WHAT SCARES US

Door ajar

Door ajar

It's a modern, technological age. There's high tech everywhere, signals flying around, machines imbued with logic dictating everything--even if we don't realize it. We get up, we get dressed, we log in, and immediately the quest to overcome the new day's challenges begins. Every day we consider our chances. What fresh hell can it be? Lifetime trajectories are no longer ballistic projections along calculable parabolas. Every day has become an effort to trade up, catch and capture trend lines we can ride, invent new strategies to get ahead, but just as often not simply be marginalized.

Think about that for a moment. Marginalization is no longer a middling option for millions. No one ever aspires to mediocrity, of course, but that's where the vast majority find themselves nonetheless. The difference is that now there's no longevity in the anonymous middle anymore. You either swim with sharks or you're eaten.

In the first world, superstitions aren't what they used to be. Electronic talismans and palimpsests have replaced rabbits feet and lucky pennies of years gone by. Even when we're alone, we're not alone, tethered to the social network, connected by invisible ropes of all kinds, some of them safety lines, many of them snares. There's always something to do, but perhaps more insidious, there's always something that needs to be done.

Is it any wonder, then, why the return of old school horror has made a ferocious comeback?  Blood has gone big time. From cable channel neck biters to cinematic slashers to flesh eating zombies everywhere, horror has a new lease on life even as it racks up a massive body count.

Why?

In an era where millions of people no longer have a sense of security they thought would accrue from their wealthy, first world birthright, a pervasive background hum of anxiety has become omnipresent. We understand from our leaders that extra-national threats are everywhere like shadows. We don't know the names or addresses of the baddies anymore. It was easier to feel safe at home when we knew the Soviet Union was a malicious entity far, far away. Now it's harder to tell the teams apart. But national security is ironically the least of it.

The big angst these days comes from daily life. Money and class and education usually aspired to a ladder of easily articulated choices. I don't meant to imply that movement among classes was ever easy, nor was the promise of success simply because a person had a dream. But what was once at least a possibility for following a rationally defined path is now totally in question. Even the promise of college may no longer be a good bet for high school kids, and the promise of long term job security for employees is about as secure as a Mediterranean bond fund.

People walk on edge these days. The phone rings, the email dings, we don't hesitate to check to see what the intrusion may portend. People try to harness their anxieties now more than ever, getting tougher, twitching faster. Horror thus becomes cheap catharsis. I would even suggest that it becomes an inexpensive, if possibly ill-advised, form of therapy. It's stylized desensitization for people already filled with way too much to information. With limited plot, the visceral details of borrow replace the need to learn lots of new detailed nuance, to track ever more data, to work for understanding of subtle folds in the terrain. Story is the least of it. Sensations come efficiently, if brutally, like blunt force  trauma. When a creepy knock on the door augurs a bloody axe and a violent doom, it reflects the interior sounds of the racing thoughts that keep millions of already exhausted people awake at night, wondering if they'll survive, figuratively speaking, the next day.

Horror gets made relatively cheap, too. No-name actors are fine for shrieking on cue, and special effects can usually be kept to a minimum, with many scares delivered by smart editing, aggressive sound effects, and macabre inventiveness for displaying pain and suffering.

And there it is: my thesis. Pain and suffering have become the new vacation thought experiment for an overstimulated, hyper vigilant society. The new wave of horror movies, often delivered through alternative delivery vehicles other than traditional movie theaters, serve as a means for people to convince themselves that their own experiences are survivable, not so bad, could be worse.

In doing so, however, I worry that the vocabulary of suffering may transform us into emotionally dull automatons. A good scare is part of theater, as old as a story told around a primitive campfire or Homer's tale of a Minotaur in the center of the Labyrinth. But narrative stories of what's scary is not the same as horror presented for it's own sake.

Don't get me wrong: when Ridley Scott scared the socks off me as a teenager watching Alien, there was a point to the terror. I still love the movie to this day. Same goes for the inevitable distress that painful, tough, serious movies about war might portray, like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. And if it were simply the presence of blood by the gallon, John Boorman's superb, slightly loopy movie Excalibur would have to be brought before the court, too. The point is that context defines meaning, and suffering and death and blood in endlessly gruesome guises goes back a long way in storytelling.

It just seems to me that for all of the creative energy expended these days to devise horrific new ways to make us cover our eyes, we might consider that the trend should be a cautionary clue to where we're headed. What we create to scare the socks off ourselves these days reminds us that reality demands resolve and confidence to face real world circumstances. Just as every horror director knows, you need to release tensions once in a while lest the whole enterprise lose it's potency. For a society already coiled tight with uncertainty, mounting pressures, and a fair measure of fatalism, horror's new resurgence might be the canary that keeps us from getting trapped in a dark and deadly coal mine.

--MS

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