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The Meaning of Horror

John on July 26, 2006 at 2:37 pm

I just came across an interesting piece from the NY Times magazine. “The Haunting” is about the resurgence of horror, in particular Japanese horror movies. Most Christians I know have little interest in horror movies. Personally, I enjoy a good scare. I also enjoy dissecting the meta-narratives behind horror (I wrote about the monsters in the TV show Lost here).Horror, like comedy, is often very revealing of the culture that makes it.

Horror, like comedy, is often very revealing of the culture that makes it. What are they afraid of? What do they feel guilt about? The Times piece gets into some of these questions near its end. It notes, for instance, the success of American horror films primarily about torture. Hostel, Saw and The Devil’s Rejects fit this mold (BTW, I have no interest in seeing these films, but I think that only supports my larger argument — keep reading).

Most of the piece is focused on the somewhat different Asian horror films and their American remakes such as The Ring and The Grudge. All of the films involve angry Ghosts, but unlike in The Sixth Sense, there is no happy ending. The Times piece describes the ending of one Asian horror film called The Eye:

At the end of the movie, the heroine waits in a traffic jam. She begins to see masses of the grim-reaper ghosts assembling amid the cars. The audience sees that a truck accident ahead is about to set off a gas explosion that will kill everyone for blocks around. As the heroine begins screaming at everyone around her to run for their lives, the American viewer sees, almost disappointingly, a classic resolution: she has only a few minutes to save the day. How will she use her rare and unusual power for good? Will she follow the ghosts to the disabled truck? Will the heroic boyfriend help her? But then the truck explodes, and the heroine is left wandering among the charred remains of mothers clutching their infant children.

Again, my interest is not in witnessing simulated death and destruction but in trying to understand why people resonate with the fatalism in these films. Speaking of the “national mood” after 9/11 the Times’ piece suggests one answer:

Perhaps because it is so difficult to face, we seem to be off-shoring our deepest fear, the creeping terror of the day: despite our rare and unusual power, what if we cannot stop the evil? What if we can’t win?

Some may see that as a stretch but I don’t. It makes perfect sense to me that, at a time when we face a violent, death-glorifying, irrational enemy on the battlefield, films featuring violent, irrational ghosts would be popular. It connects to a very real, and in a way rational, fear.

It’s also worth noting that the recurrence of creepy children in these films assuredly tells us something as well. Since The Shining and Nightmare on Elm Street, to Aliens, to The Ring and The Grudge; the presence of children in horror suggest to me a symbolic loss of innocence. If children have become monsters, we are in very dark territory indeed.

The most important thing to remember about monsters is that they are ultimately on our side. Not that of the protagonist in the films perhaps, but on the side of the audience. They are a warning sign that we have traveled where we should not go. They are trying to scare us back toward moral behavior. But if we insist on straying ever farther from the true and the good, the light will become dimmer. Eventually it may seem that there is no way out, only darkness and the angry ghosts of our fears and regrets.

I believe a lot of horror fans find themselves in this darkness. Their taste reflects a bit of who they truly are. If life is a poker game, this is a spiritual “tell” of sorts. One can only hope God (perhaps through good films made by Christians) will pierce that darkness with a ray of hope. In any case, there’s no point in screaming at the darkness for being so…dark. The Christian response to a culture awash in violent horror films is not more anger but more light.

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Category: Movies |

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