DISCLAIMER: This is a discussion piece. I’m prone to ramble and, if I deem it relevant, I will include plot points from whatever I fancy that could be considered “spoilers”. You’ve been warned: don’t eat the Snickers if you’re allergic to nuts.
So, with it being Halloween today, it’s time to buy the local supermarket out of fun size versions of your confection of choice. All so that, when the little kiddies come dressed up in their cute monster costumes, you have something to eat whilst you lecture them on the disgraceful Americanisation of our fair isles, then threaten to set the dogs on them if there’s so much as a hint of egg or bog roll. What? Isn’t that how you spend your Halloween? Lucky for me, I have a platform on which to exercise my lecturing muscles and today’s topic is the horror genre, appropriate no?
Before I get this demonic ball rolling, I should clarify something: I have been, still am and will likely always will be a massive coward. I don’t consume horror as a general rule. What I do instead is avidly consume articles and reviews about horror because it’s damn fascinating. This leaves me in the interesting position of having relatively few first-hand examples, but somewhat informed opinions on the subject. Bear that in mind as we go forward. Also this article will contain graphs, yes in the plural. After all, what could be more horrific than reminders of school maths lessons. In fact, here comes the first one now.
This graph has been floating around the internet for a while now and I’ve encountered it in a few places. What it shows is how the audience engages with a viewing of Star Wars. The higher the line is, the more excited the audience. Whilst the overall trend is a slow climb towards maximum engagement, notice how it’s all peaks and troughs, this is the “tension and release cycle”. “But Arnie!” you rudely interrupt. “What do Star Wars and wobbly graphs have to do with horror?” I’ll let that slide as I was about to tell you anyway – this cycle is just as important, if not more so, in good horror than it is in Star Wars. The only difference is that, rather than building tension with excitement and releasing it with some awesome action, in horror you build tension with dread and release it with a scare or a revelation.
You may now talk amongst yourselves whilst I saddle my high horse. Done? Good, let’s continue. Now let’s use what we’ve learned to explain why my fellow LUNKHEAD, Mr. Figgett, gave Annabelle two stars and The Babadook five (it helps that I happen to have seen both films myself). Annabelle will now take a seat in the dunce chair and be used to show up how so much recent horror in cinema (and also in video games) fails to understand this cycle properly. Annabelle‘s opening is a miniature horror film in and of itself, littering our first high spike on the graph with lots of mini-spikes, building tension and paying off, or not paying off, with scares as it pleases. For example, it spends far too much time focused ominously on a sewing machine that is ultimately used to prick a finger for dramatic effect. This is a film that, upon seeing, I praised for restraint mind you (my standards were admittedly low). From there, on it trundles along erratically jumping from scare to scare with relatively little concern for fitting the cycle to a steady increase towards the end, instead using by far its best tension building, the basement scene, with one of its weakest scares and its best scare, a haunted car radio, with basically no tension building. Then everything goes a bit mental at the end because that’s what “haunting” films do. Time may have eroded my memory and left me a bit muddled on this, to be fair, but really that just goes to show how memorable Annabelle was. Remember that when I say tension I mean cold, creeping dread, not anticipatory buttock clenching because the orchestra’s gone quiet.
Now let’s let The Babadook in. This succeeds where Annabelle fails because it completely understands how this curve works. Slowly raising the stakes, not just making the audience fear the next weird thing to happen but also sliding an icy nail down your chalkboard spine with the knowledge that something is very, very wrong and getting worse. In practice, this means The Babadook plays more like a drama than what we seem to have come to expect from horror films these days. It’s got a lot of set up with a slow burn at the start. It takes its time to show you its characters and its world before it starts to introduce the wrongness. It teases you and taunts you with its mystery and that wrongness, rather than just whipping open its trench coat and flashing you with the horrible thing underneath, as Annabelle and its ilk are wont to do. After that, it continues to make you doubt and fear the wrongness as the stakes steadily raise from child’s stupid, over-active imagination to an adult’s, far more dreadful, over-active imagination to the grand, terrible finale. It builds and builds, every so often releasing the valve on the dread with a bit of a scare. Something half seen on the television. A shadow in the rear view mirror. The Babadook also provides me a springboard to the other two aspects of horror that I want to talk about, but first, here’s another graph.
Some of you might have seen this before. The higher the line is the better we as humans react to whatever it’s representing. So, on the far left we’re pretty indifferent to a robotic arm in a car factory. Then moving right we like things more and more as they become more and more human, until it reaches a maximum with another actual human. Continuing with the robot theme, we’d go from that car-building arm to that same arm with a face drawn on to C-3P0 to Red Dwarf‘s Kryten to a Replicant out of Blade Runner, indistinguishable from a human. Simple, isn’t it? Well, it would be except for that massive pit at about 80 to 90 percent human. That’s the “Uncanny Valley” and here there be monsters. No, seriously, the Uncanny Valley is one of the best sources for horror, things that are nearly, but not quite right. For our robots we’re talking those ones you see in the news sometimes. You know them, the ones being made in Japan with the perfectly smooth rubbery plastic skin and flat animatronic eyes and they’re really, really creepy. That unsettling feeling you get looking at those is the uncanny in action.
The Babadook is full of the uncanny, but not where you might think. Yes, a lot of the earlier scares, such as the aforementioned television and that terrifying children’s book, do use the uncanny, but the true font of it is that bloody child. Samuel is a troubled and probably autistic kid, which is to say, there’s something just not quite right about him. The way he acts and reacts is both the way you’d think a child would act (scared) and not (improvising and using weapons to fight the imagined monster). This element, though easily overlooked, really helps that slow burn of increasing dread throughout the film. The Babadook also uses the two other major sources of horror, alongside the uncanny, completing the trinity: the alien where we reject that which we don’t understand (a major reason horror films from Japan tend to be scarier than those from the West for Western audiences) and the zeitgeist, that is to say what we as a society fear right now. It’s that second one, societal fear, that creates the really lasting monsters and horrors. We may find them nigh on laughable now but, in Victorian England, Dracula, Frankenstein and Mr. Hyde all personified real fears embedded deep in the readership (greed and lust, the mad, rapid advance of science and repressed violence and sexuality respectively). The Babadook accomplishes the alien in Mr. Babadook himself and it accomplishes the zeitgeist in our lead’s, Amelia, underlying and ever growing mental instability and inability to cope with her grief. We live in an age where mental illness is an ever growing problem and one that people don’t like to talk about. By watching Amelia’s descent into insanity we experience dread and terror because we fear it will happen to us.
Really this is where this whole meandering lecture has been leading us: the question of what our zeitgeist is and what sub-genre of horror we should turn to in order to capture it. I’ve already mentioned what the Victorian’s had, so let me give a couple more examples. How many of you would know what I was talking about if I spun you a tale of a boy talking to a decapitated pig’s head? It’s the iconic scene in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in which Simon has a discussion with Beelzebub himself about human nature. Now whether or not you think Lord of the Flies is a horror story or just that awful book you had to read for your GCSEs (standard exams English students sit at 16), I’d say that, at its core, it’s ultimately about the great societal fear of wartime Britain, and probably wartime everywhere else too. Just how thin is the crust of civilisation we hide ourselves in? How easily and how quickly will it crack under pressure? What acts of violence and cruelty are we mere meals away from? Then you have zombies, the probably most recent successful zeitgeist monster. Be they standing in as proxy for rampant, faceless, mindless consumerism, virulent and deadly disease or brainwashed fanaticism (perhaps even communism) it wasn’t all that long ago that we were awash in zombie horror. These days though zombie media, such as The Walking Dead isn’t really about the zombies, it’s about the people. They’re more akin to disaster films such as 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow than actual horror.
So then, what is it for us? If you go by what we receive, it’s torture porn in the vein of the never ending Saw franchise and The Human Centipede. Or maybe it’s things that go bump in the night with the found footage genre, championed by the Paranormal Activity series and those that followed it. But neither of those are a satisfying answer. They aren’t even really horror. Torture porn provides disgust and found footage films are normally startling rather than scary. Both, at least to me, seem to miss the point. Found footage is still quite young and has potential if it can get past this awkward adolescence. In fact, it could be perfect for the solution I ultimately have in mind. Torture and mutilated gore has its place, but not as the main feature. An anime (already at a disadvantage because cartoon violence and gore are more hilarious than disgusting) springs to mind as an exemplar of how to do it right. Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni is, in summary, a Groundhog Day loop which always ends in horrible death. It is an excellent psychological horror simply because most episodes are in no way horrific. Half the show is light and fluffy, kids being kids in their nowhere village, until a given arc enters its second half and everything goes spectacularly off the rails. But even then, like Lord of the Flies, Higurashi is only horror in part (it’s really a mystery series), but for me that only increases the effect.
In the end, neither torture porn nor found footage give that key sense of creeping dread. Neither tap into some deeper, underlying fear that’s shared by all but never spoken. I see a growing trend towards the haunting genre but even there I’m not convinced, it’s just played for more startling jump scares. No, we’re not going to find our answer there. Now if you’ll indulge me, I have a theory.
My favourite sub-genre of horror for a long time has been what’s known as cosmic horror, popularised, if not defined, by the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Cosmic horror is all about wilful ignorance. In cosmic horror, humanity is utterly insignificant in the face of unimaginable entities, entities that exist in space beyond geometry and understanding, entities that would wipe out our entire history simply by being nearby. A story in this genre normally revolves around someone who learns something that shouldn’t be learned and their world collapses around them. They’ll end up dead or insane, at very best they can hope to break even and try to forget what they’ve discovered. But they can’t. Cosmic horror explores the very real fears we have today that we as individuals don’t really matter in the face of monolithic corporations, that our democracy is only surface deep, that there are currents swirling around our feet that, if we stopped to notice them, would drag us under and drown. It makes us confront the idea that only by buying into the propaganda, by remaining ignorant of all that can we keep ourselves happy and sane. The fear, the uncomfortable but ignored knowledge, that we live and die alone, that our lives will amount to and change nothing. That nothing will care or even notice that you ever existed. The inevitability of the void. At least that’s what scares me. I’m pretty sure that’s what scares you too.
Sleep well, dear reader.
WORDS: JAMES ARNOLD
Has James introduced you to something new? Read his exploration of anime to continue the trend.