Things have gone a bit Halloween centric on here again, like it did last year. I suspect that I’m one of the bigger horror fans writing for Hex. I read, watch and play horror genre texts across all of the mediums we try to cover here. Most horror entertainment purchases in my house are done by me and not Paul B. But still, I won’t just engage with anything and there’s a huge chance that I will just turn-off what I’m watching or playing or put down the book or comic I’m reading. Sometimes I’ll force myself to continue with a piece of horror, but when that happens it’s purely so that I can see what makes for bad horror.
The horror that I really like engaging with doesn’t always have buckets of blood thrown all over the place. Not because I find blood unsettling or distasteful, but the stuff I engage with most presents things more terrifying than dyed corn syrup or imagery involving dismembered body parts. It’s why Ring worked, why I loved The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, why Dracula or In a Glass Darkly have stuck with me. The hint of gore may be found here and there, but what they play with most is not the fragility of the body — but the fragility of the mind (be it the characters’ or your own).
Long time listeners of Nerds Assemble may be aware that I enjoy watching, reading and playing things related to the zombie sub-genre. But the moments I enjoy from that aren’t where someone’s successfully blasting through a room filled with zombies: it’s when they encounter other people. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but often the scariest things in the best zombie texts aren’t the zombies, it’s the living. Though when it comes to slasher horror films I don’t think you can really call it horror any more, as most of the plots of slasher films (it doesn’t translate well to other media) are out to shock you again and again, which is more the aim of exploitation films. And there are some zombie films that are more exploitation films than horror films, like the kind made by Lucio Fulci.
Horror for me is at its best when it takes on aspects of the Gothic and grotesque. You’re taken out of your comfort zone and you feel uncomfortable with what you’re experiencing. Nothing is as it seems and protagonists are on a voyage down a rabbit hole that they have no clue as to where it ends. Things may go squish and slurp in that hole, and distorted facsimiles of the real and the living may be drinking tea in that hole, wondering if they might have you for supper. Everything is familiar and at the same time… different. It’s uncanny.
Sigmund Freud wrote about this in his book The Uncanny. While not applying it directly to horror texts, cultural critics and analysts have used his theories around “unheimlich” to investigate aspects of horror films and more broadly the Gothic and grotesque. But generally it’s as I described it above: it’s the familiar turned on its head in ways that make you feel uncomfortable. The citizens pointing and starring, with their mouths wide open, an unearthly scream issuing forth, like Donald Sutherland’s character in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Or it’s the overly plastic world that Edward Scissorhands descends into. It can also be the clear, clean lines of space and reality being warped into something not quite right, like Event Horizon.
What I like about the horror that I like isn’t that it’s visually shocking, but that it makes me feel unnerved as things, people and places I’m familiar with are warped into shapes that seem familiar, but when you look more closely, clearly aren’t. Your perception is challenged and so therefore is the fragility of your mind and all that you think you know.