.

If I'm not mistaken, O'Bannon even sometimes joked in interviews about Alien being a remake of Dark Star, which is a funny and interesting way to look at both movies, actually.

Random Michelle K Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 12:13:00 PM EDT  

Thanks Eric! That's a fascinating look at your mind!

But, I think there has to be something more to it than that (horror in general, not you specifically).

I cannot watch horror movies. Can. Not. Any horror movie I've watched--even if it was just part of a movie--has given me nightmares for months if not years.

A "friend" made me watch parts of Nightmare on Elm Street, and there is still a scene that gives me chills--not the blood or the gore, but the image of the bad guy coming through the wall like it was a rubber sheet. I'd lie in bed and could actually see the beginnings of something coming through the walls.

Same thing with zombies. I could clearly imagine them shambling through the woods and coming up to the house and breaking in the windows, dripping their rotting corpse juices as they went. I could imagine the liquid putrefaction dripping, and how it would feel dripping down my arm if I was grabbed by a mindless, shambling zombie.

However, I've discovered that some books I quite enjoy are sub-classified as horror--Simon Green's Nightside off the top of my head. While there are other books not specifically classified as horror that have freaked me the hell out. The Silence of the Lambs is one book, but the other was "Blonde" by Joyce Carol Oates, which is a fictional retelling of the life of Marilyn Monroe.

In fact, I think "Blonde" is one of the more disturbing books I read in my adult life, and there's nothing overtly scary or horrifying about it.

But reading about demons and vampires and werewolves and monsters? I find the descriptions fascinating. I loved Mary Roach's book "Stiff" which talks about corpses, and I'm fascinated by bio-terrorism and epidemics and can read detailed descriptions of what these biological entities can do to the human body (liquifying the organs? Neat! What's the cellular process for that?)

I've got more thoughts, but not for now.

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