Fear of Fright

At some point in the last couple of weeks, I watched a horror film. Perhaps two. I actually can’t remember*, but I don’t know if that says more about the asinine nature of modern horror films or my general lack of interest in them. Until this year, and The Woman in Black, I’d never seen a horror film in the cinema before and I must confess the audience’s reaction did heighten my enjoyment of a film I probably wouldn’t have cared for otherwise.

My apathy towards the horror genre in general comes from my perception that they’re generally a bit hackneyed and full of clichés, more so than your average Hollywood picture. Certain plot devices, locations and characters repeat with unwelcome frequency. The redshirts, their death warrants already signed, are painfully obvious from the get go. One, maybe two, characters will survive, usually a nubile young blonde woman and/or a grimly stoic square-jawed man.

Watching The Woman in Black in the cinema, along with an audience of people whose tastes were different to mine, was eye-opening to a certain extent. I came to realise that a well-executed film is more like a roller-coaster than a story told via the medium of film. That scene where our protagonist(s) are exploring their environment and without warning an angrily disturbed pigeon/cat/bat erupts onto the screen in a screeching of claws and teeth? Hackneyed and clichéd, but when viewed in the right circumstances, it becomes the equivalent of the big dip after a long rise on my hypothetical roller-coaster. Adrenaline is released and the blood starts pumping. It’s a more physical than mental experience, unlike almost all other films.

That’s probably obvious to you; there’s a maxim that you should write assuming your audience know nothing; generally, it’s me that’s the one in blissful ignorance…

Back to horror; while I now appreciate the physical aspect of horror more, I’m still not convinced they actually horrify me that much. I’ve been inured to bloody violence and gore through fiction and unfortunate real world events, and at the age of 32 I think I’ve more or less come to terms with my own mortality. The added problem of the high percentage of redshirts in horror means it’s difficult to begin to identify with the characters and so there’s no real emotion involvement. The thought crossed my mind as I watched one of the horror films and another poor unsuspecting sap was disembowelled or decapitated; there surely must be something more frightening to the viewer than representations of short-term physical pain, and presently death?

There have of course been psychological horror films that have attempted to introduce a new element to the old archetype, some with greater success than others. Alien did it successfully, Haute Tension less so. While it could be argued that the subtext of some of these films genuinely make humans disconcerted, at least subconsciously, on the surface of things they’re just new methods of delivering blood and guts. Perhaps horror films should deal with darker fates?

The scariest film I saw as a child was the adaptation of Stephen King’s It. There was virtually no gore (from what I remember), but it frightened the bejesus out of me. Perhaps it was the clown. More likely it was the notion that Pennywise physically harming you was the least he could do. I have also in recent years become aware of the short story ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’ and the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I haven’t read any of these stories, but they hint at a terror that would ensnare a human in an eternity of anguish that is quite possibly beyond its comprehension.

As I watched Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods at the cinema tonight, it appears similar thoughts have crossed the mind of the two co-writers. I’ve read complaints that the trailer is misrepresentative of the film itself; I don’t know if the film has been marketed as a simple slasher, but it certainly isn’t. The writers have attempted to reclaim horror from torture porn, to make their film visceral rather than about evisceration, but I’m not sure it works. It’s certainly clever and funny in the way Joss Whedon’s work tends to be, but at the heart of it all is that archetype that I just don’t get on with.

*They were Alien vs. Predator: Requiem and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. I think.