The Guardian’s “Comment is Free” on Horror Movies

mod 130419_0008I was surfing the Internet just now, looking for websites where I can comment, and came across The Guardian’s “Comment is Free” section filtered down to their comments on horror movies (   They seem to produce an article on horror films about every 5-10 months, but the articles are interesting and are worth checking out for a different perspective than what one usually encounters (at least in the articles I read).   The two articles I read today from The Guardian are “Why Zombies are the Coldest Comfort” by Catherine Shoard and “Why the Human Centipede II bugs me” by Sarah Ditum.  Unfortunately, the replies for both were closed, so I will state my opinions here.

As a novice writer of horror and as someone who has read a considerable amount of what might be termed “classic horror tales” back to its beginnings as a genre, Shoard’s article puzzles me.  She seems to take the viewpoint that what makes a horror movie enjoyable is that we can feel safe while watching it.  She states near the beginning of her article:

Zombies are a threat it’s easy to rationalise. They are unlikely. For this reason, plus issues with speed and intelligence, they are not especially scary. They are essentially a pest control problem with metaphor potential. Even squirrels run quicker… So their presence as a backdrop in a soap such as The Walking Dead provides just the right boost in tension for viewers to convince themselves they’re a long way from Emmerdale (or whatever the Mexican equivalent might be). The Walking Dead is a show that – like Pret a Manger – innovates exactly the right amount within a set formula.

Later, she adds:

More even than with comedy, the director encourages the audience into a specific response; if they don’t elicit it, they have failed. So those who are best at scaring us also make us feel we’re in a safe pair of hands.

And then there’s her conclusion:

Life is frightening. Horror works because it gives us something quantifiable to battle: you know where you are with a zombie.

It seems that Ms. Shoard is saying that the reason we can enjoy zombie movies is because we can feel safe in watching them, because zombies obviously don’t exist and are therefore not a threat and because we are so far removed from them.   The second statement is perplexing as well when she states “that those who are best at scaring us also make us feel we’re in a safe pair of hands.”

Ms. Shoard doesn’t seem to understand that one of the basic principles of horror according to H.P. Lovecraft, a universally recognized master of horror of the last 200 years is “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”   This is a consistent theme in the horror genre since the days Horace Walpole and the beginnings of the gothic novel.  What makes for great horror is a blending of suspense and fear.  A writer of horror, be it short story or novel or a movie, does not want his audience to feel safe.  He wants them to feel that if they put down the book and walk out of the building, they may be snatched up by Cthulhu or encounter their former neighbors rising from their graves with a ravenous hunger for the living.  It’s been a long time since I have read an article this inane.  I hope it is a long time before I read another.

I will agree with her on one point:  more than with comedy, the director does encourage the audience into a specific response and if they don’t elicit it, they have failed. However, Ms. Shoard doesn’t seem to know what that response is or how to go about achieving it.

I could go on deconstructing this article ad nauseum and reducing it ad absurdam, but I have better things to do with my morning than to antagonize Ms. Shoard.  I have nothing against her personally; I just find her opinion in this instance to be off-base and out of touch with the basics of the horror genre.

The second article I read was Sarah Ditum’s “Why the Human Centipede II bugs me”.  The teaser to this article sums up the paradox Ms. Ditums explores nicely:

The horror-porn sequel dampens my anti-censorship urges, but banning such films risks losing more intelligent offerings.

I could go into an extensive examination of this article line by line, but, as much as I would love to do that, as I said earlier I have other things I have to accomplish today.  However, I encourage everyone with an interest in or an opinion on the extremes of gore and bad taste in horror films today to read this article.  It is quite well-written and it does a good job of getting to the essence of the problem:  yes, there are films out there today that are so vile and repulsive that we would be better off to ban them for the good of society, but by limiting what is available to the public, we run the risk of losing more intelligent fare that has to deal with these issues.

Personally, I have never seen any of the human centipede films, because the concept is so obscene that I cannot bring myself to watch them and I cannot see any reward or point in forcing myself to do so.  As anyone who reads my blog with any regularity  knows, I am not a fan of gore for its own sake and I am not a fan of anything tasteless.  A lot of people would probably see a vague hypocrisy in this, but those people are ones who perceive horror only as sensationalist, teenage slasher films and do not have a profound knowledge of its history and of its breadth or of the underlying, eternal principles of great horror as in the quotation above from Lovecraft.   But that is my taste in what I feed to my mind via my eyes.   I will not apologize for it, because I have nothing for which to apologize.

Contemplating what I said in the previous paragraph brings me to another interesting perspective.  Perhaps examining the wide range of opinions and viewpoints on this controversial topic reveals something about human psychology.  I am not sure of what that would be, but I am sure it would make for an interesting thesis for someone’s Master’s degree.  A line and motif from one of my favorite TV shows of all time, “Millennium” (starring Lance Henriksen, ran from about 1998-2000) is “This is who we are.”  Somehow, thinking about the ongoing discussion on this controversial topic, I get a subjective feeling that, for better or worse, this is who we are.

The bottom line for this portion of today’s blog is that I find myself of the same viewpoint as Ms. Ditum and I encourage everyone to read her article, whatever your viewpoint on gore in modern cinema (whether of the horror genre or not).  It may just broaden your perspective.

Thoughts?  Comments?