“ Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared.” —APOCALYPSE NOW
Long before I pitched Billy Crash for some space on his website, I had originally planned to devise some way to quantify what exactly a horror movie (or book or game) is. I had (and still have) a thesis about what all horror movies are about at their core (we’ll get to that later in the series). And in order to prove it, I wanted to deconstruct the essential qualities of the horror genre and create a way to kind of “check them off” the list in order to determine if a movie was or was not categorically a horror. The Uncanny? Check. Suspense? Check! Extreme violence? Check! And so on.
I knew not long after I started that this was a fool’s mission. The horror genre is a many splintered thing: surprisingly complex morally, thematically, and philosophically. I haven’t fully given up on my original plan or thesis, but I’ve conceded that the path to get there will be a lot longer and convoluted than I originally thought.
So what we’ll have here instead is a series of articles. Perhaps one a month. An itinerant and digressive exploration of the horror genre. And when I say exploration, I mean it. That’s the spirit I’d like to take. Some of the things we discuss here I’ll know a lot about, but quite a bit will be new to me, and the essays themselves will be a “working out” of what a particular concept means and how to understand it as it applies to the genre. The end goal is to get to our checklist. But this is more about the journey than any endpoint.
In any case, I thought I’d use my initial post to take some time to give you some background about me. First, my academic qualifications. I have a Bachelors in English and Masters in Creative Writing. I write and teach college writing for a living. Most of what I write is criticism, though I am also currently finishing a science fiction novel (which hopefully will be done soon). I used to write a lot more, but I have kids now and my wife is the primary breadwinner, so writing time for me is sparse.
I’m a pretty well-read guy with lots of tangential interests, particularly philosophy and science. I’ll pull in a lot of that stuff as well as examples from works of literature in order to discuss things like the camp classic NIGHT OF THE DEMONS. We’ll mix the high and the low in true postmodern fashion.
So I’m an academic and writer in both training and praxis. As far as horror goes, I’ve been a student for life
I’ve been fascinated by the horror genre—and its myriad brothers and sisters (Suspense, Thriller, Mystery, Science Fiction)—since I was a child. As a young reader, I was drawn to the darkness of authors like Roald Dahl and the intrigues of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. As early as five I was devouring Saturday afternoon creature features like THE CRAWLING EYE, FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, THE GIANT CLAW, TARANTULA, THE DEADLY MANTIS and THE TINGLER on a weekly basis. Godzilla? Rodan? Gamera? Yes, please! With a side of Mothra, if you don’t mind.
Bad special effects, shitty acting, rubber suits, stupid plots—I didn’t care. What mattered was having my mind blown, my imagination fired up. I wanted to see things I’d never seen before, things you’d never see in some boring old drama. I wanted spectacle. I wanted to be on the edge of my seat. I wanted to be disgusted and scared because when I was scared—even as a kid—I felt connected, stimulated, jazzed.
Being scared got me engaged, got my gears spinning. It got me to ponder the ifs. Got me to question things everyone around me just assumed. I remember vividly one Sunday afternoon at the age of six, the summer before first grade: I had just watched THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) the day before and I was with my mother driving home from church. “Mom,” I said. “If God made us and the Universe and there are Martians, did God make the Martians, too?”
“There aren’t any Martians,” my mother said.
“But what if there were?”
“God doesn’t make Martians,” my mother snapped. “If He did, there would be Martians.” Case closed. The end.
I got this kind of response from adults all the time to the sorts of questions I asked. Maybe you did, too, if you were that kind of kid. Their defensiveness and the dissatisfying nature of their responses perplexed me (and let’s just acknowledge that many intelligent young children like us know a subpar bullshit answer when we hear one, even if we can’t articulate why). Adults, it seemed, were uncomfortable with questions about the nature of life, our place in the universe, death, etc… I found that religion seemed to play a big part in this sort of mental block, this incuriosity, so I quickly dispensed with that silliness in my life. And then, since the adult world provided so few of the answers I sought, I turned back to books and movies, seeking the answers to the very questions they raised. And there were always new questions, new ways to look at the world. It was a journey. And for most of my childhood, I journeyed alone.
And through that entire journey—through adolescence and into graying middle-age—there were always horror movies, horror books, and horror video games. Sure, my tastes have changed, matured. I tend to like films now that are slower, more philosophical, and weighted with subtext rather than the cartoonish splatterfests I liked as a teen (though I do crave that every now and then). Jason and Freddy used to scare me. Now I find them silly. But the kid in me still has a soft spot for creature features and monster movies.
So clearly, for me, there is an intellectual element to watching horror movies that is intertwined with nostalgia. For me, horror, to quote Eugene Thacker is “a way to thinking about the unthinkable world.”[i] It’s also a way back to my childhood. This may be the case for you as well. Perhaps, like me, you like to seek out forbidden fruit, explore the darkness, understand the taboo. Or perhaps you’re a thrill-seeker, looking for new extremes to test your limits. It might be that you watch horror movies because you just love violent spectacle. Or you watch because you’re a low-empathy misanthrope and horror movies help you work out your issues.
Whatever reason you have for loving and watching horror, I’d like to invite you back to this space. But before I go, I’ll leave you with a question. What is it about horror movies that fascinates you? Why the hell do you watch them? Let me know in the comments or tweet me at @RSBrzoska.
The Elements of (Horror) Style is a monthly series of essays that will explore various key elements of horror movies. In short, try to answer the question: What makes horror “horror”?
[i] Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1 (Washington: Zero Books, 2011), back cover.
(Photo from American Music Preservation.)