Last night, Paris was attacked: news organizations are reporting that French President François Hollande has identified the terroristic violence as an “act of war” perpetrated by ISIS.[i]
Like many, I was transfixed to the news last night, horrified by what was unfolding in France. I happened to be away from home, in upstate New York for the Ithaca International Fantastic Film Festival. And watching the news from Paris made me wonder why I was here. Why watch and write about films—especially horror films—when there’s so much horror happening in real life?
It’s a question I ask myself repeatedly—and no doubt will continue to ask. I do have some answers, though, answers grounded in the fact that horror has been one of the most enduring art forms. Humans, it seems, have needed to imagine horrors, and to turn real horrors into art, for almost as long as we’ve been around.
One reason why art-horror is so important is that it helps us manage what terrifies us. Some of the oldest Paleolithic cave paintings, for instance, in the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France, include not only the animals that were hunted for food, but also dangerous predators—lions, panthers, bears, and hyenas. When early humans created art, then, they drew not only what was important to their survival (potential food) but also what threatened their survival.
What threatens us has evolved, and we have more to worry about now than animal predators. But the need to express that threat in art persists—is intensified, I would argue, as what threatens us has itself intensified, become more complex. In What Evil Means to Us (Cornell Univ. Press, 1997) a book I encountered quite a few years ago and which remains one of those books I remember and keep coming back to, political scientist C. Fred Alford interviews groups of college students and incarcerated violent criminals to discern their understanding and experience of evil. He defines evil, as a result of these interviews, as the experience of dread (a universal experience) that some inflict on others. Art, Alford argues, is a crucial means to manage that dread, that experience of evil, precisely so we don’t enact it on the bodies of others: “It is the task of culture,” he writes, “to provide symbolic forms by which we may contain and express our evil in ways that do not inflict it on others” (12).
Stephen King famously made a similar argument, arguing that we crave horror movies because we all have dark desires—alligators swimming in the cellar of our psyche. Watching horror films “keeps the gators fed,” he wrote. Art allows, then, for a kind of cathartic expulsion of violent impulses, as well as the imaginative rendering of a dread (dread of existence, of mortality, of death) that we all experience.
I also remain a profound fan of horror films because they challenge normality, and all kinds of real acts of violence are rooted in overly dogmatic views of what “normality” should be. Violence is often coercive, insistent about bending others to one’s will, to one’s particular view of the world. Plenty of characters in horror films are like this—coercive, violent—and they are the monsters that express our dread and provide catharis.
But horror movies are also peopled with other kinds of “monsters”—characters who inhabit the borders of “normality,” who are literally (often) on the border of the human and something other. The films I’ve seen so far at the Ithaca International Fantastic Film Festival dramatically display this aspect of horror—in the animal-human hybrids of Men and Chicken (Anders Thomas Jensen, 2015), who harken back to the “freaks” of Tod Browning’s 1932 film. Or the half-dead, half-alive characters of Christian Hallman’s Sensoria (2015)—the living already partly dead, the dead who seem alive. These “monsters” constantly push at what we think is “normal,” expand our understanding of the human, making the category ever more capacious and consequently more forgiving.
The most recent film I watched at #IIFFF is I Like to Paint Monsters (Mike Correll), a documentary about former special FX artist and current “Dark Artist” Chet Zar, whose work is predicated on the healthiness of expressing guilt, anxiety, fear, and dread through art. Art gives us a venue to voice darkness, to talk about it, to bring it to light—exactly why Zar’s art manifests both darkness and light, pulling “imagery out of the abyss,” as someone eloquently puts it in the film.
So I guess I’ll keep on watching and writing about horror films—not least because of the profound truth of the words with which I Like to Paint Monsters begins: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious,” C. G. Jung.