I’ve been enjoying the run-up to Halloween this year more than usual. In fact, there were many years I couldn’t have cared less about it. As I’ve grown older, however, I not only appreciate it more; I have come to enjoy seeing how far I can push my own sense of what is frightening. Unfortunately, that I do this on social media means that sometimes I run up against folks whose tolerance for frightening images might be a bit lower than mine. Still, this year I have actually creeped myself out more than once with images I’ve chosen for profile pictures.
Why this growing fascination with what one Facebook commenter called “the ghoulish and the macabre”? In my case, I’ve always enjoyed spooky stuff. I grew up on horror movies, those school book club books on horror movies, Stephen King’s novels, films like The Exorcist and Friday the 13th (I stopped at 3). As I’ve aged, fewer and fewer things scare me, even as some of the images and words from my childhood can make me pull the covers up just a bit more at night. The scene in Salem’s Lot when the boy vampire shows up at his friend’s bedroom window . . . anything ticking or scratching at a window and I flinch before I look, even though I know there are no such things as vampires. Odd house sounds can, on some nights, remind me of the horrible sounds from the attic at the beginning of The Exorcist. And while I find Hellraiser amusing rather than frightening, the idea of hell not so much as a torture chamber or pit of tar or fire, but a place where sense and logic, cause and effect, cease to function frightens me to no end. I mean, to my soul. Photographic images that challenge our usual notions of reality truly terrify me.
All the same, the current generation’s fright triggers – vampires of one sort or another; zombies; demonic and satanic possession – really just don’t do it for me. I have lost the ability in many ways to suspend disbelief. That most depictions of the horrific these days rely either on tremendous amounts of blood and gore – a cop out used by people who equate projectile vomiting with fear – or on too-worn tropes and memes whose every possible angle has been explored leaves me groping, as I wrote above, for something that truly terrifies me.
In the preface to his first collection of short stories, and later in more detail in his non-fiction work Danse Macabre, Stephen King is clear that what frightens us is always at least in part socially determined. For example, he cites the fact that The Exorcist was huge in America when it first opened, while in Germany (as an example) it was barely noticed. King writes this is probably due in part to America’s general fear of young people and young adults running wild, using bad language, and all that free sex stuff that was going on (I don’t think it’s an accident that both original author William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin pushed the boundaries both of taste and what should and should not be described in the scene in which Regan violently masturbates with a crucifix, all the while chanting, “Let Jesus fuck you!”). In Germany, on the other hand, these were the years of the rise of domestic urban terrorists like Baader-Meinhof. When a society’s fears are literally life and death rather than just changing social mores, what is and is not frightening can be very different.
Ours is a world filled with real horrors. The photograph of that Syrian boy’s drowned body washed up on a beach shocked pretty much everyone in the West. Other photos of the ravages of war in Syria or Congo, stories of child soldiers and child sex trafficking, stories of racial and religious violence, photographs of the ravages of poverty and the social pathologies it breeds: these are the stuff of our day-to-day nightmares. The problem, however, is there seems to be little any one of us – or perhaps most frightening all of us together – can do. The combination of the medium and the relentlessness of tales of real horror people all over the world overwhelm even our ability to empathize. We allow ourselves to be numb to real human suffering as an antidote to the fear of paralyzing inaction that comes with yet another horror story.
Those fears don’t go away. They take root, fester in our minds, and escape in age-old images of the vampire, the creature that comes in the night first to terrify then devour, the living dead seeking revenge upon the living, and of course the total loss of self or a moral center that comes with demonic possession. We share these stories with one another in order to deal with fears we know have no basis in reality because the attempt to address things that truly frighten us would leave us paralyzed with fear. Horror and its attendant images are healthy ways for us to relieve our frustrations, resolve things we believe can we can resolve.
We shouldn’t forget the fun factor. Few things are more fun than sitting in a darkened room, all alone, watching a horror movie. The mild adrenaline rush, the perked-up fight-or-flight instinct, the jump scare that releases tension in our bodies, the final reveal of whatever it might be that terrorizes the characters (and us, vicariously), gives us the opportunity both to be shocked and to wipe our brow and think, Oh, it’s only_______. It could have been a !!!!!!! which would have been much worse. When the movie’s over, we watch the credit’s roll, reminding us just how false were all those images and sounds; the real world snaps back in place; there is, when horror movies are really well done (which is rare), that aftertaste of being ill-at-ease, a moment or image from the movie lingering in our thoughts. I saw the 1970’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers when it was released. I thought the movie was OK, right up until the image of the pods and the pod-people, and what the pod people were doing, came around. I started to get scared, which allowed me to move in to and with the film right up until the final moment when Donald Sutherland points and emits that terrifying scream that shows he has become one of the pod people. I didn’t sleep well that night. At all.
Being afraid is normal. It’s our body’s way of telling us, Get the hell out of here before you die! In a society whose middle-class has become a cloying bubble eager only to protect itself not only from extraordinary (and therefore rare) dangers but the everyday threats and even struggles that actually help us become functioning members of society, the odd couple hours spent screaming about devils and monsters is a good way to remind ourselves there are still very real things out there that threaten us. There are real things of which we ought to be afraid; facing fanciful fears wearing masks of monsters and creatures that cannot be helps us understand that we must face our monsters. Sometimes the monsters are too much and lots of people are hurt. On the other hand, in the best horror films, no matter the cost the creature from the dark is defeated.
Pushing the boundaries of what people consider frightening – not to say in bad taste – at this time of year is a good and healthy way of reminding us sheltered middle class white folk there really are things out there ready and willing to kill us; worse, there are threats to our psychological integrity, thing that would render us mad long before we were offered the solace of death. We are much in need of reminding that the monsters and images may be no more real than a child’s fantasy, but the need for fear and caution against the truly terrifying is all too real.