Eek Week Day Nine: The I Probably Should’ve Gone with a Different Namening, in SurroundWank

This will be the final Eek Week post written in first-person. I’ve got something big planned for tomorrow—it’s my thank-you to everyone here who uncomplainingly allowed me to go full metal fanboy all over the place without even tipping my hat in the direction of Rumproast’s raison d’etre, the intersection of politics amd stupididty (I mean, an entire week about all things horror and no Palin jokes? I’m just so done with her, though. She’s like Freddy Kreuger—she only exists if you believe she does). Well, save for those two attempted swipes at right-wingers that resulted in me kinda wanting to hang out with them. Jeez, now every time John J. Miller says something idiotic about deficits or abortion I’ll think yeah, but he reads Lovecraft to his kids and that is awesome.

So that’s the plan for tomorrow (and what I’m calling a “thank-you” will still be an ungainly mess that’s not as amusing as it seems to think it is, but at least you’ll recognize the subject matter), but allow me to take this moment to express appreciation for the soapbox and for all the feedback; special thanks to StrangeAppar8us for the dedication (talk about the gift that keeps on giving!) and to frequent commenter Mike for being almost as big of a dork about this stuff as me.

For today’s entry, though, we ask the questions that we arguably should’ve laid out at the beginning of Eek Week but we were pretty drunk, sorry:

Why are we drawn to horror? Put your hand down, Congressman, I said “horror.” And what, exactly, is horror? Is it anything that plays on our fears, or is there something special about it? There must be a difference between horror movies and thrillers or else I couldn’t possibly be writing this sentence, right? But what is it? I’m not sure I can do a whole lot better than our own Mrs. Polly in comments:

I’d have to say that I expect horror to feature supernatural goings-on or radiation-magnified monsters or really dedicated and somehow obviously fictional serial killers with interesting physical anomalies (never cared much for Mr. Hockey Mask). Something unnameable and novel and unworldly that makes passers-by quail.

Now, her last sentence there—aside from the added benefit of making me think of a ghostly old hag out in the woods who invites waylayed hikers inside for feedback on her new quail recipe—is quite astute for a self-proclaimed neophyte, and by “astute,” I mean “I agree with it.” My mind immediately went to a fantastic academic essay—pretty sure it was someone’s actual dissertation—that made the horror-blog rounds a couple years ago, but I can’t seem to locate it. Thinking back to when I was dating a grad student, I should’ve known that Googling “horror + dissertation” would only yield links about dissertations, period.

No big; it was a .pdf, so right there you’re probably not going to read it, and it was drenched in that stupid remind-the-reader-every-other-paragraph-what-your-thesis-is-and-how-you’re-totally-gonna-prove-it academic-speak educators insist upon.for standardization’s sake or whatever (“We shall see that…?” Why is that there? So I know you’re not about to stop mid-sentence and start spitting Nas lyrics?). It made some great points, though, about both what horror is and why we’re drawn to it. The author’s watchword was “awe,” and he did a nice job tying it in with “awful,” finding that sweet spot where your mind’s being blown even while you’re worried someone might scoop it out and eat it.

There’s something almost spiritual—not necessarily in the sense of “about spirits,” unless you’re one of the touched-by-an-angel dingbats at HuffPost Living, “the Giant Purple Intelligence Insulter”—about the fear engendered by horror, like we’re not just scared for the characters’ safety (assuming we’re watching one of the dozen or so horror movies with actual characters), we’re also scared by the terrible implications of what we’re watching.

If you survive the machinations of Kevin Spacey in Se7en, that’s that; sure, you’ll be dealing with PTSD and trust issues for years, but the threat’s over, and did you really need your nose? If, however, you survive a massacre at Camp Crystal Lake, you’ve got to live with the knowledge that there’s something out there that, while humanoid in appearance, cannot die. And with that awful knowledge, no small bit of annoyance—it’s bad enough that youth is wasted on the young, but for the world’s first immortal to have seemingly no ambition beyond maybe adding a Garden Weasel to his repertoire? That’s, like, textbook squandering the gift, man.

Now, you might say “but Se7en is scary and the Friday the 13th series is almost uniformly laughable,” to which I would respond, I’m under deadline here, so I’ll have to get back to you on why that totally doesn’t disprove my point.

So, terrible implications. Also, I’ve long thought horror spoke to intent—the filmmakers’ and the villains’. By the filmmakers’ intent I mean, how is it presented? Is it lensed and scored in such a way that it seeks to scare? “Aliens” could easily be a horror movie if it had a different feel, but unlike its predecessor, it aims to thrill, not horrify. So is Aliens a thriller? No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. Jesus, pay attention, wouldja?

As for the villains’ intent: Ideally, a horror movie’s antagonist should have no discernable motive, or, failing that, a motive that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (making your own RealDoll out of select parts of the cheerleading squad is a motivation, not a motive). That’s why The Strangers is a horror movie but similarly-structured home-invasion films, such as Panic Room, are not; masked killers trying to steal your shit may be scary, but masked killers only in it for the kicks? That’s horror. It’s somewhat muddied by the fact that Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler are clearly dead before the movie even begins (it’s an interpretation not shared by all who’ve seen it, but living people couldn’t possibly have so little charisma).

Further complicating matters, many of our perennial favorite fright-flicks contain elements of science-fiction. Genres can be fluid, the walls between them porous. Note: This is one of those issues that makes going down THE rabbit hole look like going down A rabbit hole. If it seems like the more sense I try to make of all this the less it makes sense, that’s unavoidable, by dint of the subject matter and also, have you seen how I write?

What’s that you say? “What about fantasy?” What, you mean sword ‘n’ sorcery type stuff? No offense, but c’mon, screw that crap.

First let’s define our terms. What is science fiction? Well, we can’t answer that without distinguishing between “soft” and “hard” SF—also referred to, respectively, as “the fun kind” and “the kind about robots and spaceships and moonrocks, y’know, hard things.” Ha ha! No, seriously, “hard” SF is generally understood to trade in plausibility. And like, math and stuff. The distinction between the two is rarely discussed on the internet, by which I mean there hasn’t been a flame-war about it on the Tor site for almost an hour and a half. So what’s the difference? Like all normal people with their priorities straight and a semi-recent memory of what the opposite sex looks like naked, I don’t care. The next time some engineering type complains about how space opera isn’t true sci-fi, resist the urge to smack him and just remember: Roland Emmerich’s got the rights to Foundation. He’ll get his soon enough.

Wait, did we provide a definition of sci-fi? No? Ah, hell. To be fair, it’s tough to nail down a genre that includes both War of the Worlds and Primer. Maybe sci-fi is like pornography: I can’t define it, but Traci Lords is in a lot of it.

So! Lines thus drawn (scroll up, I’m pretty sure we drew ‘em), it’s time for some judgment calls in the spirit of Chapelle’s racial draft. We’re going to classify these suckers once and for all, bang, done, fini, and I’m sure many of you will disagree with some of my conclusions, but tough noogies, this post is legally binding.

Alien: Horror with sci-fi trappings—there are speculative elements but their sole purpose is to terrify (the alien’s means of reproduction, Ash as the ultimate company man).

Jaws: Action-adventure and monster movie in equal measure—in the hands of a different filmmaker, Jaws could be (and has been) a straight-up horror movie, but Spielberg shoots everything as an action-adventure. Plus biting Richard Dreyfuss strikes me as a pretty solid motive, honestly.

King Kong: See above. Interestingly, though neither can touch the 1933 classic, both remakes are also love stories—the original is often considered such but no, watch it again—she hates him. My theory is, KK was supposed to be an all-too-of-its-time negro-rape allegory in need of one more K, but at some point during principle photography the story’s true heart asserted itself and turned the film into something timeless and wonderful, but nobody bothered to give Fay Wray the update.

The Terminator: Horror/sci-fi hybrid. It’s practically a slasher what with its unstoppable, implacable killer, but anything with a time-travel paradox is automatically sci-fi, with the exception of that Italian chick at my work who responds to the most minute criticism with “Ah, fuck ya muddah.”

Silence of the Lambs: Procedural, thriller. Anyone who tells you this is their favorite horror movie is, not to put too fine a point on it, an asshole. You should probably stop returing their calls.

Lifeforce: I’m not even sure it’s a movie.

The Thing (both versions): Horror—an alien adversary does not a sci-fi film make. There’s only one response to people who consider this sci-fi and that is, say it with me Thing fans, you gotta be fucking kidding me.

The Fly (remake): Horror—Cronenberg’s movies always have a science-fictiony angle but they’re never about that. The Fly is not a movie about gene-splicing, it’s a movie about a were-bug.

Se7en: Pr0(3dura1, +hri113r

Psycho: Mystery, thriller

Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (in at least two senses) remake: Career killer

Mad Monster Party: Showcase for Phyllis Diller

Uncle L on the Bigger and Deffer cover: Chiller

Rhyming-as-comedy: Filler

Army of Darkness: Action-horror-comedy, anti-ren-fest agitprop

The Sixth Sense: Horror, subtle plea for pedophiles to kill themselves

Astute readers will notice I didn’t even broach the first question, “why are we drawn to horror?” because, now that I think about it, fucked if I know. There are lots of theories floating around but I kinda think they’re all just glimpses of the truth at best, overanalytic hooey at worst. The fact that less tends to be more in this genre—the unseen always being more frightening than the seen—leads me to believe that the answer is so primal, so fundamental to who we are as a species, that it can’t be adequately expressed in words, and I’ve heard too many arguments about evolutionary biology from frat-knobs to feel comfortable wading into those waters. Got any ideas? Let’s hear ‘em in comments, and you might want to also tackle the evo-bio implications of commenting on a blog on a Friday night.

That’s it for the penultimate installment of Eek Week; until next time… pleasant dreams!

No, seriously. What, should I not say it like that?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 10/30/09 at 08:58 PM • Permalink

Categories: Geek SpeakMovies

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Man, if Kevin doesn’t pull these all together next Halloween ... You’ll just have to do it all over again, next year.


Aww, I got a mention.

Wait, almost as much of a dork? I’m insulted! :)

Ooh! I just noticed - you saw Primer too.  I was expecting that to be a “difficult” film when I saw reviews etc, but I don’t know what the fuss was about.

Army of Darkness… Well, I enjoyed it, but horror? No.

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