Partaking in the long tradition of reading ghost stories at Christmas, I’ve recently been immersed in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century supernatural tales of M. R. James. One of my favorites is “Casting the Runes,” published in 1911, about a strangely cursed parchment of runic characters that occultist Karswell passes to his enemies and rivals, ensuring their death in three months unless they are able to pass the paper on. (The central plot device really reminded me of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring—but that’s another post!)
James’s “Casting the Runes” has been adapted for television on several occasions, but it was, most famously, made into a 1957 film directed by Jacques Tourneur, called The Night of the Demon (in the UK) and The Curse of the Demon (in the US, where a shortened version was released). The film is flawed, to be sure, but it has some wonderful moments, including two scenes (one of which opens the film) shot at Stonehenge—a Stonehenge before all the barricades, parking lots, gift shops, and tourists.What The Curse of the Demon also does, beneath often rather clanky plot machinery (séances and hypnotic experiments), is to try to represent a timeless evil, something that is an essential, persistent core of the horror film. This effort of Curse of the Demon is made all the clearer by a moment that strikingly evokes one of the classic sci-fi horror films of the 1950s, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). These similar and yet profoundly different scenes illuminate what I think is a crucial difference between science fiction and horror, two often proximate genres—especially in the 1950s.
At one moment in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, two paleontologists show a traumatized witness of the Beast’s attack a series of drawings of dinosaurs. Shuffling through drawing after drawing all different, all with their distinctive scientific names, the witness finally identifies one as the terrifying creature he saw, a creature that the paleontologists identify as “Rhedosaurus,” a species supposed, of course, to be extinct.
In The Curse of the Demon, there is a similar scene in which characters look through drawings—but in this case, the point of the drawings is their similarity, not their scientifically categorized distinctiveness. Again, there is a traumatized witness, but instead of his merely looking at drawings of “real” creatures, he actually created a picture of what he saw while under hypnosis, one with an uncanny resemblance to pictures that have, throughout human history, embodied a “fire demon evoked by witchcraft to destroy an enemy.” As one of the psychologists explains, the legend of the fire demon has “persisted through civilization after civilization”—including Babylonian, Persian, and Hebraic.
Tourneur added his own rendering of the fire demon to this unearthly lineage—and what all these similar creations suggest is that evil persists, materializing in similar form from century to century. This is not the domain of science (nor science fiction), which is interested in categorizing and containing—and, indeed, the Beast is destroyed at the end of its film. Tourneur’s film delivers us instead to the realm of horror, where evil cannot be laid to rest and where we are drawn in, as necessary spectators, to its continual resurgence. And the demon is not banished at the end of Tourneur’s film. It remains, awaiting its next incarnation. The inclusion of haunting scenes shot at Stonehenge only serve to offer more visual evidence of the archaic nature of evil.
In his 1981 essay, “The Mummy’s Pool,” film scholar Bruce Kawin brilliantly elucidates some of the key differences between science fiction and horror. Posing The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) as the “science fiction” film opposed to the “horror” film, The Thing from Another World (1951), Kawin argues that in science fiction, there is an opening up to the unknown, to the “potential value of the inhuman”—a belief in the possibility and importance of communicating with the inhuman and the alien. In horror, on the other hand, there is no opening up to the inhuman but only efforts to exterminate it. As Kawin puts it, horror “emphasizes the dread of knowing, the danger of curiosity” and pushes always toward the destruction of the inhuman, toward restoring the status quo. Kawin implicitly favors the agenda of science fiction here, with its openness, its belief in curiosity and communication, in reaching across barriers.[i]
What Kawin doesn’t mention, though, is the existence of evil in the horror film: indeed, in my view, the horror film serves as one of the last remaining sites for the exploration of evil, of the fact that it exists. When confronted with evil, the response that makes sense is precisely what we see dramatized in the horror film—a reaction of dread and fear that precipitates the effort to expel or destroy or at least flee the evil force. Of course, the problem lies in knowing what is truly “evil” rather than merely the manifestation of our own fears. But, as I said, that’s what the horror film is all about—and why it’s so important.
[i][i] Bruce Kawin, “The Mummy’s Pool,” in Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, ed. By Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2004).