What scares people is diverse and seldom shared in the same ways or amplitude of fear and anxiety. It is subjective according to the makeup of each individual person. One horror film might send a man into a frenzied terror that only dies down when sleep finally takes him. The woman down the theater row from him may come out of the movie chuckling, hardly dazed by the images she just saw. Horror is oft-described poorly in these objective terms in order to get people to go see the film. No singular film can hit the unique nerve of every person who watches it. However, there is a common thread, something that might be more than subjective within the multitudes of phobias that are buried in the psyche of humanity: the unknown.
Fear is a reaction to a lack of comprehension of or experience with something or someone to the point that their brain short-circuits and something more primal and emotional takes over. Humanity prides itself on its reasoning and its control of its context and environment—however illusory that control may actually be. When something happens that defies or transcends our understanding of the world and the people around us, we fear that unknown. It can’t be immediately known or controlled.
Why is a film like Alien scary to some? Maybe because of the fear of what may exist in the vastness of space or, maybe, a visceral fear of a creature that has yet to be named in one’s biology textbook. Halloween scares some because it recognizes the seeming evil streak that runs through the interiors of our very own natures. Teeth (2007) might speak to the lack of comprehension and fear around females and their unique sexuality. Or The Haunting (1963) which speaks to the unknowns around what actually happens to souls in the afterlife or, simply put, our inability to fully grasp death. All of these things put our brain in time-out and allow our hearts—a more dangerous and untamed organ—to feel what the brain can’t process. These unknowns drive us to spaces where we recognize those interiors that do not lend themselves to our reason and control. And when we find ourselves in those spaces, we get scared and reactive.
The horror genre aims to–sadistically maybe–bring us to those places of unknowns. It is different for every person. No single person, however, understands all things, so everyone gets scared on some level about something. Horror film is therapeutic because it asks of us to go to those places of fear, embrace the catharsis, and come out of the darkened theater knowing two things: 1) we can move past our immediate visceral reactions and figure out what is actually at the core of our fears and 2) that our reason can become idolatry and control is often an illusion that we create to cope with our fears. The horror genre gives us space to do the hard work of understanding ourselves and our anxieties better in a safe space where the nightmare will end.
The only film that has brought me to a space of actual fear and loss of sleep was Paranormal Activity. What is it about this film that got to me so deeply? The fear of the existence of the powers and principalities of the air who do all they can to keep us from the truth and the light of Christ? Demonic forces are something spoken of, unambiguously, in the Bible. Do they do all of the things that they are imagined to do in horror? Probably not, but their mere existence brings in questions of death and hell. Part of it may also be the loss of control over one’s own body, i.e. possession. Katie’s succumbing to the demonic presence is, on some level, horrifying to me because of the higher risks of Alzheimer’s being past down from my father. A possession of sorts by something that aims to come and make me no longer myself. Once we get some ideas on why certain horror affects us, we can attempt to take stock of the rationality of those fears and how much control we actually have to exhibit over them, if any.
As a person who didn’t do confrontation, of any sort, very well for a long time, horror has made the unknowns of life become more manageable and emboldened me to face them, not with fear, but with the knowledge that all things will be overcome, especially if one believes the promises of the Gospel. The hope, then, becomes our ability to stare into the darkness, the void, and smile at it with courage and love.
Speaking of unknowns, I am officially entering into a new phase of life with a wedding, move and job search within the next few months. Because of these things, Oh! The Horror… will be taking a hiatus for the next couple of months so that I can focus on relationships and new stations in life. I’ll be back, rested and with more exploration of horror coming your way on the other side. Until then, take care and do not fear!