I've let almost two weeks lapse since making the first in what was supposed to be a series of posts throughout the month related to the topic of horror. I really need to start getting into the Halloween spirit now.
I am continuing my way through 2008’s Fear Itself television series, and most recently watched the episode “Skin and Bones,” which is by far the best of those that I have now watched. It’s strength rested largely on the makeup effects, as applied to creating an antagonist that was frightful in initially subtle ways. The story is a familiar one, and apparently an increasingly popular one. It is essentially the same as the charmingly bizarre 1999 film, Ravenous, though “Skin and Bones” is executed in a quite different way.
I believe that a part of the latter’s appeal may be attributable to the earnestness of its director, Larry Fessenden. Each episode of Fear Itself has a special feature consisting of interviews with that episode’s director and actors. While several directors thus far have had something interesting to say about horror, its role, and its appeal, Fessenden’s initial commentary is far and away the most striking to me. He says:
“I love horror because it really is just part of my psyche. I think it’s the way my brain in wired. When I walk down the street and I see a fence post, I imagine someone impaled on it. I see life through this filter of real despair and have always had an awareness of death and of the fragility of life. I really think horror is a psychological genre, and people who are drawn to it, I think, have some sort of existential experience with life.”
That notion of imagining horror in mundane contexts is powerfully familiar to me, but I had never really connected it to an affinity for horror as a genre of film or literature. I have, however, considered how it may relate to my strong sense of empathy, my philosophical and spiritual tendencies towards stoicism and asceticism, and my experiential curiosity.
The wiring of my brain may be a bit different from that of Fessenden’s. I don’t have a particularly common tendency to imagine horrible outcomes from a third-person perspective. Rather, there are situations in which I cannot suppress thoughts about the terrible things that could happen to me, and what that would be like. It’s usually associated with the perils of the modern world, though the sight of wild animals may prompt me to imagine, and almost fantasize about being mauled or maimed by them. If I see a hydraulic lift, I immediately and vividly imagine having an arm trapped in it as it lowers. Many such things primarily impress me with the damage they can do, and their practical use is only an afterthought.
Often, my psychological focus almost rises to the level of impulse. I visited my former employer recently, and he showed me a bowl cutter that he had recently gotten running. It is an extremely old item and has no safety catch, so the blades can be turned when the lid is raised and they are completely exposed. He gleefully demonstrated its operation, and I stared at the whirring blades and felt as though I was willfully denying the impulse to reach out towards them. I actually have a certain sense of fear when I use dangerous hardware, because I worry that I might injure myself intentionally should my conscious mind forget to safeguard me against my id, or whatever it is that acts against the basic instinct for self-preservation.
I’m not sure why my mind works this way. I know I am not alone in it, given Fessenden’s comments and given the fact that my ex-girlfriend, for one, attested to the same tendencies. But I’m equally certain that it is not common enough to be called ordinary. But maybe those who do have such vividly dark imaginations have other things in common as well. Maybe an appreciation of the artistic depiction of such unsavory fantasies is one of them.
Something that actually frustrates me about modern horror fandom is that audiences seem to have a distinct lack of empathy. So much of the most popular horror is better identified as “torture porn,” and the people who love it seem to be indulging in pure, base voyeurism. I worry that a lot of theater-goers are more prone to put themselves in the position of the perpetrator or horror, rather than the victim. I may be misjudging them, though. It may be that they still find the things on screen to be genuinely disturbing, but that that registers and is expressed differently.
Ultimately, I can only speak for myself, and what I’d say to defend my interest in material that is shocking or just psychologically or thematically dark is that I want to be disturbed by what I’m seeing. I want to vicariously put myself in the place of someone who is fleeing for his life, suffering torments, going insane, and so on. The fact is that horrible things really do happen every day. And I hate the feeling of being insulated from them, of being trapped in my personal fantasy world of relative comfort and pleasure.
When the real world as I experience it is such a fantasy, I compensate by seeking out the fantasies that stretch to the opposite extreme and depict extraordinary fear and hardship. In one case that may be watching a scary movie, and in another it may be simply imagining what it would be like if my hand got caught in the meat grinder. And in other cases, it might be having a long conversation with a person suffering from multiple personality disorder, or pausing to give a little money to a homeless person, or volunteering, or fasting. There is real horror in the world, and I believe that by keeping myself distant from it, I would be keeping myself distant from a vast segment of reality, as well as from an awareness of the suffering that maybe, someday I will be able to alleviate.
That last consideration raises what could be an interesting question: I wonder if anybody has every analyzed the political leanings of movie-going audiences. It seems like there could be some basis for believing that people who are more interested in observing horror, or reading about it, might also be more inclined to be politically liberal. A basic difference between liberalism and conservatism, as I see it, is that liberalism focuses on the improvements that are still needed in the world, while conservatism sees only the improvements that are already behind us, and disregards the possibility of negative consequences or ongoing mistakes. Put more simply, liberalism is acutely aware of the horror in the world, and conservatism denies it. It would make sense if people who have a psychological impulse to observe or imagine personal horrors also have a social interest in collective horrors.
Although, that would make more sense if it weren’t for the fact that so much of the horror that I consider to be the best has such decidedly conservative themes. And I think that may make a good topic for my next post on the general subject of horror.