Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why Horror?

This weekend saw the premier of the much anticipated re-imaging of the Universal classic The Wolfman. The movie has received plenty of publicity, not only in fan magazines and horror blogs, but even within the more traditional entertainment media that normally shuns such movies. The Wolfman follows on the heels of Zombieland, another horror movie that received a lot of mainstream attention.

Not that I’m complaining. For Monster Kids like myself, the more mainstream horror becomes in Hollywood and the publishing industry, the more fare I have to sink my teeth into. And, on a more mercenary level, the more opportunities I have to exploit the market. I happen to be fortunate that I’m setting out on a career in this genre at a time of national angst, which has always been a breeding ground for a resurgence of horror-related entertainment.

But why is horror so popular during troubled times?

Because horror provides an escapism that most of us crave, especially when our daily lives become almost as scary as fiction. Horror is more complicated than the quintessential battle between good and evil. It doesn’t matter whether the battle is between David and Goliath, Van Helsing and Dracula, sleepless teenagers and Freddy Krueger, or mankind and hordes of the living dead. Sure, the violence, gore, and fright value of today’s horror is much more intense than it was sixty years ago, but I attribute that to the more frightening times we live in. (Let’s face it. Watching Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein monster, with his square forehead and bolts in his neck, rampage through a village doesn’t hold the same fear factor for us as it did for our grandparents.)

Every day we turn on the news and are bombarded by an endless litany of reports on the war on terror. Anthrax-laced letters. Shoe bombers. Underwear bombers. So far America has been lucky in that we have not suffered a major terrorist attack on our home soil on the scale of 11 September. But we know the threat still lurks out there in the shadows, like some creature of the night waiting for its next victim. That’s why we can relate to the townsfolk of Barrow in 30 Days of Night, or the survivors holed up in a mall in Dawn of the Dead. The enemy is relentless and will not stop until they’re dead or we are. The odds are weighted heavily against us. However, as long as we fight the good fight, we known we’ll prevail, or at the very least survive the nightmare, which sometimes is the best we can hope for.

If the top story isn’t the on-going war, then it dwells on the seemingly endless economic woes facing us. Home foreclosures. The wiping out of retirement portfolios. Double digit unemployment. Multi-trillion deficits that we’ll eventually have to pay for. Shit. Sometimes the reality is scarier than the fantasy. There are many of us who would like nothing better than to grab a pitchfork and hunt down those who have economically terrorized our lives and, in too many cases, destroyed our future. Thankfully, most Americans are decent and law-abiding, and would never take matters into their own hands in such a manner. So fictional monsters serve as convenient displacements for the Bernie Madoffs of the world.

While the Saw movies don’t fall into the traditional horror category, they also feed off of the sense of helplessness many of us face, as well as our desire for justice. Many of us can relate to Jigsaw’s players who are placed in life altering situations by a power beyond our control and are forced to make difficult decisions that negatively and disastrously impact our lives? I doubt many people felt sympathy for the drug addict, the drunk driver who killed a child, or the rapist who became the machination of one of Jigsaw’s games. These are the people who flaunt the norms of society, show no regard to the rest of us, and cause pain and suffering. We may not concur with how Jigsaw administers his justice, but there’s a certain perverse satisfaction when those who leech on society pay for their crimes. In Saw VI, in which the game players were all members of an insurance company that denied its clients access to proper health care in order to keep the company’s profit margin high, I know I took a sadistic glee in watching those who picked who among their clients lived or died now making those same choices with their own lives.

Horror has always had its place in our culture, both as a form of entertainment and as an escape valve. It allows us to vent the fears and frustrations haunting our daily lives against the monsters on the screen, the ones that can be easily destroyed. It also teaches us that when we hear that bump in the night, it’s okay to be afraid as long as fear doesn’t stop us from grabbing the baseball bat by the nightstand and facing whatever made that bump.

(I know that for every example cited in this blog to state my case, there are half a dozen examples that could be used to refute my point. Please feel free to comment and express your opinions. But bear in mind that this is merely my somewhat simplistic mental musings about the relationship between real and fictional horror and not a doctoral thesis.)
[Originally posted on Dawn's Reading Nook on 13 February 2010.]

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