The fears we laugh about during Halloween say a lot about our politics
"Blessed be our new founding fathers and America ... A nation reborn."
This year will see us celebrating a very different Halloween. In many places around the country, children will not be able to go trick-or-treating, and adults will not be able to dress up and make fools of themselves at the club, given the current pandemic. But what is Halloween without a scary story? And what is the nature of those spooky tales? Most of the time they are rooted in very real issues and very real threats.
Sometimes the scariest thing in movies or books is not the killer, monster, or demon jumping out of the dark. Some of the best works scare people with what they can get the viewer or reader to imagine to be behind the creaking door, without ever spelling out what was really there, or even if there was really anything to be scared of in the first place. For a little kid, what lurks underneath their bed is anything the fear of their mind can imagine.
The best horror stories bring people back to that childhood innocence and then exploit it. But this is also true of those adult fears, which the most manipulative use for untoward ends.
Without even getting into arguments over aliens, ghosts, Bigfoot, chupacabras, green children, the Loch Ness monster, or even who killed Jimmy Hoffa, there are more down-to-earth real mysteries and monsters which are just as chilling and unnerving. The Trump administration has been likened to Pennywise the Dancing Clown of Stephen King's It, an entity which feeds on human fears while making targets of the vulnerable and exacerbating the overall negative emotions of everyone in the community. In this respect, the great and terrible darkness we fight is not lurking to get at us from another dimension or to escape a hell below us. It's right here with us, staring back in any mirror. The sad thing is these monsters are not just things which scurry about in the dark. The monsters of today stand in broad daylight wearing suits with flag lapel pins. These demons prey on children and the weak to gain their power. They have a cult of followers, some of which may be our own family members, united in fear and worship of their leaders' every lie. The evil which lurks corrupts everything it touches and foments violence against anyone that disagrees.
Author C.S. Lewis, a Christian apologist who worked his faith into many of his works, believed the problem of evil was not the conflict between two separate and equal entities, but what humans classify as evil only exists as only a dark reflection of that which is good. To Lewis, the natural state of the universe is perfection, since it was created by a perfect God, who passed on that perfection—until humans screwed things up with original sin. Therefore, any evil which exists is only a corruption of a society's norms and a person's integrity, and not an innate aspect of either the community or individuals.
Sometimes it's the individual or societal anxieties which express very real fear-causing aspects of life, albeit in grossly exaggerated ways. This notion becomes important when looking at the ideas and morality which have been part of scary stories and horror tales for centuries, and which still reverberate to this day.
People who have premarital sex and do drugs deserve to die
My mother's next-door neighbor is someone I could call at three in the morning and he'd be there to help. When my mother was rushed to the hospital in the back of an ambulance and we had no way to get back home, he answered his phone in the middle of the night. However, this neighbor is also one of the most politically conservative people I've ever met. I vividly remember him talking about his opposition to birth control and abortion, which were based in his belief there must be "consequences" for sex. If social conservatism has been defined by a fear of one's own body, then the end point for socially conservative policies is punishment as the wages of sin for anyone who chooses agency over their own person.
This sort of right-wing idea of punishing sin is a very common trope in many horror films. Who do Jason Voorhees and his mother kill in Friday the 13th? Their victims tend to be a lot of teenagers who decided it was a good idea to have sex in a tent next to a lake known for an undead killer in a hockey mask. Of course, being too dumb to live is also an acceptable excuse for characters in a horror movie to die.
All of this leads to an argument that the horror genre is actually "innately conservative, even reactionary" in ideology. The essence of fear as a tool to elicit an emotional response aims to reestablish our feelings of essential normality in relation to the threat of change, whether that change be a fear of death or even radical social change. That's why even though scary movies have more than enough violence and bare breasts to make most moral guardians clutch their pearls, most also have a fundamental morality which allows the audience to accept the enjoyment of watching horrible things happen to those people who break certain rules—since many of those rules align with the aims of Focus on the Family and other conservative assholes.
The fairy tale we know as Little Red Riding Hood is derived from two sources—Charles Perrault (also known as Mother Goose) and the Brothers Grimm. However, the story is much older than either of them, and like a lot of well-known fairy tales, the original iteration of the story is quite gruesome. The Big Bad Wolf actually feeds the grandmother to a naive Little Red Riding Hood, then gets her to disrobe and get in bed with him. In the Brothers Grimm version, the girl and her grandmother were rescued by a passing hunter, and then proceeded to fill the Wolf's belly with stones.
But it is Perrault's version that's noted for removing darker elements like cannibalism and adding the "red hood," which takes on some symbolic significance, since there is no happy ending for his Little Red Riding Hood. The Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood ... the end. Perrault intended the story to be a moral to young women about all wolves who deceive. The redness of the hood has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of sexual awakening and lust.
Variations of almost every element of Little Red Riding Hood appear in modern horror movies. The Big Bad Wolf is the archetypal "slasher" villain; a predator who shows almost, or true, supernatural abilities to deceive and manipulate his victims, most of whom are almost always women. Throw in Perrault's sexual symbolism, and you have the virginal "final girl" of many horror movies.
The heroine is a white virginal girl
The term "final girl" was coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, And Chain Saws: Gender In The Modern Horror Film. The book analyzed the slasher genre from a feminist perspective, and Clover argues that, instead of being driven by misogyny and sadism against women, these movies put the male viewer into the mindset of the female protagonist, or "the final girl" to survive. The final girl can scream, cry, and show fear in a way which audiences wouldn't accept from a male character. The final girl usually has a unisex name (e.g., Ripley, Sam, or Jay, in the case of It Follows), and tends to be portrayed as an idealization of female innocence and purity. She's probably not sexually experienced, doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't do drugs and more likely than not is a bit of a "Mary Sue." The character may be based on conservative attitudes and ideas of what women "should be." On the other hand, the final girl is usually separated emotionally from her parents, and the horror of the story tends to be connected to the sins of the parents, which is hidden behind a facade of family values.
Many have argued this trope takes advantage of regressive sexual attitudes in pop culture, where an apprehension to sex is coupled with the audience being titillated by sadism against a female protagonist and female characters. Beyond just horror movies, depicting a woman with sexual agency is still problematic in both fiction and real-life. There's a "virgin whore" dichotomy that Freud would have a field day with, where the culture sexualizes women, but if those women actually enjoy sex, it's either ridiculed (i.e., slut-shaming) or seen as something wrong or weird.
The other side of the argument is that many of the horror movies which came out of the 1970s "exploitation" film era are some of the first movies to have strong female characters that weren't dependent on men to "save" them. This argument is also found in discussions of Blaxploitation films, where the trade off to having Black actors and actresses front and center meant seeing them typecast as gangsters, hookers, and pimps.
"Even in the mid-'70s, the kind of proto-feminist element was being written about," said Kathleen McHugh, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. "Feminist film scholars were writing about Roger Corman and Stephanie Rothman, locating a feminist impulse in the standard plot, where you have these powerful, self-assertive, one might even use the term 'extremely aggressive' women who are wreaking vengeance against forces, people, men who are trying to keep them down."
The Black guy dies first
Apparently all evil monsters, aliens, and serial killers are racists, since people of color hardly ever survive a horror movie, and usually are among the first to die. On the one hand, this ties in to an argument about diversity both in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood. As it became more important for movies and television shows to increase representation and not pretend every community only has white people, more people of color appeared in front of the camera. However, the space behind the camera was, and to some extent still is, dominated by white writers and mostly white people in production. Writers tend to write what they know, and if given a character with a background they don't know or haven't really experienced, it may lead to either a cliche storm of stereotypes or killing the character off to get them out of the way once they're onscreen for a few minutes, long enough to get bonafides for diverse casting. And so Black characters—just as Black people in real life, sadly—become accessories to be used and discarded in service of white characters' needs.
Black people rarely make it to the end of a horror movie, but it's not exactly true that they always die first.
Over the past few decades, this notion has further been subverted, especially as more people of color are producing and directing their own material. More films in the horror genre have put issues of race and class front and center, with the horror of the movies shifted. Instead of the story being in service to the wants of white people, as it was in many past films with token characters, the struggle of these films switches the perspective where the horror is the wants of white people.
Jordan Peele's Get Out is a "social thriller," in which the horror scenario is a way for the story to expound into a damning satire about objectification and exploitation of Black people and Black culture, while assailing a type of white liberal guilt that talks a good game but does nothing to change anything. Peele's second film, Us, bases its action around a family being terrorized by violent doppelgängers attempting to take their place. The film is just as full of subtext as Get Out, but this time it's a contemplation about the nature of how we define ourselves as persons, and the ways it spirals out into the lies we want to believe about societies.
The Purge series was originally written off as nothing more than schlock, but each installment has made the themes of social inequality more explicit. Set in a future where a right-wing party called the New Founding Fathers of America has instituted an annual holiday where all crimes are legal for one night, under the claim of purging negative emotions, the propaganda of the regime claims instituting the event has resulted in 1% unemployment and an "America reborn." In actuality, the purge is intended as a legalized form of mass murder, in which the poor and other undesirable elements of society are eliminated through death squads, and the purge itself is a metaphor for the destruction done by the social inequalities created by poverty. In The Purge films, the wealthy are able to protect themselves or take part in the holiday with a degree of safety, while the poor are preyed upon by racists and elements of government who have judged them to be burdens or non-human. The Purge thus becomes a story for how people will rationalize abandoning the unfortunate if given only a perception of fairness, even when the result is not—reminiscent of the elevation of the idea that the free market fairly picks the "winners" and "losers," without allowing for the idea that hundreds of years of bias and discrimination plays a part.
Catholics are the only ones capable of fighting demons
Religious horror basically takes the Cliffs Notes version and various apocrypha of major religions and turns it into a scary story. In any horror movie, if it comes time to battle the forces of darkness and there is a possibility of defeating the evil by some vestiges of religion, the means by which it will be defeated will probably be quasi-Catholic. So thanks a lot for nothing, Martin Luther and the rest of you Protestants! The reason is because the Catholic Church is old and has a history of ornate ritual and majestic symbolism. Plus, cursing out a demon in Latin just sounds cooler.
Both Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist use the concept of the Devil and demons to inspire fear. But at their core, they're really movies about the female condition, within a religious framework. In both films, women are in situations where their pleas for help are either subverted or not taken seriously. And in both movies, the male figures either betray them, are absent, or are emotionally detached from offering any comfort.
Rosemary's Baby connects to real fears that women have during pregnancy: the possibility that something is wrong with their baby, that they're losing control of their body, and the situation is one they have little control over. The movie just adds in Satanic rape and devil worshipers.
The true horror of The Exorcist exists whether one believes in demonic possession, since the crux of the story is really about helplessness and a mother's fear of having something wrong with a child that no one seems able to fix. In this respect, whether it's mental illness, cancer, or a demon, the story connects on that emotional level.
The key to surviving any horror scenario is friendship and a family's love
1982's Poltergeist is now considered a classic of this particular genre. And that's interesting for a number of reasons, given some of the controversy and trivia which surrounds the movie. Poltergeist is a great example of a theme usually associated with Steven Spielberg's movies from the late '70s to the mid-'80s (i.e., suburban, middle-class families dealing with extraordinary circumstances). One of the knocks usually levied against Spielberg is he idealizes American suburbia and visualizes it in a nostalgic tone. That's not exactly true. In E.T. and Poltergeist, both families have flaws. Spielberg's suburban life is one in which unsupervised children stay up all hours watching TV, eating junk food, surrounded by products and things which provide no meaning, while living in cookie cutter neighborhoods. But if Spielberg sentimentalized anything, he idealizes the ability of a family's love to overcome all obstacles.
Teamwork makes the dream work and, like a dysfunctional family, this is especially true for any disparate group of people thrown together in a crisis. The George Romero Living Dead films touch on race, gender, and the inability of people to work together at the end of the world, which is just as true when expanded out to societies which can't work together to combat climate change, systemic racism, health care, or pandemics.
The zombie apocalypse is a situation that brings out the worst tendencies in humans, and turns our best qualities against us. In order to survive, a balance has to be found between the two. With almost any zombie film, they can be seen in such an entirely different light when you realize the zombies aren't meant to be evil—or even the villains. The zombies are no different than a thunderstorm, or a hurricane, or an earthquake. It's just a part of nature that we deal with, and how we deal with it can sometimes depend on what kind of person we are. Therefore, the true evil in most zombie apocalypses is humanity. With the world crumbling around them, the human characters still can't put aside their differences (whether race, class or ego) to save each other. The survivors would rather fight over the last scraps of civilization, or hold on to prejudices that serve to help no one survive.
Don't turn off the main road for a shortcut
Among one of the most disturbing documentaries PBS ever broadcast is The Donner Party, which focuses on the infamous incident in which a disastrous expedition of settlers to California resulted in starvation, murder, and cannibalism.
Director Ric Burns, whose brother is Ken Burns (The Civil War), uses historical stills, nature photography, and celebrity voice overs to create a truly unsettling tale. Just as in The Civil War, David McCullough narrates, with readings from the actual diary entries of the Donner settlers providing the details of what happened as the situation went from bad to worse. McCullough's narration is particularly effective. The way McCullough nonchalantly mentions a wife having to watch her dead husband's heart being roasted on a stick catches the viewer off-guard. And with the use of still photography, what one doesn't see becomes more troubling, since the mind fills in the gaps in ways that are more horrific.
Many very common horror movie tropes occurred over the course of the Donner Party's journey. Hell, it might be the source of some of the cliches: people deciding to turn off the main road to take a shortcut that turns out to be the worst choice of their lives, an arrogant member of the group's behavior making a bad situation worse, disintegration of relationships through greed and ego, and ending most gruesomely with blood and gore through cannibalism.
What could possibly go wrong?
A hunger to know things is a common theme in literature and mythology, but it's been balanced over thousands of years with messages that the pursuit of knowledge may destroy paradise. Curiosity is frequently treated as something of a sin; the pursuit of knowledge and the discovery of truth usually signify the loss of innocence. The Holy Bible uses this trope with the temptation of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And Greek mythology has both Pandora and her box and Prometheus and his gift of fire. Reams could and probably have been written on the effect on Western civilization due to two big cultural myths which blamed women for bringing evil and suffering into the world, and how that corresponds to ideas about sexual innocence and moral purity.
In a good portion of scary movies that touch on science fiction, there is more than a fair share of Luddite tendencies. Even though science fiction deals with possibilities and all the wonder that may be, it also has a habit of tempering that with a lot of paranoia and suspicion of advanced technology, scientific discovery, and its application. To this end, most stories posit corporations and government as the "Big Bads," since their depictions tend to be neither benevolent nor trustworthy enough to deal with knowledge that might be gained, due to ulterior motives of greed and power.
As a child, I learned some important lessons. If I should ever come across a crashed meteor, and ooze should slither out of it, I should run the hell away instead of poking it with a stick. If I am ever part of an experiment, any positive physical changes will be temporary; I will ultimately descend into becoming a monstrous mass of flesh. And if someday a flying saucer is discovered under the ice of Antarctica, don't thaw it, as it will end with teeth growing out of the chest and one's head growing tentacles.
Killers struggle with sexual identity
Until the mid-1970s, both the American psychiatric and psychological associations classified homosexuality as a mental health disorder and listed it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This particular bias is prevalent in many, many stories where gay and transgender characters are shown enduring a life of self-hating sadness, suffering from an addiction to supposedly aberrant behavior, or drawn to an underworld of sin. And since people with these "unnatural" compulsions are broken, LGBTQ characters have been used, sometimes as the twist, in a lot of murder-mysteries, psychological dramas, and horror movies.
Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer plays the monster angle literally, where a gay character is chased through the streets like Frankenstein's monster and killed. Along the same lines, the implied or explicit homosexuality of the killer is often a twist of the "thriller" genre. The adaptation of Roderick Thorp's The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, has the killer at one point saying he "felt more guilty about being a homosexual than being a murderer" and skulking around the streets looking to pick up men, like an addict searching for a fix. William Friedkin's Cruising, which follows an undercover cop investigating a serial killer targeting gay men within New York's leather/BDSM scene, was protested during its production and upon release by gay rights activists who believed the film characterized homosexuals as promiscuous and violent. Similar to the most problematic issues surrounding Cruising, 1992's Basic Instinct was protested by LGBTQ activists for presenting gay people and bisexuals in a negative light; some protesters stood outside theaters holding signs that revealed the identity of the movie's killer. One of the most controversial aspects of both the novel and Jonathan Demme's adaption of Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs was the characterization of serial killer Buffalo Bill.
It's fascinating how this characterization has changed over the years. The change in these views of the LGBTQ community has led many to feel that positive depictions of gay men and lesbian women in film and television have been important in pushing the public to a more tolerant position.
We live in The Twilight Zone
As I've gotten older, I've come to realize a lot of my love for science fiction and horror material can be seen through the prism of cathartic wish fulfillment and a release of all the things we're afraid of within an engaging story.
Because "in a better world," we can do anything. In some far-off future society, things make sense. Unlike in the here and now, problems can be solved with reason and science, no one looks down their nose at others for being different, and the worst mistakes can be made right again. Brave heroes boldly charge through the darkness in great machines to save the day. While there will be struggles and suffering, and dark threats must be confronted, even death itself can be opposed. And through it all, maybe there's even a fatherly figure who dispenses wisdom and lessons of morality in between drags on his cigarette.
One of the greatest powers of story can be its ability to divorce a controversial topic from all of the usual bullshit that surrounds it, forcing the reader/viewer to examine a topic in a new way. It allows the public conscious for confronting humanity's hopes and despairs, fears and failings, prejudices and atrocities in allegory and metaphor. So it should be no surprise that scary stories reflect who we are as a people, both good and bad.
The horror films of the last two decades have seen an increased diversity in topics and formats, which are themselves reactions to cultural shifts. Found footage films arose at the same time that selfies and social media became commonplace. A glut of horror movie remakes, and remakes in general, have occurred during the same era where a significant part of the populace has clung to old ideas and want to make flawed, past memories great again instead of creating better and newer ones. What does the future hold? How will the influence of the Trump era be expressed in future scary movies?
Only time will tell.
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