Sunday, 6 November 2011

Things that go bump in the night

What’s this? A blog post? Madness, I know. Sorry for the lengthy hiatus, I’ve been busy either having fun or working and simply haven’t had the time to blog at all. The ironic thing is that in that last month or so we’ve had the brutal lynching of Gaddafi, cabinet ministers inviting friends along to confidential meetings and the European economy teetering on the brink of collapse because of massive debt accumulated by Greece. All in all, plenty to talk about if I’d managed to find the time. Unfortunately I didn’t find the time, although the Greek crisis is still happening, so I might say something about that next week. For now, I’m not really sure what to say about it.

While global politics is fun and all, last week was Halloween, and that is far more fun! I’ve always had a somewhat strained relationship with horror as a genre; while I really quite enjoy being scared by films, stories and even videogames, I’ve always found that many things simply do not scare me that much. I find that often the genre falls a little flat because the sole purpose of it is to unnerve the viewer/reader/player, rather than actually tell a story of any kind. The best horror almost always has an engaging story behind it that you can appreciate without having to have been especially scared by the rest of the stuff going on.

The reason I bring this up is that last weekend I watched two horror movies, firstly the original Wickerman (not the crap one with Nicholas Cage) and secondly, Antichrist, which might well be the scariest movie I have ever seen. I mentioned a few months ago that I watched Insidious and had been pretty effectively unsettled by it. Antichrist was by far worse. I think there are some fairly obvious reason why Antichrist was so terrifying, but also some far more subtle ones that are perhaps more telling.

I’ve long been a fan of Pseudopod, a weekly horror podcast that I’ve mentioned on this blog before. However I’ve never actually found the stories I listen to there scary per se. They’re often interesting, offer a fascinating insight into the human condition and take a revealing look at the darker side of culture and humanity, but they’re not necessarily all that scary. In fact, I often find that I’m more scared by the flash fiction stories that by the longer ones, possibly because they are far more punchy and to the point. I think that main issue is that the stories are purely in audio form. Horror tends to be very visual. I find it is images or scenes that most get into my head and affect me, so purely written or oral stories tend not to stick in my head and really get to me in the same way. I have to imagine the scenes, rather than seeing them, which makes it less effective. Shorter stories work better, perhaps, because I have less time to rationalise my perception of the scenes described. In fact, the most effective story I’ve heard on Pseudopod comes from Episode 203; Flash on the Borderlands IV, the third story in that episode, ‘Is this a Horror Story?’ is incredibly simply, conceptually, and probably more effective because of it.

I think the main reason why I tend not to get all that scared by horror in general, in any media, is that, for the most part, horror is simply not done all that well; having said that, it must be admitted that horror is very hard to do well. It is all too easy to overplay things like shock-horror, where things jump out and surprise you, which is not so much horror as simple shock, or gore horror, where the screen is filled the blood and gore and explicit depictions of visceral mutilation, which is not so much horror as faintly disgusting. There is nothing wrong with either of these things per se, but they must be used with extreme caution and in small doses. Indeed, Antichrist uses both shock and gore horror to great effect, because it’s used sparingly.

Two of the most effective scenes in Antichrist are the ones in which the female lead first breaks her husband’s penis with a wooden block and later cuts her own clitoris off. More graphic, you will not find. The thing that makes these scenes most effective, leaving aside the sheer horribleness of the acts themselves, is that these are the only two visceral scenes in the movie. There is scary, unpleasant and fairly graphic imagery elsewhere, but in terms of gore, that’s it. They stand out as by far the most visually unpleasant scene in the movie. The placement of these scenes is also very important. They occur at the beginning and the end of the third act; the dramatic climax of the film where all the threads running through the story come to a head. The gore in this case is very carefully designed to highlight the most dramatically significant scenes in the movie. This can be starkly contrasted with movies like Saw, in which gore is such a common, almost constant feature, that is loses all effect. We become dulled to the effects of gore because it happens all the time. Nothing stands out as important because there’s simply too much of it.

The scene of genital mutilation were not, however, the ones that stayed with me and have, in some senses, been haunting me all week. They were horrific at the time, but they soon fade. The thing about horror that makes it so scary is that it is often so close to reality. Even the great monsters of Gothic Horror are frighteningly human. Vampires, zombies, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, Mr Hyde and the like are all humans plus, or humans minus. The best horror does not happen in far-away fantasy worlds, or far-away places, disassociated in place and time from us, it happens in our back garden, just to the left of our world, in place that is haunting because it is so familiar and yet ever so slightly off. Antichrist takes place in just such a place; a place familiar enough that we can believe it, but different enough that it terrifies us.

The most haunting scenes in antichrist, then, are the subtle ones. The ones that you barely notice. Throughout the last third of the movie or so, it is slowly revealed that the female protagonist was already going insane, long before the events shown. The way this is revealed is particularly frightening, because it is so subtle. The male protagonist points out to his wife that their child’s shoes are on the wrong way round in a picture. She dismisses it as a slip of the mind that day. The next scene is the husband flipping through a collection of photos from the same album. In every one, the child’s shoes are on the wrong way round. Compared with genital mutilation, it may not appear to be much, but it’s a sequence that has stuck with me all week. It’s so subtle, so easy to miss – indeed the photos are shown to the viewer earlier in the film and there’s no way you could pick up on it – and yet such a terrifying thing when you explore the implications, both for the child and for the mental constitution of the mother.

I always find it interesting to watch people’s reactions to horror. Of course, there’s the covering of eyes, the squirms and noises of disgust; all the things you might expect. What you don’t always expect is the laughter. There is an odd link between horror and comedy, namely that it is very difficult to understand why we react in the way we do to each of them. Sure, there are some concepts that are funny or horrifying; we can understand why a joke is funny on some level, just as we can understand why a scene or concept is horrifying on some level. However so much of both are about delivery. A concept could be funny, or horrifying, but delivered so badly that it stops being funny or horrifying, indeed, sometimes it goes from being horrifying to being funny. I mentioned at the start of this blog that I also watched the original Wickerman, I’ve not really mentioned it because Antichrist is a much more effective example. However I mention it now because of the hilariously awful remake from 2006, which has been characterised by many as an unintentional comedy because it’s just done that badly that it is actually funny.

Comedy and horror, laughter and revulsion are gut reactions. We laugh before we’re realised why, we recoil in fright before we realise it’s scary. It’s impossible to rationalise comedy and horror because they both appeal to something that goes beyond our rationality and touches something purely instinctive. For horror, in particular, this can be scary in itself. No matter how much we rationalise something, it does not lose its effect because horror is, in itself, irrational. It’s an instinctive reaction to that which frightens us. This is part of what makes horror so difficult to pull off; you have to understand something that is completely irrational and work out a way to touch that nerve. It’s very hard to create something that will not only reach into the depths of people’s consciousness and terrify them once, but will do it again and again every time they think about it.