Horror speaks the unspeakable


There was a discussion on horror movie imagery, in which readers were asked what films they found the most frightening.   THE EXORCIST was mentioned, and I agreed, having seen it when it first came out, and remembering the effect it had on the audience.  But I also said that it can’t be evaluated accurately today because the culture has changed, at least partially BECAUSE of the film.   The same is true of the films that hit me hardest: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and ALIEN.   The question of “how much further can we go?” to create a powerful emotional effect.  This seemed to presuppose that the problem, or the worry, was an escalating war of perverse imagery or explicit effects.


I’m not a horror writer, but my wife certainly is, and so are many of my friends.   And the general consensus would seem to be that it isn’t pushing imagery further and further, it is looking for the unspoken taboos, the areas in which we are unconscious as we THINK we are awake, and peeling back that scab.


it isn’t raising the level of violence–all there is is absolute death and dismemberment, and we’ve had that since cave man days (gotten more realistic, but the point is the same). The trick is to attack current fears.


Varying critics disagree on precisely what was being attacked, but ALIEN may well have been fear of rape and impregnation (in Robert McKee’s terms “the negation of the negation”–what is worse than death?  Death that gives birth to greater death) ,  TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE may have been fear of what we’ve been doing to animals (hmmm…but again, fear of what goes beyond death…being actually devoured) , NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD fear of the destruction of society (during the civil rights movement–the racial angle is pretty powerful and disturbing.  But also fear of being eaten, and of what lies beyond death. The little girl stabbing her mother to death) and THE EXORCIST fear of the loss of religion’s power as we move into “faith” in science.  (Hmmm.  But again, relating to the soul. Religion deals with the fear of what lies beyond death, yes?)


The recent, instant classic GET OUT would have been unendurably frightening…and much less profitable…without the comic relief to release racial tension.   Play that movie straight?  I think it makes about 1/5 the money, and terrifies to the point of breaking rapport with any person black or white with unresolved racial issues. And that’s the majority of people.  (SPOILER: and in its own way, didn’t GET OUT play with the fear of what lies beyond death?)


So the trick for a horror writer will be not “topping” previous imagery, but asking what THEY are terrified by. What disturbs THEM.  What still causes pain, fear, guilt, anger as an adult, the things that deviled them as children that still torment them as adults. And that stuff is there, oh yes it is.  Some probable targets:


–The political divide and what it might mean (“The Purge” created a fortune by tapping into this)

–Male fear of female empowerment (and the fact that women will abuse their power just as badly as men do–with the added fun of guilt tripping weak males into believing its their own fault)

–Fear of automation making 90% of human beings irrelevant.  (in terms of the work force?  Not a silly speculation. Won’t necessarily happen, but anyone who thinks it CAN’T happen is, in my opinion, asleep)

–and for that matter…conceptual “sleeping” of many kinds.   We as human beings will justify anything we believe we need to survive.   I remember my mother telling me that animals don’t feel pain “as we do.” The same was said of slaves, of course.  And endless dehumanizations: men ignore women’s dreams, women ignore men’s deaths, Nation A ignores the pain of Nation B whose resources they need, and human beings ignore the pain of the natural world, once seen as the mother that gave birth to us all.


We need to believe we have the right to take, to exploit, to re-program, to define things outside ourselves to our own benefit.  Most of human history has been the “we are more human than you” and the idea that “we are all human together” is a pretty rare thing extended beyond your tribe.  There is terror as well as energy released in the resolution of any duality: black/white, male/female, American/non-American, Gay/Straight, Human/Animal.


Can’t wait to see a horror story that resolves the duality between living/inanimate.  Someone who REALLY did it would probably blow our minds to the point that we would think it funny rather than frightening–too big. So…you’d choose something that it right in our faces.


Hell, I thought of one, and in talking to Tananarive decided to hold it back from the discussion…might make a damned good movie.  Very high-concept.   Watch this space.


Take your own fear. Look into your own blind spots, if you can.   The sick places in your soul, the pusticles you’ve plastered over rather than drained.


There’s gold in them thar ills.






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