Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Reason for Horror (and why it's so bad lately)

Aliens' final shot: Ripley and Newt can dream again

NOTE: the following was originally written as a response to a friend's blog. But considering how infrequently I blog here, I decided to capitalize on my splurg. There has been some editing for clarification.

As a former-and-sometimes-still horror and SF movie fanatic, I no longer find the perverse pleasure in grueling movies and books to the extent that I used to. I will cop to once in a while watching a bloody-as-fuck B-movie and getting kicks out of it, but for the most part, I demand my horror to be purpose-driven.

Horror is essentially a descent into hell, in the classical sense. Whether the story is "The Descent" or "Black Swan", they're horrific "descents" of one kind or another.

The thing of it is, 99% of horror movies, including those two, only stole the superficial aspects of the classical Descent into the Land of the Dead. They didn't steal the purpose a Land of the Dead serves in a story. It is this missing purpose that makes those old stories tick, and it's why many of us have crawled to the bottom of that genre's barrel, and ultimately find it so lacking.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero travels to the underworld to find his dead friend Enkidu. Once there, he meets Enkidu but cannot bring him back. Instead, Gilgamesh is given great wisdom (read the epic yourself to see what wisdom, exactly). He brings this wisdom back and shares it with his people. This is the purpose of the Land of the Dead. Classically, the dead always possess greater wisdom than the living, so if we are to go there, we go there only for wisdom. No one goes to hell because it's fun. You endure that hardship to find something to bring back with you. You cannot return from the Land of the Dead without wisdom. The struggle to enter and exit the Land of the Dead is so great that you will gain wisdom simply through attrition. And once gained, is your responsibility to share it with the living. To gain but not to share this wisdom is selfish.

To think of it another way, when life sucks we frequently call it "meaningless" or "futile" -- we're trying to find the wisdom in our own Descent and have yet to find it. Some people spend their entire lives searching for that wisdom. And many of them return to share it, once found, whether through movies, books, short stories, or Alcoholics Anonymous.

But when fictions like a Saw or a Black Swan or even, yes, a Hurt Locker ("war is hell", right?), take us to the Land of the Dead, the unspoken contract for enduring that experiential pain is that we will in return be given great wisdom. But none of these movies fulfill their end of the contract. Even listen to how most of their makers' talk about them -- it's always "I wanted to put the audience through X" or "I love fucking with people". Where do you think these expressions come from? Not from nowhere. To be taken to hell and not given wisdom is to "be fucked with".

There are really only five horror films of any kind that truly try to fulfill this contract: "Aliens", "The Exorcist", "Poltergeist", "Rosemary's Baby", and "The Thing".

"Aliens" takes us to hell in order to show us how we can conquer our deepest, darkest fears. This is not meta-text. It is right there on the screen for everyone to see. The movie opens with the hero having a nightmare. She tries hard not to return to their source (the Land of the Dead). And when she does, it is because she literally can't sleep. Once in the Land of the Dead, she finds a Jungian Innocent in need of protection. The hero now has cause to conquer her fear, beyond her own well-being. The hero and innocent even bond over how their nightmares have come true. When the hero finally faces her fears to rescue the innocent, she literally descends through flame straight into the heart of the story's Land of the Dead. And the final dialogue exchange of the film is from the Innocent: "Can I dream again?" The hero answers, "I think we both can." Shot of them sleeping peacefully. Boom -- done. Through facing her fears, she defeats them and inspires others to do the same.

Many people have had nightmares because of "Aliens", but not a single person is disgusted by it the way so many are by "Saw" or "Hostel". No one feels guilty or corrupted for having sat through it.

"The Exorcist" offers an even more punishing experience, but it still provides wisdom and catharsis such that by the end of it, you're exhausted, but you're not sickened. And remember, this is a movie in which a 9-year-old girl masturbates with a crucifix. We're not sickos, so rough as it is, how does that not leave us feeling ill and dirty? Because on an emotional level, we understand that we've gained something from experiencing it. And this isn't a religious "God exists" kind of wisdom. In fact, for all the evidence the film gives us, "God" may never have existed to begin with in this story's world. All the good, positive action in "The Exorcist" is carried out by simple people, struggling to overcome their faults in order to defeat this ultimate evil. "God" gives them no strength except that which they already possess. Their strength always comes from within, out of love of a child or compassion for suffering. For all "The Exocist" 's supernatural aspects, the film is a completely humanist experience. It takes us to the very depths of hell and brings us back to the Land of the Living, wisdom in hand. Wisdom we can use here, whether there's an afterlife or not.

The other three of those five films I've mentioned don't come as close to fulfilling their contracts as "Aliens" or "The Exorcist", but of them "Poltergeist" probably comes the closest. It's wisdom doesn't have the depth or density the other two provide, but it doesn't take you as deep into hell as them either, so its wisdom is still more or less proportional. "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Thing" offer regressively smaller glimpses of wisdom. But considering that wisdom is something literally nothing else even tries for anymore, that's still saying something.

"We will endure pain in exchange for reward" is a contract between producer and consumer that is thousands of years old. But when pain becomes the reward, as in movies other than those five, the story/experience is corrupt and malicious. As a society, we give tacit approval of mild S&M behind closed doors, but no one would say a person who likes having their flesh flayed for no other reason than the experience itself, is a well-adjusted person. And we certainly wouldn't appreciate being exposed to it in public.

Pain is not a reward. The further into the Land of the Dead, the greater the wisdom must be. This is how it has been and must always be.