Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
We say that we fear death, disability, insensibility, insanity, incarceration, apathy or hatred, poverty, indignity, pain, disfigurement or ugliness, unbelief, and humiliation, but we do not. We fear what these conditions signify: we fear loss. Respectively, we fear the loss of life, of limb, of our senses, of our minds, of freedom, of love, of wealth, of dignity, of pleasure, of beauty (our own or beauty itself), of faith, and of pride.
Horror is about loss.
The threats to loss are the enemies, the monsters, that appear in horror stories to threaten and to seize, to destroy and to eliminate, to ruin and to pervert. The monsters are the creatures, conditions, situations, duties, fates, and other foes that attack us from within or from without--or, in some cases, from both within and from without.
Alternatively, loss can transform us into the monsters we fear. The loss of love or beauty can turn a heartsick woman or a grieving husband into a beast bent upon revenge, as in The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
Horror films that play upon--or prey upon--these fears of loss include Silver Bullet (1985) (paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Marty Coslaw is pursued by a werewolf); Jeepers Creepers (2001) (victims are blinded by the villain); Psycho (1960) (Norman Bates is psychotic); Prison (1988) (innocent, convicted murderer Charlie Forsythe is electrocuted, but returns to avenge himself by frying others); Carrie (1976) (Carrie White is bullied before, unleashing her telekinetic powers, she kills her hateful tormentors); Soylent Green (1973) (Soylent Green is people--the have-nots feed the haves--literally); Victim (2010) (first, the victim is stripped of his dignity; then, the pain begins); most of the Saw movies qualify as “torture porn,” in which pain is celebrated for what it is--pain--for no other reason than that pain makes an audience squirm; Darkman (1990) (burn victim--and scientist--Peyton Westlake is just one of the many disfigured characters who appear in a multitude of horror films); The Exorcist (1973) (Father Damien Karras battles his own unbelief as well as the demon who’s possessed preadolescent Regan MacNeil); Last House on the Left (1972) (two teenage girls are not only raped and tortured but humiliated); and, of course, countless horror movies delight in detailing graphic and gory death scenes. Many other such movies also present themes and images of the loss of life, of limb, of our senses, of our minds, of freedom, of love, of wealth, of dignity, of pleasure, of beauty (our own or beauty itself), of faith, and of pride.
We want wholeness. We want soundness. We want happiness. Instead, horror movies give us crippling, fragmenting, and grievous physical and psychological harm. We keep coming back for more, though. We are, on some level, both sadists and masochists. We are, in fact, sadomasochists: we want to inflict pain upon ourselves or others and want, at the same time, to experience the infliction of misery. That is one of the dirty little secrets of horror movies. Like the twisted love that John Mellencamp sings about, horror movies “hurt so good.”