I love diving into these movies and it’s been recent that I have figured out why that is.
When I was a kid, I was terrified of Freddy Kruger. I was four or so the first time I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), and from that moment on I had nightmares about Freddy. There were dreams about Freddy wreaking havoc on various people in my life, cartoon characters, and a general relentless pursuit of myself. The nightmares were a weekly occurrence for years, and my mom had little tolerance for it. So much so, that when she saw that there was a movie called Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) playing on cable when I was 8, she had the faultless logic that I should sit and watch this movie because:
“It says he is dead in the title of the goddamn movie, you can sit and watch him die, and this nightmare crap can stop!”
Predictably this did not have the effect mom wanted, and I ended up doubling down on the nightmares for a while. When I was a little older I also remember being traumatized by Candyman (1992), Hellraiser III (1992), and Leprechaun (1993); clearly the early ’90s were a bad time for me and horror. I have memories of being anxious just going near the horror section in the mom and pop rental place in town.
It wasn’t until I was 14 when I made some new friends that were really into horror, and they got me to watch Scream (1996), and I finally saw the light. It was mostly the humor in the movie that disarmed Ghostface’s ability to cause me, terror. It was something that just clicked, and I went back and watched the movies that scarred me as a kid.
They were mostly funny to me upon rewatch, or they were so ridiculous they were unintentionally funny. To this day, it is exceptionally rare that I come across a horror movie that legitimately scares me, creepy gets to me more than outright scary. I still love diving into these movies and it’s been recently that I have figured out why that is.
When I went back and watched the horror movies that scared the crap out of me as a kid, I saw them a lens of either humor or absurdity, and it defused anxiety I had been carrying around since I was a child. It took rewatching these movies, that were a known stressor, in a safe controlled environment that I got to face my anxiety head-on, and see it for what it was. As I have gotten older, it evolved a little, but I still use horror as a way to face some of my anxiety.
In a safe, controlled way, I can escape into a world where the stakes are higher than in my own life. I can watch protagonists that I identify with, survive the film, and characters I don’t die in gruesome fashions that raise the stakes further and impact the protagonist. At the end of the journey, I get to step away from the screen, digest what I saw on my terms and decide if that is an experience I want to have again.
I like to joke that I am dead inside, that all the horror movies I have seen over the years have made it hard for me to be shocked any longer, but the reality is that I watch these films with a detachment that I can’t have in reality. There is a component of overexposure that has made me a little jaded but at the same time, I consume horror media as a safe way to experience stressors. When I have an especially bad day from a stress standpoint, I don’t want to watch a feel-good romp where every little thing works out for most of the cast, I want a situation that raises the stakes so that my stressors pale in comparison.
That being said, I do love when I find something that can generally get under my skin, something that can hit the shock, adrenaline and dopamine buttons in my head hit hard. The last movie that really got to me was Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), and he has commented that the movie came from a personal place.
“I don’t feel comfortable being explicit about it. It’s easier for me not to go into detail. I was more pulling from feelings than experiences.”
– Ari Aster
In the vein of “write what you know” horror is most effective if the writer and/or director have a legitimate fear to draw upon. Movies that rely on jump scares or tropes to raise tension can be effective to startle you, but if you have a creator that can pull from real fear and anxiety, it adds a layer of connection that can be extremely effective.
You can put all the parts of an effective scare together, and there is a chance that it does off with the effect you want, but if you can invest in nuance from personal experience it will likely be much more effective. In Stephen King’s The Shining, King was working through his feelings about parenthood, and acceptance that there is a learning aspect to patience…
“I was horrified by my occasional feelings of real antagonism toward my children. Won’t you ever stop? Won’t you ever go to bed? And time has given me the idea that probably there are a lot of young fathers and young mothers both who feel very angry, who have angry feelings toward their children.”
Both Aster and King were creating from a place of personal fear and horror, and have similar themes about parenthood and obligation. King gets a bad rap on his reaction and comments to the Kurbric adaptation, but it is pretty understandable when you consider the personal investment he has in the story. The Shining has been lauded as King’s best work, being discussed for over 40 years, and I expect to be talking about Hereditary for just as long.
As I get older, the things that used to get to me don’t really bother me any longer, and my fears and anxieties are becoming more existential in nature. The recent resurgence of H.P Lovecraft influenced works has been something I have been a cathartic experience. While being overwhelmed in, and with the world, the idea that nothing really matters because there is a giant tentacled space god coming to devour our existence is quite comforting in a nihilistic way.
The scope of cosmic horror is such that there is nothing humanity could do to prevent our demise. In a world where personal responsibility, and holding others accountable to their actions, this scope is a temporary escapist reprieve that I personally appreciate. It is important that we are held accountable for our actions, and that we hold others to the same, but that doesn’t mean its always easy, and a little escapism can be a much-needed relief valve.
There is also an important piece about representation in horror here. I can’t imagine myself not having this outlet, and while horror does have a better than average rate of representation of different groups, its not perfect. I am lucky, I am a middle-aged white male, this outlet was tailor-made for me at the time that I needed it. White male directors and writers have been inserting idealized versions of themselves into horror media for as long as it has existed.
The same can’t be said for marginalized groups. If the content is created, it doesn’t always have the ability to be distributed to the isolated groups that would get the most out of seeing something they can connect with. There was a trend started in the late ’70s of protagonists being female, and being the lone survivor of a harrowing film. While this was a great step towards representation, it was still largely at the hands of male writers and directors. I think for other groups to get the same thing out of these movies that I did, the content needs to be created by the groups they are representing.
I’m not trying to say that horror movies should be watched as a treatment for anxiety, it’s just something that worked for me. Creators have used horror to dig into their own issues and use them to great effect while working through them. I expect that I am not the only person that found this outlet and I do think that everyone should have the opportunity to have this if they need it.