Friday, June 6, 2008

The heart of what scares

Greetings and condolences once again. Perhaps you’re familiar with the recent LOTT D round table discussion regarding “Torture Porn in Horror Today”. It has also inspired some discussion elsewhere about the blogosphere, including a well-written series of posts in defense of the sub genre at And Now The Screaming Starts. Well this post isn’t really about that topic. Really although my submission to the round table was brief, I think I said my bit (In summation excessive gore, brutal violence and torture isn’t anything new to Horror, it’s just the packaging. Myself I don’t find it scary, or intriguing, shocking or entertaining, so count me unimpressed.) But it did get me to thinking , what is scary? to me? to a larger audience?

CRwM in his defense of Torture Porn ventures the opinion that (edit to better reflect CRwM's post) many modern horror movie viewers are no longer scared by the supernatural, be it a re-animated invincible psycho slasher, a monster of unknown origin, or a demonic entity. The notion that the people around us may be capable of committing atrocities on us for no concrete reason whatsoever is a real life tangible fear. Thus torture porn, and home invasion movies are commanding production company’s dollars and respectable audiences. In a society where the here and now is the primary daily focus this undoubtedly makes perfect sense. I paused to ask how does this reflect on today’s society, but then realized that the fact I don’t find the thought of my neighbor being a introverted psychopath to be remotely disquieting, that excessive gore and brutal violence is not shocking nor disturbing perhaps says more about me personally than about society. Hey! I’m the one the movies warned you about.

There have been but a few instances in life that something had really instilled a sense of fear in me, and none of those have been on a movie screen or involved tangible objects or mortal beings. Perhaps I will relate those some other time, lest we move along and stay on topic. What it comes down to is fear is a very personal thing. What inspires these feelings in one person does not inspire them in another, and the overall broad spectrum of the horror genre has wonderful and at the same time terrible examples of subject matter that are streamlined to push specific buttons. Horror be it in film, print or other medium is comprised of the most diverse themes in entertainment. But what is the single unifying factor that makes them scary. Traditionally it would be simple to state the fear of the unknown, and to an extent one can debate if this is the case for all horror. Death, the greatest of the unknown, of course is always the crux of the story, however are we the audience ever really so immersed as to believe we are in mortal danger? for some perhaps, but on the whole I am skeptical. I further this thought by relating to my own experiences with true fear, and invite you to do the same. When experiencing honest fear, have you ever been conscious of the fact or even the belief that you could die? Myself I can honestly say that when immersed in fear the notion of mortality never entered my mind. Naturally some out there will say otherwise, but there are equally as many accounts from individuals facing immediate threat of death that have not been truly terrified even remotely so. The primal (however over referenced) fight-or-flight response is not a conscious reaction. So I submit that the fear of death is a conscious fear, and not the fulcrum of what we describe as terrifying, which really must exist at a subconscious level. The fear of Death and the great unknown is not a true emotional fear, and thus I contend not a true fear at all.

So I have eliminated fear of death as the heart of what is scary, but death aside, that does not truly eliminate the fear of the unknown. So what elements of the unknown are we talking about? The startle reflex is a classic ploy on film where the audience is shocked into a response that replicates fear by increasing heart rate, awareness and adrenalin levels, but as we all know such ploys are not scary. Imagine a film with not plot or story to engage you intellectually (and by imagine I actually mean recollect, because we have all seen numerous examples) where the old cat jumping through the window, an object falling from a closet shelf, etc is the only method used to get a response from the audience. Yet nobody ever would think of these movies as scary, just really lame. But films like the Haunting where one hears noises in the hallway, or other films with instances of a darkened cellar or the woods at night, leave us with the same physiological responses in anticipation of what actually might be out there. This would be the fear of the unknown.

But what of recent films like Them or House of 1000 Corpses, Texas Chainsaw Massacre etc. Certainly they do not even propose the unknown is scary, rather they put it all out there, and both the audience and the characters know what they are facing, but these are equally scary to some. So the fear of the unknown cannot truly considered to be present here, certainly not as the primary source of scare. So what makes them scary? What is scary here is the loss of control. Loss of control of the situation, your surroundings, and your own physical well being.

Can one single element be isolated that identifies what scary is? In my next few posts I will look at different films and sub genres and try to isolate what about them is scary, and in the end perhaps there will be one commonality we can discern. Also stay tuned for LOTT D’s next round table discussion on “Evil Children in the Horror genre: Why do they scare us so much?”

Gary D. Macabre


CRwM said...


In my defense, I didn't say supernatural horror no longer appealed or wasn't scary. In my first post, I actually went out of my way to point out that, in comparison to zombie flicks and J-horror remakes (both as non-naturalistic as you like), the supposed subgenre of torture porn was a flash in the pan. It was, of the four major trends in late-90s/early-00s (zombies, remakes, J-horror adaptations, torture porn), clearly the least important in terms of number of titles and tickets sold. I think most horror fans still like their horror with a twist of the impossible, the uncanny, the unknown, etc.

Later, while contrasting it to the worldview of torture porn, I said that more traditional horror (monsters, the uncanny, son on) has a rich history and will continue to inspire artists in the genre.

That said, I think this is a great post about the personal nature of what frightens us.

I'm very much looking forward to your series and the next LoTTD round table. Both sound great. Your series especially, which sound like it might well be the ambitious thing I've ever seen a horror blogger take a stab at.

Gary D Macabre said...

Thanks for dropping by. I'm sorry I didn't quite mean to paint that with such a broad brush, but still a valuable observation. The different faces of Horror do mirror the fears and face of society in it's many views and subcultures. As for ambitious undertakings, I'm bad for that is an overwhelming task that I'm taking a bit of a breather from.