It has lately seemed incredible to me that our culture should be condemned by many as a hotbed of liberalism, when for all that we have very public access to representations of physical sexuality and violence, we still operate under social mores often so strict as might make even Victorians arch a disbelieving brow.
One need look no further than celebrity news and the state of “infotainment” for confirmation in this regard; the way we collectively engage with public figures is by staying on constant lookout for any possible trespass on their part–their affairs, the dissolution of their relationships, and similar “falls” to carnality and (seemingly related) physical addictions. In the same way that Little Red Riding Hood, one of the oldest known fairy tales in our collective consciousness, can be read as a warning about the dangers of leaving familiar territory, our celebrity news routinely reinforces a fear of stepping out of bounds; of having anything less than the normalized life; of (heaven forfend) giving someone else “something to talk about.”
As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, I want to suggest that mainstream horror similarly conveys more moral conservatism than all the high stakes gore surrounding it would initially suggest. You can see this in pretty much any mainstream North American horror film involving child protagonists or children as part of the protagonists’ families–namely, the powerful taboo against killing children off in the course of a film, which simply does not exist in other cultural contexts.
The Haunting in Connecticut (2002) is a pretty fair example therein–a generic haunted house story with the added twist that one child in this familial package is already dying of cancer. In this set-up one can amply see the stakes at play in contemporary horror films at large: the sense of helplessness that accompanies anyone’s care for another human being; the struggle to affix meaning to the struggle of life itself; and above all else, the desire for a world where cause more unequivocally precedes effect.
Ghost stories are marvellously good vehicles for these issues, because either the ghost in question is an utterly malevolent force against which battle is the only option, or else the ghost persists because it has been wronged–in which case, uncovering that injustice should bring the protagonists peace. Simply put, in perhaps the most fantastic move of them all, contemporary North American ghost stories provide a coherent and stable moral system even in narrative spaces where all other appeals to normalcy are supposed to fall away.
In The Haunting…, for instance, there were at least two good reasons for children to die: first, because one already had cancer; second, because one of the protagonists makes a hasty decision late in the game, such as could easily have trapped the children in a burning house. (This is supposed to be a scary movie, isn’t it?) But even here, the death of a child proves too much of a trespass for North American audiences, and so (spoiler) the children not only live, but the child with cancer is miraculously cured after the ghost is given peace. So yes, this kind of horror film builds its thrills and chills around our perceived helplessness to protect the people we love–but it does so only to flood us in the end with reassurances that everything happens for a reason.
Another kind of horror film, the teen slasher, is even better documented as causality-driven narrative, especially in relation to its blatantly punitive stance on individual transgression. Kids having sex? Die, kids, die! Kids keeping secrets? Die, kids, die! The Cabin in the Woods (2011) provides a rather playful origin story for this common horror framework, while Scream (1996) similarly gets its kicks in by drawing our attention to this now extremely well-worn thematic structure.
Even then, there’s nothing all that funny about a rather terrifying adult extension of this narrative: the exploitation-horror, like Hostel (2005) or Turistas (2006). Some of these films seem to mark the mere fact of existence as that which makes us rightful victims of happenstance; others fixate on beautiful women as inherently appropriate targets for wanton violence. As troubling as these films are, though, they hardly complicate a persistent, almost Puritanical view of adults as naturally fallen creatures–and they certainly do not foreground serious harm to children.
Rather, these films in turn resonate with another deeply moralizing tradition of horror films–one that fixates less on the victims, and more on the monstrosity of the murderers. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes: in all these cases, the group of victims haplessly stumbling into carnage becomes a proxy sacrifice for society’s failure to make appropriate amends for past trespass. Yet even among this calibre of horror film, the possible murder of small children is at best a threat–not a reality.
It might now be wise to observe that I am not eager to watch more films that involve the death of small children; I am simply trying to observe that the limits we tacitly place on mainstream horror films in North America–limits, that is, which do not always exist in Asian or European horror contexts–tell us a lot about what we fear most, at least as a shared media culture. And these fears seem remarkably idealized for a society that is also supposed to be desensitized to all manner of sex and violence.
That religious entanglements are still a major preoccupation in horror films is a major give-away as to the cause for this moral conservatism. (I can speak from personal experience, for instance, when I say that films like The Exorcist  and its most recent equivalent, The Possession , are simply not as terrifying to someone who was never raised to believe in notions of the Devil or a literal Hell.) Matched with our fixation on causal relationships between past trespass and current suffering, and the careful absence of children as anything more than temporary victims of injustice, this notion of epic battles between good and evil attests to a paradigm too dear for us to let go. There has to be a reason for suffering in the world, the underlying rationale seems to go; and with it, there has to be some way through it. Moreover, there must be some among us who can still be saved, even if the rest of us are well and truly lost. If not, what’s the point of struggling at all?
Watching The Innocents (1961) a few nights back, I was humbled by the reminder that this paradigm is, in fact, a rather recent phenomenon–moored in part to the equally recent phenomenon of viewing children less as little adults and more as developing human beings. Based on The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James (1898), this bloodless horror film follows a young new governess through a series of strange events that lead to the death of one of her child charges–but did a spirit murder the child, or did the governess’ own delusions bring about his end?
This narrative situates its horror in a very different place than most contemporary horror films–for how can the world follow clear moral rules to clear causal outcomes if everything we experience is necessarily coloured by individual perception? When individuals, that is, are not always reliable witnesses, and external corroboration is not always feasible?
I confess to preferring this thematic question, since it resonates with what I fear most, and best, in myself. While much of mainstream horror focuses on external monstrosities, or monstrous forces that at least prey upon our own weaknesses (pride, for instance, in Paranormal Activity ), The Innocents positions the potential for darkness as intrinsic to the human condition–and if exacerbated, exacerbated in significant part by individual attributes (an active imagination, for instance) often otherwise credited to us as strengths.
This past year, I have untethered myself from a great many fealties and ideals, and in so doing come to terms with a more precise sense of how I view myself, and how that view impacts my interactions with the world. Unto themselves, none of these ‘untetherings’ is all that remarkable; a text I read for class last week, Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, held a twenty-five-year-old character also learning to let go of her desperately blind loyalty towards a family member, and all other losses and degradations I could count among my own this past year, I’m sure, are already similarly captured in some fictional narrative or another.
They do, however, share one thing in common: a frantic desire to protect other people–particularly from myself. Certainly, as horror movie premises go, one could do worse than the conviction that there exists a ravenous black hole in place of one’s own heart–but the real revelation for me was that this is not, in fact, a universal belief. That other people do not go about their days believing themselves to be the eleventh plague of Egypt, say, is staggering.
I have honed my fear of being a burden well over the years–though certainly not intentionally, however much I have unwittingly compounded this state while struggling to maintain friendships by suppressing this anxiety, and bungled every more multifaceted relationship along the way. (The irony of creating so much self-harm out of a fear of harming others, by the by, is not lost on me.) But why?
There’s a Brothers Grimm fairy tale involving two travellers who meet a fork in the road and select different paths, only to have one traveller run out of supplies partway through his much longer journey, and be spared from utter starvation by the other sharing bread over nightly campfires. The literal mechanics of this fantastical situation always puzzled me: If their paths ran close enough that the men could reconvene every night, why didn’t the suffering traveller change his course midway through the journey? And how could one path be so much longer than the other if they still met up every night?
But a more figurative reading commends itself to my comparison here: travelling down the wrong path for so long (at least nineteen years now, for me), it really does sometimes seem unfathomable that another path might not just be possible, but also close at hand. And it is harder still to imagine the shape of that other path after finally adjusting to my current one in a way that seems to make it easier to traverse, however great the cost.
I tried to immerse myself in some pretty big communities the year prior to these creeping revelations, but I found I simply could not handle the level of anxiety that came with my perceived burdensomeness on so many. I reached a very upsetting breaking point in mid-April, after which I realized my involvement with so big a group was simply untenable. Conversely, though, I had opportunity two weeks later to be almost entirely on my lonesome for some time in another country–and in the long drive out especially, I encountered the opposite: a very old feeling of not being safe around myself.
I came out of that month with the crystal clear realization that living at either extreme–utter immersion or near total exclusion–was not feasible for me. I therefore culled my engagement with a few other major networks, and I did not partake in communal events whenever I could help it. I have one close friend in the community who ensured I was out of the house at least once a week, and nephews in another city who ensure that I am immersed in a select kind of family every other weekend. But otherwise I kept–and continue to keep–my community small; much smaller than I have ever kept it in the past.
And the depressing fact is: This works, in its way. I seem to be calmer; I seem to be less afflicted by the incessant fear of doing harm to those around me; and I seem more and more capable of accepting that I am not, in fact, lugging an unmanageable black hole about in my rib cage. Have I made an equally debilitating compromise, though, in avoiding as many social risks as I can?
It is easy to talk about the tacit limitations in contemporary North American horror films, and what they say about our shared media culture at large; harder, by far, to talk about the tacit limitations in my own life to date and what they say about me. I do recognize, however, that there is a terrible egocentrism at the heart of what I fear best–for the conviction that I am a burden to others necessarily relies on an inflated sense of how much harm I could potentially cause the people I care about in the first place.
Breaking this paradigm has therefore involved acknowledging my relative insignificance–not usually a problem, as my fascination with deep time keeps me regularly reminded of the smallness of life itself; but here an agent of considerable lethargy, since that same insignificance extends to all footprints I may or may not leave during my brief spell upon the earth. Better a monster with incredible power, my underlying rationale seemed to go, than a force neither inherently monstrous nor good, but also of very limited means.
I have projects enough, of course, to occupy me from day to day while putting myself slowly to rights with this new order; I of course can and still do get swept up by various interests and passions, among which writing in particular has been an exceptional boon. But rewriting a horror paradigm in which I have starred as the central monster for the great majority of my life is no less exhausting for all these diversions.
At the end of the day, for instance, I am still left with a certain measure of anxiety around the connections I currently maintain, let alone the ones I imagine I might one day wish to–but more pressingly, I now wonder what difference it would even make if I attempted to break my current status quo (of severely curtailed social living) and dive into the more exciting fray anew.
No difference, of course, in the greater scheme of things. Some difference, of course, to me in the short run–but in which way? To worse or better ends? I cannot say for certain. However, I do recall watching Notes on a Scandal (2006) and William H. Macy’s character in Magnolia (1999) with a fear unmatched by any recent viewings of contemporary North American horror: the fear, that is, of the wasted life.
At this juncture, for me, that’s the most terrifying thought of all.