Evolutionary Biology and Horror Films?

36


Discussion by: Jogre
Hello all! As a recently awakened former preacher I was mindlessly watching late night programming, reading some scientific literature, when multiple commercials endorsing some new horror films flicked across the screen. As I watched, I couldn’t help but feel the twinge of my previous mindset (preacher, bible teacher, seminarian) flare up absolutely petrified. I felt the hot singe of panic (preacher’s panic, not sane person panic – there is a very different and thoroughly more potent reaction with ‘preacher’s panic’) shoot up my spine and into my chest. Then it disappeared as this thought came into my head: “I wonder where the evolutionary roots of fear of ‘possessed’ people, dead people, horror films in general, originated.” I stifled a bit of laughter when I realized how quickly my previous fear-responses died when I thought about science, and how quickly science came to mind – absolute satisfaction for this newly awakened person.

I am wondering if any of you have any insights on the basis for the fear (fascination?) of the grotesque, the horrific gore, and the paranormal infection that plagues modern cult films. I have many hypotheses as to what could potentially elicit various responses, from fear to fascination, from intense sadness to intense enjoyment, etc. 
It seems to me that the genre which brings up fear/torture/explicit harm to others looks an unnecessary film genre (though certainly my inability to understand films like this is a horrific bias on this issue). I would love also to hear opinions on the horror film genre in general, whether or not you enjoy them, or what your ideas on the pros/cons of cultural exposure to their intrinsically sinister themes are. I appreciate your input!
- J

36 COMMENTS

  1. When I see modern horror/torture films I feel old. I can’t begin to understand how someone could choose to watch a movie like Saw or similar movies and I feel just a bit worried about what kind of a society views torture as entertainment.

  2. I absolutely love the horror genre, it taps into my primal lizard brain and gives me a vicarious thrill to watch these films. I might add that although I am not averse to the judicial use of gore, I detest this offshoot, so-called “torture porn” that has become mainstream. Generally I prefer the more cerebral, atmospheric type of film. For example, the first Saw film was actually a very good suspenseful thriller I thought. After that the series went in the wrong direction, I don’t enjoy watching suffering. Some films can also be admired for their cinematography and the atmosphere of dread they create, e.g. Cape Fear. Many people enjoy horror in the same way as they do a rollercoaster, it’s a safe way to experience a potentially dangerous situation – it can be very stimulating. I think it can also be beneficial to be exposed to dark themes in an escapist way, especially when they hold up a mirror to our own society, it can be a learning experience and for some a healthy outlet for darker impulses.

    Some examples of psychological horror I have enjoyed: Cape Fear, Spoorloos (1988, not the inferior remake: The Vanishing), The Shining, Alien, The Thing, The Exorcist, Ringu, Silence of the Lambs, Blair Witch Project, REC.

  3. Horror flicks, snuff movies, video games, online videos of ‘executions’ all appeal to the sick, perverse side of human nature; and religion takes advantage of it, too. Depressing how the appeal lives on when humanity is supposedly enlightened.

    • In reply to #3 by Nodhimmi:

      Horror flicks, snuff movies, video games, online videos of ‘executions’ all appeal to the sick, perverse side of human nature; and religion takes advantage of it, too. Depressing how the appeal lives on when humanity is supposedly enlightened.

      In my view, you are painting with a very broad brush when you include horror films and video games in general as sick and perverse without distinction. I think that to be truly enlightened about one’s own humanity includes exploring its darker side and putting it in its proper place rather than hiding away from it like a child.

      • In reply to #4 by Mister T:

        In reply to #3 by Nodhimmi:

        Horror flicks, snuff movies, video games, online videos of ‘executions’ all appeal to the sick, perverse side of human nature; and religion takes advantage of it, too. Depressing how the appeal lives on when humanity is supposedly enlightened.

        In my view, you are painting with a very broad brush when you include horror films and video games in general as sick and perverse without distinction. I think that to be truly enlightened about one’s own humanity includes exploring its darker side and putting it in its proper place rather than hiding away from it like a child.

        I take exception to your “like a child” insult- I am fully aware of the grisly fascination that infects the majority of the human race and don’t need your patronising, juvenile opinion. Continue ‘exploring your darker side’ and enjoy your pornographic violence until you grow up.

        By the way, I enjoyed ‘Alien’ but saw it as SF, not horror; the essential difference being it was not based on on human violence. The story line of parasitic predation made it interesting rather than the ‘Chainsaw Massacre’ approach… Blair Witch, plain silly and pointless; Silence, a study in psychosis; Exorcist’ religious mania, horror incidental

        • In reply to #14 by Nodhimmi:

          In reply to #4 by Mister T:

          In reply to #3 by Nodhimmi:

          I take exception to your “like a child” insult- I am fully aware of the grisly fascination that infects the majority of the human race and don’t need your patronising, juvenile opinion. Continue ‘exploring your darker side’ and enjoy your pornographic violence until you grow up.

          By the way, I enjoyed ‘Alien’ but saw it as SF, not horror; the essential difference being it was not based on on human violence. The story line of parasitic predation made it interesting rather than the ‘Chainsaw Massacre’ approach… Blair Witch, plain silly and pointless; Silence, a study in psychosis; Exorcist’ religious mania, horror incidental

          I wasn’t necessarily talking about you, it depends on whether you fit the kind of person I was talking about. Maybe you do. If so, take all the exception you wish. My original objection to your argument in particular was your labelling of “horror flicks” and “video games” in general as sick and perverse without qualifying or distinguishing between them.

          Alien falls under both the Science Fiction and Horror genre, this is not a categorisation I have invented arbitrarily. Same goes for the other ones I’ve mentioned, they span genres. Whether you consider them ‘true’ or ‘pure’ horror by your narrow definition is irrelevant. Name one film I’ve mentioned that is “pornographic violence” as you call it. I even went as far as denouncing the so-called “torture porn” sub-genre in my very first comment. Your lack of reading comprehension is really not my issue. You can either save your typing or get the last word in if you must, it’s of little consequence to me; but it’s too tedious for me to continue a discussion with someone who appears to wilfully misrepresent the other’s argument.

  4. I tend to avoid supernatural horror films in the same way that I avoid low-grade comic-book pseudo-science fiction. They simply lack a credible story-line.

    It is worth suspending disbelief for good quality science fiction / fantasy such as “The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy”, because the author is making a point which is not just sensationalist junk!

    A lot of Hollywood stuff simply illustrates the lack of understanding, lack of scientific homework, and lack of imagination on the part of the authors and production crew.

    A good example of this is the film ” Raise the Titanic”, when compared with the underwater photography and archaeological analysis of the wreck.

  5. i think we naturally have a fear of the unknown and therefore death. we also seem to be fascinated by being as close to death as possible e.g. through roller coasters, extreme sports etc.

    maybe horror combines being close to death and the fear of death and just gives us a creepy adrenaline rush…take this with a pinch of salt as i could of course be talking rubbish, just a thought.

  6. I liked the Evil Dead Trilogy. They went for some humor with the gore. Any movie that can build up tension then release that tension through laughter is doing a good job of entertaining.

    In my opinion, most movies in this genre are poorly made but the ones that are well made are some of my favorites. That doesn’t mean they can’t be campy or low-budget. I really enjoyed The Toxic Avenger, for example.

    Lastly,unless you can provide some evidence that these films are actually harmful in some way, I find it very snobby to criticize the fans of these movies just because you don’t enjoy the genre.

  7. It seems to me that the genre which brings up fear/torture/explicit harm to others looks an unnecessary film genre

    It seams to me that watching a contrived love story with a slightly unrealistic happy ending could do more emotional harm to an individual then watching a movie about an alien fighting a re-animated corpse.

    But who can say?

  8. When was the last time you had to run to escape a lion bent on having you for lunch? My guess is that in our so very comfortable culture we crave the occasional shot of adrenalin. Some get it from extreme sports while others watch these movies. It’s a question science is well positioned to address (in fact probably already has).

  9. I was born a worry wart and overly sensitive child. Horror movies were just too much for me. If I swim in the ocean, as I have, I worry about sharks. If the food isn’t very fresh, I think about possible illness. I think women tend to do this a lot; maybe it has something to do with protecting children seeing the wild animal hiding in the grasses. I’ve noticed that the older I get, the less worried I get — declining hormones??? Certain medication also tend to decrease my anxieties.

    Fear of possession, dead people… seems to be tapping into our lizard brain. We have just found a new way to direct our anxieties.

  10. I have loved horror films since I was nine years old and a friend loaned me Dennis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a book that fired my imagination in a way no other had up to that point. Later, my parents allowed me to stay up on Saturday nights to watch the horror movie double bills that the BBC used to show over the summer months, and I was able to catch up with the classics of the genre: the dark Universal comedies of James Whale, the nihilistic poetry of Val Lewton, the blood and thunder of Hammer. I feel no shame or embarrassment in admitting that I still love them and own an extensive collection on DVD and blu-ray. And before anyone says “Oh, but that’s different – Boris Karloff? Bela Lugosi? Those old films are harmless” it’s worth remembering that they often elicited much the same outraged response as some modern horror films do (and yes, I enjoy many modern horror movies, too). I can only assume that the idea that horror films don’t have any point to make is based on unfamiliarity with the best that the genre has to offer; and I certainly see no justification for the suggestion that I am a less ‘enlightened’ human being than the next person simply because I enjoy them. I enjoy philosophy, good food and Doctor Who as well.

    • In reply to #12 by Schopenhauer’s Poodle:

      I have loved horror films since I was nine years old and a friend loaned me Dennis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a book that fired my imagination in a way no other had up to that point. Later, my parents allowed me to stay up on Saturday nights to watch the horror movie double bills that the BBC used to show over the summer months, and I was able to catch up with the classics of the genre: the dark Universal comedies of James Whale, the nihilistic poetry of Val Lewton, the blood and thunder of Hammer.

      The first horror movie I was ever allowed to stay up to watch was an old Peter Lorre flick called The Beast with Five Fingers. I was about five or six, and the movie is a harmless bit of hokum, so I don’t blame my guardians for the nightmares I was plagued with for the next decade; they weren’t to know. To this day, though, I can’t come across a severed human hand without being slightly creeped out by it.

      The segment with Michael Redgrave and Hugo from the portmanteau pic Dead of Night was the next to warp my fragile little mind.

      I haven’t been able to eat a chicken and mushroom pie since I watched the bit in Theatre of Blood where Robert Morley is force-fed his pampered poodles through a funnel by Vincent Price’s deranged Shakespearean thesp. I’m sure this is available to watch on youtube, but you can find it yourself.

      By the time I saw An American Werewolf in London for the first time, I was a little older and laughing along with the other girls in our dormitory at the goings on. That is until the tube station scene, which is made all the more terrifying by virtue of its being brightly lit. I went very quiet after that and tried to find my happy place.

      Then came George A Romero’s visceral, in the literal sense, zombie films. Dario Argento’s equally sanguinary yet more psychological pictures. Hammer films I’ve always found rather dull, with the exception of some genuine classics: The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General… maybe Countess Dracula.

      I feel no shame or embarrassment in admitting that I still love them and own an extensive collection on DVD and blu-ray. And before anyone says “Oh, but that’s different – Boris Karloff? Bela Lugosi? Those old films are harmless” it’s worth remembering that they often elicited much the same outraged response as some modern horror films do (and yes, I enjoy many modern horror movies, too).

      More so, I would say. Modern moviegoers are inured to horror in a way that other generations were not. I’ve seen people younger than myself not bat an eye at the scene towards the end of Psycho where Norman’s mother is revealed. If, the first time you watch that bit, your reaction is not to jump out of your seat whilst yelling “Jesuschristalmightywhatthefuck!!”, there’s either something wrong with you or with the moviemaking industry.

      I sincerely hope you have a copy of Tod Browning’s Freaks in your collection.

      • In reply to #28 by Katy Cordeth:

        In reply to #12 by Schopenhauer’s Poodle:

        I have loved horror films since I was nine years old and a friend loaned me Dennis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a book that fired my imagination in a way no other had up to that point. Later, my parents allowed me to stay up on Saturday nights to watch the horror movie double bills that the BBC used to show over the summer months, and I was able to catch up with the classics of the genre: the dark Universal comedies of James Whale, the nihilistic poetry of Val Lewton, the blood and thunder of Hammer.

        The first horror movie I was ever allowed to stay up to watch was an old Peter Lorre flick called The Beast with Five Fingers. I was about five or six, and the movie is a harmless bit of hokum, so I don’t blame my guardians for the nightmares I was plagued with for the next decade; they weren’t to know. To this day, though, I can’t come across a severed human hand without being slightly creeped out by it.

        The segment with Michael Redgrave and Hugo from the portmanteau pic Dead of Night was the next to warp my fragile little mind.

        I haven’t been able to eat a chicken and mushroom pie since I watched the bit in Theatre of Blood where Robert Morley is force-fed his pampered poodles through a funnel by Vincent Price’s deranged Shakespearean thesp. I’m sure this is available to watch on youtube, but you can find it yourself.

        By the time I saw An American Werewolf in London for the first time, I was a little older and laughing along with the other girls in our dormitory at the goings on. That is until the tube station scene, which is made all the more terrifying by virtue of its being brightly lit. I went very quiet after that and tried to find my happy place.

        Then came George A Romero’s visceral, in the literal sense, zombie films. Dario Argento’s equally sanguinary yet more psychological pictures. Hammer films I’ve always found rather dull, with the exception of some genuine classics: The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General… maybe Countess Dracula.

        I feel no shame or embarrassment in admitting that I still love them and own an extensive collection on DVD and blu-ray. And before anyone says “Oh, but that’s different – Boris Karloff? Bela Lugosi? Those old films are harmless” it’s worth remembering that they often elicited much the same outraged response as some modern horror films do (and yes, I enjoy many modern horror movies, too).

        More so, I would say. Modern moviegoers are inured to horror in a way that other generations were not. I’ve seen people younger than myself not bat an eye at the scene towards the end of Psycho where Norman’s mother is revealed. If, the first time you watch that bit, your reaction is not to jump out of your seat whilst yelling “Jesuschristalmightywhatthefuck!!”, there’s either something wrong with you or with the moviemaking industry.

        I sincerely hope you have a copy of Tod Browning’s Freaks in your collection.

        Hello Katy

        I kind of understand where you are coming from re: Hammer. I loved them as a kid, but went off them as I grew older. Recently, however, I’ve been reacquainting myself with them, and my appreciation of them has grown considerably. In addition to the films you list I’d definitely recommend the best of the Peter Cushing Frankenstein films (i.e. Frankenstein Must be Destroyed and Frankenstein Created Woman, the latter being one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films, I gather). Countess Dracula is quite underrated, I think; interesting how it was referenced in Hostel II (not a film I’d recommend to anyone, though I’m quite prepared to defend the first one).

        I haven’t seen The Beast with Five Fingers since it was shown in television thirty-odd years ago, but I remember enjoying it (how can one not enjoy Peter Lorre?) and would love to see it again but, despite extensive searching, it doesn’t seem to be available on DVD (unless you know differently?). The first horror film I ever saw was a 1941 Universal quickie called Night Monster with (but not starring – his career was well on the downward spiral by now) Bela Lugosi. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a creaky murder mystery about a legless cripple who learns how to ‘will’ himself new legs so that he can creep around his old mansion bumping off the doctors responsible for his amputations. I guess my parents thought an old black and white horror movie couldn’t be very frightening, but they were wrong: it scared the living daylights out of me. I picked it up on DVD a couple of years back and was pleasantly surprised to find that, minor though it is, it does contain one or two effective moments.

        Theatre of Blood is outrageous fun! Yes, Robert Morley’s demise is truly disgusting, but when I first saw the film I was far more disturbed by Michael Hordern’s ‘Julius Caesar’ death at the hands of Vincent Price’s army of meths drinkers. Very grisly and genuinely nightmarish.

        I’m a big fan of Italian horror, although I think I’m one of the very few people in the world (Kim Newman is another) who prefers Argento’s Inferno to Suspiria. In truth, I’m probably more a fan of Mario Bava than Dario Argento, but when Argento is on form there’s certainly little that compares to the experience.

        As for Freaks – yes, absolutely! A classic example of audience and critics missing the point entirely, though in fairness there is little that has come since that can match the shock of that final image. A brilliant return to form for Browning after the lacklustre and decidedly bloodless Dracula!

  11. There are great horror films and then there are recent horror films. Nosferatu, the original Dracula with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance, The Abominable Dr Phibes, all of the horror and suspense films of Val Lewton – these are the best that the genre has to offer. I would even categorize the legendary Australian-made film Wake in Fright as a horror film.

    Many of the more recent horror films are just nasty shockers fit for drive-in cinema screens only. Some have a bit of humour, but there’s too much gore and cheap shocks and not enough psychology in most of them. I hated Wolf Creek. I thought it was clumsy and nasty with an unconvincing main character.

    I don’t understand why I love this genre so much. Perhaps it is an engagement with the unconscious mind. I know that there is something very “psychological” about these movies. Lewton films are films by and for loners and outsiders, in my opinion. They can be “read” from at least two different viewpoints. I choose the wrong one every time. I wrote a book exploring the psychology of Lewton and other famous synaesthetes. He was a most interesting person, as was his aunt the Russian-American actress.

  12. I like the old horror films, the campier the better. The one film that really gave me nightmares was The Fly, not the Jeff Goldblum-Geena Davis one, the original from 1958. Something about black and white just makes the sinister, more sinister. On a lighter note, If you want to see the devil played brilliantly, watch Bedazzled. Again, the original one from 1967 with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook not the one with Brendan Fraser. It’s British so there’s a lot of understated humor and you have to constantly watch what Peter Cook is doing in a scene, the evil he perpetrates is subtle and offhand but it’s never ending and hilarious.

      • In reply to #22 by SaganTheCat:

        In reply to #16 by DocWebster:

        IOn a lighter note, If you want to see the devil played brilliantly, watch Bedazzled. Again, the original one from 1967 with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook

        Seconded!

        X3 I love that movie. Julie Andrews!

  13. In reply to #16 by DocWebster:

    I like the old horror films, the campier the better. The one film that really gave me nightmares was The Fly, not the Jeff Goldblum-Geena Davis one, the original from 1958. Something about black and white just makes the sinister, more sinister. On a lighter note, If you want to see the devil played brilliantly, watch Bedazzled. Again, the original one from 1967 with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook not the one with Brendan Fraser. It’s British so there’s a lot of understated humor and you have to constantly watch what Peter Cook is doing in a scene, the evil he perpetrates is subtle and offhand but it’s never ending and hilarious.

    Horror and humour have a lot in common – two sides of the same coin, if you will. Both force us to confront things about ourselves and the world that we might prefer to ignore. It’s why they are such divisive (and, of course, highly subjective) genres.

  14. In reply to #14 by Nodhimmi:

    By the way, I enjoyed ‘Alien’ but saw it as SF, not horror; the essential difference being it was not based on on human violence.

    Not all horror, cinematic or literay, is based on human violence (there is, for example, a whole sub-genre of ‘natural/ecological’ horror, of which the 1978 Australian film Long Weekend is a fine example). Alien is clearly rooted in the tradition of H P Lovecraft, whose horror stories couldn’t be less human-centred if they tried – as Stephen King once pointed out, Alien is man going out to meet the Old Ones instead of the other way around; but, really, the only difference between Alien and, say, your average haunted house shocker is that Alien is set on a spaceship. That’s it. “Alien creature brought on board a spaceship begins killing the crew” may be ever-so-slightly more credible than “mummy from an ancient tomb is brought to an old house and starts killing the inhabitants” in that it could conceivably happen one day, but as far as the dictates of film narrative go there’s no real difference. Alien has no more of a ‘point’ to make than, say, The Mummy’s Tomb. Both are simply trying to make you jump by going ‘Boo!’. In truth, Alien is a pretty one-dimensional film (but a hugely entertaining one nonetheless); and the chest bursting scene is surely still one of the most shocking and horrific moments in cinema. By all means, call it a science fiction film if you want to, but it’s no less a horror film as well simply because it has a futuristic background or concerns ‘parasitic predation’.

  15. Silence of the lambs for example
    was a great flick, millions worldwide watched it and nobody got eaten as a result, but I would bet a few men tried tucking away their privates, but there’s no harm in watching a horror film know and then its when ppl watch nothing but horrors that I would be worried.

  16. I suspect there’s a very specific thing at work in the zombie/undead genre that has to do with ape’s social conditioning and even the roots of religion itself

    It’s not so much that things are coming back from the dead as the fact they superficially look the same, as the in-group (e.g. homo sapiens) or even individuals that people recognise but in fact they are monsters, incapable of reasoning with us or submitting to social expectations yet capable of at some level fooling us into accepting them into our society. In every culture, such “demons” exist

    There is also the fear of rejection from society, being the outcast or demon. As an example, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, originally made during cold war paranoia, shows the protagonist becoming aware that aliens have infiltrated society. To be that protagonist is to lose all sense of trust and security. As the story progresses (admittedly I think the original has a rubbish ending compared to the 70s remake) the protagonist is now in a position where almost everyone is non-human and utterly isolated. It plays to so many basic childhood fears.

    Then there is revulsion at the sick or purifying flesh that predates germ-theory by millennia and protected our ancestors from disease and needed only to keep them away from infection. Most undead stories include an aspect of infection, but in this case avoiding the dead body isn’t enough, it gets up and follows you sending that revulsion reflex into overdrive.

    As with others I’m no fan of torture movies, I used to like splatter flicks but only as a teenage get-together with mates to laugh at the absurdity or discuss how we felt the effects were created, but true horrors are the ones with nice people who turn into wolves at night, figures that catch our eyes and set off neural connections created when learning to recognise parents, just as we realise they’re actually what our parents were
    supposed to protect us from etc. etc. along with a constant struggle to understand who can or can’t be trusted are the ones that tap into the more primal fears.

    That’s just my opinion of course. That bit in Re-animator with the cat gave me the willies. Looked just like next door’s cat

  17. I teach 6th grade astronomy at a Catholic school and I was surprised to learn how popular “The Hunger Game” movie and books are with many of my students. The movie depicts a future dystopia America. In this future America game show contestants (some as young as 12 and none older than 17) are forced to kill each other for a TV reality show. The book makes reference to such topics as forced nudity and child prostitution.

    The Hunger Game world is essentially George Orwell’s 1984 however the story line revolves around children and teenagers. From that point of view it has some redeeming value as it depicts the cruelty of a totalitarian society where free speech and the right to disagree have been crushed.

    But why do kids who attend Catholic school like it so much? I’m not sure but I think the Hunger Games makes them feel both victimized and empowered. Victimized in that children are forced to compete in the game but empowered because everyone watches the game. Children are abused but they are also the center of attention.

    As it turned out I’ve also met adult Catholics who are fans of the THG. They feel that THG shows America as it would be without God or religion. This surprised me as the people who are moral in THG are not inspired to do good by religious teaching. They are just intrinsically good and their actions come from compassion and not God.

  18. I had some terrifying dreams as a child and one time in grad school was running down the middle of an unlit country road on a moonless night, so dark I couldn’t see my feet, when some animal suddenly rustled the brush to the side of the road. I truly jumped out of my skin. What you described though, this “preacher’s panic”, sounds a little hard to believe. Has it been studied at all, or documented?

    If you are here, maybe you are already aware of the Clergy Project http://www.clergyproject.org which was announced here (as in previous incarnation of this site) in October 2011 http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/643520-announcing-the-clergy-project-support-for-pastors-and-priests-leaving-the-pulpit

    • In reply to #25 by whiteraven:

      What you described though, this “preacher’s panic”, sounds a little hard to believe. Has it been studied at all, or documented?

      If you are here, maybe you are already aware of the Clergy Project

      I suppose I should enlighten some of you as to what I mean by preachers panic. It is all too real (though probably never studied), and I hope you don’t mind a bit of a lengthy explanation.

      I’ll start with a true story. My father was a pastor. He was very much into deliverance ministry (helping people rid their home of devilish things, dealing with demoniacs, etc). At one point, after being removed from ministry at one church for being too fundie and attempting to start a ‘revival’, we began a grass roots home church.

      It was here where many people would come with devilish problems. This is where I truly learned about preachers panic. A woman came one day who claimed the devil was tormenting her in her sleep, she could feel a presence, poking at her toes, general scariness. Then another woman said the same thing (after overhearing the first). This went on with a number of people – the conclusion: something in our home was effecting these people.

      We brought in a “prophetic” friend of ours, he walked around the home and pointed out various things that the devil was using – books, movies, as well as a computer SCREEN because he believed that something ‘untoward’ had been viewed on it.

      The long story short, we rounded up everything and threw it out (bylaw states we couldn’t burn it) so after that nothing devilish happened to the people again.

      The reason I tell this drawn-out story is because it lays the foundation of Preachers Panic. Imagine sitting on your laptop, desktop, or various device, and glancing over to the TV. There you see the girl from the exorcist on the channel – you had left the TV on mindlessly. Watching that TV frightens you because simply by having it on, you have now invited all manner of curses into your home. You may sprint to turn it off, but still, your heart is pounding because now the devil can use this against you, and perhaps, from his influence, you become an atheist ;) This is not simply worrying. This is saving your soul for eternity. This is protecting those you love. This crazy vigilence is the only thing you care about in the end.

      This happens over everything. Imagine going into a restaurant with various Hindu gods on display – you literally have a visceral reaction and pray. Bring a harmless movie home, someone points out some nonsense symbolism – you jump to save your soul. Everything effects you, you are constantly on your guard, and you can’t ever relax. You believe that you LITERALLY ARE SAVING YOUR LIFE FROM NEVER ENDING TORTURE. You watch, scan, throw out, and keep never ending guard against ‘evil’.

      The average layperson will never experience this – they rely on people (previously) like me who would do it for them. This is what I refer to as preachers panic: the never ending vigilance against the spiritual to the end of saving yourself from the torture of a ‘loving’ god.

      I apologize for the length, though I hope it has been thorough.

      -J

  19. Alfred Hitchcock once pointed out that the scariest thing on film is a closed door. The unknown in the dark (which is probably nothing, in real life). This goes back to one of Michael Shermer’s favorite examples, the saber-tooth tiger in the grass.

    (We aren’t actually that far from this as a fear. If you Google “Tiger Attack” you’ll find that India gets its shares, and often man-eaters will kill many humans, including those hunting them, before they are brought down.)

    But those who got that panic response from the potential of scary things in the dark were the ones who bred and who eventually evolved into us.

    As for the walking dead, I would hypothesize many of them come from the western xenophobia. Ghosts are far more menacing in the middle ages than they were in the Hellenic era. (Then, they were regarded as once alive and harboring human attachments they had in life). Vampires are an expression of kinky sexuality. Zombies of savage primitives.

    Possessed children probably have the same origin as fairy changelings who’d swap themselves for human children like a cuckoo, as an excuse to drown your implacable toddlers suffering from colic or some other ailment. And nuns were always being raped by incubi, which was a safer explanation than a sexual encounter (consensual or not) with the local priest. I suspect Olympian courtship also served in Hellenic times to explain an otherwise awkward pregnancy.

  20. In reply to #16 by DocWebster:

    On a lighter note, If you want to see the devil played brilliantly, watch Bedazzled. Again, the original one from 1967 with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook not the one with Brendan Fraser. It’s British so there’s a lot of understated humor and you have to constantly watch what Peter Cook is doing in a scene, the evil he perpetrates is subtle and offhand but it’s never ending and hilarious.

    Couldn’t agree more, Doc. Just as Alastair Sim, Robert Newton and Basil Rathbone are the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge, Long John Silver and Sherlock Holmes, Peter Cook’s louche performance in Bedazzled wins him the award as the best Satan in film history, beating out even Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster.

    The least said about the remake, the better. Brendan Fraser tries his hardest, but Elizabeth Hurley’s acting is so bad it sinks the whole movie.

  21. As an addendum to my last post, I thought I would also point out that surely you have seen preachers all over the world panicking about something – this is the motive behind it. They are worried about their flock and never ending torture. This preachers panic also refers to the general idea of being crazily outraged and reactionary to non-Christians.

    -J

    • *In reply to #30 by Jogre: Thank you for explaining. That is so foreign it almost gets harder to believe, but I’ll take your word. I can understand why the folks who had to throw away all their stuff were cured of their devils – how many demonic possessions can regular folks afford? Sounds like you go into that kind of work as a minister and come as a chapter in the DSM-V. *

      As an addendum to my last post, I thought I would also point out that surely you have seen preachers all over the world panicking about something – this is the motive behind it. They are worried about their flock and never ending torture. This preachers panic also refers to the general idea of being crazily outraged and reactionary to non-Christians.

      -J

  22. Hey Jogre! I’m glad you posted this discussion because I’ve been a huge fan of horror films my entire life! Believe it or not, there have been several academic attempts at explaining the appeal of horror movies–I prefer movie to film because it represents the medium more than the material used to create it–and the mechanics of the genre. There are many books on movies, ‘film’ criticism, back-stories to movie productions, etc.; there are many options out there if you want to dig deep, such as Creation Cinema’s Bad Blood: An Illustrated Guide to Pyscho Cinema by Christian Fuchs and Profoundly Disturbing by Joe Bob Briggs. Of course, being an offshoot of Liberal Arts, you will occasionally find the residue of bad 20th century intellectualism that is politicized and analyzed with a deconstructionist perspective in many books on the subject of cinema.

    A lot of familiar, and significant, territory has been covered in this discussion so far. Fear is obviously the most salient feature of the horror genre–fear of the death, the unknown, disease, pain, etc. Then there is the thrill factor; people like to be scared, shocked, and immersed in a dark aesthetic experience. This may have something to do with the lingering cognitive faculties from ancestral humans that were used for hunting, survival and the fight-or-flight mode. It may also be a way of reframing inner anxiety, paranoia, fear, or other aversive mental states into an enjoyable experience in the form of a fictional spectacle. Being able to laugh at our discomforts is an excellent coping mechanism. Or, as a form of fiction, it’s a way for people to imagine how they would behave in a hypothetical scenario. I think one of the most important points brought up is the loner/outsider status of characters in many horror films. Many appreciators of horror, whether it is cinematic, literary, or in a traditional art form like painting, are loners and outsiders, and these cinematic representations of that persona are easier to identify with if you have a similar role in life. The horror genre is full of movies made by rebels, radical leftists, and anti-authoritarian types. The directors of 1970s horror films like John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing, and Assault on Precinct 13) and George Romero (Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies) have depicted states of anarchy in which zombies and infected humans have caused a society to respond with unrest. In this sense, horror is constrained by and trying to transgress the cultural mores of its time. This makes horror a genre that doesn’t always age well, but it is significant as a reaction to taboos and values. For example, a movie like The Exorcist won’t be frightening on an intellectual level to an atheist, but in a culture where many people are superstitious, it will be the most frightening movie they’ve ever seen.

    Much has been said about the preference for older or psychological horror movies. These movies are the most popular and are widely appreciation. Many horror movies are poorly made, have mundane and unintelligent stories and characters, and occasionally have nothing more to offer than the cheap thrill, whether it is a gory murder or gratuitous sex. These features have given the horror genre a reputation for being low-brow. Many people have criticized the so-called torture porn genre, in which there seems to be nothing more than elaborate and creative depictions of dismemberment and death. There is also the lack of education regarding science or a respect for logic in these movies. Many horror movies, like science fiction, have poor explanations for the event of the story. This has made many viewers watch a horror movie as if it’s an inconsistent mess that is meant to be mocked and laughed at. Clearly, there are many movies to avoid in the horror genre.

    I think my points have covered the most common analyses of horror not only in this discussion, but in academic interpretations and most reviews about horror movies. I will offer what I think are unique points that haven’t been mentioned. I apologize if this is verbose and long-winded, but I have a lot of thoughts about this subject. I’ll try to stick as close as possible to answering your questions as well.

    Since this discussion is on a website dedicated to science, I think it is relevant to mention the most scientifically literate movie-maker of the macabre, the Canadian director David Cronenberg. Thinking about his filmography is a great way to understand the fear and fascination with the grotesque. His most famous movies are Shivers (aka They Came From Within), the 1986 remake of The Fly, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, the book-to-movie adaptations of Naked Lunch and Ballard’s Crash, and more recently Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method. Before he started making movies, Cronenberg worked on a degree in Biochemistry, then changed to Literature. His biggest literary influences are Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs. As for his scientific knowledge, the best example I can give to represent it is an interview he gave for the making of his remake of The Fly. In the 1958 original, whenever the viewer is show a first-person perspective of the doctor–who has turned into an anthropomorphic fly–the entire image that the mutated doctor sees is represented in each hexagonal lens of a fly’s eye. Cronenberg phrased his critique of this depiction in the form of a question, “What is the evolutionary advantage of being able to see the world in this way?” It was the main reason he changed the morphological features of the Brundle Fly in his remake.

    This biological understanding has informed his style of movie-making from the 1970s and ’80s, which were branded ‘body horror’ and ‘venereal horror’ by reviewers. Characters in his movies experience both mental and physical transformation from a sexual, biological or technological influence–plastic surgery gone awry in Rabid, sexual arousal from a car crash in Crash, and offspring-as-manifestations of repressed rage in The Brood. The experience of the protagonists are presented in an ambiguous narrative, in which the difference between psychological changes, like hallucinations, and objectivity aren’t demarcated. There is an ambivalence about the events as well; Cronenberg doesn’t tell the audience his morality regarding the actions of the characters or the influences on their bodies and minds. For example, in my personal favorite movie he made, Videodrome, the protagonist Max Renn (played by the excellent James Woods) is the director of programming for a television channel that specializes in hard violence and soft-core pornography. While searching for the next big thing to broadcast, he becomes obsessed with what appears to be a real snuff video. He meets a masochistic DJ named Nicki Brand (played by Blondie’s Debbie Harry) who exacerbates his newfound interest in painful pleasure, only to find out there is something far more sinister and institutional going on with the snuff video. Most people would assume the movie is a cautionary tale about the effects of television, but Cronenberg clearly enjoys the medium and its use for depicting sensational and graphic content. During a televised interview about the repercussions of sexualized and violent media, Nicki Brand says, “I admit it, I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation” after she just said that she thinks it’s bad that society lives in a state of “overstimulated times.”

    For me, Cronenberg has combined all the best aspects of the horror genre into something that is unique and a style all his own. His interest in biology and technology inspired him to make bizarre and dark movies that were about sex and death. Though he is a bit hung-up on Freud, he added a tremendous amount of psychological depth to his movies compared to the average movie. He also turned down many opportunities to direct more conventionally supernatural horror movies because he “didn’t philosophically agree with them.” He describes himself as an existentialist atheist.

    Cronenberg has captured all my reasons for watching dark cinema; fear of death, the dread of mortality in a Universe with no purpose, and the anxiety and paranoia regarding the effects of new technologies and sexual intercourse. I think his movies would be appreciated by the people that visit this website. As a warning, they are graphic, intense, weird, and tend to piss off radical feminists.

    Enough about him! I want to counter the most common attitude featured in this discussion and in most ‘film’ criticism; that movies that depict murder, strong violence and torture have the least to offer, especially the so-called torture porn genre. Saw is the most popular example. For me, if I’m not watching a psychological horror movie, I will watch the non-supernatural and violent movies, which usually feature a killer. If a fear is the primary source for this preference, it is my fear of bodily injury and physical pain. It has been a reason why I don’t take part in sports, go to theme parks and didn’t get my driver’s license until I was in my mid-20s. That is why I’m a fan of movies like Hostel and movies from the recent French New Wave of Horror, such as Inside (À l’intérieur) and High Tension. I don’t believe in ghosts or the paranormal, so the best that supernatural horror movies can offer me is an atmospheric and stylistic experience. A movie like The Ring (2002) makes the familiar seem uncanny. Hallways, mirrors, a turn around the corner of a wall, or any other feature of a home or setting becomes a source of fear. I admire this ability of directors, but it has more to do with my nervous system responding to a temporary cinematic experience than with the lingering effects of a bigger idea, such as Max Renn’s psychological transformation in Videodrome or the pervasive sense of dread in Carpenter’s The Thing. I’m more affected by something that seems realistic, like a cannibalistic redneck family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre! Movies about vampires, werewolves and the occult rarely appeal to me, but I do enjoy several movies about zombies, like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead or Lucio Fulci’s Zombie.

    It turns out that one of the best horror movies of all time is lumped into the torture-porn genre. It is a French movie called Martyrs. It begins with a young girl named Lucie escaping from some kind of captivity. Later, she is being treated at an orphanage and has befriended a girl named Anna. Several years later, Lucie decides to take revenge on the people that held her in captivity. She carries out her plan with the help of Anna. Essentially, the movie starts off as a grim and violent revenge thriller, until all expectations are subverted. The director and writer, Pascal Laugier, masterfully weaves together conventions of the horror genre as a way to keep the audience in a constant state of surprise. This narrative device suits the themes of the movie well, which looks at various aspects of pain, from the personal to the social level. There is a strong emotional quality to this movie that makes all the violence and torture incredibly effective and meaningful. Despite the abundance of malice, nothing ever seems pointless. The psychological element is utilized to make the audience feel what the protagonists feel, which is far from pleasant. All of this builds up to a depiction of institutional evil and the extent to which people will harm others to gain an understanding of pain and see if there is an afterlife. According to Laugier, he was experiencing a debilitating depression before and during the making of Martyrs. It was his way of exorcising his demons and to express what he felt about evil in the world.

    Martyrs is one of the most intense, visceral, painful, and depressing movies I’ve ever seen, but every time I watch it I’m affected on a deep level with surprisingly positive results. It wrecks my nervous system, inundates me with melancholy, and makes me think about the worst imaginable pain, not just the kind I’ve felt before. It presents suffering, death, and evil in a way that no horror movie has done before and, to me, makes is a classic on the level of more conventionally ‘good’ movies that deal with similar subject matter, such as Saving Private Ryan.

    I think Martyrs is a good example of Carol J. Clover’s thesis in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film; the pleasures of horror movies don’t begin and end with vicarious sadism, but with aligning the audience’s interests with the plight of the suffering protagonists. Martyrs, like the typical slasher or a survivalist-horror movie like The Hills Have Eyes, asks the audience to take a perspective that makes them feel as if they’re the ones trying to rise above the fear, terror, and pain induced by an external or internal force. Usually horror movies have happier endings, like your standard ‘good vs. evil’ story. With Martyrs, and most of Cronenberg’s output, the audience doesn’t get that payoff, but it gives them the valuable experience of meditating on the darker side of life, such as indifference to suffering. It’s the cinematic analog to reading about the Imperial Japanese Army’s biological weapons experiments by Unit 731 or the Holocaust. You have to want to think of unpleasant realities for the sake of gaining a deeper insight about life. Of course, I prefer to have fun more often than not with a horror movie, so I’ll still watch an inane, B-level gore-fest like Dead Alive to laugh at absurd depictions of death and overblown acting.

    This is very long, so I’ll end it here. I hope this was helpful and that some perspectives have been challenged. I will give recommendations for horrific movies, not just horror movies:

    Irréversible,
    I Stand Alone,
    In a Glass Cage,
    Audition,
    American Psycho,
    Funny Games (1997),
    The Isle,
    In My Skin,
    Possession (1981),
    Antichrist,
    Trouble Every Day,
    Salo: 120 Days of Sodom

  23. In reply to #33 by Schopenhauer’s Poodle:

    Hello Poodle (that’s funny, the last time I said that was when I was introduced to Nick Clegg)

    The Beast With Five Fingers is available to watch gratis here

    I think I remember Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed for the scene in which the top of Freddie Jones’s head is sawed off and the sound effect that accompanied it. I did see the dreadful Hostel II but until I read your comment I hadn’t made the connection between the murder of Heather Matarazzo and the crimes of Elizabeth Báthory. Stupid of me.

    Another pretty good Hammer film is Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. It’s lent a certain verisimilitude by the casting of Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick, who bear a remarkable resemblance to each other.

    Night Monster doesn’t ring any bells, but if we’re talking early horror, James Whale’s The Old Dark House, made in the years between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and featuring many of the same cast, including Boris Karloff and one of my favourite actors, Ernest Thesiger, is a genuine classic. I prefer it to the overrated B of F.

    I’m glad you’ve managed to recover from the trauma (ooh, Trauma, that’s another good ‘un) of your early film experiences. In addition to BwFF, another supposedly innocuous movie that gave me many a sleepless night was Carry On Screaming. I was genuinely terrified by that film the first time I saw it. There’s a scene in which one of the monsters, Oddbod I think he was called, drowns some guy (Jon Pertwee possibly) by shoving him headfirst into a lavatory bowl and pulling the chain. Harmless yuks, and God knows the Brits love their toilet humour. But I’ve had a slight phobia of public conveniences ever since.

    I haven’t watched Theatre of Blood since that first time. Deliberately so. I do have a vague memory of Michael Hordern being stabbed repeatedly through thick plastic sheets by some scary-ass vagrants. There was a brief spate of British movies in the seventies which were basically all about coming up with horrible ways for the protagonists to meet their end.
    The Doctor Phibes duology springs to mind. Captain Mainwaring loses his head in one scene, I think; in another a guy in a frog mask is ratcheted to death “click… click… click”; someone else suffers death by protracted exsanguination.

    Every time I have the misfortune to be dragged to the cinema to bear witness to the latest abomination in the Final Destination or Saw franchise, I just think “Pffft. Amateurs. Get off your girly tricycle, Jigsaw, and show a bit of dignity. Vincent Price wouldn’t of been seen dead on one of them things.”

    I think I come down in the Argento camp. I love his movie Phenomena (aka Creepers), not least for the presence of a young and stunningly beautiful Jennifer Connolly.

    A few dishonorable mentions:

    Eyes Without a Face. The plot don’t make a lick of sense, but by God that movie is scary, stylish and atmospheric as flip.


    A French or perhaps Belgian short film in which some hapless guy becomes trapped inside a public telephone box. His situation goes from comic to horrific in no time at all. Phone boxes are a bit of a rarity these days, but I never let the door close all the way if I happen to go into one.


    Ringu. I know it’s been spoofed to death, but the scene where Sadako literally breaks the fourth wall and crawls out of the telly made me jump about a foot into the air the first time I saw it. The remake was pants.


    Bad horror movies in general. I bloody love the remake of 13 Ghosts even though I know it’s crap. Same goes for Ghost Ship and Arachnid. I enjoy worthy stuff such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby as much as the next person, but at heart I’m pretty shallow and I’d rather hear Captain Torchwood deliver this line or watch scenes like this one than sit through pretentious wankery like Antichrist for a second time.


    Apologies for the lateness of my reply. I’ve only just seen your response.

Leave a Reply