“I know there’s no such a person as Dracula; you know there’s no such a person as Dracula.”
“But does Dracula know it?”
-Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
The movie that scared me the most when I was a child was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. My father thought it would help me understand that monsters weren’t real; instead it confirmed my suspicions that they were very real and that they were most likely under my bed. The only character in the whole film who believes in monsters turns out to be right, as we knew he would. Dracula might not be real, but no one informed the King of Vampires of that.
Fear is an incredibly subjective experience; what scares me might not scare you. What’s more, the kind of fear we find pleasurable is subjective. I take great pleasure in well-told ghost stories, haunted houses, gothic adventures and romances, with minimal blood and maximum ‘jump’ moments. I loved Paranormal Activity and still shiver at The Haunting. I consider Suspiria the scariest movie I’ve ever seen – which, despite the opening sequence, isn’t all that bloody. What I do not take pleasure in are serial killer films – with a few notable exceptions – extremely gory/gross horror movies and so-called ‘torture porn’. I have seen Hostel and I will never see it again. Not because it didn’t scare me – it most definitely did – but because the fear was not a pleasurable one. I don’t take any pride in being able to sit through gross or horrifically disturbing films – and the one time I saw pieces of Hostel II in a film class, I would have liked a warning beforehand so I could, y’know, leave.
There’s the line of thinking that horror represents the return of the repressed. Horror can be boiled down to the vengeance of psychological and social forces that have been pushed down by mainstream society. Most horror takes subjects like gender, class, sexuality, race and ethnicity as its topic – the ghouls are repressed women, violated minorities, the vengeance of the oppressed come to take over the world that ignored or betrayed them. While this is an interesting approach to a lot of horror films, like most theories it lends itself excellently to certain films and not so much to others. So while I see applying this concept to Candyman, Cat People or Psycho, trying to make it work on Cabin in the Woods or Evil Dead is a bit more challenging.
Horror films are about the things that we’d rather keep under wraps – they center around the return of the dead, of the violent, the animalistic, the viciousness of human nature. Werewolves are the violence that boil inside of all of us; they remind us of how atavistic we really are. Vampires are a perfect union of sex and death – not to mention walking corpses. Zombies are mindless, unstoppable evil. Ghosts come to us courtesy of the afterlife, whether we believe in it or not. Serial killers or supernatural murderers are human evil made flesh. They can be killed … but they always seem to come back.
Horror films give us the opportunity to face the Other – the thing that is us but not us, that we’re scared of like we were once scared of the dark. Horror films solidify the horror for us, make them palpable … and because they’re palpable, we can defeat them. Or at least fare them We go to the movies to look our devils, demons and doppelgangers straight in the eye and to scream at them, shiver at them, or laugh at them. Classic horror gives us the ghouls and goblins that we want to face and ultimately defeat – that we can put down through a stake in the heart or wolfsbane in the coffin. But we also want to be them; the monsters act out fantasies, of violence, of sexuality but also of freedom and release, that the audience is not permitted to indulge in.
Horror represents our own monstrosity. We find ourselves waiting for the arrival of Dracula or Jason or Freddie. The movie’s no fun without him. Ee are placed in the position in the monster – like him, we know he’s coming and when he comes it’s going to be a bloodbath, but the characters don’t have our knowledge. We know not to go into the attic, or the basement, not to speak the words in the creepy old book or light the black candle. But at the same time we want to – or at least we want the characters to – because otherwise we don’t get to see the ghost or the killer; we don’t get the fantasy acted out. We are complicit in the characters’ deaths; we’re allied with the monster. We want him to be defeated, but once he is, the movie’s over. It’s OK, though. He’ll be back.
That’s a disturbing but delightful position to be in. After all, these are movies. There are things to be afraid of in life – most of them are not undead creatures roaming the earth in search of blood and brains. If for a few moments we need to live in a world where horror is self-evident, defeatable and even pleasurable, there’s no harm. We can scream and giggle and delight in the carnage that, in the end, is just corn syrup and rubber limbs.
Halloween has been getting less scary it seems. We’re so worried about making things friendly and warm and safe that we forget this is a holiday intended to celebrate fear; to look it in the face and have fun with it. So, scare yourself this Halloween. Spend some time with Freddy and Jason. Believe in ghosts for one night. The world is too scary a place not to have fun with it. You might not believe in Dracula, but he sure as hell does.