Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Horror The Horror

The immortal Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Tibetan Demon Mask

Years ago Chris Jaworski asked an online discussion group to talk about horror movies and their appeal. I posted the following:

The other day I was reading an article about the Kielce pogrom. On July 4, 1946, some citizens of Kielce stoned, bayonetted, and shot to death 42 Jews living in their midst. It was a scholarly article, meant to be cool headed, and yet many sentences in it read like horror literature, e.g.: "... they made rumour sound like truth and fanned the crowd's emotions ... when the crowd had swelled to about one hundred, people began gathering stones..."

And 42 Jews, who had survived the Holocaust, were murdered. Why? Someone spread the Blood Libel.

Shirely Jackson's "The Lottery" comes to mind.

"The horror, the horror," from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

When I experience horror while reading stuff like this, I think, why go to a horror movie? Why inject more of this feeling into my life?

I've got a rarely diagnosed illness and have been fighting for SSDI. I recently had a hearing in front of a judge. The judge, in spite of my inches thick file of medical records, and inches thick file of medical journal articles, and corroborating testimony from a civil rights attorney and a nun, for heaven's sake, wrote, in his decision, that I was "faking bad" (sic). That the condition doesn't exist, that I have no symptoms, that we all were lying.

Needless to say, we'll appeal, and in preparing the appeal I've been on the phone to lots of local lawyers who have appeared before this particular judge. I've been told by folks who interact with this guy professionally that he is an "evil" man who enjoys denying benefits, especially to women, and, most especially, to articulate women –  and that he has been suspended from the bench for the unfairness of his decisions, and that he just recently returned from this suspension, and asked, specifically, to be assigned to this particular work –  hearing SSDI cases, although it is notoriously low prestige and low pay.

In my confrontations with this man, and with the illness in general and with the experience of being poor and sick, I feel fear and horror all the time.

I really dislike feeling both fear and horror. I much prefer the feelings I get from even a bad romantic comedy, and, most preferably, from a great romantic comedy like "It Happened One Night."

I prefer this

to this.

In trying to understand why some like horror, I've thought –  who is the most likely audience for a really scary horror movie?

Certainly other cultures have had works of art that produce fear and horror, but often these couldn't best be compared to American horror movies. Usually, folk tales or dramas that incorporate fear and horror also contain humor, uplift, long, boring, exposition that emphasize the importance of tribal values.

It seems – is this correct? – that the concentration of fear and horror in American horror films is a diagnostic characteristic of the genre.

Who are the biggest audiences of such movies? American teenagers, no? And American teenagers are a very protected audience. Why would a sheltered, protected audience choose to plunge into fear and horror? Is it a hunger for emotions that don't occur in sheltered, protected lives?

But this isn't always the case. Roman Polanski made a couple of highly praised, scary and horrible movies. "Knife in the Water" and "Rosemary's Baby." And he's had no shortage of real horror in his life. He lived through WW II in Poland.

Anyway ... I wish I could figure out how to express how my thoughts and feelings about a man who makes a career out of destroying the lives of poor and sick people is interacting, in my head, with thoughts of "The Blair Witch Project" and horror in general.

I guess my illness and my encounters with individuals like this judge has hammered home to me at every turn, since I got sick, anyway, what I suspect people feel, and choose to feel, while watching horror movies: that the human body is not integral, that our convictions of our own autonomy are delusions –  no, I've never quite turned into Linda Blair as a possessed kid, but, I can't, single handedly, hold back disease and keep my body from changing in ways I don't like. I am constantly reminded that apparently innocent scenes and people can, without warning, erupt into terror and threat. There is a mindlessly destructive, death-hungry, pain-hungry urge in the human make up, and that urge occasionally has its way, while rationality and compassion are made impotent and thrust to the sidelines.

If you're not a sheltered American teenager, and you feel you have quite enough fear and horror in your life, thank you, does a movie like "The Blair Witch Project" have something to offer? The movie advertises itself by announcing that all the protagonists are dead, or at least missing. There's no triumph of the human, the rational, the compassionate, over fear and horror. Fear and horror win. Why is there an attraction to that?

Or, is there a sense of trimuph because the viewer assumes he'll be alive when the movie is over?

Could it serve as does the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or even initiation rituals –  this is how bad it gets. Let go of your attachment to the goodies of life. After you've completely let go, go back into life, acknowledging that all you love and rely on is an illusion, or, maybe, a choice, a product of your moment to moment choice making? And that very choice making makes you heroic and triumphant?

Needless to say, all these questions are inchoate... 


  1. I can't speak for why contemporary American teenagers like horror films like Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity.

    But I can talk a little about why I liked horror films when I was a kid. My childhood was somewhat horrible. My parents had both been concentration camps, and they both wore the psychological scars of their experiences. My father was an alcoholic, my mother was abusive and distant. When they got to together at home on weekends, they created scenes of unbelievable horror for my sister and me.

    Here's a stanza from my poem "Why My Mother Stayed with My Father" that talks about some of this:

    "He was a drunk too. Some Fridays he drank
    his check away as soon as he left work.
    When she’d see him stagger, she’d knock him down
    and kick him till he wept. He wouldn’t crawl away."

    There was more.

    My sister and I would scream, plead with my parents to stop fighting, run and hide in the basement or the bushes outside in the backyard.

    And we both loved watching horror movies. Watching Frankenstein or the Wolfman or Dracula, I felt a lot of things. One of the chief ones was that horror would end. The sun would shine after the monster died with a stake in his heart or a silver bullet in his head. Good things would start happening no matter how frightened I was. That's a powerful message, and one I needed to hear.

    The other thing that those movies taught me was that monsters, even the scariest ones like King Kong, had souls. There was goodness in them. I needed to hear this too. It helped me forgive my parents.


    The entire poem about why my parents stayed together is at my blog:

  2. John, thank you so much for your post. I'll be thinking about it all day.

    I really don't get it. Even still. what you say makes sense, on an intellectual level, but on the gut level I don't understand it.

    I am very interested in film as an art form, and force myself to watch films that are not in my genre, so I've seen a couple of zombie films, and film noir, and horror films. See? I don't like the dark genres.

    But that's not true, either. I would rather watch a Nazi documentary -- how dark is that? Than a horror film.

  3. I think that we watch horror films for the scare factor, the rush. At least I can remember watching old horror flicks like Dracula, Frankenstein (all remakes) The Wolfman and one of my personal favorites was The Mummy, I remember rooting for the creatures, and cannot seem to come to a reason why, unless somewhere in the subconscious there resides a sadist in all of us, mostly dormant this doppelganger slumbers and awakes with the first sight of blood and that rush of adrenaline that comes with a good scare. I think that this same infatuation is abundant in the act of looking for mutilation at a car crash...who among us does not stop and stare? As for the current youth and the infatuation with the genre of horror in which the "evil" or bad guys seem to win or at the least live to torment another day ie. Paranormal activity....I can only speculate that perhaps as we become more brazen in our "me-ness" we also desire to see ourselves unseated from our very thrones, by an outside force...perhaps it is that the brain desires equilibrium and the scare adrenaline equalizes our over-used ego. Or could it simply be that we like the rush? Ron Lybarger

  4. "somewhere in the subconscious there resides a sadist in all of us, mostly dormant this doppelganger slumbers and awakes with the first sight of blood and that rush of adrenaline that comes with a good scare"

    Now *that* is a great concept for a horror flick!

  5. I think Poe talked about something like this, as did Isaac Bashevis Singer. Poe called it the imp of the perverse, a spark of the demonic in the universe, the dark twin of the spark of the divine. It resides in each of us and threatens to lead us to the horrific--despite all of our best intentions and yearnings for the good.

    Something like Freud's id but tincured with a touch of the demonic.

  6. Now, see, I don't even want to read about this. A very smart woman, Lynn Yannis, read a bit of my first unpublished novel, and she said the key thing -- it's like you don't want any conflicts, don't want any villains.

    ION -- when I click on this link, and see that photo of Bela at the top of the page, it grabs me viscerally, every time. That man was so masterful. One eye looks cold and murdeous; the other demented and intense. And his lips and dimpled chin are pure, soft, sex.

  7. The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me

    The heavy bear who goes with me,
    A manifold honey to smear his face,
    Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
    The central ton of every place,
    The hungry beating brutish one
    In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
    Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
    Climbs the building, kicks the football,
    Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

    Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
    That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
    Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
    A sweetness intimate as the water's clasp,
    Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
    Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
    --The strutting show-off is terrified,
    Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
    Trembles to think that his quivering meat
    Must finally wince to nothing at all.

    That inescapable animal walks with me,
    Has followed me since the black womb held,
    Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
    A caricature, a swollen shadow,
    A stupid clown of the spirit's motive,
    Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
    The secret life of belly and bone,
    Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
    Stretches to embrace the very dear
    With whom I would walk without him near,
    Touches her grossly, although a word
    Would bare my heart and make me clear,
    Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
    Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
    Amid the hundred million of his kind,
    the scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

    Delmore Schwartz

  8. John, you mention imps. Apparently its etymology is a graft on a tree. How people get from that to Satan astounds me.

    Other day heard someone say that as God is "I am," Satan is "I am not."

    I really like that.

  9. From an anonymous poster who emailed me:

    why people like scary movies,like me, it all has to do with brain chemistry, the tension experienced by some people while watching scary movies or riding roller coasters or surfing big waves or hang gliding causes many chemical changes like the proverbial adrenalin rush and when the intense part is over the relaxation and realization you survived is very satisfying


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