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Byrd: A celebration of horror

BY MATTHEW BYRD | OCTOBER 31, 2013 5:00 AM

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I’m sitting in my room; it’s pitch black except for glow of the television screen. On that screen lies a grotesque monster, tan, naked, with eyes on his hands, and mouth full of blood and razor sharp teeth. As he chases a small girl down a hallway my body begins to tighten up, as if going into rigor mortis. The little girl attempts to escape through a door. The monster reaches for her leg. I scream.

Horror films, with maybe the exception of comedy, are the most primal genre of film. It taps into one of humanity’s most base emotions — fear. The same instinct that made early humans afraid of what lied beyond the cave makes me scream at totally fictitious cinematic monster. The primality of horror is what makes it so essential for our culture to have.

Horror is first and foremost a thrill. This is important to understand because on a logical level it doesn’t make sense to watch horror films. Why would we subject ourselves to scenes and stories that play out our deepest fears and anxieties? We do it because it is fun, because it makes us happy. After I screamed at the monster on my TV screen I laughed a little, partially at the ridiculousness of screaming at something that poses no credible threat to my own well being, but also because it was thrilling being scared, I felt alive.

Now, this thrill is very important because it allows us to live. If we just went through life avoiding our fears, repressing all everything that frightens and terrifies us, we would live a paranoid existence. Horror provides a playground for people to experience their anxieties in an environment that doesn’t harm them. Allowing our fears to be played out in a safe environment helps to a) dismantle some of the more negative effects these fears can have on us and b) transform our fears into satisfying entertainment.

The genre of horror also has a tremendously positive effect on the society as a whole because of the role of allegory. Horror can use the distance it has from reality, by its very nature of exaggerating common fears and anxieties, in order to make powerful comments on the society it inhabits.

This practice has been seen in countless horror films. The Thing From Another World, a 1951 sci-fi horror film concerning the unearthing of a malevolent alien being in the Arctic by a team of scientists, showcased post-Hiroshima distrust of the scientific community. Invasion of the Body Snatchers used the paranoia of whether a person was infected by the “body snatching” aliens to showcase the paranoia of McCarthyism. Pan’s Labyrinth, the film that terrified me a few paragraphs ago, combines a girl’s voyage into a fantastical world of fauns and magic with the horrors of fascist Spain to examine the role that fantasy and escapism plays in outrunning the horrors humanity inflicts upon itself.

The practice of allegory that these films employ is extremely important, as it creates an atmosphere where socio-political themes and arguments can be made and analyzed in the realm of entertainment, a realm that has a much more far-reaching impact than straight political polemics ever will.

It is quite obvious that horror if an indispensible part of our popular culture. It seems that if we couldn’t scream, we couldn’t breathe.


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