“Why would you watch that?”
It’s a common refrain for those of us who have found a pastime in horror. In conversation with friends, family, or coworkers, the talk will somehow shift to movies and the next thing you know they are looking at you with a deeply disconcerted expression. So for this Halloween, I’d like to take a few minutes of your time (or maybe more than a few. I don’t know how long it’ll take you to read this. No judgment [OK, some judgments, but I’ll keep them to myself]) to talk a bit about my own path towards loving those monsters that fill our cinematic shadows. But first, back to that question:
“You watched that? Why?”
And fair play to that question. People as a species tend to shy away from subjects that are dark and depressing, and horror is nothing but an examination of exactly those same subjects. Disease, injury, death, these things are anathema to polite conversation, and yet the horror fan seeks out art that is consumed by these traumas.
“Scary movies” might be the most commercially bulletproof of film categories, but horror is still viewed as lower genre, the resting place for cheap, base thrills, fodder for date nights and little more. With the possible exception of comedy, no genre in film remains as sneered at as the horror film.
Finding beauty or comedy or meaning in the grotesque requires an acquired taste, and trying to bridge that gap for a non-believer can be almost impossible. Back in college, I used to avoid watching especially gory or messy horror films in front of my roommates, the way guys keep their porn habits private from co-habitators. And that caution paid off when one of my buddies came into the living room while I was watching Dead Alive.
“Why would you watch that?”
(This conversation does not get any easier when discussing your own horror creations. I once had an in-law remark, “Something must be wrong with you!” after reading a short story of mine. The day did not much improve from there.)
What’s interesting about my own enjoyment of the horror genre is that for a long time I existed on the other side of the fence. I was…well, let’s just be blunt about this: I was a total goddamn wuss. An overdeveloped sense of empathy and a way too active imagination just about crippled my ability to deal with intense movies and stories, necessitating leaving the room if shit ever got especially real.
So what happened? How did a cringing coward come to not only enjoy but actually love the dark and sticky side of cinema?
A few different things led to this. Partly it was just a practical step in a general appreciation in cinema. Growing up, my favorite filmmakers were guys like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi thanks to their blockbuster tentpole films. Using the brave new world of the Internet, it turned out that they (along with many others) got their start making horror films, so being the good little geek that I was I sought out their earliest efforts.
And not only did folks like Jackson and Raimi make horror films, but they were influenced by decades of genre fair, from Romero’s living dead to Lewton’s cat people to Corman’s endless procession of haunted castles inhabited by a cackling Vincent Price. Greedy, I chased down everything I could find, wanting to soak up as much knowledge as I could, wanting to experience the same shockwaves of inspiration that my heroes had transubstantiated into their own art, wanting to learn every aspect of the magic trick.
All movies are magic tricks of a kind (what’s the phrase? “Sculpting in time”), but it’s even more pronounced in a good horror film. It’s one of the only genres of film where the craft of the thing is as important as the thing itself. Only in horror could behind-the-scenes folks like Tom Savini or Rick Baker or the KNB guys become recognizable figures in their own right, and not just below-the-line crew members (and that trend goes back decades, to Jack Pierce and Lon Chaney using skin as a canvas on which to paint terror). With movies like Dawn of the Dead or American Werewolf in London or The Thing or The Fly or countless others, the joy of rewatching was as much about trying to suss out how each mutilation or mutation was created in camera. Long after the initial electric shock of fear had faded away, the magic those artists managed to capture still sang.
So those are some of the practical reasons why I started diving into horror. And still to this day, there’s a special joy to just appreciating a well-crafted bit of terror. When the sound design, cinematography, editing, and performances are all working together in concert, each element perfectly timed to enhance the other and prompt kinetic, cathartic reactions from an audience, man, there’s nothing better than that.
But it goes deeper than that. Like I said earlier, I was a cowardly kid, introverted and closed off from most people. As an adult, I still sometimes struggle with my innate desire to be alone (there’s a world of difference between lonesome and lonely), but as a kid, the world outside my head seemed an impossible place filled with countless pitfalls to hurt and humiliate.
Embracing horror built inroads to deal with that. Horror films created a space where terror could be experienced safely, where you could walk through nightmares and know that you would pass safely to the other side. By giving fear flesh-and-blood shape, cinematic boogeymen allowed me to confront those phobias that had seemed so dangerously intangible.
That’s still true to this day. Life is scary, life is uncertain, and life ends. These are certainties that are, by their nature, unpleasant to deal with. But horror lets us confront these things head on and make peace with them. In capturing the worst possibilities of this life, horror shines a light on the value of what is best.
I can still empathize with those folks that flinch away from onscreen grue and terror, but engaging with this stuff has made me a happier and healthier individual. Having that increased awareness of mortality, of life’s fragility, it gives you a deeper and richer appreciation for what it means to be healthy and alive. And when things both in day-to-day life and in the world at large start to go to shit, horror provides a language and an emotional lifeline to process things that seem beyond processing.
Again, this is just my own personal relationship to this stuff. I’m sure you reading this had your own gateways to the genre and have your own reasons for following it down whatever rabbit holes you may. All I know is that as a kid, there were times where I felt like I was choking on rage and fear, unable to understand or express what was happening to me.
The boogeymen showed me the way clear, and I’ll always be grateful to them for that.