Why You Should Watch Horror Movies
Updated: Dec 19, 2019
"I will show you fear in a handful of dust." T.S. Eliot wrote that line as part of his epic poem, The Waste Land.
In it, we feel the yearning uncertainties of the ages, echoing like the words of some solemn religious ceremony. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.
Yet we crave fear.
Our lives are built on a sense of balance. Either we are in peril or we are not. In our best moments, we dwell somewhere in the middle. We know we are experiencing risk, but we believe that fate will favor us.
This might just be why the scary movie is so appealing to us.
Horror films present us with an opportunity to confront the darker side of reality. Sometimes that darker side is metaphorical. It's very unlikely that any of us will ever be threatened by the demon-possessed body of a religious figure, as in The Nun. Similarly, none us will ever face down a xenomorphic monster in nothing but our underclothes, as in Alien.
Yet these narratives allow us to metaphorically confront very real concerns that haunt (and I use that word deliberately) our day to day lives. Scandals involving religious figures threaten our perceptions of our life purpose. The fear of an outsider unfamiliar to us finding us in the vulnerable position of being naked (literally or otherwise) is certainly a chilling prospect.
The reason why we are attracted to horror films, then, may be the level of risk present. We can sit on a couch and watch Alien and suffer nothing more than a little anxiety upon going to sleep. At the same time, however, these confrontations allows us to work through, in our minds, what our response to being confronted with such an existential threat might be.
In the familiar space of our homes, we may look upon the most horrific threats to our being and emerge physically unscathed. In the theater we approach this differently. Rather than opting for the comfort of our most familiar surroundings, we opt for the safety of the communal space. In the theater, we turn our eyes to the same threat and consider the reactions of others as much as our own. We jump when they jump, gasp when they gasp, and occasionally wrap our arms around a romantic interest.
Love is, after all, the most powerful antidote to fear.
Alternatively, films like Get Out offer a different benefit of horror. These films call us to question our assumption that our everyday acts are not horrific. As the enduring issue of racism in America, the horrors perpetrated by the Soviet Union, and reality of power disparity's relationship to rape attest, there are horrific realities around us each and every day.
This is why not all horror films need a happy ending. It is worthwhile, in literature, to consider what happens when the individual is overwhelmed by the forces of a horrific reality.
The murky ending, on the other hand, prompts us to delve into how we will confront the continued existence of horrific realities. When Hannibal Lector escapes his prison at the end of The Silence of the Lambs, we are challenged by the story to consider the killers amongst us and how we respond. The film also, fascinatingly, challenges us to consider whether it is ever appropriate to join forces with the controlled monster (Lector, imprisoned) to defeat the monster on the loose (Buffalo Bill).
Another article, perhaps, will deal with that difficult question.
Sometimes, of course, horrors are too big to be defeated by the act of a single individual. The Lord of the Rings realizes this in Frodo's near-murder by the huge venomous spider, Shelob. The spider, a web-spinner, has crafted too complex a trap for the Hobbit to escape. He manages to leave the spider's cavern, yet is eventually poisoned and wrapped in her webs.
The story then reminds us of the essential role of friendship in navigating life's difficulties. Sam, Frodo's friend, returns bearing the light of the stars (which might stand for divine hope) and confronts the spider with the blade that Frodo lost. Our friends, then, bring us both illumination and the tools with which to confront evil when we are at our most helpless. We know this, almost instinctively, for we feel far more comfortable watching a horror film with a best friend than doing so on our own.
Even the grotesque Saw films contribute something to an understanding of horror--they remind us that the traps laid by malevolent forces are often complicated and deadly. It is not enough for the malevolent being to do harm, they must do it in a way that is novel and unnatural.
Yet there is no maze that cannot be navigated with the right map and the right friends.
So watch a horror movie, this Halloween; but do it with your eyes open. Consider the view of reality that the story is communicating, and judge for yourself whether it contains any wisdom.