For a long time now I have loved horror movies. Some of the first I saw were outright shlock, such as 1997’s Cube and 1985’s Day of the Dead; however, with time I discovered and grew an appreciation for the classics, such as The Shining, the original Night of the Living Dead, and 1982’s The Thing. More recently, I have seen the offspring of these films and their kin, films such as MidSommar, It Follows, Get Out, and The Lighthouse.
My love for horror films has often been a problem for me in romantic relationships, even friendships. This is because few of my romantic partners or friends share my appreciation for these films, and so I often wind up watching them alone. Worse yet, I am often pathologized by my community for this interest.
When looking upon people who create or view horror films, we tend to decide that they have a need to see expressed on screen what lies within them, that the horror film is an externalization of unmet desires or feelings. For instance, the slasher film aficionado is a misogynist or psychopath, while the zombie film acolyte feels alienated from mainstream society.
While I think these conjectures can hold merit, I also think the best horror films express content that society at large represses. For instance, in Danny Boyle’s excellent zombie film 28 Days Later, I see society’s scarcely veiled underbelly of rage and its lack of protection for the most vulnerable; in David Lynch’s Eraserhead, I see many parents’ hidden regret that they bore children and their subconscious wish to reverse the clock. Through the bloodshed and disfigurement that horror exposes, we see our own unconscious wounds and failings.
Further, horror can convey the living conditions of the world’s marginalized peoples to those sanitized from these conditions. Nightmare on Elm Street creator Wes Craven speaks to this quite articulately when saying that in Freddy Krueger, he sought to confront American audiences with the horrors of war from which they had been protected; through Krueger’s signature scarred face, American audiences see the consequences of their own foreign policy decisions. Similarly, Slavoj Zizek expresses the dynamic when saying that in 9/11, Americans saw the metaphorical feces of their actions rising back “out of the toilet;” through the best horror, those in the bubble recognize and face their interconnection to less privileged beings.
The base feeling of horror is contact with the not-quite-rightness of our current way of living. Through our dominant society, white people thrive at the expense of people of color; men at the expense of women; and humanity as a whole at the expense of nature and the animal kingdom. For far too long, those of us at the top of these hierarchies have been preserved from this realization, and yet there is an awareness of some form of violence happening underneath, and as a consequence of our very existence; that is the awareness given light and voice by horror.
For this reason, the best horror films also offer catharsis and a path forward to more redemptive ways of being. For instance, Haley Joel Osment’s classic character in the Sixth Sense learns to embrace his gift, thereby becoming an aid to his ghosts rather than their victim. In parallel fashion, the protagonists of 2001’s The Others choose to let go of the past and accept their status as ghosts, henceforth relinquishing their captive human beings from haunting. In these and many other horror films, it is precisely by passing through the crucible of bloodshed that the characters understand how to become harbingers of peace rather than violence.
I do not want to say that people must watch horror films, as I simply do not believe in that kind of moral pronouncement for any topic. Some people don’t have the stomach for the intake of suffering that horror allows, and some people already intake this suffering through other means, such as their job or their life experience itself. However, I will continue to seek out and watch horror movies because I believe they make me a better human being, acquainting me with the serpentine ways in which my life intersects with the lives of others, the subterranean consequences of seemingly mundane decisions. Through the resulting awareness, I become enlightened with respect to interconnection in the same way the Buddha alluded to, seeing more deeply how I might act as others’ oppressor or their savior. In the final tally, the true horror is proceeding through life in ignorance of this knowledge and thereby acting as oppressor all the more forcefully.