Sunday, September 6, 2009

Why We Crave Horror Movies

So, I actually teach a shortened version of this essay by Stephen King to my MCATers, and the subtle genius of the whole thing is lost on them. Le sigh. Oh well, we want them to be competent at diagnosing weird diseases and removing funny moles or ingrown toenails, I guess it's ok that they don't always get the intricacies of human nature . . . well, hopefully the future psychiatrists understand this essay.

Personally, I adore it. I think it showcases King's talent in a way his fiction can't. (You can only do so much when your sentences have to be at 8th grade reading level. I'm just saying. Semicolons and dashes rock.)

"Why We Crave Horror Movies"
By Stephen King

I think that we’re all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better – and
maybe not all that much better, after all. We’ve all known people who talk to themselves, people who sometimes squinch their faces into horrible grimaces when they believe no one is watching, people who have some hysterical fear – of snakes, the dark, the tight place, the long drop . . . and, of course, those final worms and grubs that are waiting so patiently underground.

When we pay our four or five bucks and seat ourselves at tenth-row center in a theater showing a horror movie, we are daring the nightmare.

Why? Some of the reasons are simple and obvious. To show that we can, that we are not afraid,
that we can ride this roller coaster. Which is not to say that a really good horror movie may not surprise a scream out of us at some point, the way we may scream when the roller coaster twists through a complete 360 or plows through a lake at the bottom of the drop. And horror movies, like roller coasters, have always been the special province of the young; by the time one turns 40 or 50, one’s appetite for double twists or 360-degree loops may be considerably depleted.

We also go to re-establish our feelings of essential normality; the horror movie is innately
conservative, even reactionary. Freda Jackson as the horrible melting woman in Die, Monster, Die! confirms for us that no matter how far we may be removed from the beauty of a Robert Redford or a Diana Ross, we are still light-years from true ugliness.

And we go to have fun.

Ah, but this is where the ground starts to slope away, isn’t it? Because this is a very peculiar sort
of fun, indeed. The fun comes from seeing others menaced – sometimes killed. One critic has suggested that if pro football has become the voyeur’s version of combat, then the horror film has become the modern version of the public lynching.

It is true that the mythic “fairy-tale” horror film intends to take away the shades of grey . . . . It
urges us to put away our more civilized and adult penchant for analysis and to become children again, seeing things in pure blacks and whites. It may be that horror movies provide psychic relief on this level because this invitation to lapse into simplicity, irrationality and even outright madness is extended so rarely. We are told we may allow our emotions a free rein . . . or no rein at all.

If we are all insane, then sanity becomes a matter of degree. If your insanity leads you to carve
up women like Jack the Ripper or the Cleveland Torso Murderer, we clap you away in the funny farm (but neither of those two amateur-night surgeons was ever caught, heh-heh-heh); if, on the other hand, your insanity leads you only to talk to yourself when you’re under stress or to pick your nose on your morning bus, then you are left alone to go about your business . . . though it is doubtful that you will ever be invited to the best parties.

The potential lyncher is in almost all of us (excluding saints, past and present; but then, most
saints have been crazy in their own ways), and every now and then, he has to be let loose to scream and roll around in the grass. Our emotions and our fears form their own body, and we recognize that it demands its own exercise to maintain proper muscle tone. Certain of these emotional muscles are accepted – even exalted – in civilized society; they are, of course, the emotions that tend to maintain the status quo of civilization itself. Love, friendship, loyalty, kindness -- these are all the emotions that we applaud, emotions that have been immortalized in the couplets of Hallmark cards and in the verses (I don’t dare call it poetry) of Leonard Nimoy.

When we exhibit these emotions, society showers us with positive reinforcement; we learn this
even before we get out of diapers. When, as children, we hug our rotten little puke of a sister and give her a kiss, all the aunts and uncles smile and twit and cry, “Isn’t he the sweetest little thing?” Such coveted treats as chocolate-covered graham crackers often follow. But if we deliberately slam the rotten little puke of a sister’s fingers in the door, sanctions follow – angry remonstrance from parents, aunts and uncles; instead of a chocolate-covered graham cracker, a spanking.

But anticivilization emotions don’t go away, and they demand periodic exercise. We have such
“sick” jokes as, “What’s the difference between a truckload of bowling balls and a truckload of dead babies?” (You can’t unload a truckload of bowling balls with a pitchfork . . . a joke, by the way, that I heard originally from a ten-year-old.) Such a joke may surprise a laugh or a grin out of us even as we recoil, a possibility that confirms the thesis: If we share a brotherhood of man, then we also share an insanity of man. None of which is intended as a defense of either the sick joke or insanity but merely as an explanation of why the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time.

The mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all
that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized . . . and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark. For those reasons, good liberals often shy away from horror films. For myself, I like to see the most aggressive of them – Dawn of the Dead, for instance – as lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.

Why bother? Because it keeps them from getting out, man. It keeps them down there and me up here. It was Lennon and McCartney who said that all you need is love, and I would agree with that.

As long as you keep the gators fed.


Jennie said...

That's a great essay. Everyone has an inner devil, that's for certain. And I've always thought I was at least a little bit insane.

I wonder how I feed my gators...I don't tend to like horror films very much. Maybe I feed mine through reading dark books like Hunger Games. ;)

(Oh, and I definitely chuckled at the dead babies joke.)

Lisa said...

And you even have a baby! I think your gators are extra toothy.

Amanda said...

I must admit, I laughed at the dead babies joke as well. Why is it funny in a joke when absolutely horrific if witnessed in real life? I think mainly because it's morbid and absolutely absurd.

I definitely think King is on to something with feeding the insane side of yourself. Perhaps this is why I enjoy watching Family Guy or Desperate Housewives. To me they are guilty pleasures. Now, horror movies, not so much. Jennie can attest to this: I climbed in bed with her after I awoke from a nightmare the night we watched The Ring. And I insisted on keeping the lamp on. :)

Jennie said...

Good point, Amanda. I think guilty pleasures also help feed the gators. I don't think it has to be horror films.

For example, Paul doesn't like horror films, but he does love bloody action movies. Perhaps those movies are what keep him from running out and getting in fights with people? ;)

Petey said...

I find this essay interesting as well. I've often thought that horror is an unique genre because it is capable of revealing things about ourselves we didn't know.

Lisa, I don't know if you remember Jacob from the party, but he wrote his dissertation on this, and actually how watching horror movies/reading horror has another interesting effect. It allows people to exercise their emotions in "safe" situations, which also leads to a difference in how they react during real life trauma.

Not that you'll be chased by a mass murderer, but those who watched a lot of horror films dealt with difficult and awful situations (car accidents, premature deaths of loved ones, etc.) differently than those who hadn't. Strange.

Lisa said...

I think I remember Jacob - blond, tall, looked like a farmboy/Nazi youth? I kid, I kid.

That sounds like an awesome thesis. Do you remember how the horror movie devotees differed in how they responded to traumatic incidents?

Tyra said...

I LOVE this essay, which was first introduced to me in year 11 or 12 by one of my most inspiring English teachers! Time and time again I refer to this essay when talking to friends about the concept of those 'gators', but without the actual essay available to share. I have not been able to find it - lost in my pile of school papers somewhere, no doubt - until now via your blog/digital version.

Thank you very much for sharing and I hope your students love this as much as I do!