With nights growing longer and Halloween only a few weeks away, it’s the perfect time of year to settle in for a scary movie. Mention horror movies to some people, though, and the reactions can be decidedly buzz-killing: “I can’t watch them” and “they give me nightmares” are common refrains. Other viewers claim that they lack plot or character development and rely on shock value through excessive gore. They are often panned by critics and are rarely nominated for Oscars, with the exception of a few classics such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Silence of the Lambs (the only one ever to win Best Picture). Roger Ebert was notorious for his disparaging reviews of horror movies, including his one-star review of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and his no-stars review of I Spit on Your Grave, which he called “a vile bag of garbage.” What is it about horror that elicits such extreme reactions, and why is it so often relegated to the cinematic margins? And for those who love the genre, what is the appeal?
Many ideas have been put forth about why we react as we do to horror movies. IGN posted a fairly good overview of how we respond to horror and why, and BrightLightsFilm did a great piece on our reactions to frightening movies from a biological standpoint. Central to these discussions, it seems, is fear itself, and our unwillingness to discuss it. Most of us share a set of basic, primordial fears (being stalked or attacked, darkness, bugs, death and disease, etc.). Fear is generally not a rational, orderly emotion, and so it follows that movies that explore fear often strike viewers as primitive and chaotic. Does this make horror a more crude cinematic form than comedy or drama, or does it simply serve a different purpose?
Those of us who appreciate the genre seem to view horror from a distinct perspective. While horror films do portray violence and other socially dissonant acts, these events are often presented through the lens of black humor. Think of Linda Blair’s unfortunate encounter with a crucifix in The Exorcist, or the cursing, demonically possessed goat in Drag Me to Hell. When we can laugh at what is disturbing, we are given the necessary psychological distance to rationally examine our fears.
Ebert clearly was not a fan of many horror movies, but he did give horror fans their due. “Horror fans are a particular breed,” he wrote. “They analyze films with such detail and expertise that I am reminded of the Canadian literary critic Northrup Frye, who approached literature with similar archetypal analysis.” It is with this admittedly lofty goal in mind that the Literature Department at the Parkway Central Library presents a new series of free horror movie screenings and discussions, Third Thursdays of Horror.
The next installment, on October 17th at 7:00 p.m., will be a visit from non-fiction author David DeKok. He will be discussing Centralia, PA, a real-life ghost town with an underground coal fire that inspired the video game and horror movie Silent Hill. On Halloween, we’ll be showing a marathon of short horror films from 3:00 to 8:00 p.m. To see all the events in this series, visit our Horror Fans page on Facebook, or stop by the Literature Department to pick up a schedule. There will be blood, but there will also be plenty of opportunities to confront your fears and emerge victorious.
In the meantime, there is plenty in our collection to keep you occupied. You can browse the horror DVDs in our catalog, or, if articles on film studies are more your speed, the Jstor database is an excellent place to start (you’ll need your library card to log in). Our digital exhibitions also include a few nods to horror. See some B-movie lobby cards, or Be Very Afraid of our online horror exhibition – we have such sights to show you!