Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why I Love Horror Movies

I mentioned in a group of Christian unschoolers today that my daughter and I have a passion for horror movies.  Someone asked why.  This is that answer.

I was actually exposed to very scary stuff in movies far too young.  Basically if my parents and/or teen sisters wanted to see a movie, I got to go along for the ride because going to the movies wasn't a convenient or easy thing in our rural community.  It involved an 80-mile round trip and you didn't do that just for movies, you did shopping and other things at the same time.  Which meant it wasn't possible to just hire a sitter for me so they could catch a movie.  Anyway, I was an anxious kid with a lot of fears anyway and those movies scared the tar out of me.  Even movies that probably shouldn't have like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or The Dark Crystal.  I hated those kinds of movies.  In fact, I only within the past 5 years finally watched Temple of Doom all the way through and I've still never seen all of The Dark Crystal.  My point is, my love of horror movies is uniquely my own.  It's not the result of nurture.  I stayed far, far from scary movies until I was 13 or so when I had any control over what I watched.

But at around 13 I was having a whole different set of problems.  I felt emotionally numb a lot.  I think I was probably scared a lot, too, but I didn't realize it at the time.  That was when I first latched onto horror flicks.  It was before the horror renaissance of the late 90s by nearly a decade so A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Friday the Thirteenth endless sequels were the only "current" horror films that were really available.  Instead of watching that schlock, I found myself digging through the video rental store for older horror movies.  I started with the slasher films of the late 70s and early 80s and eventually ended with silent "monster" films of the teens. In the process I discovered that blood and guts didn't frighten me much.  But I got a total charge out of the adrenaline rush of movies that created tension and dread.  Alfred Hitchcock is a great example.  When I watched that kind of movie, I broke out of that emotionally deadened space I lived in.  My fear rose to a level where I could FEEL for a while.  But it was a safe thing.  I wasn't leaving scars on my body, I wasn't in danger of killing myself or harming anyone else.  It was "totally harmless."

Now, I'm sure you can see the flaw in my logic.  Not all horror movies are totally harmless.  I saw and exerted mental energy on things that can't be unseen or unthought.  But by and large, I don't think I hurt myself any worse than I was already hurting from things over which I had no control anyway.  And in time I learned to be much choosier about what I watched.  But I never left the horror genre behind.  To this day, I love the thrills, the pulse-pounding terror, of a well-written psychological horror film.

My daughter is a different story.  She came to horror in a different way and has explored it differently.  I shielded her from my scary movies for a very long time, until I was certain that she genuinely was interested and that she was mature enough to handle them.  Then I helped her dip her feet in slowly.  It started with simple things.  Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark, and Fear Street.  Terror calculated for tweens.  When she was "so done" with those we moved on to other "safe" and "clean" horror.  I walked her through my world of Hitchcock and Shirley Jackson and Lovecraft.  We mostly watched together because it's more fun being afraid with a friend.  We talked about what we were watching and how it made us feel.  She became experienced with the tropes of the genre and adept at predicting what would happen next.  Slowly, very slowly, we branched out together.  When I was sure she could safely deal with a little more we explored one of my favorite sub-genres, the haunted asylum/hospital movie.  And haunted houses.  We talked about the science and the spirituality of ghosts and poltergeists and the other things we were viewing.

Only last year she finally worked herself up to slasher movies and she still stays with the very tame variety.  She's not very comfortable with "mundane" evil, the kind that's real and exists in the world.  The horrible things people do to other people.  And I'm great with that.  It's not a comfortable thing to contemplate.  Better to stick with the un-real of ghosts and monsters and things.  They feel safer.  She's very aware of what is outside of her comfort zone and makes excellent choices for herself about what to watch and what to avoid.  She can even explain to you why she avoids most things, which is a lot more self-awareness than many adults exhibit.  And if you ask her, she can tell you why she likes horror movies.  In her words, "It makes the world bigger and more exciting but when it's over I can come back to my safe home."

Truthfully, horror movies fill for us the same need that say bungee-jumping or parasailing or zip lining fills for others.  It's a taste of that oh-so-addictive adrenaline but with plenty of safety nets and harnesses to keep us from hurting ourselves.  And it all probably hearkens back to our ancestors who had little besides an animal skin or a grass hut between them and predatory animals.  It's our own "Call of the Wild."  And as long as we're self-aware and cagey about how we experience those feelings, I think no real harm comes from it.

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