Thursday, October 31, 2013

Is a Good Scare Bad? Or is a Bad Scare Good?

I've been a horror fan since shortly after, or possibly before, birth.

However, I don't find a lot of modern horror to my taste.

I'm not into the shock for the sake of shock done by cruel humans with no supernatural influence type horror.

I view the Hostel or Saw series, Honey Boo Boo having her own show, and movies about people who spend the whole film overcoming impossible odds for a forbidden romance, until one dies in a non sequitur at the end exactly the same way.

It’s a disturbing idea.
It’s kinda stupid.
And I don't have the time or inclination to bother with it.

I prefer my horror with fantastical elements, and  tinged with fun, where you don't know whether to laugh or scream:

Irving’s colonial "Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Whale’s iconic Bride of Frankenstein
Steven King's terrifying It 
Baker and Landis's violent American Werewolf in London
Yuzna's gore filled Re-Animator
all have that in common.

I think that Evil Dead 2 is the greatest film in the history of the cinema, but I didn't bother seeing the remake of Evil Dead, because they ratcheted up the “nasty” while taking the fun out of it.

Of course I also like the Hellraiser series, which could blow this whole idea out of the water.  I guess for that one it's more the creative fantastic elements in it, plus if you squint in a really demented way, Pinhead does have a deeply twisted sense of humor.

Having said all that-

Horror is much like an Amusement Park thrill ride.
It is a way to experience certain kinds of emotions in a safe and controlled environment.

I love the storylines and high speed twists of Expedition Everest and Rock and Roller Coaster, but find the typical carnival Tilt-a-Whirl boring.
Plus it makes me throw up.

I would not, however, consider banning the Tilt-a-Whirl from my local carnival, or denying those who enjoy it from riding.

Horror movies, thrill rides, and yes, play violence all have important beneficial effects on the minds of those using them to experience those emotions and sensations in controlled and safe situations.  Certain people enjoy different “thrills” to access varied levels of those feelings.

I support the rights of those repulsed by horror films to ignore their existence, just as I support the rights of those who prefer material that I would find disturbing, or unpleasant to watch what they want.

Here’s a quote found by Joe,  a fan of  the types of horror that aren't to my taste.  Most of this post is ironically due to conversations with his wife, a favorite cousin of mine who doesn't find any enjoyment or merit to the genre.  As often as possible, I like to converse with or listen to intelligent people I don’t agree with on a topic.  It helps me to really understand the viewpoint I have, and sometimes it will cause a change if warranted by increased knowledge.

Any time I see those who are not fans of a genre or style advocate those who like it to stop because the non-fans deem it worthless I get worried.  It reminds me of thought processes that lead to book banning or causes used by folks like Fredrick Wertham who nearly destroyed the comic book industry.  It inevitably sends me into long faux psychology posts like this one. Sometimes with as many links as possible to previous similarly themed posts.

Anyway, here’s the quote I alluded to before delving into a deep level of self-reference.

"To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It's about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we're not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear. And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I'm talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don't do these things. It is a genre that's full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things."  
Scott Derrickson director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Joe added his own thoughts as to the merits of horror as well. Keep in mind these words come not from a raving lunatic loner, or even (in spite of his name) an occasionally dangerous in times of boredom Up the Lake Joe, but rather a caring husband and father of three who has a successful technical and executive career.

" I am proud to be a fan of the horror genre and I tell you without shame or remorse that I would choose a horror film over a romantic comedy any day of the week. As a matter of fact, my fear is that many of the so called "chick flicks" are more harmful to society than American Horror Story. These films can encourage young girls to be less independent and to feel as though they need a Prince Charming by their side to face the challenges of the world. From my vantage point I think Jamie Lee Curtis' character in Halloween, Jodie Foster's Clarice from Silence of the Lambs or Sigourney Weaver as Aliens' Ripley provide far better female role models. Strong women who successfully face their fears and the evil around."

There are many merits to the classics of the genre, but what about the direction it's headed in?

There seems to be a giant concern that horror continues to get worse and worse. That is, it is becoming more graphic, more disturbing and more deranged as time passes, and therefore harmful to the public psyche at large. While there are movies and shows that display greater levels of real terrors and greater damage of supernatural horrors, I don’t think it’s truly the descent into the depths it has been characterized as.

I’m using hearsay and generalizations now, which I know I’m not supposed to, but this isn’t a sociology thesis, it’s a feeble attempt to cobble together a series of random thoughts for an on-topic Halloween post.

Some look at the increase in the realism of horror as an example of the decline of civilization, and assume we’re heading down the path of live executions. 

Here’s the thing, though. 
There used to be live, advertised, public executions, on display for entertainment all the time.
Now there are only pretend ones for entertainment in horror movies and shows.
I think that counts as progress.

More importantly, and with actual references instead of a made up one, I don't think horror is necessarily getting “worse.”

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (an acclaimed short story from 1948) screwed me up and disturbed me more when I read it in school than any of the myriad of cheesy horror flicks did in my entire school career during the 1980’s.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote about truly vile deaths and tortures, and receives high praise and historical significance for it.

H.P. Lovecraft presented indescribable evils (then described them!) and is known as a literary pioneer.

Humans have been able to come up with stuff as disturbing and sick as the punishments in Hell from Dante's Inferno (a section of the Divine Comedy, for the literature nerds out there) since before it was written in 1308.

The big difference now is that we finally have good enough special effects to film it properly.  

I think the biggest problem with horror today is not that it’s getting more disturbing, but rather the same as the biggest problems with almost all modern forms of media.  A lack of enough good writing and imagination to fill the amount of time needed with eight gazillion movie theaters, television channels and on demand networks.

A major part of that problem is that everything is continuing stories now.
Whether it’s a TV series with overreaching season arcs, or an endless parade of movie sequels, horror tales inevitably turn into a cascade of more and more horrible things happening to the same people.

The stories inevitably descend into a constant Corsican Brothers like state of:

And then this bad thing happened and then that worse thing happened and then the dragon came and it ate us... No, no, no it didn't eat us.

We really need a bunch of talented writers to get together and make a new Twilight Zoney type spooky anthology show.

Some of today’s  “realistic” horror films strike me as the writer just chose pages out of Tom Weller’s Book of Stupid Questions.

Stuff like - “Would you rather slide down a razor blade into a barrel of iodine or drink a bucket of monkey snot?” 

Then they tossed characters in those situations and show us their injuries and screaming.

Many of the new horror tales, again in my generally off kilter opinion, seem like they only had enough of an idea for a single EC comic book story, or one Twilight Zone episode, but they stretched it to an entire movie,  or worse, a series.

Even great ideas can be stretched to awfulness.  The Twilight Zone suffered a loss in quality during season four when it was stretched, against Rod Serling’s wishes, to an hour.
(Except the one with Robert Duvall in the Dollhouse. Yes Mom, I know.)

Picture the famous Burgess Meredith Twilight Zone  “Time Enough at Last.” 

As a single episode based on the 1953 Lynn Venable short story, it was a critically acclaimed, elegant, self-contained tragedy, which still has a major cultural impact fifty-four years later.

Now picture it as a television series. 

The first season is week after week of his family and coworkers doing crueler and nastier things to Henry Bemis.  The season ends with the bomb detonation. 

Season two is a litany of his hopes being crushed as he searches the rubble for any signs of life, finally climaxing with the cliffhanger of the found library, and the broken glasses. 

Season three is a parade of new unfortunate and unpleasant events to the now blind old man, where every possible joy must be dashed in order for the series to continue.

Some ideas are much better in small doses.

My personal complaints about modern horror, again, come from preferring my scares to be funny and also fantastical.

Here’s an example from Harry Potter:

Lord Voldemort was scary in a good way.  He was dark and overtly evil, but with powers that could draw others in, and showed uses of that power that could generate respect if not admiration.  He was also impossible.  Yes, being the villain in British fiction means he was a Hitler analogue, but I know there aren’t real snake people who will kill hundreds and enslave others with a magical stick.

Dolores Umbrage, however, was unsettlingly, repellently scary even outside the context of the story.  This is because there are far too many people exactly like her in real life who use the excuse of protecting children and others to create punishment backed rules curtailing freedom and creativity.

One final note about the idea of the horror genre causing irreparably harm to the minds and personalities of its fans.

Horror fans separate the monsters from the people who play them and are known to generally treat the performers who play those killers, creatures, and chaos bringers with the admiration and respect due to an actor bringing life to a role.

Little House on the Prairie fans threw things at and otherwise attacked Alison Arngrim because Nellie was mean to Laura.  Here’s some actual evidence about that in excerpts from an interview. (Click here for the full interview)
“Well, I got hit by a soda can in the Santa Monica Christmas parade. That was nice. Of course, there were the girls who knocked me to the pavement. I talk about that in the book. People still have it in their heads that I’m Nellie Oleson. It’s not just the kids, it’s the grownups also.

Melissa Gilbert had a party a couple of years ago at her house. A grown woman who was in the industry (her husband was a big producer) actually stood there and said, “It’s so nice to see you two getting along finally.” Melissa and I thought, “What is she talking about?” The woman said, “Well, you made up.” Then Melissa said, “Oh no, you mean on the show!” This woman had to have been 40 years old and she couldn’t figure out why I was at a party at Melissa’s house.
I have to admit, it does make me wonder. I mean, “How good a performance was that?” There is Melissa Sue talking about all of the acting involved. Well, people say this person or that person should be nominated for an Emmy. On the other hand, I wasn’t nominated, but everybody thinks I’m really her. What does that mean? What category is that where they truly believe it is you?
I’ve still got people walking around scared of me. I’m 48 years old and people say, “Oh, you’re much nicer in person.” I have to say, “Well, I would hope so.”

I brought up the Little House reference not to be a jerk…

OK, not only to be a jerk. I still think that show was created purely so sisters could get revenge on their big brothers for being forced to watch military history documentaries.

I brought it up to point out that it isn't the nature of the entertainment itself, or the genre of the entertainment that makes people do anti-social and cruel things.

It is the nature of the people themselves.  

Yes, I'm actually expecting people to take responsibility for themselves..

Well, I did say I was a fan of fantasy worlds.

Here's the thing to remember about horror movies.

They don't win Oscars.
They don't become record breaking blockbusters.
They don't garner heaps of praise from the critics.

What they do, is become beloved by their fans.  
They become celebrated enough to inspire viewing parties.
They become a part of our lives.

By powerfully engaging our emotions, they impress themselves as an enjoyable component of who we are.  The entertainment only increases when enjoyed in groups, which is what pushes the horror fan to go above and beyond those of other genres when it comes to spreading the word.

Valentine's Day is celebrated by romantics and lovers, but you don't see anyone recreating the bar from Casablanca or the top of the space needle from Sleepless in Seattle in their house come February.  

April Fool's Day is for jokes, but no one turns their shed into the stateroom from Night at the Opera or the cockpit from Airplane at the end of March.  

Horror fans, however, will plan and build all year for Halloween, painstakingly recreating Doctor Frankenstein's lab,  Leatherface's Texas farmhouse,or countless other famous frightening foyers, in order to pay tribute to their favorite scary movies and share them with all their friends and neighbors. 

Heck, I once saw pictures from a fan that turned his garage into a copy of The Nostromo from Alien.  This was remarkable because:
(A) It doesn't really fit the "standard look" for Halloween.
(B) It was an INSANE amount of work.
(C) It was completely awesome.

Horror is in the blood...

and the blood, is the life!



Antonia said...

Excellent post!! And not just because of all the great shout outs :) Also, any post with a reference to Little House is especially tops in my book (and nicely balances out any Hellraiser references, which series still terrifies me.)

Jeff McGinley said...

Many thanx for the comment, and more importantly for the conversation that sparked it.

How could I talk about horrifying viewing experiences without referencing "Little House"?
(hee hee)

Honestly though, Hellraiser got a mention because while the first was mostly typical blood and gore for its majority, 2 is one of the few fantasy horror films that gave me really good scares, above and beyond basic jump scares.