Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Peering Into the Darkness

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the horror genre and what it means to me.

I love horror movies. I’ve loved them since I was little. I got up early every Saturday morning to watch Goosebumps. I stayed up late watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes. And I even remember watching the TBS version of Tales from the Crypt.

(Sidenote: Did you know there was a cartoon version of Tales from the Crypt? It was called Tales from the Cryptkeeper, and it was a kiddie version of TftC. There was also a TftC game show where kids were expected play their way through the Cryptkeeper’s house while he occasionally popped up and mocked them. Ah, those were the days, eh?)

I quickly graduated to adult horror movies. My mom was very laissez-faire when it came to what I watched and read. I saw The Terminator before I was in 1st grade. I destroyed the horror section of the local movie rental place long before the MPAA said I was even allowed to watch. I was recommended and even encouraged to read Stephen King when I was probably only 10 years old.

That freedom to consume whatever I wanted instilled a love of the horror genre that continues to this day. Lately, I’ve been jonesing for a good scary movie, and I've been scouring the dungeons of Netflix for a fix. But something has been troubling me.

If you'll bear with a little technical geekery for a moment: the ratings Netflix shows you are what they think you'll rate the programs based on how you've rated other things in the past. I've always been a generous rater, so it's dismaying that a majority of the horror stuff is ranked at around 1 or 2 stars.

What does that says about me and the genre of my youth? Have I grown tired of it? Or is there just a lot of crap being put out nowadays? Because I'm a child of the 90's, I hate it when the Man tries to put me in a box. I RESIST LABELS, MAN! I'M A COMPLEX INDIVIDUAL! So I'll frequently add movies that Netflix doesn’t think I’ll like because I’m worried I’ll miss out on something awesome. Netflix can't know my True Soul, man. Or maybe I just don’t like feeling like I’m predictable.

The sad fact is, Netflix is often right about me.

Pondering about all this made me start pondering the horror genre in general and what it means to me. As I've gotten older, I've gotten better at being able to appreciate something, but still recognizing the flaws. And as much as I love horror, there are some recurring themes and ideas that, as I’ve matured, I find troubling--and not in the good way.

For one thing, misogyny has a strong presence in horror. (Although, one could argue that misogyny has a strong presence basically everywhere, but that's neither here nor there.) Horror is a brutal genre, and I don't mean to imply that characters can't be run through the wringer--literally in some cases. But it's all about patterns, and one pattern I've pick up on is how frequently horror features women in particular being raped, beaten, tortured, and otherwise harassed. And although guys are certainly maimed and killed as well, from my observations, it's less frequently, and the guys aren't sexualized and objectified like the girls are.

A great example is the Survivor Girl trope. I've heard a few horror historians try to make the case that this trope isn't sexist because the Survivor Girl bests the danger. She may be tortured, but the audience is rooting for her and experiences vicarious joy when she comes out triumphant. While that may be the intention, the problem is it sometimes doesn't come across that way. "Rape/Revenge" is such a common storyline it's a subgenre. And admit it, part of the reason you watch horror movies is to see the creative and gross ways people get killed, not because you care if anyone lives.

Fear of the Other is another common trope that pops up. It taps into our neanderthalic fear that people from outside of our tribe will hurt us--because usually they would. But let's face it, when it comes to Things that Go Bump in the Night, human beings kicked all the asses. We won. Humans now dominate the planet, and because of the internet, we're increasingly a global community. Meeting people from all backgrounds and walks of life is easier than it's ever been. And yet, Fearing the Other still happens in modern society. In this case, though, the "Other" isn't some invading tribe or some hostile nomads encroaching on our hunting grounds. It's average folks from other religions or cultures that are just trying to live their lives but can't because ignorance and intolerance leads to their harassment or deaths. Since stories are often the barometer to measure our cultural weather, you can tell who or what mainstream culture hates and fears from our stories.

A great example of this is how frequently the villains of horror movies are gay or trans. This usually serves as a twofor since the villain being a minority (LGBTQ) makes them different than the majority, but it also denotes a "hidden" nature since the villains don't usually present as such until a dramatic reveal. Buffalo Bill's mirror dance in Silence of the Lambs and the big reveal of Sleepaway Camp are classic examples.

And then you've got the stories that teach you that learning is scary. That knowledge is bad. Curiosity killed the cat and left its guts scattered across three cornfields. After all, many of the things that cause the Big Terrible Things to happen are Man treading in places where only God should dwell, or studying ancient things that Should Be Left Alone. Don't read the Necronomicon, you'll summon Cthulhu or the Deadites. Don’t clone that person, they'll be a killing machine because they weren't created by God and don't have a soul. Don't try to cure cancer, you’ll start the zombie plague.

These stories, again, come from primal fears. Don't stick your hand in that hole, it might not be a hole but a mouth that'll tear you to shreds. But frequently, the best solution to solving your problem is learning more about it. In fact, ignorance is what often causes you to stick your arm in the hole and have it bitten off. If you'd studied more before blindly sticking your arms in holes, you would've noticed the jagged teeth, the rasping breath, the wild, staring eyes.

It’s not that science doesn't overstep and misjudge. Hell, doctors used to prescribe menthol cigarettes to asthmatics to help with their breathing problems. However, when science oversteps in these stories, the implicit solution to the problem is frequently ignorance, avoiding learning, as opposed fixing the problem through more study.

Again, I love horror. It's healthy, cathartic, and necessary to confront the darker aspects of our existence and see that we can overcome sometimes--or even that we can’t. These are things that are important for our mental and emotional development.I just wonder if it’s possible to write a horror story that’s pro-education. That doesn’t resort to raping women for cheap scares. That embraces foreign cultures rather than shoving them away as something to be feared and destroyed.

Because THAT is horror that I would lap up like coke laced Snickers bars.

It’s what I’m trying to figure out how to write.