Ah, October! My favorite time of the year. The leaves are changing color, the weather’s cooling off, the politicians are making bigger twits out of themselves than normal… and the media. What other time of year is friendlier to the lover of horror in any form, whether film, page, or audio?
Since I figure most everybody’s getting more than enough of politics these days, I’m going to back off of that and switch over to a topic near and dear to my heart – horror.
So unless I trip over nude pics of either major presidential candidate, don’t expect to hear much on the political end for a few weeks (I kid, I kid… even I have standards of horror that I won’t sink to.) I might pipe up here and there with tidbits that I find particularly striking, but for the most part it’s going to be particle physics this month.
Each week, I intend to highlight one of what I consider the four major categories of horror media these days, starting with arguably the most modern trends:
- Torture Horror – most popular… today, really.
- Kill Flicks (or Slasher Flicks) – most popular in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.
- The Monster Movie – most popular in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.
- The Gothic – Most popular prior to the 40’s, with a modern resurgence.
I know there are more sub-genres, but we’ve got four weeks, so I’m going to go for four really, really broad categories. But before I get into specific genres, films, and books, a brief discussion on horror.
What is horror? What scares us, and why do we flock to it?
Well, the easy answer is, it’s fun to be scared (yeah, bet you’ve never heard that one before.) That adrenaline rush, that little tingle up the spine, the way you feel when your fingers are clenched around the arms of your seat, either holding you in or getting ready to vault you out of it… it’s a reaction that I honestly think essential to being human. The ‘problem’ is that we rarely get a chance to really experience it – and I couldn’t be happier for that! It’s nice to live in a relatively safe time and place, where we actually have a chance to die of arterial plaque buildup rather than being bitten by a rabid moose.
So, since we don’t get all that many opportunities to be scared for real – and we certainly don’t enjoy the ones we get, most of the time – we find controlled environments to scare us. Haunted houses. Books. Movies.
On a deeper level, horror stories of any sort are an effective means of communication. We’ve evolved over tens of thousands of years (Intelligent Designers, substitute ‘God made us this way’) to carry the memory of things that are dangerous to us. That way, when you saw a sharp toothy thing, you remembered that you saw it eat Cousin Ugg ten years ago, and that unless you wanted to follow his example, you had to leave. By contrast, if you saw a small fluffy thing, it was more advantageous to still be cautious – sometimes the small fluffy thing had a sharp toothy thing guarding it, so learning the lesson that ‘small fluffy things are safe’ was counter-survival. Therefore, any message that was delivered along with a scare has a better chance to stick. We remember these stories, take them back to the cave (bar) and talk about them around the campfire (over a few brewskies after the movie… weeks later.)
Now, there’s more than just one type of scare that you can evoke. I split it down into three categories. Not coincidentally, the different type of movies focus on different levels of fear.
Fear is the easiest to evoke. It’s the reaction you have when a car backfires nearby. The feeling you get when the neighbor’s dog barks and snarls at the end of its chain. Fear is a response to a direct physical threat. A lot of media finds that fear’s effective, and stops there – who needs to take time setting up horror and terror when you can just go straight for the jugular andget the job done?
Terror, on the other hand, is fear taken to the extreme. It’s what you feel when somebody pulls a gun on you. When the neighbor’s dog barks and snarls at the end of its chain – and then you hear the chain break. Terror is when your body gets to the point of having to evoke the fight-or-flight response. It’s harder to evoke than fear, because you actually have to engage the audience enough that they actually feel threatened, even if it’s only for a few minutes. While fear can be evoked by grabbing somebody’s shoulder after you sneak up on them, actual terror takes more effort.
Horror, on the other hand, is a much more subtle response than either. Horror doesn’t come in response to a physical threat. Fear and terror are both instinct-responses, artifacts of the reptilian hind-brain – they happen whether we want them to or not. Horror, true horror, only comes in response to thought. Not that you have to choose to be horrified – rather, you have to consider the situation, and its implications, before true horror sets in. Horror happens when your guard dog barks and snarls… and then goes silent with a pained yelp. Horror is what happens when the pretty girl who went out swimming suddenly starts screaming and being dragged around in the water… and you see a single, distinctive fin that tells you this is no boat accident.
Put short, fear and its great-granddaddy, terror, happen in response to the facts you see. Horror happens in response to the ‘facts’ your mind creates.
Personally, I prefer horror to fear and terror. This isn’t because of any sort of value judgment – it’s simply because I don’t scare easily in movies. I know how it happens. I’ve seen the man behind the curtain. Sure, I might do a double-take when Regan spider-walks down the stairs, but I’m not all that creeped out when she spins her head around and speaks in the voice of a former victim. This has been the case since I was… oh… two, and my folks watched Clash of the Titans with me there. I’ve been informed (repeatedly) that I was horribly upset when the Kraken dies in the end of the movie, and that my folks had to explain the difference between a movie and reality, and they ran that segment back and forth time and time again in the process of getting it into my rather young and bewildered skull.
But it worked, largely ruining me for real fright films ever since. I just can’t be spooked by special effects – grossed out, certainly, but not scared by them. For this reason, I’ve got a much bigger soft spot for movies that focus on character, on psychology – on the parts that make me try to wrap my brain around it. Having to think about what something means lets my brain work around its gut rejection of the SFX, and instead distract itself with the “but… that means….” reaction that makes mystery movies so entertaining.
So! How about a highlight reel to get people started. Here’s the first installment of… the Wolfeman’s Picks!
The Wolfemann Picks… the movies!
- The Legend of Hell House
- Halloween (the John Carpenter original – you can give the sequels, and definitely the remake, a miss)
- The Beast with Five Fingers
- Halloween is Grinch Night
- Freddy vs Jason
The Wolfemann Picks… the books!
- Hell House, by Richard Matheson (not for the squeamish or easily offended)
- Dracula, by Bram Stoker
- Anything by H.P. Lovecraft, with special attention to At the Mountains of Madness and the Dunwich Horror.
- Anything by Edgar Allen Poe, with special attention to the Tell Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher.
- Anything by Guy de Maupassant, with special attention to Diary of a Madman and The Horla.
The Wolfemann Picks… the music and audio!
- Anything by Nox Arcana, with special attention to Darklore Manor.
- Anything by Midnight Syndicate, with special attention to the Haverghast Saga (13th Hour and Gates of Delirium).
- Michelle Bellanger’s Blood of Angels.
- Old time radio – the Inner Sanctum. One of the better “ghoulish host” series, the Inner Sanctum tended to have some excellent stories and a host who was simply enjoyable to listen to, especially during the Lipton’s Tea era of the show, when he would regularly banter with the spokeswoman.
- Old time radio – Mystery in the Air and The Price of Fear. It’s hard to rate one above the other. Mystery in the Air featured Peter Lorre, and the Price of Fear featured Vincent Price. Having to choose between these two would make me cry. My favorites would probably be Lorre’s version of The Horla, and Price’s “Specialty of the House” – both available (along with a lot of the Inner Sanctum) from Relic Radio’s finest program “The Horror.”
So… there’s some reading, watching, and listening to whet your appetite. Until my special on Torture Horror, coming up some time later this week, pleasant screams!