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But, what are we afraid of today?


I’d like to take this opportunity (and I generally do as I like,) to ask you a very important question: What frightens you? I don’t mean what methods of death are least appealing. I mean, what scares you? I know that in these dark days, when any chicken dinner could be your last, and Karl Rove stalks freely through the shadows, it's difficult to go beyond the obvious, but please give it a shot. Fear defines so very much of what we do, and as a result, a large portion of who we are.


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 mate.

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 Carrie.

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 here?

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.

Avery Walker is a Managing Editor of Raw Story. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].


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