Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fear of the dark and of the creatures that live there

An interesting discussion this past weekend with some friends who were visiting—we ended up talking about the horror movies that have scared us the most. All of us are adults, and all of us ended up being scared, as in many sleepless nights after having viewed them. Scared as in lights on in all rooms of the house when alone, creepy images that seem to be imprinted on our brains forever—that sort of thing. The Grudge, The Ring, and I Am Legend were the films mentioned by several people, and it occurred to me that what these films all have in common are characters that are hideously deformed or grotesque in some way. In The Grudge and The Ring, female characters have been transformed into evil creatures with long dark hair that covers their faces, but when those faces are exposed, they are terrifying. They also have a tendency to glide along hallway walls or to crawl down stairs, and they have a nasty habit of appearing where you would least want them to turn up—in your bed or in an elevator. The shock value alone of having seen them is enough to make you want to sleep with all the lights on for many nights afterwards. The use of children in horror films can also be quite shocking—children who become evil, possessed children, little monsters--as in Children of the Damned; this offends our sense of normalcy. It’s not supposed to be that way. What scares us in I Am Legend are the humanoid monsters with superhuman strength (vampires in the novella by Richard Matheson on which the film was based) who roam the streets of the city by the thousands at night looking for prey. They can scale the outer walls of buildings and cross a city park in record speed, screeching and growling. But they cannot tolerate the light of day, which gives the protagonist (in this film Will Smith) the daylight hours to do the things he must do—find food and fuel for his car, and try to find other survivors like himself. But he must be home by sunset in order to lock down his house so that these creatures cannot find him or get inside his house. But of course you know they will at some point, and that he will make a mistake that will allow them to do so, and that is what is scary—when will it happen? It’s only a question of time. We can empathize with the protagonist; what would we do if we were in his shoes? How would we survive, and would we? Or would we go mad?

When I was a child, I thought that if I concentrated hard enough, I could create the imaginary creatures that scared me. Just that thought alone, that I might have the power to create those creatures, scared me. Where did those scary creatures come from? Perhaps from the fairytales that were read to us as children—among them Grimm’s fairytales about witches (Hansel and Gretel; Snow White), wolves (Little Red Riding Hood) and other odd and sometimes evil creatures. Perhaps they also came from our religious education that taught us about God and the Devil. They did not come from TV or films, as my parents did not purchase a TV until I was almost thirteen years old; I did not start going to movies until I was in my early teens. When I was a teenager, I was sure that by the time I reached adulthood, I would no longer be scared when watching horror or supernatural films. That has not proven to be the case. I need only think of The Shining, I Am Legend, The Grudge, The Exorcist, REC, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (the original TV movie), Burnt Offerings, and a number of other films in this genre, to remind myself of the effect they had on me upon first viewing. I think that fears of the dark or of monsters in the closet or under the bed are primal fears; we do not see well in the dark, whereas our predators (mostly carnivorous animals in early times) did. They had the advantage. So we built shelters to keep them out and used fire to allow us to see but also to keep predators away. We are thankful for the protection of our modern homes—with doors and windows we can lock against anything or anybody that might want to hurt us. We turn on our alarm systems to be warned if an intruder breaks in. But what happens if the intruder is not human? If we keep the lights on, will that keep the non-human intruders away? What scares us is the possibility that our ‘protections’ are merely illusions—can locked doors and windows keep out things that really want to get in? Our locks, alarm systems and indoor lighting cannot protect us against supernatural threats. Films like Paranormal Activity, The Entity, and The Exorcist scare us exactly for this reason. And what happens if people become possessed by evil spirits, as happened in The Shining or in so many other supernatural horror films? How do you fight that type of evil? In the final analysis, perhaps horror films in general make us thankful for the good old routine daily life that we live; we do not have to fight off predators on a daily basis, nor do we have to hunt our own food. Most of us living in industrialized societies do not have to risk our lives each day in order to survive. 

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