Thursday, November 1, 2012

What is Horror?

This last October my forum friends over at Filmspotting and I participated in Shocktober, a month of watching and reviewing horror films. (You can see the idea and the list of over 200 reviews here. )  In year's past, when Shocktober occurred, I hesitated for two reasons.  First, because as a person of faith I am unsure about celebrating a month of fear and murder and monsters.  Secondly, I found that horror, as a genre, is pretty dull.  I'm not interested in the occult, and I gain no entertainment value from an excess of blood or monsters.  I'd rather have something to think about or a film that deeply moves me instead of jumps and cheap scares.

I don't know why, but I decided to participate in this years Shocktober anyway.  And, less in the films I watched, but more in the conversations I had about horror, I found that my ideas of horror were misconceived.  Yes, there are a number of horror films that are poorly made or are focused on blood and jumps.  Even some of the well made ones, like Nightmare on Elm Street or The Mist, are a collection of cheap fears.  But horror isn't limited to monsters, the occult or slaughterfests.  The most effective horror is that which deeply disturbs us, which provokes us to a response of dread, disgust or deep loathing.

To think of horror this way, I realize that some of my most despised films are actually films that unexpectedly stirred my deep revulsion, and they were intended to do so.  So what I thought of as an action film (Oldboy) or an art film (The Piano) were actually, in a sense, horror films, and as such they were deeply effective to me.  My disgust of the subject matter, of the point of the films, effected me so much that I transferred my disgust of the subject matter to the film itself.  I feel that Oldboy deserves some of that revulsion, because I think it revels a bit much in the most disgusting matters.  But I have to re-think my position on The Piano.  Because it wanted me to feel the disgust at the central relationship of the film and to sense the horror of the position the woman was in.  It was intended for me to feel horror for the greater good.

But to broaden my idea of what horror is, also means that I need to reconsider the genre of some of the movies that deeply stirred me and made me think.  The survival film The Grey and the historic film Kanal were not about action or a particular context, but about the horror of life in general, and the existential dread that death is around the corner all the time.  These are fundamentally horror films. (I reviewed each these films earlier this year).

And while people fear the serial killers Leatherhead or Freddy, the truly frightening monster is played by Martin Landau in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, who kills without guilt for his own needs. The film doesn't present him as a fearful character, but he is all the more frightening because he could be your doctor, your professor, your husband.  He is the one you know and trust, which makes the whole situation all that more frightening.

Certainly there are good examples of traditional horror films, but in breaking the horror genre out of its conventional mold, we are able to see the everyday horrors and experience them as they really are.  The more I hear of the main presidential candidates, the more I am afraid, and that was truly was scared me the most in Shocktober.

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