Night of the Living Dead.
You curl up, clenching your knees like a little baby. Your heart begins to pound in your chest and a sweaty, clamminess washes over your hands. For a moment your breathing stops and you have to remind yourself that you still, in fact, have lungs. Muscles start twisting into tight knots and you find yourself wanting to sink deeper into the sofa cushions. Slowly, ever so slowly, the camera zooms further down an empty hallway. And all the while you’re thinking, “Why the hell am I doing this? Aladdin is on Disney Channel right now.”
That’s horror right there, kiddos. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, and it’s utterly irrational. Who wants to sit through an hour and a half film where your body has muscle spasms as frequently as Justin Bieber makes the news?
Not to mention the fact that you most likely close your eyes at some point, which means you’re doing the opposite of what you paid to experience, which was to watch a movie. Finally, when the whole thing is over and the credits are rolling and that eerie silence fills the house, why do we then decide to watch reruns of Different Strokes in order to ease our minds before bed? Why even watch the horror movie in the first place?
I remember the first time I ever watched a horror film. That’s pretty much like saying, “I remember my first beer.” It’s something that has been seared into my mind so deeply that I know when I’m old and cranky and throwing my wife’s potato salad against the wall, I’ll sit around telling my grandchildren about how grandpa ran from the living room when his old man put on
Night of the Living Dead.
That opening scene in the graveyard will forever remain one of the scariest moments ever captured on a camera. Yes, it even tops Lady Gaga’s meat suit.
But, despite the fact that George A. Romero’s zombies ruined my tenth birthday party, I was hooked on the genre. For a while I wore the, “Fake It ‘Till You Make It” façade because there was something empowering about watching a horror film and pretending you weren’t scared. Say what you want about what too much violence or gore does to a young boy’s mind, but I was a glutton for horror as a child. When I started to take books seriously I discovered a whole new way of experiencing horror with writing titans such as Stephen King and Clive Barker. There was something about the thrill of being scared that felt exactly like riding a rollercoaster. And I loved every second of it.
This little write up isn’t about my journey from being a scared little boy of ten to being a scared young adult of twenty-three. Because, if I’m being honest, not much has changed other than I now have a degree that says I can talk about films. I’m still scared by men in hockey masks and doors slamming in hallways. I always will be. Even the found footage binge that Hollywood seems to be so hard on for right now scares me. No, this little article or whatever you want to call it, is about why we need horror.
I know I just summoned the curses of a million middle class mothers right there and I want you to know that I will keep that badge pristine and shiny on my chest. But, for those of you who are still with me at this point hear me out: we need horror. Not because humans need to be exposed to killing or gore or Jack Nicholson, but because we need to see two things: ourselves and the unknown. I’m worried that the genre I’ve come to love and even attempted to recreate is too often viewed in a dismissive light. Hell, at times it even gets blamed for the actions of others despite the fact that horror has long since had an outlet, even before the invention of film. So that’s why I’m here to stand with my arms full of horror magazines and plastic fangs. To pose to you why we need horror in our lives.
When we truly examine ourselves, I’m talking about that man in the mirror moment, we find a lot of things we don’t like. There’s a certain horror in realizing you have the same bone structure as Marilyn Manson or that your eyebrows will soon merge into one and you really have no athletic ability to make it look “cool”. It’s been said, both by authors such as Joseph Conrad and William Golding and movie directors alike, that there’s a certain inherent darkness living inside every person. And, if pushed far enough, that darkness will want to see what this world is all about.
It’s within this deep node of darkness that masters of horror are able to reveal to us a lesson we would otherwise ignore. Because really, at the end of the day, who wants to actually know if they’d saw off their own foot or murder a kitten to save himself? But, that’s what great horror does, it reveals and elucidates that darkness inside of every person, not just the serial killers that don hockey masks. And this isn’t a bad thing, you must understand. In this life, when self-discovery is so often set by the wayside in order to indulge in more fantastical things such as that whole can of Pringles I ate last night, realizing that everyone of us is as capable of destruction as George Lutz is actually quite empowering. It’s a side of humanity that you only casually see when you turn on the news, but even then you must sift through all the political dogma to see the real story.
In a way, this self-reflexive horror can aide a society so plagued with crippling mental health and prescription drug abuse. We need horror because it’s a part of the human experience and, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, a part of human nature. By allowing films made by brave directors who are willing to shed some light on that black ooze dripping from the deep recesses of humanity, we are able to then understand ourselves just a little bit more.
But, then there is this matter of confronting the unknown. This approach is a little harder to nail down since, well, we’re dealing with the unknown. Some of the greatest horror films I’ve ever watched (i.e. Blair Witch, Tunnel, and yes Paranormal Activity) never revealed their monsters to the audience. It’s commonly understood in the horror realm that if you create a monster with 10,000 teeth the audience will want a monster with 20,000. Of course there are the iconic monsters and devils throughout history that we love to look back on fondly when we’re sipping red wine by the fire. But, that’s all we feel, a pleasurable fondness of the monsters of old. We aren’t horrified or wetting the bed like R-Kelly’s sheets.
So what has horror offered that’s fresh and will haunt your dreams and deprive you of sleep? They show you the unknown. Who actually knows what a demon looks like? If you do, then don’t tell me because whatever you show me will never be as horrific and ghastly as the creature I’ve imagined living under my bed, waiting to grab my ankles. This is a beautiful and exciting thing that horror constantly offers its viewers. We are confronted with the unknown and forced to do battle with it vicariously through the poor saps on screen.
And again, I will firmly say that we need this. Because life is a great unknown. Just the mere task of waking up and wondering what’s in the cabinet for breakfast is a glorious unknown. From small to big and menial to life-altering, life doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of clarity. It’s kind of like watching Kanye West. But, that’s what horror lays claim to, a firm awareness of the unknown. I won’t say that horror directors understand the unknown because that would be a terrible oxymoron and I feel like I’m already committed to a similar path by trying to defend the genre. But, I will say that writers and directors alike have some acute awareness, some intune- ness, with the invisible in our lives.
Well, it seems high time for me to step down off of my soapbox and get back to figuring out how to squeeze a demon into a cement truck. I hope this casual rambling has at least enlightened some of you to viewing horror under a different light. Now, whether that light is darker and more ominous than before is completely up to you. As for this horror junky, I will always be that scared little ten year old sprinting from my living room both in fear and awe at what I’d just witnessed.