That’s right, boys and ghouls-
Good for you.
That’s not something you’d expect someone to say about the genre, is it?
Sure, you might hear about horror “classics”. There are plenty of fans out there who’ll talk about their personal favorites. You might even hear critics fondly contemplate how certain horror flicks were telling of their times. But morally edifying?
Well that’s the argument I’m going to be presenting to you today.
Be warned- spoilers may follow.
Now this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to champion the macabre. I don’t expect it to be the last either- not considering the reaction folks give me when I say I enjoy the stuff.
And before we really dig in here- let me get the obvious out of the way.
Yes, a lot of horror movies are garbage. The slasher/”teen-scream” subgenres use cheap gore and excessive nudity as a crutch for plot. More serious attempts still rely on the same cliches that have been around for decades. Plenty are poorly acted and have production values that could be outstripped by a middle school enactment of Romeo & Juliet.
But that’s hardly unique to horror.
I don’t think you could even begin to count the number of lousy action movies, nauseating rom-coms, insipid indie-flicks, or toilet-humor comedies that flood our culture. And most of these squander money and talent that horror films can only dream of having.
Let’s be real here. Sex, violence, poor quality- these are not your issue with horror.
You just don’t like being scared.
To which you might say:
“Well no ****, Gordon (you eloquent ambassador of this strange and nightmarish land beyond the zone of our collective comfort)! Nobody likes being scared! What kind of twisted masochist actually enjoys being terrified? Why on earth would we subject ourselves to that?”
Well once again, dear readers- because it’s good for you.
But let me step back here a second.
The purpose of art is to have a dialogue between the creator and the audience. Anything- be it a painting, a book, a movie, or even a comic- is designed to create a conversation. And- just as with any good conversation- that might mean bringing up things that we’re simply not comfortable with. It means addressing problems in society. Failures within individuals. Humanity’s fragile place within the greater scheme of the universe.
You get the idea.
Look, if movies did nothing but give you what you wanted then Old Yeller would still be chasing off rattlesnakes and hogs in the Texan wilderness. We’d only have one incarnation of Doctor Who. Romeo and Juliet would still be sickening the citizens of fair Verona with their public displays of affection. The Titanic would still be serenely sailing the Atlantic and you can forget any movie dealing with war or genocide.
That’s the value of the horror genre. It’s a dare to-
-a challenge to watch ’em.
You’re being asked to confront evil. To stare into the abyss, and when the abyss stares back, you do. Not. Blink.
I remember back in college having to sit through a mandatory class on the history of Christianity. Near the end of the semester, we watched Romero– detailing the life of heroic El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero. In one of the scenes, a government torture chamber was shown. From off-screen (I emphasize: off-screen) we could hear the agonized wails of one of the victims. A girl a few seats over from me burst into tears and promptly fled the room.
I still remember how utterly and sickeningly offended I felt by that.
Dammit, this is a true story. People suffered while the pious and righteous did nothing to stop it. Get your sheltered butt back in here, sit down, and bear ****ing witness to it.
That’s the value of horror movies. They give us an opportunity to not only explore the nature of evil, but give us the preparation to stare it down.
Evil, dearly beloved, doesn’t like to be looked at. It thrives in darkness and in ignorance- the only places where it ever has any actual power. Drag monsters and mutants, ghosts and goblins, demons and djinn out into the light, and they lose all of their power.
“But Gordon, you resolute monument of defiance, we’re not actually dealing with monsters. Heck, depending on your theological perspective, you might not even believe demons are anything more than metaphors for the corrosive nature of evil!”
But that’s exactly the point here, folks. Any horror movie antagonist (any decent horror movie antagonist) is a stand-in for a very real problem. How many times have people flown into panic over real or imagined threats of disease, crime, war, immigration, race, or Dungeons & Dragons?
“But is horror the answer?”
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m a fan of satire, and I think you can work a good social message into pretty much anything. Heck, action-pulp masterpiece Machete was pretty much all about the issue of illegal immigration and day laborers (and the diverse use of machetes, of course).
But that doesn’t always cut it.
There’s only so much an action movie can do to comment on violence. There’s only so much that comedies can do to address the problems of sin- either personal or social.
People do needed to be shocked. People do need to be confronted with the things they’re so scared of. And fortunately for us all, the horror genre is standing in the wings, ready and waiting to oblige.
It’s the first step not being scared.