Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Horror Movie Experience

For as long as there have been stories, whether told around a campfire, written in a book, or displayed on a screen, there have been villains and heroes, killers and victims, the scarers and the scared. In all forms of entertainment, we have a wide variety of genres, because each of us is designed differently when it comes to what lights our brains on fire. There's comedy for the light-hearted, drama for the heavy-hearted, and horror for the wicked-hearted. As a society, we frown down on real violence and try our hardest to stop criminals, but many of us still watch death and gore for entertainment. A man shoots a man in real life, we're shocked and appalled. An actor on screen 'shoots' another actor and he 'dies', and we cheer. There will never be an end to the debate about the cause-and-effect nature of violent films and real-life killers, but I don't think that ignorance or censorship is ever the answer. My attitude towards horror films, even the more shockingly offensive ones, is that if someone was allowed to make it, I should at least try and watch it.

The 'horror' genre comes with many different styles, but it all comes down to a fascination with fear, murder, and gore. It's no secret and no surprise that human beings are very curious creatures, about our minds, bodies, and the world around us. So of course, the more thick-skinned of us get excited about the prospect of seeing what we'd look like ripped wide open. But maybe it isn't the victims we're interested in. Personally, I've always been intrigued by the mind of the killer, by the winner of the brain lottery who ended up with a lust for violence. Then there's the figure of the Hero, the symbol of justice, the satisfaction we get from watching the bad guy go down in the end. Though, as the genre progresses, villains we cheer for and 'unhappy endings' are much more common.

Horror films come in many shapes and forms, and the horror genre is really an umbrella term for a vast variety of film styles. There's slashers, monsters, aliens, ghosts, demons, robots, and anything else we can turn into a deadly villain. There's comedic horror, drama with elements of horror, supernatural horror (which seems to be quite popular lately), gross-out horror, and just good old horror-horror, which sticks to the conventional rules. Although I could name a few monster/alien horror films that I've enjoyed, and who doesn't love a good zombie feature, I find myself most interested in slasher films. Sure, a monster or a demon can be scary, but I can't ever relate on an emotional or psychological level. But when a person snaps, put on a mask, and hunts down idiot teenagers, then you've got my attention. No conflict is ever more fascinating to me than human vs. human. We can create all the ghosts and ghouls we want, but human and human violence is always the scariest. And I'm a sucker for the big reveal at the end, when the mask comes off, and the killer delivers the all-important motive speech.

I could criticize a lot of the choices my parents made in raising me, but one aspect that I'll always be proud of is the fact that they never tried to shelter me or censor the material I've had access to. Obviously they wouldn't put porno on in the place of Sesame Street, but they'd always explain why something wasn't healthy for me to watch, and usually give me the chance anyways. I owe this style of parenting to my very open-minded taste in films and to my ability to watch just about anything without being offended or disgusted. My reaction to horror scenes is usually to laugh, rather than to shield my eyes or scream 'turn it off, turn it off!'. I feel like covering my eyes is one of the biggest insults I could direct at a film-maker. If it's on screen, I'll watch. This isn't always a good thing for me, but it's better than being afraid of special effects and scary acting.

When I was 5, about 20 years ago, my father sat me down in front of a television and put on Nightmare on Elm Street, then left the room. A very risky move for a parent, and it led to some sleepless nights (and probably some psychological issues that I haven't discovered yet), but it was an important lesson for a child. I learned that children are not safe, that there are dangerous criminals lurking around the corner, and I learned an important lesson about the difference between reality and fiction. Of course, at the time, I was just terrified to go to sleep, but eventually I wasn't afraid anymore.

The next major step in my horror-fanatic progression came when I was 11/12 years old. On Friday nights, my best friend and I would walk to to the video store (back when those existed) where old horror movies could be rented for 99 cents each. We'd rent 5 or 6, and stay up til 4am laughing our asses off at the crappy acting and embarassingly bad special effects. Having this routine for a couple years, I was able to watch just about every known classic horror film, from the Halloween and Friday the 13th series to way lesser known horror duds about cannibal parents and deadly washing machines, we saw it all. And I never found myself scared, just amused. I guess the point is that cutting someone wide open in real life is wrong, so we (the sane ones, at least) live out our morbid curiosity through the magic of cinema.

Next came the now classic Scream. This meta-horror slasher flick is known for many things. First, it's probably known for being a 90s icon and being cheesy as hell. It also brought back the popularity of teen slasher films. But it didn't do that by just being a teen slasher flick, they added an element of self-awareness to the genre that nobody had ever seen before. The teens being stalked and murdered weren't just hanging out waiting to die, these were teens that had grown up on horror films and knew The Rules. For a good year or two after first seeing Scream, I was just about obsessed with the movie. I guess it was a matter of a piece of art (though most wouldn't call it that) being introduced to me at the exact right time. The movie was fun, intelligent, gross, and even a little scary. And the big killer reveal at the end, along with the motive speech, is still one of my all-time favourites.

Scream, of course, led to about a million other slasher films all with the same formula, but none having as much fun with the genre as Scream did. Through my teen years, I'd keep an eye on the horror films that were coming out, but eventually my interests shifted to other genres and forms of entertainment, with horror films providing more nostalgia than excitement. Now, we're in a new age of horror films. We're in the era of The Remake/Reboot. It's no secret that Hollywood ran out of ideas years ago, so why not take movies that scared us as kids and relive the terror for a new generation. Some of these remakes, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Rob Zombie's Halloween, were very successful in not just copying the original, but really adapting the subject matter to a modern audience. Other remakes, well just about all of them, were just forced, obvious money-grabbers.

Then there's Scream 4, which came out last year, an attempt to once again redefine the genre for a new generation, with new rules for both the killer and victims to play by. As a die-hard fan of the original (not so much the 2nd and 3rd installments), this movie appealed to my nostalgia and I found it entertaining without taking it too seriously. There are also some film-makers out there who are currently trying to re-invent the genre and allow it to grow in new directions. Forget teen vampires, that's not what I'm talking about. Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods is a great example. This is another example of meta-horror, as horror movie figures and conventions are examined and parodied in this film. I didn't love the movie, but I appreciated what Whedon and company were trying to accomplish. There's also a supernatural slasher flick called Detention, which I haven't seen, and which has received terrible reviews, but from the trailer it at least looks like the film is trying to keep the genre fresh.

Whether it makes sense or not, people love watching depictions of terror and violence. As time passes by and we are able to track the effects of these types of movies, lots of questions are being raised about the danger of exposing a young mind to violent imagery and subject matter. On one hand, childhood should be full of innocent play and curiosity, and shouldn't be tarnished by adult-style entertainment. On the other hand though, the bloody one holding the butcher knife, children also shouldn't be sheltered and led to believe that the world is safe. Sure, witnessing simulated violence could indeed lead to real violence, but it can also prevent that exact outcome. By understanding the value of violent entertainment as a way of coping with real-world terrors, by understanding the difference between movie blood and real blood, and by understanding and fully appreciating the place of horror movies in our society, I think we could all learn something about ourselves and this crazy world we live in.

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