Sunday, September 25, 2016

In Defense of Horror

While taking a ride through the Wisconsin countryside the other day, I was finally confronted with the reality that fall is on its way. It isn't chilly yet, but the leaves are showing their first glints of gold and the roadsides are littered with pumpkin stands as the first orange fruits make their way out of the ground.

For some people, fall is that transitional season that means time outside looking at the leaves, going back to school after a break, or switching from regular lattes to pumpkin spice lattes. I've done all these things in the fall, and I enjoy fall because of its beauty and its devotion to pumpkin spice. But for me fall is also a time when I transition into darker themes. Perhaps because I am aware of the impending darkness of winter, I will often abandon even the most golden of autumn days for a more sinister activity. No, I'm not running around killing black cats or anything like that. Usually I'm sitting inside glued to the glare of my TV screen as I try to find the newest scary thing to watch. If it's on Netflix and it falls into the category of "horror," chances are I've seen it.

I've also seen all the old classics and everything else in between. I love horror. I watch it until I feel nauseous, my eyeballs are sore from staring wide-eyed at a screen for hours, and I'm too scared to move or go to sleep for fear of getting murdered. Fall is the one and only time that I binge-watch TV, and I don't think this habit is going to change for me any time soon.

The older I get, the more I realize I am lonely in my addiction to terror. It's hard to find a buddy to watch horror movies with. Obviously there's a demand for them, since they keep being made. But I often wonder if it's a small cult of people I've never met before that like to watch them. It's very rare that I say I like the genre of horror and someone agrees with me. Most people say they can't handle it, don't want to watch it, and avoid it at all costs.

It's also a little embarrassing to admit to liking it. People think there is something wrong with you if you like horror films. I don't know why this is, but this is how it is. If you say you like horror films you might as well just say, "I like murdering people."

Needless to say, there is little similarity between murdering a person and watching a horror film, but that's beside the point. In my world, watching horror is fun, and I've accrued a long list of recommendations over the years for anyone who might be interested in, I don't know, murdering people (a.k.a. watching horror movies). Here's a list of some movies I've watched that I've enjoyed, in no particular order.

The Evil Dead (1981)
I've never seen the 2013 remake, so I can't defend that one, but the original trilogy is awesome. People often joke about the film's low budget but I'll take experimental cinematography over phony CGI any day. 

The Shining (1980)
Oddly, I usually watch this film in the winter rather than around Halloween. I think it's because it takes place in the dead of winter and TV networks used to play it around this time. Like a true horror addict, I love Stephen King, and this is the best of his book-to-film adaptations in my opinion.

Paranormal Activity (2007)
Overall, the entire Paranormal Activity series is really bad. The acting is terrible, the plot shallow, and the effects unbelievable. It's sort of like The O.C. of horror films. But after watching this movie you'll be pinned to a wall at night, unable to move out of sheer terror. There's something about watching demonic activity happen in a normal neighborhood in a boring pre-fab, cookie-cutter home that makes the whole thing feel way too real.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Although I don't find this film to be particularly scary, I do think it's a really good film, and Mia Farrow brings to life an anxiety about motherhood that is very convincing and raw. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
This film is a classic that is probably on everyone's favorite horror movie list, but that's because it's so freakin' good. For me it's the music and the tense chase scenes that leave you glancing backwards for the next couple of days. 

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I watch this film probably once every two years. The whole thing is terrifying, but the scene in Buffalo Bill's basement is one of the most stressful scenes ever filmed. Not to mention Jodie Foster is a complete badass in this movie.

The House of the Devil (2009)
This film is great because it feels like a classic horror flick from the 1980s, but is actually from 2009. The scariest part is that almost nothing scary happens until the end of the film, at which point you are so exhausted from the suspense that you can barely handle the film's gruesome denouement. 

The Exorcist (1973)
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Duh. This is the best horror film ever made. There is nothing that came before or after it that even begins to compete with the unbearable torture of watching innocent Regan transform into a demon before your eyes. Not to mention the film set is known to be cursed, one of the actors turned out to be a serial killer, and it was the first film to ever use subliminals (such as a flashing devil face in the corner of the screen). Agggghhhhhh!!!!!!!

The VVitch (2016)
So. Good. I can't. Even. Handle it. If you haven't seen this movie, you are missing out on one of the best films ever made. The pacing of this film alone is enough to leave you paralyzed in your chair, but it also has top-notch acting, an ingenious soundtrack, and stunning cinematography. Some people say it's about shaming women at their coming of age. I would have to disagree. This is a celebration of women in all of their strength, glory, and wicked brutality. 

Nosferatu (1922)
The oldest film on my list is so impressive because it manages to create a sense of dread with barely any dialogue. I once watched this movie on a deserted floor of my college's library and was too scared to get up to go to the bathroom by myself.

Making a Murderer (2015)
This is the only non-fiction film on my list...or is it? This documentary hits close to home because it examines the murder of Theresa Halbach, a young woman who was murdered in my home state and was around my same age when she died. Although the documentary isn't supposed to fit in the "horror" genre, it's terrifying in so many ways, from the exposure of a corrupt local justice system to the fear that murder can happen even in small, seemingly innocent towns.

Halloween (1978)
Another classic. It's so good that every single horror film made since 1978 has tried to copy "the gaze" technique used to embody Michael Myers's stalkerish hunt for his sister, whom he tries to murder throughout the film. 

I chose these films because to me they are examples of high quality. It's frustrating that people think the horror genre is all crappy, one-star films with horrible acting and no intellectual or artistic merit. A lot of horror films are like this, but not all. There are plenty of high quality horror films, and when a horror film is done well, it can stand out by a long shot from a non-horror film. In fact, most of the films I like outside of the horror genre are still pretty dark, and at least two or three films from the list above are on my list of favorite films of all-time. Notice how I said that this is a list of films that I enjoy. Yes, I truly enjoy horror, and I think that horror done well is the highest form of filmmaking art.

To the people who say they don't like horror I ask you this: Why? What's so bad about being scared? When we look at art, any kind of art, do we want to be bored or complacent after viewing it? Doesn't good art inspire a reaction? If this reaction just so happens to be terror, why is this a bad thing? Most of us in the United States live pretty comfortable lives in the year 2016. We're rarely in danger of anything hunting us, we have good protection against weather extremes, and for the most part we always know where our food is going to come from. (Of course there are marginalized and underprivileged people in this country and in the world. I'm not stupid. I know that. I'm just saying in general). For the more paranoid, we might worry from time to time about our safety when walking alone at night, foreign and domestic terror attacks, and things like plane and car crashes. But do we really have the capacity to imagine what it would be like to have a man with knives for fingers chasing us through a foggy dream world at night, or a crazy family of Satanists locking us in a house and planning to sacrifice us to the devil at midnight? It's not like there's a huge chance that these things could ever happen to us. But they could. (Case in point, look up Henry Chase, a.k.a "The Vampire Killer" of Sacramento, CA).

Avoiding scariness is like avoiding the bitter taste of food. We purposely avoid bitter foods because they taste bad, but they're good for us. They make it easier to digest foods that aren't bitter. Scariness is the same thing. We are capable as humans of feeling the emotion of "scared," so why not feel it from time to time? When we come back from periods of scaredness, we are so much more thankful for the warm glow of the sun outside, the protection of our friends and family around us, and the fact that our world is so much less scary than the world inside a horror film. Not to mention, does it really hurt to be on your toes from time to time? The sad fact of life is that bad things happen. People get murdered, assaulted, and kidnapped, and this is never going to stop. Is it so bad to take extra precautions every once in awhile? Or to let your imagination go to a dark place so that you can avoid dark places in reality?

In defense of horror, I'm glad that it exists. Horror movies don't materialize. They are created by human minds who have experienced fear and understand how to make others feel fear. This is an important talent to preserve as we enter into the age of "trigger warnings" and "politically correct," overly-sensitive labels. Essentially, we are primping a generation of youngsters who want to avoid feeling uncomfortable at all costs. To that I say: screw that. Life is uncomfortable. I would rather say I reached into the deep, dark trenches of human emotion and prepared myself for a disruption of comfort before it catches me off guard. I am not saying that horror is going to save the world or anything like that. I'm just saying that the world is a little bit scary, and a little bit shitty from time to time, and I don't want to ignore that. Why do you?