Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

30 Mar 2007, 11:01 a.m.

The Horror! (x2)

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Morning work discussion included proposing which films, and which films' special effects, still hold up on contemporary viewing. Suggested watersheds in special effects: Star Wars, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, The Matrix. Candidates without a broad consensus: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jaws, The Blair Witch Project, Toy Story. I found Blair Witch quite frightening while a colleague found it amusing; I noted that a work of horror, as in porn, either pushes your specific buttons or it doesn't.

I don't generally read or watch horror, for fear of nightmares. I did pick up High Cotton: Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale at Borderlands once when a bookshop employee suggested it as a gateway drug to horror. I appreciated it, but it didn't expand my comfort zone. I still can't trust the squick to stay in its little box, going away when I close the book. I fear that it will attack again when I'm asleep, defenseless.

Yesterday I saw a trailer for a new horror film called Vacancy. Intellectually, I can decompose the premises, viewpoint and structure of the movie. It reminds me of Blair Witch and The Truman Show, and of what I've heard of Saw and Hostel. Viscerally, I can tell that Vacancy would actually push my buttons and scare me -- even the trailer is memorably scary. At least, it pushes my specific buttons.

Before "boundaries" became an in-vogue pop-psych word, I had already decided that I wasn't going to watch or read horror because it might make me uncomfortable, especially in ways I couldn't control. But every once in a while I peek over the edge. Blair Witch, Lansdale, an afternoon in the Pegasus bookstore at Durant and Shattuck reading Carrie.

I guess I'm trying to figure out what people get out of horror. Is it a thrill ride? Is it a reminder of the nearness of oblivion or hell, like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (Slacktivist name-check) or Camus? Is it catharsis or feeding for bloodlust?


30 Mar 2007, 19:12 p.m.

I recently saw the trailer for Vacancy and I have been trying to forget it ever since. It was memorably horrifying and definite nightmare material for me. I thnk the most offensive thing is that I could tell while watching the trailer (while waiting for a film I had paid to see to start) that not only would I be accutely uncomfortable about it for a long time afterward, but that the movie it was advertising wasn't even good. True I don't go in for a lot of horror in the first place, but it seemed clear that Vacancy was more a cheap attempt at making money rather than an honest attempt at creating art.

I think what appeals about horror in general is a combination of things. The thrill is one. People do love an adrenaline rush. But I think more than that there's a sense of control that people get from it. There's a type of security in the knowledge that your life isn't as bad as this, and a second type of security in knowing that even if it gets to be that bad, you might live through it. We'd all like to think we would anyway. Everyone is the clever character who escapes in the end of their own horror movie. In some cases there's even another tye of security that comes from the idea that if the worst should happen, there's nothing you can do. You aren't to blame for evil, or fate, or what have you.

30 Mar 2007, 20:51 p.m.

Julia, thanks so much for your acute insights. I understand more now.

01 Apr 2007, 22:58 p.m.

The older I get the less tolerant I am of horror. I too cannot even watch a horror movie trailer without it staying with me, haunting me. It's the demonic ones that get me the worst.

My brother-in-law likes to watch them and he thinks they are comical in a way (the fakeness of zombies and monsters). I also think people are drawn to it like they rubber neck at an accident. They don't want to look away because they have to see if there is spare body part off the side of the road. It�s like you have to see for yourself how bad it could be.<br/>

06 Apr 2007, 21:58 p.m.

I was afraid of the dark as a child, but I eventually developed a love of walking around in dark places. Nowadays I prefer not to turn the light on when I go into the kitchen for a glass of water. Is the dark still scary? Well, yes, often it is. But I'm not just used to that fear, I've come to like it. I'd say horror movies are similar - a reasonably healthy reaction to the debilitating emotion of fear.

(Interesting experiment: take one group of horror movie fans and one group of normal people, then unleash an army of the undead to attack them and see how each group reacts.)

(I should mention that the only really good horror movie I've seen in ages - real horror movie, I mean, not psychological thriller - was the original Japanese version of Dark Water. I think the reason I liked it so much was because I missed the opening title and didn't realize it was a horror movie - it starts off quite straightforwardly, except for a curiously leaky ceiling, which creates a vague air of uncertainty and indefinable dread that slowly spreads into every aspect of the film's atmosphere. Creepy!)