Horror movies fascinate audiences for many reasons, and are somewhat of a treasure trove for academics interested in cultural studies. Two of the best ways to understand our social values and anxieties is to understand what scares us and what turns us on, making horror movies and pornography more than just vapid titillation, but forms with deep cultural resonances. Oftentimes fear can turn us on, although not in an explicitly sexual way, making the horror genre an endlessly interesting subject. From my experience, there are generally two types of people who enjoy watching horror movies; critics who probe these films for what they say about our culture, and people who simply enjoy the excitement of fear and spectacle. It is a difference between watching Saw as a post-9/11 film about torture, and watching it to see how grotesque and innovative the next kill will be.
For most of my adult life I have been the socially aware and culturally conscious critic, but this hasn’t always been the case. There was a time in my early twenties when I watched for the glory of the next kill. The entire Friday the 13th franchise is like an exercise in creativity to see how you can kill a horny teenager a hundred different ways. There was a certain pleasure in watching this play out, and either applauding or denigrating the film based on its decisions. This led me to a lot of campy eighties and early-to-mid nineties movies. While all that blood and gore was fun, I think what really drew me to horror was the fantasy of reliving a childhood completely devoid of these kinds of visceral pleasures. Some kids I knew grew up with treated Jason Voorhees, Freddy, and Michael Meyers like old friends, but I couldn’t even watch the animated Ghostbusters cartoon. I can remember looking through the pages of Fangoria as a middle-schooler the same way I would look at a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition; with the voyeuristic excitement of the forbidden. As a twenty-year-old kid venturing forth into adulthood, indulging in horror movies represented a kind of freedom from my constricting past.
Things have changed a lot since then. I haven’t watched a whole lot of horror movies since becoming a parent. I can’t seem to stomach it. I get scared a lot easier, and the violent images are much more disturbing. I have begun to think that perhaps my parents didn’t let me watch horror movies as a kid because they themselves were deeply affected by them. There is something to say about an increased sensitivity to the violence and cruelty of the world when you have a totally pure and innocent life with you at all times, as if you could contaminate that purity by merely associating with depravity and filth. I may have unintentionally aired my psychological dirty laundry there, but it is a sentiment that I think most parents can understand, if not share.
In the spirit of this blog and being intentional about studying film even when it is difficult, I forced myself to watch a horror movie last night. There are so many great scary movies that I love, but I chose the somewhat obscure Re-Animator from 1985, mostly because it is a campy and ultimately harmless flick. It is apparently based on a H.P. Lovecraft short story, although I imagine the two are very different in tone and style. The movie follows a young doctor named Herbert West who has invented a re-animating agent that brings the dead back to life. He is somewhat of a mad scientist, and the movie chronicles the destruction he wreaks on the medical school where he works. This is a pretty easy thing to accomplish when the re-animated corpses are brainless, erratic, and and super-strong. There are exploding heads and rib-cages, bodies spewing puss and gore, and a healthy dose of gratuitous nudity. But there aren’t any sadistic serial killers in surgical masks, so I was able to handle all of this with good spirits and a handful of gleeful cringes. That is, until a disembodied head began tongue-raping the female protagonist. That was gross and difficult to watch, despite the obvious absurdity of the whole thing. I would have found that scene pretty amusing not too long ago, but now it just makes me a little sick.
I still love horror movies. I can’t wait to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining with my daughter when she gets old enough. I want Halloween (a holiday that my family didn’t celebrate when I was a kid) to be both fun and scary. I don’t want witches and demon possession to be taken too seriously. I want fear and horror to be powerful and accepted emotions in my home. I also don’t want to be glib and careless. I want to be aware of my daughter’s sensitivities and how I can best protect her. That doesn’t mean shielding her from everything frightening and scary, but it also doesn’t mean throwing all the things I couldn’t watch in her direction, forcing her to enjoy the things I couldn’t. Ultimately, I want her to feel safe in our home. Safe enough to watch a horror movie, and safe enough to tell me if that movie is too scary.
- ThrowBack Attack! Movie Review for Re-Animator! (timewantsaskeleton.wordpress.com)