Since Halloween is less than a week away, I thought "Horror Film Theory" might make for a nice late-night change of pace. I've done this diary in past years around this time, and it's always interesting to see what scares people.

I've always thought this topic was interesting, because I've heard friends talk from time to time about films they felt were traumatic and that scared the hell out of 'em as a kid. However, when I use the term "traumatic", what we're really talking about are movies that first exposed children to the harsh realities of the world. The films that peeled away a bit of the innocent way children look at the world, and opened their eyes to a possible darker reality. Or it could of been that horror movies that you sneaked & watched on HBO when you shouldn't have been, and caused you to sleep with your light on for a month. These are the films that either made you cry your eyes out, or "scarred" you for life... or at least for a couple of weeks.

Sometimes the scariest things in movies or books is not only the killer, monster, or demon jumping out of the dark, but it can also be about the mundane or the scariness of normal that you don't really see or think about. Some of the best works of literature & film scare people with what they can get the viewer or reader to imagine to be behind the creaking door, without ever spelling out what was really behind the door, or even if there was really anything behind the door. For a little kid, what lurks underneath their bed can be anything the fear of their mind can imagine. The best horror films & literature brings people back to that point for the story.

So with that in mind, what do you think is the scariest movie ever?

In C.S. Lewis' novel "The Screwtape Letters," there's a moment where a Demon worries that a true victory over the forces of God may be fundamentally impossible. His lament being based on the idea that "evil" is really a perversion of "good." Without good's existence, there can be no perversion & therefore no evil.

If you think about it, that same dynamic is at the core of most scary stories. They're all based around the idea of something disturbing (or perverting) our normal concepts of how things are supposed to be. It might be a house that's making noises, moving things and trying to eat a little girl. Or maybe there's something in the woods other than deer & squirrels. Or it could be a human being who is not quite as human as they're supposed to be for some reason or another.

Horror is a Genre of fiction that exploits the Primal Fears of viewers with things ranging from the Uncanny Valley, Body Horror, and Suspense to cause the viewer anxiety, fear, and ultimately thrills. It uses various Horror Tropes to cause these effect; however, partly due to the rise in complexity of Special Effects, overuse, and viewer desensitization, several of these are now cliché.
Beyond that, in horror movies bad things happen to the characters if they break certain rules:
  • Teenagers + Alcohol & Drug Use = They Will Die.
  • People being terrorized by weird shit happening in their home will care more about their mortgage than their children, and will stay inside of the house that is literally screaming for them to "GET OUT!"
  • When the shit hits the fan, instead of running out the front door when confronted by serial killer/monster/alien, characters will instead find a way to trap themselves inside their domicile by running up the stairs, or into dark basements & closets.
  • As a general rule, having a party in a horror movie is very bad. While it might seem like a good idea to get peoples' minds off of the killing & mayhem that is taking place all around them, all the party usually does is pool the teenagers together to die as a group.
  • Since one of the things people do at parties is have "fun" in various ways, Teenagers + Premarital Sex = They Will Die.
  • Also, as your friends/family are being hacked to bits day after day, it just sets the mood and always the perfect time to have sex with the boyfriend (who may or may not be the killer).

The basic slasher film has its roots in a myriad of places. For example, how about Number 333 in the Aarne-Thompson classification system of Fairy Tales, otherwise known as the tale of "Little Red Riding Hood."

The fairy tale we know as Little Red Riding Hood is derived from two sources; Charles Perrault ("Mother Goose") and The Brothers Grimm. However, the story is much older than either of them, and, like a lot of well known fairy tales, in Little Red Riding Hood's original incarnations it's quite gruesome. In some of 'em, the Big Bad Wolf actually feeds the grandmother to a naive Little Red Riding Hood, and then gets her to disrobe & get in bed with him.

  • In The Brothers Grimm version, the girl and her grandmother were rescued by a passing hunter, and then proceed to fill the Wolf's belly with stones.
  • Perrault's version is noted for adding the "Red Hood," which takes on some symbolic significance since there is no happy ending for his Little Red Riding Hood. The Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood... The End. Perrault intended the story to be a moral to young women about "all wolves" who deceive. The redness of the hood has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of sin, sexual awakening, and lust.

Variations of almost every element of Little Red Riding Hood appears in modern horror movies. The Big Bad Wolf is the archetypal "slasher" villain; a predator who shows almost (or true) supernatural abilities to deceive & manipulate his victims, which are almost always mainly women. Throw in Perrault's sexual symbolism, and you have the virginal "Final Girl" of many horror films.
The simplest definition of this is "the last character left alive to confront the killer" in a slasher flick. The character in question tends to follow a certain set of characteristics. The most obvious one is being (almost) always female. She'll also almost certainly be a virgin, avoiding "Death by Sex," and probably won't drink alcohol, smoke tobacco or take drugs, either. Finally, she'll probably turn out to be more intelligent and resourceful than the other victims, occasionally even evolving into a type of "Action Girl" by the movie's end.

It's also interesting to note how the Final Girl can be interpreted in film theory. On one hand, the character seems to be the living embodiment of stereotypical conservative attitudes of what women "should be". On the other, feminists have noticed that through this device the mostly male audience (or...not) is forced to identify with a woman in the climax of the movie. In practical terms, the makers of a horror film want the victim to experience abject terror in the climax, and feel that viewers would reject a film that showed a man experiencing such abject terror.

Stephen King, in his book Danse Macabre, argues that all horror stories are centered around keeping the status quo & a fear of the change, with the "change" represented by the force that has invaded the Norman Rockwell-esque family, house, community, etc. And since that force is killing off the characters who "sin" and the character who's "pure" survives, some have argued that there's elements of moral conservative messaging to the stories.

1978's 'I Spit On Your Grave' was (and arguably still is) very controversial, having been banned in a lot of countries. The controversy largely stems from a very graphic rape scene, and how you interpret the film. Is it a movie portraying the horrors of rape, and the revenge of a strong woman that's not going to take it? Or is it misogynistic trash that titillates its audience with sadism against a female protagonist?

"This woman has just cut, chopped, broken, and burned five men beyond recognition... but no jury in America would ever convict her!"
This has long been the dichotomy of the 70s/80s era exploitation films. Some Feminists saw sexism in the T&A or the acts of violence directed at the female characters. However, the other side of the argument is some of the exploitation films were also the first films to have strong female characters that weren't dependent on men to "save" them.

From a 2009 Los Angeles Times article on Feminism & Exploitation films:

"Even in the mid-'70s, the kind of proto-feminist element was being written about," said Kathleen McHugh, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. "Feminist film scholars were writing about Roger Corman and Stephanie Rothman, locating a feminist impulse in the standard plot, where you have these powerful, self-assertive, one might even use the term 'extremely aggressive' women who are wreaking vengeance against forces, people, men who are trying to keep them down."
However, not everybody saw it that way. For example, with 'I Spit On Your Grave,' Roger Ebert wrote a scathing review, calling it "an expression of the most diseased and perverted darker human natures."
July 16, 1980

A vile bag of garbage named "I Spit on Your Grave" is playing in Chicago theaters this week. It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it's playing in respectable theaters, such as Plitt's United Artists. But it is. Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of, my life.

This is a film without a shred of artistic distinction. It lacks even simple craftsmanship. There is no possible motive for exhibiting it, other than the totally cynical hope that it might make money. Perhaps it will make money: When I saw it at 11:20 a.m. on Monday, the theater contained a larger crowd than usual.

It was not just a large crowd, it was a profoundly disturbing one. I do not often attribute motives to audience members, nor do I try to read their minds, but the people who were sitting around me on Monday morning made it easy for me to know what they were thinking. They talked out loud. And if they seriously believed the things they were saying, they were vicarious sex criminals.

Back in 1980, Ebert & Gene Siskel devoted an entire show to "Women in Danger" films. During it, Siskel proposed the theory that these films were a reaction to the gains made by the women's movement, and fulfills a fantasy for some men of seeing a woman cowering and being "punished" whenever they have sex or do something un-lady like.

From TV Tropes' "Sorting Algorithm Of Mortality":

  • If characters should be smart enough to run out the front door, brand new cars, which had no sign of problems earlier in the film, usually have problems starting.
  • Cellphones, flashlights and any equipment that might be helpful either will not work, will be lost in a stupid way, or be just out of reach.
  • Do NOT go into the bathroom!!! Bad shit lurks in bathtubs & behind shower curtains.
  • Do NOT go into the woods if you hear an eerie sound coming from that direction! Whatever it is can stay in the fucking woods. Let nature deal with it.
  • If the lights go out, do NOT look for the circuit breaker! Look for the damn door!
  • If something from outer space should land near you, instead of running the fuck away, idiots will be curious and run up & poke at it.
  • Apparently all evil monsters, aliens and serial killers are racists, since people of color hardly ever survive, and usually die first in horror movies.
  • Words that should never come out of your mouth: "Hey, did you hear that? It sounds like screaming and a death rattle coming from the other room. Let's Go Check It Out!"
  • If they should be dumb enough to "go check it out" and with a group larger consisting of more than 3 people, the characters will not do the logical thing of staying together when trying to escape from the haunted house, scary-ass woods or other place in the middle of nowhere. No, they must split up so they can "Cover More Ground" and be killed off one by one.
  • People over the age of 30 are useless. This includes the police, your parents and anyone of any authority. No matter how much evidence you may have that weird shit is happening, your parents will not believe you. In fact, the more you protest, the more they will think you are crazy and take actions that will indirectly help the killer to kill you (e.g. the parents in the 'Nightmare On Elm Street' films loading their kids up with sleeping pills).

That last bulletpoint is interesting in that a feature in a lot of scary stories/horror films (and literature in general) is "the chickens coming home to roost" and that adults have secrets & can't always protect you. Freddy Kreuger was burned by the parents of Springwood, Ohio and now exacts his malice on their children. Jason Vorhees drowned while his Crystal Lake camp counselors were off having sex. The two sisters at the center of the 'Paranormal Activity' films suffer from a demon because of a deal made by their grandmother. One interpretation of Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' is that it's an allegory for Native American genocide.

This also gets back to some of the stuff in the "morality algorithm" above. In a lot of films, the victims become "damned" by their own actions. They do something that allows the audience to accept/understand their death because they "have it coming." (see Asshole Victim) For example, if you should ever be in a situation where you have a camera and weird shit starts happening that could possibly harm you or those around you, please for the love of God just PUT THE CAMERA DOWN and get the hell out!

This also comes into play with a lot of Science Fiction based Horror where great minds of science can't just leave good-enough alone, and end up opening up an inter-dimensional portal to a hell dimension, or the miracle cure ends up being a nasty killer virus or has some unforeseen side-effects, which leads into the last set of rules.

  • No matter how much a scientist is told their experiment is dangerous, this supposedly smart person will ignore all the warnings staring them in the face and proceed to horrifically mutate himself and others, or put the existence of every man, woman, and child in danger.
  • The character set-up at the beginning of the film as the town drunk/idiot/batshit crazy person will always know more than everyone else by the end of the film. In fact, at some point toward the end, he will explain the entire plot to the main character (and audience), as well as the motivation for the monster/killer.
  • Politicians and military leaders will bring in scientists to analyze the weird shit that is happening, and then proceed to ignore every bit of advice that said scientists offer.
  • The lead female character, who has done nothing but scream, run, and cry for 90% of the movie, will display a clever genius-level intellect by film's end, when confronting the unspeakable evil.
  • Nothing is ever truly dead, even when killed in the way that is supposed to kill it once & for all. Also, the protagonist who has spent the last hour running for their lives from the horrible menace that was trying to murder them, will nonchalantly turn their back on said psycho just because he/she/it is lying still.
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