Horror is such a strange genre. From the moment we are born and our brains are assaulted with bright, cold and loud sensory input, we begin organizing it in ways that will help us understand what is happening out here. We are driven above all by a desire to be safe in the world. And if we can’t actually be safe, we at least want to believe we are safe.
How strange then that the post on our Facebook page asking for broad categories of horror received some of the liveliest discussion we have ever had. Monsters (man-made and naturally occurring), crazed serial killers, angry spirits, demons, the malicious universe (think: Lovecraft), the malicious mind (think: Tell Tale Heart), all came up quickly. Then, some further tweaking from our followers: giant bugs and torture porn should get their own categories; supernature, where humans are punished by plants for being jerks, also added; aliens need their own category, too.
I know some folks don’t care for horror, but those that do are extremely enthusiastic about it. So, what gives? How can we be biologically designed to seek safety and predictability, yet so thoroughly relish having the crap scared out of us at the movies, or as we read late into the night?
There are many factors – for one, we seek safety, it’s true, but also stimulation. We like to be excited, to feel alive. Horror movies help with that. We tell ourselves what we’re watching isn’t real (and maybe some of us can even believe that at 3AM). Perhaps most of all, we do the same thing we (sometimes) do when bad things happen in real life: blame the victims.
“Don’t open that door, you idiot!” “Oh, come ON. Everyone knows you don’t taunt a ghost!” “That guy was such a douche. I’m glad he got what’s coming to him.”
See, they on the screen are different than us. These things could never happen to us, right? Not because ghosts and monsters don’t exist; certainly not because killers and sharks don’t exist; because we. make. good. choices. We are good people. In psychology they call this tenacious belief that people get what they deserve the “just world phenomenon” and horror movie audiences are great at it.
Inspired by the trope-busting The Cabin in the Woods, I wanted to examine this principle by delving not so much into the villains of horror as their victims. After all, in Cabin it is made very clear that the villains are just the means an end – they all have the same motivation: punish these kids for…well, for their bad choices.
I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Wes Craven gave us some rules for surviving a horror film via the character of Randy in 1996’s Scream. (1) don’t have sex, (2) don’t do drugs, and (3) don’t say “I’ll be right back.” These are rules based on bad behavior or disposition of the victims, not the villains – promiscuity, intoxication and arrogance.
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take the role of the victim in his or her own demise even further in the aforementioned The Cabin in the Woods. The candidates are chosen based on personality types – whore, fool, athlete, scholar and virgin. These labels represent pre-existing behavioral choices (and our perceptions of those choices). On the road to the cabin, each member of the band of future victims is given the opportunity to change his or her mind when an old man offers plenty of evidence that danger awaits them – wouldn’t anyone in his or her right mind turn that RV around and go home!? No? Arrogance again. Then, once in the cabin, the final sin, the one I found to be most common of all, is committed: acting on curiosity. What is in the cellar? What does this thing do? What does this diary say? Voila! They have literally chosen the way they will die.
Between Scream and Cabin, we see two general “things victims do” that get them into big trouble. (1) they behave in classically immoral ways (promiscuity, intoxication, general douche-baggery), (2) they are arrogant, usually displayed as either outright bravado or simple curiosity, both of which imply they have no concept of the danger they are in. (It is also worth noting that movies like Creepshow and TV shows like The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt specialize in tales in which the victims are truly awful people – murderers, child abusers, racists, etc. For the most part, we’ll be dealing with behavior falling in a more grey area, but certainly those classic “eye for an eye” stories fit the mold – perhaps even made the mold.)
Think about how well these descriptions fit the victims in most horror films. Slashers like Halloween, Friday the 13th and Hostel have plenty of sex and drinking/drug use on the part of victims; Saw is based entirely around a killer seeking to punish people for their arrogance or immorality; recent films like Sinister, The Ring, and The Possession begin when someone just can’t resist watching the movie or opening the damn box.
For my money, it is the movies in which the great calamity centers around curiosity that terrify me the most, and at the same time seem the most….unfair, dammit. If I find an old box, I’m going to open it. If some video shows up on my DVR that I didn’t record, I’m going to watch it. Why do I deserve to die for this?
Punishing curiosity in horror may ultimately be the only way to keep the fear viable. None of us perceive ourselves as whores, fools, or assholes, but we do know the first thing we’d do upon moving into a house is explore the creepy-ass attic. While this may seem to contradict my thesis that most horror works on the assumption that we believe we’re too smart or too good to have bad stuff happen to us, don’t forget there is a whole movie after the door/box/attic is opened and the choices made along the way are the difference between survival and death (or worse). There are still plenty of opportunities to feel superior to the characters in the film.
So, we can breathe a sigh of relief, audiences. As long as we are good people, and as long as we can resist the temptation to open doors and boxes, we’ll be fine. Oh, and if shit does go down, let’s be smart about it: stay in a group, preferably a group of assholes, so we’ll be the best person around. There. Done. All better?
Oh, wait…What about poor Carol Ann in Poltergeist? Interesting point. I guess we’re going to have to deal with The Innocent (also referred to as The Virgin in Cabin in the Woods). Sometimes characters in movies, particularly ghost stories or possession stories, are targeted not because of their bad choices, but because they are so very pure and good. Regan in The Exorcist is another example. At first glance, The Innocent as a trope doesn’t fit with our “just world” hypothesis about bad things happening to bad people. Let’s not forget, however, that innocents tend to make it out of these things alive. Once they are targeted, the action is driven by the decisions they make to save themselves or those made by their loved ones. Steven and Dianne save Carol Ann; Regan is saved by her mother and the exorcist; Laurie Strode survives Michael Myers and saves the kids she is babysitting! Double-points for Laurie! Virgins live!
So, horror also helps us answer the question “what happens when bad things happen to good people?” They are either rescued or avenged, both of which restore the audience’s belief that the flip side of bad things happening to bad people is good things (eventually) happening to good people. You just have to be good harder.
There are movies that don’t fit the mold, of course. When Liv Tyler’s character in The Strangers asks her tormenters why they are “doing this,” they respond, “Because you were home.” Yikes! Not to punish. Not because you were stupid. Because you were home. Um, dude. I’m home all the time. That’s where I live. I have friends who will see every ghost, demon, and monster movie ever made, yet refuse to see The Strangers because it does not offer the comfort of the Just World. You can probably think of other movies like this as well. I admire them for taking the risk of alienating audiences this way, if for no other reason than the discomfort we feel watching them comes in some part from the acknowledgement that the world is only as just as we make it.
I do have a follow up post planned examining the myriad of ways writers and directors can break the “just world” trope, so please feel free to comment below with examples. You just might get a shout-out.
Thanks for reading, friends and strangers, and thanks to all the followers who commented on our Facebook page in response to my post. This was a fun one for me.
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