Every semester that contains an October (and a few that don’t), I ask my students, “What’s your favorite horror movie?” The answers vary, and that’s what the lesson is about: the assumptions we make when we ask certain questions. In this case the assumptions are: A) you like horror movies, B). you can pick a favorite, and, among others, but perhaps most importantly, C) we all agree on what a ‘horror’ movie is.
Some people will immediately head for the classics, the Canon of Horror: “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and even “Saw” — the movies that everyone who knows anything about horror movies know about.
Others choices are trickier. Is “Alien” a horror movie, or science-fiction? Does it matter if the ghost in the haunted house story is a reptilian alien that has multiple, many-toothed maws and that the haunted house itself is a spaceship?
Probably not. After all, the haunted house theme in horror movies is about isolation. The family moves into a new (and ridiculously affordable) home only to encounter horrors there while finding themselves separated from the rest of the world by being new to the area and not knowing anyone to go to for help, or by storm (“It was a dark and stormy night.” Boo!), or by concern that people will think they’re crazy, or by any number of other factors.
What is “Alien,” then, but the ultimate haunted house — the one you can’t leave because outside the windows is the vacuum of space and that means there’s a whole lot of yard between you and the next closest neighbor?
Other choices are even more problematic, however. Is “Silence of the Lambs” a horror movie? There are some disturbing scenes in it, but is “disturbing” enough to classify something as horror? Does appearing on the “Horror” shelf at your local (and probably out-of-business) video rental store or on Netflix make it so?
Often, one of my students will offer that his favorite horror movie is anything with Will Ferrell. I might be tempted to agree, but I doubt I’ll include “Land of the Lost” on my October Horrorfest roster.
What will be going on my roster are movies that include a supernatural element. For me, it isn’t good enough that there is an unstoppable killer wearing some sort of hockey/catcher’s/Canadian curling mask (or, in the case of Michael Myers from the original “Halloween”, a mask of William Shatner’s face). Slasher movies are fine for the startle scare and for having your significant other jump in your lap while you’re watching one at the theater. Heck, I have a lot of them in my DVD collection (including the best of the batch and the movie that brought horror back into the theater mainstream after nearly a decade of horror-less-ness: “Scream”). But being un-killable isn’t supernatural enough (and, yes, I know the killer in “Scream” wasn’t un-killable. Endlessly replaceable works just as well).
Maybe because there are quite enough human monsters out there in the world already, I prefer my movie monsters to be ghosts, werewolves, vampires (that don’t sparkle, thank you very much), aliens, mutants, and possibly have tentacles, or at least exude some sort of ichor and have far too many teeth.
One of my favorite horror movies of this type is “They.” It’s about small, hungry creatures who live in the dark. These critters target children who have night terrors, and then hunt them when those children are all grown up. A childhood favorite of mine, “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” was remade recently, and it has small, frightening creatures that live in dark places, too.
Another good one in the same vein is “Boogeyman.” The monster in the closet scares us on a near primal level, perhaps hearkening back to a genetic memory of one of our ancestors gazing into a black cave mouth and wondering if he’ll be gulped down by a grizzly or a sabertooth if he goes back in there to grab his coat and hat.
“American Werewolf in London” is excellent, too, exploring the psychological damage one does to oneself when we hurt the ones we love (or at least like a little bit). But then, werewolf movies explore the dark places in ourself anyway — the fear that we might let the wolf out by accident or on purpose one day. “The Howling” does that well.
And therein is what horror is all about. By taking as its subject the impossible, or at least improbable (aliens, ghosts, giant worms, killer frogs, spooky children with glowing eyes), horror allows us to face our deeper fears — of death, of being alone, of the unknown, of ourselves, of children with spooky glowing eyes — and say, “Oh, whew, it’s okay. THAT could never happen.”
Unless it could.
The author is attempting to watch a horror movie a day throughout the month of October. Check back here to see how that’s coming along.