I’ve always had a fascination with horror movies. In fact, one of the first things that piqued my interest in filmmaking was reading about legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce, Lon Chaney, Jr., Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and the Universal monster movies. (The book pictured here was one of my favorites.) Long before I’d seen any of the films, I knew far more about movie monster makeup and effects than any six-year-old probably should.
That’s one of the many reasons why playing Lex Luthor on an episode of Smallville was a dream come true. Not only can I say I’m one of only eight actors ever to portray the villain on film and television (and fans are united on that fact that my performance ranks a solid 8th), prepping for the role involved spending hours in a makeup chair as two artists transformed my body into a burn victim from the waist up. In a small way, I got to live out everything I had dreamed about as a kid.
While I still enjoy a good scare, these days my interest in horror films has taken more of a philosophical/theological turn. Ever since I received my first commission to co-write a horror film back in 2007 (it was never produced and never will be produced), I’ve become a student of the genre, seeking to discover what makes horror films work. As I studied film after film in the “teen horror” genre, starting with A Nightmare on Elm Street (one of my faves) and ending with Pulse, I discerned an underlying structure that all of these films tended to follow, whether wittingly or not. With the exception of The Ring, which is the exception that proves the rule, I found that the closer the films stuck to the underlying structure, the more effective they were.
That may be surprising, considering the value we place upon novelty today. However, in the arts, innovation was somewhat of a dirty word prior to the 20th century. Instead, emphasis was placed upon imitating past masters. And for good reason, I think, because I view the structure of stories or other works of art as a byproduct of their function, and it’s likely that past masters intuitively discerned this function and then created their art accordingly. For example, virtually all stories follow a three-act structure. As I teach in my screenwriting classes, this isn’t an arbitrary detail. It is a necessary byproduct of story’s function as a moral argument about a theme, complete with thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The closer a story adheres to this structure–even if presented in a non-linear fashion–the more effective the story will be.
One shouldn’t mistake this to mean the closer stories adhere to this structure the more similar they will be. Rather, this simple structure is the source of limitless variety, similar to the rather simple process that creates an endless variety of snowflakes. All snowflakes begin when a water droplet freezes onto a dust particle in the atmosphere, forming a six-sided crystal (which is determined by the internal structure of water molecules). However, the final shape a snowflake takes will be a product of the altitude and the temperature at which the crystal forms, the air humidity and the atmospheric conditions the snowflake encounters as it falls. Because no two snowflakes experience exactly the same atmospheric conditions, no two snowflakes are alike.
In the same way, all stories begin as a moral argument about a theme. Two or more characters disagree about love, freedom, justice or truth. This brings them into conflict with each other, and the resultant story is the outworking of this conflict, either for good or ill. Just as all snowflakes begin high in the atmosphere but eventually reach the ground, all moral arguments eventually come to a resolution. But the path they follow between those two points is infinitely variable, because no two stories arise within exactly the same context.
Adherence to a common structure is one thing. However, what also struck me as I studied horror films was obsession with similar subject matter during certain periods of time. As many have observed, the spate of monster movies in the 1950s and 1960s represented our anxiety about technology, particularly nuclear weapons. In the 1970s and early 1980s, we continued to see monster movies and even vampire and werewolf films. But the cutting edge was represented by films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining, Poltergeist and other tales where the banality of middle class life is invaded by a vestige of archaic evil. I interpret this as a reaction to the rampant secularization of American society, which was also happening at the time, as if we were afraid the spiritual forces we were currently eradicating from our society might rise up and reassert themselves in horrific ways. In that sense, perhaps these films prophesied the rise in religious fundamentalism, which has created many horror stories throughout the last two decades.
The teen horror films I studied back in 2007 seemed to be more concerned with guilt over the breakdown of the traditional family unit. In film after film, the sins of the parents were being visited upon their children through characters like Freddy Krueger. And when the children cried out for help, the adults were so embroiled in relational discord they failed to heed the warning, leaving the kids to fight the evil on their own. An emblematic moment from the Lost Boys, one of my favorite 1980s horror films, comes from Sam Emerson (Corey Haim). After unsuccessfully attempting to alert his mother that vampires have infiltrated the fictional town of Santa Carla, he skids up on his bike and tells his vampire-fighting friend, the Frog brothers, “Guys, we’re on our own.” To which Edgar Frog replies, “Good, just the way we like it.” To me, it sounded like the statement of a generation.
These days are rather unique in that most of the monsters who scared us in the past–zombies, vampires, werewolves, etc.–have been all but domesticated through movies like the Twilight series or TV shows like True Blood and The Walking Dead. If you’ve been watching the latter series lately, you’ll note that zombies, which were the source of terror in the first season, have now been reduced to a minor annoyance in comparison to the true object of fear–other humans.
The question is, where do we go from here? I find it interesting to observe attempts to revive previous sub-genres, such as the remake of Sam Raimi’s “cabin movie” horror classic The Evil Dead. The same goes for Paranormal Activity and Sinister, which, like Poltergeist, play off the idea of supernatural evil infiltrating the banality of suburbia. While I find these films entertaining, and all of them have been quite profitable, I’m doubtful that they have much of a future, because they hearken back to a context that no longer exists. Rather than resonate with current anxieties, they merely seek to resuscitate past fears.
Which brings me back to two things: The Walking Dead and Jared Diamond’s excellent book Guns, Germs and Steel. I happen to be reading/watching both right now. What struck me last night as I read Diamond’s account of various germ outbreaks through the ages was how horrifying it must have been to experience such epidemics. With no idea what was causing the disease or how to cure it, the best you could do was hope and pray you somehow survived. Anxiety about technology is one thing. But anxiety without even the illusion of control that technology brings is something else altogether. With one in four people dying from the bubonic plague, no wonder people resorted to tactics like witch hunts to help stem the spread of the disease. People could be driven to do almost anything in the face of such horrors.
I guess it was fitting I read that chapter right after getting my weekly fix of The Walking Dead, which depicts humankind in essentially the same situation. The one advantage Rick Grimes and co. have over people who lived during the bubonic plague is knowing how the disease is transmitted–through being bitten by a zombie. And to this point, they still have the vestiges of civilization–such as guns, vehicles and buildings–to help them mitigate the crisis. But what happens when the last remnants of that civilization run out? The humans are still essentially in survival mode with no time to innovate or create. The best they can do is appropriate. But as scarce resources run out, what emerges as the true horror is the transformation of apparently normal people into the worst of monsters, such as the Governor.
So perhaps by domesticating the zombie, the creators of The Walking Dead have inadvertently stumbled upon the new cutting edge of horror. It’s no longer a supernatural or extra-terrestrial invasion or any sort of “evil other.” The true horror is literally the “man/woman in the mirror,” or rather, what the man/woman in the mirror becomes when the vestiges of technology and civilization are no longer able to mask the evil that lurks within. I can see Thomas Hobbes nodding sagely in agreement and saying something like, ” During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.” Admittedly, this same dynamic is hinted at in George Romero’s zombie films, going back to 1968. But those films have always existed on the fringe. The Walking Dead is currently the number one cable network show in the United States, drawing over 11 million viewers per week. So what used to lurk in the background has finally stumbled out into the light.
This seems like a fitting diagnosis when you consider the Doomsday Prepper phenomenon and the explosion of gun sales in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting and similar recent tragedies. With most of the 20th century and early 21st century bogeymen dead, and with countries from Cyprus to the United States lurching around like an economic version of a zombie extra on The Walking Dead, we have no one left to fear but ourselves–or what we will become when everything we’ve used to inoculate ourselves against our own violence finally melts away.
It’s a grim notion to consider, but if I were working in the horror genre, it’s certainly the direction I would be looking right now.