By Jordan Gerdes
Horror seems to be a dirty word. Using the term has a largely negative connotation today, as if horror equates to low brow, sex crazed slasher films of the past. In addition, it seems that any horror genre film that is seen as containing intellectual plot devices, public buzz, or anything that breaches imaginary genre constraints, it is actively pushed into something other than horror. Get Out was pushed as a comedy last year during the Oscars. Hereditary is called “elevated horror”. Alien is commonly referred to as science fiction over straight horror. Largely, it seems as it is a way to change the film’s associated genre in order to make it more acceptable to the film community. So what is horror? How do we classify it? Can it broach multiple genres? Why do we subject ourselves to violent imagery, frightening motifs, and chilling creatures willingly? What does it do for us?
When I mention I love horror movies, my grandmother cringes. “Oh those nasty movies with all that blood and killing?” she asks. I smile, and say yes, but there is so much more to them than that. If you take a look at horror’s early beginnings, you begin to understand just how complex even the simplest films can be. It wasn’t until a class about German Horror in college that I truly got to look through this lens. It starts with a concept coined “The Uncanny”. The main focus of the class was this relationship between horror literature and film and the idea of this uncanny, that forces us to fear, recognize, and confront our deepest anxieties. For example, most of German film, following the fall of the Third Reich, concerned themselves at their deepest level with reconciling the past and how you live with knowledge of atrocity.
Raised first in 1835 by F.W.J Schelling, it wasn’t until Sigmund Freud fully developed the idea that the uncanny is what unconsciously reminds us of our own forbidden and repressed impulses. We take our repressed impulses and project them upon items and individuals, making them an uncanny threat to our self. Ghosts, demons and monsters all become stand ins for perceived tragedies, miseries, and afflictions. Freud uses the German word “Heimlich” which loosely translates to “kept in secret” to describe our repressions, and the word “Unheimlich” which translates to eerie, creepy, or uncanny. What was kept secretly within our subconscious, once realized, becomes eerie, as our darkest fears or subconscious desires are manifesting in front of us. Simple, everyday objects or people suddenly lose their familiarity and become fearful, dark, or wrong.
So if we take this idea of the uncanny, and move forward into the greater overarching genre of horror, at the very least, we can argue that if it scares us, disturbs us, or forces us to confront something, it at least has horror elements.
An easy example is the Exorcist (1973) directed by William Freidkin. Though the story is much broader, dealing with ancient demons and a long-standing fight against the forces of darkness, the inner story follows a young girl who is possessed by a demon, after an encounter with an Ouija board, and the priest who wishes to save her soul. Regan, the young girl, is overwhelmed by the demon fairly quickly, signs showing on her physical appearance. She is acting vulgar, stealing, and exhibiting strength far greater than that of a 12 year old. She loses control of her body at times, urinating on the floor, her head turning in 360 degrees, vomiting bile and her skin becoming grotesque. And at the heart of all of this, is a fear of loss of control. A 12 year old on the verge of puberty is fearful of the changes happening to her body. An adult is witnessing their sweet child spiral out of control and lash out, typically as a result of puberty and elevated hormone production. Two very normal happenings, back grounding a demonic possession, allow two normal things that provide anxiety to twist and morph into something more uncanny.
Let’s take the movie Se7en for example. Directed in 1995 by David Fincher, it follows two detectives investigating a string of murders that are inspired by the seven deadly sins. What follows is a dark exploration of humanity. It is loaded with gore and some truly disturbing imagery. It contains one of the greatest, most shocking endings of any film I have ever seen. However, due to its neo-noir tone, and gritty depiction of police investigation and procedure, it is widely classified as a thriller or police drama. Now, I am not here to tell you that it is or is not a horror movie. I am simply here to ask you to consider the horror elements it is constructed upon. The structure and the story of this movie are built like those of the thriller and drama variety, however, the content is heavily horror induced. In the same was as The Exorcist uses normal fears and twists them, Se7en takes the fear that a human can do evil things to anyone, back grounding it by this human using spirituality and morality as a weapon. A serial killer who kills because their moral code is so righteous it has become warped. The anxiety of traditionally immoral acts that we are all guilty of, with the addition of a serial killer who uses our sins against us, creates a guilt that is no longer secret, but transcending to an uncanny fear in which we are forced to confront it.
Something as straightforward as Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers(2008) works, not because of the build up, the stalking, the menacing pretense of the attackers, but because of the single question and answer of why this is happening. “Because you were home.” The breach of safety of the homestead twists even more violently because these are simply people hurting other people for no reason at all.
Even in movies that are not classified as traditional horror, we can find elements or traces of the uncanny. We see things that make our skin crawl, and in turn, things that resonate deeply within us. It is my true belief that there are no concrete rules to horror. There isn’t some magic line a film crosses and it is suddenly classifiable. So, once again, what makes a horror movie? The answer commonly seen is that these films are designed to frighten you, to make you panic. Loaded with jump scares and gore, these films are designed to make you scream and haunt your nightmares. They are filled with monsters, both human and inhuman, who’s goal is to haunt, kill, maim, or terrorize. These films, stories, and pictures are made to evoke something hidden in you, something you have worked hard to bury deep down. It is designed to make you confront these hidden ghosts, and once you realize it, it’s up to you to either wrestle with them, try to rationalize them, or to run in fear from them once again.