What is good about watching – and loving – horror movies?
Scared to Life
In December 2012, a lone gunman entered a school and shot and killed as many children as he could before committing suicide. People panicked. Wept. Had nightmares. Feared for the safety of loved ones. Feared for friends, family, children…It didn’t matter that the gunman was dead and couldn’t hurt anyone else. He shattered the safe reality that the world expected and had come to know.
If it had been in a horror movie, it would have been different. People would still be scared, but they would be able to exercise that fear and those demons. They could say, “It’s make-believe. It could never happen here.”
Horror and Redemption
In horror movies, it’s normal to encounter unavoidable and unending horror. Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers always get their victims. Eventually, someone smart and brave comes along and defeats the boogeyman, saving the world. Until the next time. We viewers know that when next time comes again, there will be someone else there to stop them. An unending chain of horror and redemption.
Giving over our fears to things that go bump in the night – zombies, vampires, serial killers, whatever it is – divorces us from real fear. They aren’t real. We can be afraid of them; we can project our true fears –gunmen, carjackings, domestic violence, gang violence, men who shoot up malls in Oregon, men who kidnap women from coffee huts in Alaska – into those movies and television shows. The real world is very, very scary. We need to compartmentalize it. Make sure that we aren’t afraid of our daily lives, because if we were afraid of them, we couldn’t live them.
Transference of Fears
By transferring our fears to movies that are unreal, that have convenient cell phone outages, power flickering at the wrong times, and heroes and heroines who always come through in moments of serious distress, we are able to live and love and enjoy what we have without becoming recluses or hermits or agoraphobics. We can interact in and with society, knowing we’re “safe,” or at least telling ourselves that.
Do you watch horror movies?
Catharsis and Moving On
Why do we love that scare? In ancient Greece, it was called catharsis. Oedipus was perhaps the first “horror show” out there. A woman commits suicide, a man gouges out his eyes, children are made to suffer for the sins of their parents. It smacks of a modern “Lifetime” movie that’s meant to send fear into the hearts of its watchers. Yet it’s an ancient play that allowed the audience to release their feelings, to put those feelings into something else that was not them. Even then, transference existed, and the feeling after transferring those feelings, after getting those emotions purged through a harmless viewing, was catharsis.
We still get that catharsis today. Television shows: Dexter, True Blood, The Walking Dead. Movies: Resident Evil, Paranormal Activity (I through IV), The Lovely Bones. We watch them, we see the evil that exists, and we see the good guys win, or at least we see a resolution that we can walk away with, something that we don’t always get in the real world.
Then there are movies that people fondly refer to as “torture porn.” Movies like Hostel, Saw I through VII, and Last House on the Left. Movies where the entire purpose is to kill off the main characters in bloody and brutal ways, leaving perhaps one survivor who has endured more than any human being has endured. There is no true plot of good overcoming evil (although sometimes that happens as a side note); instead it often comes down to kill or be killed.
Why lump them in with traditional horror movies about serial killers, vampires, and zombies? Because they’re the same, even while they’re different. Yes, the plot may be different, but the purpose is the same. Even if all the characters end up dead in the end, there’s still one survivor – the audience member. The audience has survived the slaughter and proven him or herself worthy by experiencing the same thing yet somehow not succumbing to it. The audience member was, in a sense, tortured as well, just by being present and being unable to help. The audience member feels stronger, braver, more alive, thanks to another form of catharsis, this one caused by the pain, death, and suffering that he or she witnessed and endured, whether there was screaming and jumping, averting of eyes, and or stoic behaviors, not flinching from the evil on the screen.
Finally, there’s another reason for these movies and TV shows being so addictive; it lets us see into “others.” We can’t accept that we are those bad people, that we snap and do those bad things. It has to be something else; making evil in the form of serial killers, zombies, and vampires means that they aren’t us. They are something else, someone else, something that we could never be, and something that we would know was bad simply be seeing it. There’s a clear dividing line. We don’t have to wonder if they had a bad childhood or were abused. We don’t have to figure out if we should feel sympathy for them. They are bad. We are good. We can watch and judge safely, knowing that they are not like us, and we are not like them.
Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film
Horror Movie Lists
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