When I was a kid, I was legitimately afraid of Halloween night. As a problematically imaginative boy, I existed in a world wherein I had constructed an elaborate cosmology of evil spirits, monsters, and ghosts that stalked me each time the sun went down. While this peculiar obsession of mine likely brought to me to my current state (creating fanciful worlds for science fiction and fantasy stories/novels), it was somewhat stressful for pre-adolescent me. Any sight of the trivial horror tropes of Halloween stood to haunt my nightmares.
Remember those aisles in the grocery store which, around October 1st, would start to be lined with rubber masks? Yeah, I wouldn’t walk down those aisles. If I did, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look. Likewise those elaborate, gruesome displays some people set up in front of their houses – plastic skeletons, a severed arm of Styrofoam, fake blood dripping over plastic fake eyeballs – these places were fairly terrifying to me (though mostly after dark). Come to think of it, much of my young life involved strategically deciding when to close my eyes and not take in the “horrors” that would parade about each Halloween or, for that matter, in any given television show or movie I watched. Apart from the first time I saw it (around 1986), I didn’t actually see the Ark-opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark until I was in high school, despite watching the movie about ten times in the interim. Same deal with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
I remember being convinced that seeing things that were scary would harm me in some way. Initially, when I was little, I felt that the scary things were in some way actually real and might awaken if they caught me looking (it was for this reason, by the way, that I sought to dress as something with a weapon or natural defenses every Halloween – just in case, you understand). As I got older, I was just concerned about getting vivid nightmares (and I used to have very vivid nightmares). Halloween night, of course, was the metaphysical climax of this feeling of terror. I loved the candy, sure, but as I walked around my neighborhood, I kept my flashlight gripped tight and made sure my plastic sword was loose in the scabbard. My weight was firmly over the balls of my feet. I imagine I looked like a spooked deer.
But then it all changed. I can’t put my finger on it, but everything became less scary. I started opening my eyes, tearing back the curtain. I started watching more horror movies. Now? Halloween isn’t scary. If anything, it’s the opposite – a banal display of half-assed “horror” tropes ladled together in a kind of stew that, in juxtaposition, are more absurd than scary. Like, seriously, how am I supposed to interpret the fifteen apparently “severed” heads stuck on your white picket fence? And why are they in such wildly differing states of decay? And what’s with the one that’s smiling? Gimmie a break.
I don’t scare easily anymore. Yeah, a horror movie can get me to jump, but that’s less “horror” and more clever use of loud sound-effects and fast camera cuts. Losing sleep? Nightmares? It’s been years. In fact, I find a lot of things other people find terrifying to be simply…odd. How can you be afraid of clowns? They’re clowns!
Now, while this means I live a much calmer, much saner life than I did as an eight-year-old, I do think, sometimes, that I’ve lost something crucial. There is something magical in terror, isn’t there? That little spike of adrenaline I’d get as I ran into the house with the autumn wind and the skitter of leaves chasing me; that boiling feeling in my stomach as I put my hands over my eyes and refused to feel the “eyeballs” in the local haunted house – there was something special going on there, in that brain of mine. Fear forces your imagination to fire on all pistons. Not seeing what you fear is infinitely more powerful than seeing it. All those years with my eyes closed, I was constructing truly terrifying edifices in the dark of my own mind. Now that I’ve opened them, well, there’s no going back. Those eyeballs are peeled grapes. That guy jumping out from behind the haystack in the hockey mask is a volunteer actor from the local high school and, for that matter, is two inches shorter and about twenty-five pounds lighter than me. I’m not scared anymore.
Sometimes, though, I wish that I still was.
There is a distinct and important difference between being afraid and being disgusted, and modern horror seems to forget
this all too often. Graphic scenes of torture or gore are not, by their nature, frightening so much as they are gross. If I decline to eat live cockroaches, it isn’t because I’m ‘afraid’, it’s because I imagine the experience will be unpalatable.
When I go to see a movie or watch a show that is intended to be frightening, there seems to be a 50/50 chance that their idea of horror is going to be pretty bloody and graphic, but the film won’t be frightening, really. Exciting perhaps, but not scary. Fright comes from a different place, at least for me. I don’t have nightmares about gore and violence. Hellraiser didn’t so much scare me as gross me out. I slept fine that night, though I can’t say I had a huge appetite for a rare steak afterwards.
Ah, who am I kidding? I always have an appetite for rare steak. Hell, I felt like meatloaf right after seeing Julie Taymor’s version of Titus Andronicus in the theaters. Mmmmm…bloody.
What scares me is the idea of helplessness. Alien scared the hell out of me, and you know why? Not because the critter burst from that dude’s chest, but because they were all stuck on a spaceship with a monster and there was no way out. It wasn’t as if there was no way out because they were idiots, either–the characters in that movie were operating at the top of their intelligence; the idiot ball was not in use. There was no way out because there was no way out.
That’s scary. The inexorable approach of doom is frightening. The unavoidable slip into madness is frightnening. Stephen King knows this better than anybody. Most of his truly terrifying works are based on that idea. In It, how can the kids possibly defeat Pennywise? In The Shining, Jack is terrifying primarily because his wife and kid are stuck with him while miles and miles from any kind of help. Misery works on the same concept, and on and on and on. It’s not the gore, folks, it’s the isolation, the removal of agency, the horror of helplessness.
If you want proof, try transposing. If Pennywise were to pick on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, how would it go? If a lone alien got loose on one ship among a fleet of ships, how hard would it be to solve the problem? If the crazy dad from The Shining chased his wife and kid into a crowded shopping mall, how dangerous would he really be?
A lot of horror movies like to cheat by creating artificial isolation by throwing around the idiot ball or breaking the rules
of reality just for the hell of it, but I’m not buying it. It’s all too easy sometimes to explain how to escape the dangers of a horror movie, and that’s a sign of a bad horror movie. House seems haunted, but you’re only visiting? Dude, just go home. Crazy killer in the woods? Drive away. Being chased by some slow-moving zombie monster? Just run away.
So, in conclusion: Freddy Kreuger was scary (you can’t get away), but Jason Vorhees isn’t as much (he can’t realistically ride the bus or catch a cab so, you know, just leave). Likewise, cutting off some guys nuts and tossing them in a blender isn’t scary. If he’s made to do it because he has a brain worm that he can’t get out, that is scary. It’s all about setting, it’s all about agency, it’s all about character.
It isn’t about the blood.