Welcome to Eclectic: “The horror! The horror!”
With Halloween in the rearview mirror, what I like to call “Horror Movie Month” is over. My affinity for horror movies began as a child in the early to mid-1980s with then-new films like Poltergeist, The Shining, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as slightly older films like Friday the 13th and The Amityville Horror. These were off limits to us in theaters – as children we couldn’t get into Rated-R movies – but soon enough, they came to cable TV and VHS. We were not old enough to take girls to horror movies hoping they’d cling to us in the darkness, so for us younger boys, these frightening stories served as a test of one’s mettle. We would gather for a sleepover, wait until dark, turn out all of the lights, and put on a horror movie. We had to find out who would run out of the room, pull the blanket over his head, beg to turn it off, or worst of all, cry for momma. As Generation-Xers, our childhood was also marked by the heyday of Stephen King, who explored every terrible scenario one might imagine, from bullying victims who’d rampage the prom to pets that wouldn’t stay dead.
But not all horror movies are worth watching. My somewhat-literary attitude toward the genre says that there must be some reaching-out for meaning, some effort to explore a scenario the way that speculative fiction should. Slasher films, for example, are not interesting to me in the slightest. The blood, the gore, and the absurdly creative ways to kill or maim people – often with ordinary hardware or some tool – just don’t seem necessary or enlightening. No, the best ones require us to look inside ourselves and ask, What would I do in that situation? or What do I believe?
Perhaps the best and most frightening horror films involve situations that could really happen— or did happen. To me, The Exorcist is the scariest movie ever. (In fact, the hair on my neck just stood up when I typed that sentence.) The Amityville Horror is another great one. We have to ask, as the parents do in each of these movies, What do you do when neither scientists and doctors nor the police can explain – or stop – what’s going on? That is the source of true horror. All reasonable options are exhausted, but something must still be done. These movies dredge up our latent belief in things we can’t see, things that might want to hurt us.
Sadly, when horror movies are set down South, where I live, one of three pitifully stereotypical motifs are typically explored. The first and most obvious is the haunted mansion. This allows national audiences to presuppose that the antebellum homes that dot Southern landscape are full of mysterious entities that do not wish to be disturbed. For whatever reason, an unsuspecting person, group, or family comes to a once-grand home and wonder why it sits vacant . . . Of course, they find out. The second is the ever-popular New Orleans/voodoo/swamp scenario. Here, we must assume the presence of evil forces in a haunted place. This kind of movie can take the form of elegant productions like Interview with a Vampire, or it can manifest as low-budget things like Mardi Gras Massacre or The Witchmaker.
But the final one of the three may be the most pervasive and most exploited: the travelers who get lost on a backroad. This motif takes the South’s well-established disdain for outsiders and couples it with the helplessness of being far from civilization. This type of story isn’t particular to the South – The Hills Have Eyes is set in the desert Southwest, and Children of the Corn in New England – but the states of the Old Confederacy do provide a unique set of American cultural assumptions about ignorance, backwardness, and cruelty. Aside from traditional horror movies, we also can find these assumptions in mainstream Southern stories, like Deliverance and Trapper County War. These nightmare scenarios are based upon a myth: People in small towns don’t like you and won’t help you, and people in the backwoods are truly fucking crazy. This is frightening because urban cross-country travelers really can be disconcerted by what hangs in the backs of their minds: these people out here could kill me and bury me, and no one would ever know.
And it is no surprise that films of the third type began gushing into the theaters in the 1970s, after the Civil Rights movement. In the 1950s and ’60s, groups of otherwise ordinary white men in small-town Mississippi committed horrific violence against Emmett Till in 1955, then against Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney in 1964. While those crimes occurred out of sight, in 1965, Alabama state troopers viciously attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in plain sight. Americans could not deal with the fact that people who would commit such monstrous violence do live among us in this nation. Horror movies, like 1964’s Two-Thousand Maniacs!, presented a way to cope with the South’s intransigent legacy, while exploiting it simultaneously.
Today, mindfulness gurus and their adherents preach a gospel of deep breathing and thinking about something else, but horror movies tell us two things that we need to remember. First, there are monsters among us. Second, they can be defeated, but only when we face them. In horror movies, staying positive won’t accomplish much. Running won’t work either. Ultimately, monsters continue to do harm until they are stopped. On the screen, that end comes literally, when the creature or killer is dead or subdued. But in real life, the next atrocity is just around the corner. And just as there is always another horror movie to watch, there is always – always – another danger to face. We are never truly out of the woods.