The Horror Psyche

Over the past year or so I have noticed a resurgence in the popularity of horror movies which has now tailed off slightly.  Though I personally don’t watch many horror movies, I’ve been chewing on this phenomenon for a while, and I think I have a good analysis.  I have come to the conclusion that the makers of horror movies, since they are playing with no real substance, are instead catering to an abstraction of the fears of the nation.

For example, consider the zombie movie like 28 days later. Though I believe I’m going to get some flak about “that’s not about zombies- the virus just makes them really, really angry,” to put it bluntly, you’re wrong.  It’s a classical case of zombie movie syndrome. It shows all the side effects; a virus using human transmission as a medium where it puts its victims into a state of suicidal aggression towards fellow human beings to spread the virus. They even bite to transmit it, for crying out loud. I suppose the whole ‘rising from the dead’ thing wasn’t what they were looking for, I’ll elaborate in a moment. And, typical of an apocalypse movie, it has the whole ‘burnout effect’ where it is so virulent that it is cataclysmic to society as we know it, and therefore produces an unsustainable growth for the virus. Not only that, but there is even the whole military/scientific balance, where the scientists want to study it and find a cure, and the military just wants to blow everything to hell. There is a textbook case of that in the sequel, but it’s still there in the first one. And, invariably, the scientists screw up and everyone dies when their subject gets loose. Also invariably, the military gets involved and everyone dies. See where I’m going with this?

Now, the movie was quite popular. It wasn’t a work of historic art, a thought-provoking work of fiction,  or a subtle work of beauty or character. But still, it seems to have struck a chord with the people watching it on some level. I think that the intent of producing such a movie is to mimic something that everyone, or at least the majority of the population, knows to be true so that it resonates with them. However, they frame it in such a way that a conscious analysis of the movie doesn’t go that deep. It’s similar to the religious treatment of a parable or fairy tale. To use the previous example, the movie 28 days later turns all of England into the site of an apocalypse. Anyone at all could become infected and start mindlessly stalking the streets, hunting for the uninfected. This concept that even your closest friend, or family, thirty seconds later might try to brutally murder you is something that our government has been trying to foster in us for years. And because that movie made so much money, it apparently worked. To use a prior example, back when womens’ sexuality was the hot topic, vampire films made a resurgence. The idea of young, scantily clad women being seduced by, shall we say, older white guys was a hot button for moviemakers who wanted to make a buck. Back then, imminent fear of destruction in an apocalyptic sense wasn’t such a big deal, so the vampires just lived in their castles and drained the occasional hobo dry from time to time. More importantly, the idea that it is rage that drives the zombies is critical. Who, exactly, would most epitomize rage in the redneck American’s view of the world? Hell, if the majority elected a President slanted a certain way, the majority will buy movie tickets slanted a certain way. Terrorists. They look just like us, and anyone could be in league with them. This is a fostered fear which is subtly taken advantage of by the horror industry. Now, for horror movies, I have no issue with this. I must say, I quite enjoyed 28 days later myself, despite not being big on horror movies. But what the producers choose to run is an excellent acid test of what the country is thinking.

Now, onto the whole “end of the world” thing. Unlike older films, more modern movies add this dire element of global annihilation. This type of fiction is called post-apocalyptic, where something essentially destroys all civilization, and a few lucky survivors are left over to fend for themselves. Interestingly, with all post-apocalyptic fiction, there is a pronounced sense of freedom. And a decided tendency to completely ignore the fact that millions or billions of people died, and you are only watching the survivors because everyone else would present a decidedly uninteresting plot line (“another worm is trying to wriggle inside my decomposing brain”). This is a fascinating element of the genre. The idea that civilization as a whole constricts us, and that once it’s gone then all the restrictions just evaporate. This is undeniably true. Break into peoples’ houses for shelter, loot the grocery stores for food, whatever. It’s fun! Drive the car on the wrong side of the road, hell, drive the car directly over the cars in your way, jumping about like an offroad monster truck, minus the suspension. However, I must say that, while in one sense that would be fun, the addition of constant fear of death (and  sometimes zombification?) spoils it completely. Instead of being bound by rules, you become a slave to survival necessity. True, in civilization if you park in the wrong place the cops will give you a ticket. On the other hand, the zombies are coming for your braaaains.

Civilization is an escape from a state of nature. Ask any animal of the wild; nature is not a fun place to live. We build houses because the outdoors leave us vulnerable to the elements and open to predators. We use toilets so we don’t have to dig holes. We buy our food so we don’t have to hunt for it, or grow it ourselves. We have running water because walking a quarter mile to the riverside is just annoying, and digging a well is a lot of work. We have cars so we don’t have to walk (though there are better methods), and we have hospitals and antibiotics so injuries and microbes don’t kill us. Nature is not a fun place to live, and while civilization can be irksome, it is seldom life-threatening.

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