How I Learned to Stop Avoiding Horror, and Love Being Scared
Each Halloween brings with it a slew of lists with titles like “Best Movies for Halloween” to “Bloodiest Kills in Rob Zombie Movies Ranked.” Tis the season for ghouls and masked murderers, buoyed by the concentrated theatrical release of anything that may have a chance of capitalizing on the month where everyone becomes a horror fan. For me, it’s an excuse to revisit horror classics and look into what new titles might be coming our way. However, this was not always the case. To say that I was initially a skeptical viewer of horror movies would be an understatement. I have never been known to have a strong stomach when it comes to buckets of blood and rolling heads, or at first, even for scares of any sort. Whenever I’m feeling particularly proud of my increased tolerance for ghoulish movies, my parents enjoy reminding me about the first time we watched Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) together. I had nightmares for weeks about those pesky spiders coming to take me away. We may not think about the Harry Potter series as being all that horrific, but from the spiders to Lupin’s wolvish tendencies, there is more than a dose of the horror genre in the movies.
I was an avid reader of all genres well before becoming an avid viewer, so alongside an introduction by way of Potter I found the traces of monsters and boogey-men in everything from Inkheart to Edgar Allan Poe. I appreciated being able to close the book if I was too frightened, a normal occurrence when eight-year-old Devin stayed up to too late reading a rather chilling fantasy novel. But even with such a childhood appreciation for the fantasy genre that often dipped into horror aspects, it took quite a few years for me to find my way to a movie and television genre that has become one of my favorites.
I ascribe this delay in part to the narrow parameters through which horror was represented at the beginning of the 21st century. In an era when the low-budget slashers of the of the 1980’s were being remade into blockbuster gore-fests, reboots like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Halloween (2007), and Friday the 13th (2009) which sought to splash more blood across the screen than any of the originals they were based on, dominated the cultural conversation. The only popular respite from this branch of horror came in the form of American remakes of Japanese films, spawning titles such as The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004). Few were well-received by critics, though many raked in substantial box-office returns. I learned to be careful if I was watching television late at night or popping in a new DVD because chances were there would be a trailer for one of these slashers or imports hiding among the less-unnerving clips. I formed a conception of ‘horror’ as movies that were only interested in showing people a) get torn apart or b) having sex before getting torn apart. This was not helped by the fact that the first horror movie I was dragged to see in theaters was The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008), an exceptionally bad exploitation flick in the possession sub-genre. There was quite a bit of both a) and b) to behold. Little did I know that these offshoots of the genre were a relatively recent development and represented only a sliver of the bulk of horror filmmaking.
My opinion of horror started to change when my mother introduced me to the Master of Suspense, the one and only Alfred Hitchcock. My mother is named Rebecca, her name inspired by the Daphne du Maurier novel Hitchcock adapted into his first feature stateside, the eponymous Rebecca (1940). Mom found Hitch in college and has loved him ever since. The first movie she showed me was North By Northwest (1959), a comic thriller that is by no means a horror movie, but was an apt first feature for my twelve-year-old self. Yet, it was the perfect mother-son screening of Psycho (1960) that revealed how captivating horror could be. Without gore or anything that even bordered on the content of the modern slashers, Hitchcock crafted a taught and engaging movie that was as terrifying as it was cheeky. From there I stumbled across The Birds (1963), a movie that has remained a watermark for me in terms of favorite horror movies and really movies in general. No, the effects have not aged particularly well, but it is hard to watch The Birds and not be deeply unnerved by the assembling murder (the official name for a group of crows) on the playground behind the unsuspecting Melanie (Tippi Hedren). It is filmmaking of the highest order. In no time, I was hooked on Hitch and inventive horror. I wanted more like him.
In this vein, my teenage years in a pre-Netflix house that mostly relied on Movie Gallery or the Walmart deal bin for new movies often turned to cable movie marathons to see what was on. Many days were spent flipping between AMC, TCM, and ABC Family to see what might be on. Around Halloween, after finding Hitchcock, I spent quite a few afternoons glued to TCM. Discovering Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney Jr. floating, gnashing, and screeching through the frames of Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Wolf Man (1941) was such good fun and bled wonderfully into the likes of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the Hammer Studio horror movies. Here was deft, sometimes campy and goofy, but skilled filmmaking having fun with horrific figures. Watching Dracula, it is hard not to be simultaneously amused and chilled by Lugosi’s performance: the fangs and cape are somewhat comical, but his resolve to play the vampire is utterly convincing.
In the same regard, I discovered and fell in love with Vincent Price. With 207 acting credits to his name, Price was just about everywhere during his career, but it is movies like House of Wax (1953) and The Fly (1958)that endeared me to him. He was often featured in horror movies with absurd plots and writing that was beneath his talent, but I can honestly say I have never seen a Price performance where he took the material anything less than deadly serious. Genre fare often suffers from filmmakers and performers who want to badly for you to know that they know that what they’re doing is beneath them, something on display in every silly Friday the 13th movie ever made. Price never let this spoil the material, even when he was seeking the discovery of an organism that appears on the human spine at the moment of being scared to death in The Tingler (1959), which featured a terrible piece of rubber pulled along the floor by a string as the eponymous creature. It is absurd, but Price arches his eyebrows and shields his eyes like it is deadly fun.
Over time, I graduated from the classical horror canon, bracing my stomach against the gore that I realized was not simply thrown into movies that had nothing else going for them. I owe a great debt in this regard to The Walking Dead (2010-). A late night marathon with two friends got me hooked on a show I never imagined watching. Somehow, this program about brain-eating, decomposing bodies mixed a southern gothic flair with incredibly human storytelling. Even if the quality has dropped off in recent years, those first few seasons convinced me that there was more to zombies and buckets of blood than I expected. The Walking Dead compelled me to seek out works in a similar vein, pieces like Alien (1979), The Thing (1982), and even American Psycho (2000). Watching more and more, I came to realize that I actually quite enjoyed being scared. I dealt with the gross-out tendencies because the feeling of being shocked by a well-timed jump scare or sitting with the creeping dread of a psychological horror film is an oddly invigorating feeling. For a filmmaking team to create a piece of art that has the ability to unnerve us so deeply without crossing over into cheap shlock- well, it is a singular accomplishment.
I have long contended that by studying what people laughed at through the generations, comparing comedy films from year to year, we can create a picture of what lived culture was most like in different periods. Similarly, there is little more visceral than having a register of what people were afraid of, and this is what the horror genre supplies. Experiences of the Vietnam and the Cold Wars are peppered throughout works like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) spends much of its runtime grappling with Reagan era norms and fears surrounding teenage promiscuity and independence. As I watched more and more horror, I found that each elucidated something about the cultural moment that created it and allowed for a broadened understanding of the development of filmmaking in the U.S. and abroad when placed in the greater context of the history of the genre. It is why the current resurgence of socially commenting, well-made horror, from The Babadook (2014) to Get Out (2017), is so exciting and will provide wonderful fodder for cultural theorists looking back on our current era. Some of the most exciting filmmakers of the day are working in the horror genre, and boy, do they have lots to say about our contemporary experiences.
On this Halloween, I enjoy pausing to appreciate how I have grown to seek out horror, and furthermore how I have been able to understand the importance of the genre in understanding film history. From Hitchcock and Price to Jordan Peele and Stephen King, there are countless entries in the horror canon that are as thrilling and terrifying as they are well-crafted and thought provoking. Even just this month, the release of Halloween (2018), a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 film of the same name, has been a hit and, more importantly, has become the highest grossing movie starring a woman over fifty-five. That woman would be Jamie Lee Curtis in her return to the character of Laurie Strode. This comes in a year which has already seen Toni Collette turn in Oscar-worthy work for Hereditary (2018) as a grieving mother and Insidious: The Last Key (2018), starring seventy-five year old Lin Shaye, become the highest grossing film of that franchise. Horror is making strides where other genres seem to be stuck in neutral. So this year, take a chance on something that looks like it will terrify you. Who knows, you may just enjoy it too. Happy Halloween!