I’m a Dad now. I’m a parent. I am now responsible for everything that another human being sees, hears, and feels. It’s kind of surreal to think about, because I can still vividly remember specific parts of my childhood. It doesn’t seem like that long ago to me. I remember original Nintendo; playing it like it was yesterday. I remember when MTV was “music” television. I remember when phone booths existed. But then again, I’m almost 30. A lot can happen in 30 years. A lot has certainly happened for the horror genre in 30 years.
In a previous article, I mentioned how my infatuation with horror films developed when I was young. I’ve loved horror movies for a long time and still do. Having a son made me reflect on a recurring theme within the genre. I thought about my own childhood, and some of the stories I’d heard about from friends over the years. As a Dad, there’s something instinctive in me that drives me to keep due vigilance with regard to my son. Something pulls Dads (and Moms, too) to constantly watch, guard and protect their children. There’s an irony to this in horror films, because children are frequently easy prey for the antagonist or villain. While there may be exceptions (Day of the Dead, Dog Soldiers, The Hills Have Eyes 2, Hatchet 3), you don’t see men victimized in horror films as often as women and children. Horror films frequently deal with themes of childhood or adolescent traumas, with the trauma represented by the antagonist of the film.
Beginning in the late 60’s, horror films began to distance themselves from the camp of previous years. Themes of Satanic cults, possessions, Hell and demons were frequent plot devices. This nefarious influence often motivated screenwriters to develop the children themselves as villains. Village Of The Damned (1960) was among the first films to feature children themselves as villains in a horror film. In 1968 Rosemary’s Baby carried the theme of the evil child even further, having a mother give birth to an antichrist. Later, The Omen’s (1976) Damien showed us what might happen if that same antichrist was 5 years older. The Exorcist (1973) was immensely popular upon its release. To this day, it is still ranked among the scariest films of all time. The controversy that it generated upon its release was mainly centered around its depiction of demonic activity around a 12-year-old girl. Perhaps not so ironically, the possession begins following Regan playing with a Ouija board. Audiences took films like these seriously. Both The Omen and The Exorcist received numerous Academy Award nominations and each film won at least one award. Combined with real historical events like the Manson murders and the rise of Anton Lavey’s Church of Satan, themes of the occult and the paranormal permeated horror films of this era. Children were no longer spared from the clutches of “evil,” and they were often its instruments.
Though they excluded the paranormal element, other films explored the psychological loss of innocence. Early slasher films like Peeping Tom (1960), Psycho (1960), and Black Christmas (1974) were among the first films to show the viewer the killer’s perspective. Psycho in particular is infamous in its Freudian exploration of Norman Bates’ relationship with his mother. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) delved even deeper. Rather than the gore that later slasher series featured, this film highlighted the violent existential crisis of the protagonists. The point of a film like this was not to stack bodies upon bodies. Rather, films like these invite the viewer into the protagonist’s plight, as though the viewer himself shares in the experience. From there, we venture into what you might call the “Big 3” slasher series: Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday The 13th. These films feature victims who are primarily teenagers. Parents are generally absent, and when they are present they are usually oblivious or in denial to the conflict. Their existence in the context of the film is usually moot. The teens are removed from the presence of adults and are isolated into the killer’s realm. This act will involve some type of transgression on the part of the teens, as they disobey a warning or omen (“Don’t go in that house.” “Don’t swim in that lake.” “Don’t travel to that town. “Don’t walk down that street.” “Don’t fall asleep.” ).
The omen often comes from a sage-like character, usually an elderly person whom other characters dismiss as insane. Whether the teens are babysitting, trick-or-treating, asleep, or away at summer camp, they are isolated from the watchful eyes of their parents. In the absence of someone strong enough to match the killer, he is then free to further isolate the teens from one another. They are systematically picked off ad nauseum until only the protagonist remains. Then comes the final showdown. The killer is defeated…maybe. Roll credits. Onward to the sequel.
Horror often uses benign images or symbols of childhood and subverts them into something malevolent. Take creepy clowns like Pennywise (It), Captain Spaulding (House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects), or Twisty (American Horror Story: Freak Show) as examples. Clowns are supposed to be light-hearted, whimsical, and humorous. They make balloon animals and wear funny shoes and give joybuzzer handshakes. Many people even fear these types of clowns, let alone the evil clowns I just mentioned.
Dolls in horror films can be downright terrifying. Of course, Child’s Play comes to mind. The foul-mouthed Good Guy doll known as Chucky no doubt haunted the dreams of many a horror fan. A more recent, and in my opinion scarier, example comes from the films of James Wan. Look at the Billy doll from the Saw films. The doll itself is the most recognizable symbol from the entire series. Even people who haven’t seen the films know Billy. Furthermore, Billy’s face can be seen as graffiti on an urban wall in Death Sentence. Dead Silence dealt with the ghost of a ventriloquist and her vast array of horrendous dummies. The Lipstick-Faced Demon from Insidious has marionettes in his lair. Even the word “insidious” describes very well what horror films at large do with childhood and child-like symbols. The word means,”causing harm in a way that is gradual or unnoticed,” or “harmful but enticing.”
The world can be an intimidating place for a child. Domestic violence, alcoholism, deadbeat parents, bullying, school shootings, sexual predators, hazing. All of these phenomena have many layers. The outermost layer, the one that is exposed to the world, appears normal. It appears healthy, devoid of defect of any sort. Watch the news. What is said when a person of high standing commits an atrocity? What happens when someone with a “good” reputation does something so horrendous that we cannot even fathom it? We acknowledge the outer layer. We praise what we saw. We esteem the image that they presented to the world. We lament that they deceived us.
That they walked about in broad daylight dressed as a rosy-cheeked cherub when all the while they were keeping women chained in their basement as sexual slaves. Or burying bodies in their backyard. Or walking into a house of worship and opening fire. Or working for ISIS.
Horror reminds us to look closer. It helps us to remember to dig deeper into what “reality” is presented to us. Horror deals in the unseen, the hidden, the repressed. It is like a scalpel that we use to slowly slice away the superficial layers covering the world around us. It is the pulling back of the curtain. It is the scales falling from one’s eyes. Horror forces us to look past the physical and into the metaphysical. It causes us to question what is in front of us, to doubt what we can detect and interpret with our five senses. It makes us wonder what is beneath our reality and beyond our world. Horror will always present us with 2 kinds of evil: the kind that we can see, and the kind we cannot.
As a Dad, it’s my job to deal with both.
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