This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In my early 20s –for reasons that aren’t important here — I was first visited by a species of profound depression whose shadow I have never completely shaken off. Up until that point I had been an enthusiastic, even obsessive, consumer of horror movies. I let none slip by, however obscure, poorly dubbed or badly reviewed they were. If there was a horror movie showing somewhere in Liverpool between 1967 and 1975, I saw it.
But once I was in the grip of depression, a curious thing happened. The movies I had loved — and had always been able to hold at a distance, somehow, enjoying their effects but never profoundly terrified by any of them — became impossible to watch. Suddenly they signified too much. Staring out of the darkness, which seemed to press down around me with smothering force, I was granted a clearer vision than I’d ever had before. The tricks and contrivances of plot and special effects, which had always allowed me an “escape clause,” were no longer a defense: The images came at me off the screen with nearly mythic force, raw and naked and overwhelming.
It wasn’t, you understand, that I came to believe any of these fictions were real. It was that I understood for the first time why they carried such authority over our imaginations, even when they dressed up in cheap theatrics. They were psychically true. Death is real, after all, and what are these stories but extended dances with death, refreshed now and again by a change of mask, a change of step? Each time we sit down to take in a horror movie, we prepare to stare down the subject that haunts us from the first moment we realize we are going to die. That was why the movies I had taken such pleasure in were now a terror to me. In my depressed state their true subject — death, in all its grotesque glory — was too much for me. My defenses against the truth at the heart of these sometimes inept, even laughable, fictions were down. The truth of their meaning came rushing in at me, its power undiluted by cynicism or detachment. The images went straight for my unguarded mind.
I was reduced (often by the most absurd of pictures) to a state of anxiety so unpleasant that I gave up horror movies entirely. For two, perhaps three, years, I kept my distance from them, though I would still linger, now and then, outside a cinema showing a Hammer movie or a Corman epic and study the garish posters, daring myself to go in, but never getting up the courage. By degrees, of course, the depression passed and my appetite for the monstrous returned. But I had learned not to simply read the surface of these stories. In the future — however unpromising the tale looked — I would always look for their deeper resonance: for the part that would drive my depressed self out of the cinema drenched in sweat. I would never again forget the deeper resonances at work in these spectacles.
I say “spectacle” rather than “story” because in the end it isn’t the intricacies of narrative that draw us to horror films. When it’s there I’m grateful for the director’s skill at telling an exquisitely nuanced tale filled with psychological insight, but it is the spectacles that I take home with me. There seems to me a clear reason for this. Though I hear in meetings with studio executives all the time that audiences need characters they can identify with (i.e., Young Americans) and stories that are “believable” (whatever that means), it is not, finally, the characters and their conflicts which have brought me here.
I am here for The Other. I am here for whatever form of monstrousness or freakishness the filmmakers can provide, be it Blob, Thing, Werewolf, Vampire, Alien, Zombie, Patchwork Corpse Animated by Lightning, etc. It is the creature that stands at the center of horror movies, not those who have made it their business to bring the beast down. We’re all the same. The easiest test of this theory? Try and remember the names of the protagonists (or the actors who play them) in 20 great horror movies. It will be difficult. But you’ll remember the monsters. We always remember the monsters.
We live in the Age of the Next New Thing; we’re assaulted day and night by tastemakers telling us what the next hit will be, the next style, the next cool.
But the great distressing subjects of our lives — the subjects that we are both repulsed by and feel drawn to — are never going to be the stuff of mainstream commentators. Occasionally, it’s true, a more oblique horror movie will be allowed its moment in the spotlight. But most go unrecognized and uncelebrated by the “tastemakers” because, in short, they find them distasteful.
Which hopefully the heart of it is. It’s horror, after all. It’s not supposed to be pretty, or comforting, or humane. It’s a confrontation, in the end, with something we’re half-afraid to see, and half-afraid not to see. Death. Madness. Loss of Control. Chaos.
Is it any wonder that once in a while — when we see what’s at the heart of it — we need to look away for a while?
No matter. When we’ve recovered our courage, we’ve always got imaginative filmmakers to show us the way back into the dark.