Watching Horror in a Time of Horror
I’ve greatly enjoying reading posts on the “comfort movies” people have turned to these days. I really haven’t viewed any of my comfort movies yet, but I probably will soon. Or maybe I already have. Looking at what I watched last week, I was surprised to discover that four of the films (including one mini-series) I saw were horror, three of which I’d seen before.
I’m not even a big horror fan, so I can’t explain this recent trend in my movie watching. Many of my friends are huge horror fans, viewing literally hundreds of horror titles per year, but I see maybe 25 a year, and most of those are from the Universal Monsters era and a scant few from the ‘70s and ‘80s. I’m also not into gore or splatter horror. I’d rather have a compelling story I can revisit from something beyond the initial scare, preferring films like The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) The Thing (1982), and Let the Right One In (2008). Not that others don’t, but these films (and several others) always leave me thinking about something else besides the shocks and jump-scares. I always wonder, “What led these characters to be in these situations to begin with? What would I have done in their place? What happens to the survivors after the cameras stop rolling?” Perhaps my greatest questions are “Why do I keep returning to these films and what does that say about me?”
I haven’t read or studied a lot of writing on the psychology of horror, but I know that many of my friends who love it tell me that the genre helps them deal with horrors of the real world. I understand that on some level, but have rarely been able to watch one horror film after another. I’ve always preferred to put some distance between those experiences, mixing in other genres, other eras of film. Maybe that’s for the sake of variety or maybe it’s something else.
So why did I watch these four very different horror films from four different decades in one week?
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) Roman Polanski
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (TV movie, 1973) John Newland
The Descent (2005) Neil Marshall
Chernobyl (HBO miniseries, 2019) Johan Renck
I first saw The Fearless Vampire Killers at the movies when I was a kid, probably at least three or four years after its initial release. (That happened frequently at my local small-town theater.) The film follows Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his bumbling assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski, who also directed) as they travel to a Transylvanian village to conduct research on vampires. Alfred falls head-over-heels for Sarah (Sharon Tate), a girl he meets at a local inn. After Sarah is abducted, the professor and Alfred journey to the castle of Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) where they’ll encounter lots of interesting situations.
Although movies like The Raven (1963) and The Comedy of Terrors (1964) came first, The Fearless Vampire Killers was the first horror/comedy I ever saw and it stuck with me. This was probably also my introduction to weird, atmospheric Eastern European settings, but there was something about the combination of a winter landscape, the Krzysztof Komeda musical score, and the lovely Sharon Tate that created something of a perfect storm for me. Also this was possibly my first encounter with several now-familiar elements of vampire lore such as the use of garlic, the inability of vampires to cast reflections in mirrors, etc. For a kid like me, this was a film that gave you the atmosphere of horror without getting into the gory stuff. And no doubt the comedy element made the film even more palpable.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is just one of several very effective TV movies from the early-to-mid 1970s, which includes the two Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) movies The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973), Gargoyles (1972), Trilogy of Terror (1975), The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973), and many others. These opportunities were great because most parents weren’t paying attention, figuring that if a movie was made for TV, it was relatively safe. As an added bonus, my parents weren’t interested in watching such movies, which left me by myself, making me feel more independent, but also leaving me… alone in the dark… (Let’s hear some creepy organ music…)
The budgets for these TV movies were probably quite limited, but the stories and atmosphere they generated were typically very good. Now you didn’t need to go to a movie theater for some genuine scares. Just plant yourself in front of the TV. But not too close…
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (a film Guillermo del Toro reimagined for his 2011 remake, which I haven’t yet seen) follows married couple Alex and Sally Farnham (Jim Hutton and Kim Darby) as they move into an old house that really only interests Sally. Yet after a few days, Sally begins to have second thoughts, convinced that there are creatures living in the house with them. Despite some obvious horror clichés (whispering voices, the handyman [William Demarest] who knows what’s going on), the atmosphere and pacing of the film still hold up, and even if you see the ending coming, it’s effective.
Although I found several problematic elements (less-than developed characters, questionable logistics, weapons and their usage, etc.) in my second viewing of The Descent, the claustrophobia and level of suspense are cranked up to the maximum. Maybe it’s the idea that these characters literally have nowhere to turn. They’re helpless, waiting for inevitable death to come. We’ve all thought it: As awful as it is, what if COVID-19 just runs rampant even more than it’s been projected? Is there anything I can do? Yes. It’s nothing nearly as exciting as killing cave-dwelling creatures. It’s staying the hell at home.
But ultimately it was the HBO miniseries Chernobyl that horrified me the most, the experience that hit closest to home. Although you can spend time reading about what the show got right and what it got wrong, what’s really terrifying is not only the amount of lies about the incident, but the unquestioned acceptance of those lies as truth. And let’s face it, that’s where we live now. As one of Chernobyl’s main characters, scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) says, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
Regardless of your age (but mostly as you get out of childhood), watching a horror movie - just about any horror movie - leaves you with the tagline we heard so many times as kids: It’s only a movie. Nobody really got hurt, nobody got killed.
I know you're sick of it, but just look at the news. Lots of people are being killed. Even though we know that this is eventually going to pass, people are dying. The body count is literally going up every hour. Right now.
Try as we might, we just can’t make those onscreen characters not open that door, not go in that creepy house, or avoid any of the other dumbass behaviors we know they’re going to engage in. But do we really have any more power in the real world? How do we know someone we encounter in the grocery store or in our neighborhood won’t do something just as dangerous and life-threatening?
Even for a casual horror movie watcher like me, I know that what I’m seeing onscreen is fake, even if it’s based on actual events, like Chernobyl. But when the movie’s over, it’s safe to go on with your life. Only now, it’s not.
So I’m not sure why I decided to watch so many horror movies so close together, but I did. I’ll probably watch more. I can’t explain it. Maybe you can. I know that not everyone reading this post is a “person of faith,” but I am. I believe that we are going to get through this. I’m taking precautions, I’m trying to be smart, but I’m not panicking. But I am watching horror movies and I'm not sure why...
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Everyone stay safe out there.
Photos: IMDb, Dusty Video Box, Moria, Why So Blu?, Hollywood Reporter, Live Science