Author’s Preface: For the reader’s information, this article contains heavy subject matter.
While I distinctly recall Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Real Ghostbusters, horror films were likewise a significant part of my childhood. “Michael,” “Jason,” and “Freddy” were household names. I remember dressing up as some version of Jason Voorhees at least four Halloweens in a row. I spent many a Friday night with my family watching a horror film and chowing down on a hot, delicious Papa John’s pizza. I loved horror films and couldn’t get enough. I even developed a theory about sequels. It went something like this: The killer/zombie/ghost/monster/entity obviously survived the previous film. Therefore, I had to see the latest sequel so that if I ever encountered said villain in real life I would know how to finish them for good. As I got older, I discovered Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. The Haunted Mask was my introduction to R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I was a boy, and like all boys I knew that evil had to be fought and vanquished. For some, this vanquishing happens on a field, court, or ring. For others it happens in a grease-caked garage. For me it happened on the silver screen, and between the plethora of pages that I thumbed through.
Later in life, I studied criminal justice in college. Like many CJ greenhorns, I scoured through tomes like Robert Hare’s Without Conscience and Robert K. Ressler’s Whoever Fights Monsters. Sociology, psychology, and criminology all offered theories about why people commit crimes. Psychopathy and sociopathy were fascinating to me, almost to the point of obsession. And I’m definitely not the only one. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood can certainly be called the first true crime novel. After that, Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter chronicled the attorney’s firsthand experience with perhaps the most famous serial murderer in American history. The criminal, particularly the “criminal mastermind,” is a trope that works well on any crime drama. One need not look very far to find that Americans are intrigued by this type of person. A character like Hannibal Lecter is simultaneously captivating and revolting – an educated, eloquent, and cultured socialite…who murders and cannibalizes his victims. He is a dichotomy that defies explanation. But explanation is not necessary for fascination. As a viewer, I very much enjoy the character of Joe Carroll on The Following. Without Hannibal Lecter, we would not have had Joe Carroll. But without someone like Ed Gein, we would not have had Hannibal Lecter. Or Norman Bates. Or Leatherface.
Eventually my criminal justice studies led me to a job with a private security company. After about a year of that, I finally received the phone call that changed my life. I had been accepted to the police academy. Six months of training to go from a glassy-eyed recruit into a real live law enforcement officer. Upon graduation I had the badge, the gun, the hat. I had the handcuffs and the pepper spray. Since I have been on the street, I have noticed some similarities between horror films and my line of work. With that being said, I want to take a moment to offer a side comment. I have never been in the military. I have never seen open combat. I have never been to a developing nation that is torn apart by disease, famine, pestilence, and genocide. I have never been the victim of a violent crime. There are many people who are much more qualified than me to give testimony to real horror. But my job has quite frankly given me a deeper appreciation for horror films for several reasons. And no matter how silly or unbelievable the horror genre may seem to the uninitiated, I find that horror is more real and material than most people will admit.
The first parallel is the reality of “evil.” This word may be off-putting to some, primarily because of its theological connotations. Why not use “wrong,” “criminal,” “bad,” or “deviant?” In horror films, “evil” is present bodily. It may be human itself, or may have human influence. But it exists. Evil is a tangible, metaphysical phenomenon that can be seen, heard, felt, and interacted with.Horror films frequently feature a protagonist that has knowledge of a particular source of “evil.” A certain house, a town, landmark, geographical location, or even a person. This “evil” may have some connection to the protagonist’s past. Even if it has no actual bearing on their present, the memory of it bends all of their life backward toward the past trauma. The evil is frequently, though not always, supernatural in origin. Horror fans will no doubt recognize the theme of the “skeptic” in films. The skeptic may be an incredulous friend, parent, or other relative of the protagonist. The skeptic is the doubter, the proverbial voice of reason. The skeptic insists that the protagonist’s experience with “evil” was not real, or at least not as real as the protagonist believes. Horror films are generally not a safe place for skeptics. The skeptic usually discovers, most often to the point of their own demise, just how real the evil is.
As a police officer, I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that evil is real. I have seen human beings do things to one another that have no motivation other than the volitional intent to inflict pain or cause death. I have assisted social workers in removing children from homes because the parents used electrical cords and hot irons as punishment. I have arrested several sex offenders, including pedophiles. One of the last homicide scenes I made involved a group of friends. They were sitting outside, drinking beer. One of them claimed the last beer. Another one took this last beer. So the one that claimed it stabbed him to death. He stabbed his friend in the throat and chest with a knife multiple times…murdered him…because he took the last beer. These are but a few examples. And I’ve only been a cop for three-and-a-half years. For the reader’s benefit, I will spare the stories of what I have seen done to animals. But it makes my point.
What exactly “evil” is and where it comes from are beyond the scope of this article. I can speculate all day about why people commit crimes. Social stratification, poverty, disparate distribution of economic resources, racism, classism, etc. These are all excellent theories and definitely contribute to crime. Ultimately the reason that people do evil is because they want to. Whatever their motivation, people choose to commit evil. Horror films remind us of that evil is not some distant, archaic, tradition that our pre-21st century ancestors believed in. Any time a horror film concerning paranormal themes is released, it usually performs very well in the box office. There is something about evil that people want to see in films. If not, we wouldn’t keep demanding that Hollywood make them.
Secondly, horror films remind us of the finality of death. Death is a certainty that many of us want to forget. In our youth, we are invincible. We believe that death is something far away that happens to old people. As Americans have increasingly venerated youth, we have vilified old age. We believe we are immune to death. Much like Prince Prospero, we have walled ourselves off from the rest of the world. Here in the West, we entertain ourselves by streaming twerking videos while the rest of the world experiences the violent wrath of the Red Death. However, horror films are not content to have the story end at death. Often, that is where the story begins. Horror is likewise concerned with what happens after death. Whether that is rebirth, resurrection, or reincarnation, horror continues to explore the afterlife. From The Exorcist to The Amityville Horror to more recent films like The Conjuring, horror is the only genre that regularly deals with the implications of “the afterlife.” The popularity of the zombie in mainstream American consciousness demonstrates this. Zombies are no longer just an interest for horror fans. A show like The Walking Dead takes place in a postapocalyptic southern United States where the dead have been raised. No one knows why, it just is. World War Z, Shaun Of The Dead, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies further illustrate my point. Resurrection of the dead is mostly, albeit not exclusively, a theological construct.
I have made scenes where people were living one moment and not living the next. However, the idea of death does not have to be a foreboding and dreadful weight on one’s soul. Frequently, horror films feature a disturbed or anguished spirit that met an untimely end in life. A wrong was committed that needs to be avenged. Once that deed has been undone, the spirit is able to rest and be at peace. The things that I have seen have reminded me to be at peace with my own life. Just like people choose to commit evil, we can also choose to be at peace. The death I have seen at work makes me contemplate my own life. Have I lived it well? Have I forgiven those that have wronged me? Have I loved well? Have I been a good husband and father? Remembering death can serve to reverse engineer one’s life, giving one motivation to evaluate one’s choices and motives. These kinds of thoughts will help you to remember what is most important to you. You will hold onto those that you love a little bit tighter.
I realize that this article has been very serious and heavy. Nonetheless, I hope that the reader has enjoyed it and perhaps learned something. I love horror films, and I think there are things that horror fans can glean from them that casual viewers might miss. I have always believed that there was more to horror than met the eye. Sometimes it just takes a little suspension of belief.
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