Why I (We) Need Horror Films

2016/11/17 22:25:58 +00:00 | Ben Larned

The question “why horror?” has been answered again and again. Studies have shown that, for willing participants, the voluntary release of fear is a healthy thing. What I have to say will not apply to everyone, then, because not everyone wants to be frightened. Many of us have recently been frightened, in a new, giant, eclipsing way. Those of us who love horror, then, have a greater need for it now.

For centuries, horror has been used as a spurning, inspiring emotion in art. Euripides uses terrifying imagery and events in two landmark works: ­ the Oresteia, an examination of how a democratic justice system can conquer chaos, and The Bacchae, a bleakly violent warning to Athens as it approached catastrophic war. Far before such issues were accepted in public discussions, Oscar Wilde wrote of the fear of sexual aberrance in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a viscerally disturbing (though manipulative) exposé of early 1900s factory conditions and actually contributed to the legal improvement of workers’ lives. Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses Gothic tropes to condemn the damaging and dismissive treatment of women’s mental illnesses in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Throughout her short stories and novels, Shirley Jackson skewers xenophobia and paranoia, along with loneliness and isolation. Ralph Ellison looks at racism through a surreal lens in Invisible Man to fully lay bare its full infusion in American culture. Toni Morrison evokes the trauma and terror of slavery through her powerful ghost story, Beloved. Margaret Atwood predicts a disturbing, sexist future in her nightmare The Handmaid’s Tale.

Of course, this trend also occurs in cinema. Films like Freaks and Cat People inverted the fear of the “other” that pervaded the genre in the ’30s and ’40s—they evoked sympathy for their outcasts. The Bride of Frankenstein, though a studio-­forced sequel, manages to be a dark exploration of isolation and gender identity that is years ahead of its time. In the ’60s, Night of the Living Dead cried out against paranoia and the mob mentality. The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre responded to the horrors of Vietnam with their documentarian depictions of violence. 28 Days Later is one of the first of many “modern zombie” films to revisit George A. Romero’s themes in a contemporary light. These are old revelations to the community of horror fans, and that is why we still watch these films. We remind ourselves of their existence, and with their impacts in mind, we look to the future.

This year has seen so much prophetic, metaphorical, and important horror cinema. The Witch, Green Room, The Girl with All the Gifts, The Love Witch, Under the Shadow, Dearest Sister, Trash Fire, Raw, and more movies all speak to our personal terrors, both current and archaic. They deal with sexism, liberation, bigotry, brutality, the policing of bodies, objectification, war, discrimination, greed, family, religion, coming­ of ­age, oppression—and these themes are just on the surface. Filmmakers both novice and experienced are responding to our era, just as their predecessors did to theirs.

We need this outpouring to continue, and we need diverse voices to carry it out. The tradition set by artists like Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, and Margaret Atwood is vital to us, because marginalized voices are so deeply threatened. We need members of the LGBTQA community, people of color, women, people who celebrate diverse religions, disabled people, and others to be given a chance to tell their stories. Not only does it make art more unique and varied, but it also allows these voices to exorcise their traumas and unleash their terrors. Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the all-female directed anthology XX—featuring segments by directors like Karyn Kusama and St. Vincent—promise to continue this diversity in storytelling; but there must be more. This is not a hope for the future—this is a current need. The voices of Peele, Kusama, Julia Ducournau, Anna Biller, Mattie Do, Babak Anvari, and others like them are essential.

When their stories are told by people who haven’t lived through them, or when they are not told at all, their voices are at risk of being silenced and dismissed, perpetuating their traumas and potentially creating new ones as well. These voices must be permitted to speak, and people must listen. Perhaps it will not change anyone’s beliefs—political art often preaches to their pre­ordained choir—but sometimes it’s the people who already believe and have experienced these troubles who need to hear the sermon the most. It offers a reason to continue; fighting hatred is painful, degrading, and at times feels like an insurmountable task. We need motivation.

This passion is something to look forward to for film fans. A diverse cast and crew can take old tropes and give them new purpose and a new angle, simply through different viewpoints. As an LGBTQA person, I yearn for this, and try to employ it in my own art; seeing your story played out onscreen or on a book’s pages is cathartic. It creates unity. When your identity and right to live is questioned, particularly if you are an outlier in your environment, art can provide the missing community. It can also lead you to like­minded people who will give you support, solidarity, and strength. These three things are life­saving, especially now.

The hatred and intolerance that exist in this world are not fictional terrors, but we can respond to them and reconcile them with fiction. In many ways, that is the artist’s purpose. When something painful, traumatic, and endangering occurs, our army of creative people can give voice to the atrocities, in a way that unites through emotion and vision, while also leaving a record for future generations. Already, recent references to classic films have been made on social media, with the current times being ­compared to They Live, The Dead Zone, The Thing, and Romero’s Dead films, amongst others—not only for comic relief, but also for simple understanding. Those stories, regardless of their intent or seriousness, have given us insight into our own situations in the present. They are comforting. We need new stories as well, to speak specifically for our times and for the times to come. Regardless of what happens in the next years, we will still have horror in the world, and fiction will provide opportunities to reflect, predict, explain, and overcome.

Genre film is not the only way to do this—far from it—but it is the closest to my heart, and is therefore my personal comfort. Perhaps it is yours as well. I have always found solace and assurance in films that expose, examine, and illuminate my fears. I will continue to do so, with more necessity and fervor than ever. Let us do this together. Let our artistic voices ring out amongst the cries of fear and hate. This is our rebellion, and it will be beautiful.