I’ve always been
a fan of horror. I know that style snobs turn their
nose up at the genre, but since I'm personally frightened
by closed minds, that only serves to enhance my experience.
Other people, of course, are simply too in tune to
their own fears to give a toss about imaginary ones.
Some have been rendered so sensitive just by daily
life that they cannot bear to subject themselves to
make-believe thrillers. I’ve used public transportation;
I can relate. I'd like to think that all of my readers
join with me in fearing those so sheltered that even
a flash of plastic fangs projected on celluloid is
disturbing to their sensibilities. So, let's proceed
for a moment on the assumption that nothing is so
telling of a people as the fears they share.
As everybody knows, cheesy special effects and “boo”
movies are never really scary. The ability to explore
what we really, truly fear is what makes the horror
genre not only interesting, but generally the most
compelling subcategory of fiction. Dracula. Frankenstein.
MacBeth. Hell, for that matter, a good chunk
of world mythology would fall into the category. Good
horror isn’t really about placing a character
in physical jeopardy (although story structure requires
that still happen,) because physical jeopardy is rarely
what we truly fear.
As you could no doubt guess, I’m also a lover
of Halloween. Like all things I do that would make
a small but very vocal minority of conservative Christians
cast me to eternal damnation, I like to stretch the
ghoulish celebration out. I’ve spent my free
time around the house this October watching old horror
films, having purchased over 70 of them on DVD just
for the occasion. In fact, I’ve spent much of
my working time (as I have less free time than I would
like,) casually taking in some of the lesser selections
as they played in the background.
I’ve been repeatedly taken aback by exactly
how much these films do tell about society. For example,
in the 1950s, we were scared stiff over the
possibility that our women might turn ugly. “She
Demons,” a film in which NAZI scientists exist
solely to turn beautiful women into strange and hideous
creatures, is the most blatant example. Forget the
holocaust and world domination; moviegoers were petrified
that ugly broads might one day march down sidewalks
unsheathed. There are other, less offensive examples,
including the cult classic “The Wasp Woman,”
which takes a far more sympathetic look at the wilted
roses of the world. But these films, fantastically
bad as they are, don’t really frighten us now.
I doubt that they ever did. Although, "The Wasp
Woman's" cosmetics executive- turned- giant honeymaker
does manage to elicit our sympathy.
But great horror stories go past these shallow insecurities
and hit deeper, usually more timeless fears. Think
about it. When Joseph Sheridan le Fanu wrote Carmilla,
the genesis of the modern vampire myth, he wasn’t
capitalizing on a widespread fear of having all of
our blood drained through our neck. He was playing
on our fears of sexual awakening—especially
in our daughters, and most especially when it is homosexual
in nature. He also managed to capture our fears of
betrayal, transformation, death, and a great many
more things than I could ever even begin to do justice.
A quarter century later, Bram Stoker changed the formula
with even more frightening results: His audience feared
corruption of their women by foreigners.
Our own inner demons and desires come to get us time
and again. Mr. Hyde and The Wolf Man are always ready
to emerge, lingering in our psyche for nothing more
than a change of the moon or a swig from the bottle.
It's all so downright Jungian that it's unlikely humanity
will ever lose its interest in the formula.
The timelessness of the fears explored in Frankenstein
is spelled out in the subtitle: The Post-Modern
Prometheus. "Man plays God, isn't God, screws
up"? Sure, that take’s obvious. But a deeper
fear is the one all parents have: Of their progeny
turning on them. (It is interesting to note that in
the first published version of Frankenstein,
the creator and his wife are blood relatives. The
third edition is the most commonly published, however.)
The monster, in the novel, is quite brilliant, possibly
surpassing his creator. And sexual awakening again
comes to the forefront when the monster demands a
The Universal films based on these works (particularly
the sequels, as Universal gave each monster three
great movies and about four truly awful follow-ups,)
frame the stories in a 20th century context. "Dracula’s
Daughter" is self-loathing because of urges beyond
her control, and is killed after giving in. Frankenstein
is lured to make another little monster not by the
creature (who is decidedly less articulate in the
films,) but by Dr. Pretorius, a manipulative and effeminate
fellow the film describes as “queer”.
"It is my only weakness" serves as his catch-phrase.
Welcome to Hollywood. Still, this is wildy subservise
stuff, brilliantly composed.
In the 1950s, the McCarthy era brought about a wave
of invaders and oppressive societies, determined to
quash freedom and individuality. Usually, they came
from the skies. The great answer to these films, "The
Day the Earth Stood Still," falls under the category
of sci-fi more than horror, but points audiences in
the direction of what they really had to fear: Nuclear
war. Not that they weren't afraid of that, already.
By the 70s, we had the Warhol Factory versions of
the Universal films, directed by staunchly right-wing
Paul Morrissey. Morrissey feared the great unwashed,
that much is certain. His "Dracula" is a
classic aristocrat portrayed as morally superior to
the masses. He can only drink the blood of virgins,
and as a result, is starving to death. The brutal
peasant who slays him spouts Communist propaganda
as he rapes a 14-year-old girl. Morrissey even set
the film in the 1920s, the point in time when he felt
the world started to go "to hell."
Just as an aside--Isn't it great how people always
assume the world was pure and clean until very early
in their own lifetime?
For Morrissey's take on "Frankenstein,"
the fascist fear of an uprising was put aside in favor
of a mixture of sex and violence that is profoundly
disturbing. These two ingredients, peppered heavily
with an assortment of attractive young girls reaching
sexual maturity, became unsurprisingly popular during
the sexual revolution. Hammer films specialized in
it—even producing an entire trilogy based loosely
on Carmilla. And let us not forget the rise
of the scream queen. Barbara Steele was scary as hell
in part because she was so beautiful. The 20th century's
greatest achievement in this paradigm, however, was
Stephen King, as much as it sometimes pains me to
admit it, has produced several great and timely works
through subtext. As if Carrie didn’t
have us scared stiff of our budding daughters' ability
to bring the house down, The Shining took
the decline of the family to a whole new level. When
Kubrick ignored the subtext for his feature film,
King threw a fit that made Carrie’s prom like
… well, most proms. But with less cattiness.
And if you think it's safer to play outside than stay
inside with your deteriorating family, think again.
King’s favorite villain was the boy down the
block: Fonzie. Bullies are usually as scary as monsters
in his books.
Anne Rice, the other reigning giant of the genre,
focused her masterwork, Interview with the Vampire,
on a tragedy in her own home (though to some degree,
this seems to have been done subconsciously). Claudia,
the tragic victim of Interview, was, like
Rice’s own daughter, never allowed to grow up.
But Rice’s deeply personal story taps into one
of our greatest fears, loneliness, a thousand different
ways. Her story is about love, loss and loneliness,
not blood, guts and gore.
By the time I was born, television had profoundly
changed what it was we feared. The “if it bleeds,
it leads” newscasts created a paranoia exploited
in several waves of teen slasher films. Movies about
people who pop out of nowhere and kill other people
scare us because, well, we’re scared that someone
is going to pop out of nowhere and kill us. Never
mind the fact that the vast majority of murders are
committed by those closest to us. "Halloween's"
Michael Myers wanted to get back at poor Jamie Lee
for having the life of comfort he'd been deprived
of. Are the words "white flight" even necessary
Forget street crime. A more founded fear, I believe,
is of zombies. Zombies give people the heeby-jeebies
not because we’re afraid of being killed by
one, but because we’re afraid of becoming
one. We fear losing our individuality. We fear becoming
some sort of automaton. We fear losing the ability
to think. These fears, I believe, are healthy.
A more recent twist to the zombie formula is even
more timely: Contagion. Sure, human cultures have
had a hell of a lot more reason to be frightened of
it in the past, but we have West Nile, Bird Flu, e.
Coli, and a list of five hundred other diseases
guaranteed to make you lose bowel control at their
very mention. Dracula is loaded with themes
of contagion, and many vampire myths spring from disease
outbreaks, but contemporary films like "28 Days
Later," and of course "Shaun of the Dead"
(my favorite zombie film, of course,) show their Spermataphobia
clear as a boil.
But, all this has been done to death. Are our fears
really so basic and animalistic that we haven't outgrown
a single one since 1872?
So, I ask you again: What scares you, right now?
Is it terrorism? Disease? Public speaking doesn’t
count—as that would be boring on paper or screen.
An oppressive government? Anarchy? A decline of intellectual
progress? They all scare me, to one degree or another.
Or is it something more personal, like loss or loneliness?
I ask not because I want to steal your idea and
write a really scary thriller (but I’m not above
it, and you have been warned.) I ask simply because
I think it’s important that we acknowledge our
fears before we decide how to act on them further.
Of course, be sure to ask yourself, also, if your
fears are solid, or the "She Demons" of
your own time.
Halloween is a great time to look around you and
take a few minutes to think it over. We'll call it
a time of learning.
Walker is a Managing Editor of Raw Story. He can be
reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.