For the love of horror: a tribute to the horror film genre
I honor Halloween more than most holidays. The horror, thrilling and gory genres across movies, television shows, books and other forms of storytelling have provided me an outlet since childhood to dissect some of my most isolating and terrifying moments better than any other commemorative day or cinematic medium. Nevertheless, I regularly struggle with the available content I consume. I have never really wanted to dwell on it prior to this, because I do find it strange to enjoy Ryan Murphy’s gruesome “American Horror Story” as often as I do. To make myself feel better on rough days, it is normal for me to sink into the gore of “The Walking Dead.” For fun or introspection, I watch shows or films that come wrapped in titles like “Evil,” “Get Out” and “Hereditary” with daunting, foreboding advertisement posters of gloomy heads plastered over foggy skies or darkened rooms. On nights I cannot sleep, my partner often finds me dozing off to the ghouls of “The Haunting of Bly Manor” or finding solace in the vampirical frights of “The Frankenstein Chronicles” or “Penny Dreadful.” I am uncomfortable at how it comforts me to escape through characters’ gruesome tales of doom, with inconceivably harrowing endings and no relief in sight. In what universe would these tales comfort such an anxious heart? What does that say about me as a person? Am I simply an adrenaline junkie, or am I the “twisted” one?
At some point while watching an episode of “Ratched” this past year, I found clarity with the extent to which characters of horror dramas resonated with me. Sarah Paulson’s queer depiction of Nurse Ratched had hit a turning point in the show’s plot, finding herself at a crossroads of choosing to either live openly or continue to hide her sexuality and queer relationship from the heteronormative violence of the hospital where she worked. Amid the show’s ghastliness surrounding the tension of this challenge, complete with other concurrent gore and terror typical of the genre, Nurse Ratched explores the collective emotions of each of these horrors, though she never really flinches from seeking their resolution.
And then it clicked. It is not about the gore or even the terror or thrill for me. Rather, I realized that to respect and explore the dreariness, the dark and the terrifying around me is both to accept a heavy part of life and create room for its unpacking. Like a good Halloween celebration, I adore a unique horror movie or show that takes me out of my own world and thrusts me into different storylines and caricatures of survival. It is within these spaces and times of both celebrative as well as cinematic or gameplay horror where I am best able to decompress along with my own nightmares, and to explore and decipher both the real and fantastical gore and terror that frightens many of us. For me, the more unsettling the stories, the better. Watching Michonne conquer both the perils of an ongoing zombie threat and the complications of leading hoards of people in creating an entirely new city and community in apocalyptic circumstances is a different kind of empowering. Seeing Jamie and Dani find some semblance of happiness in a loving queer relationship after enduring a slew of hauntings from the ghosts of their pasts is more than gratifying.
For queer people, women, non-white viewers and others, survival often looks a lot less “safe” and “kid-friendly” than most mainstream viewership and television ratings would pay attention to, much less promote. We are regularly forced to both imagine and pursue our survival — both real and imaginary — outside of normative, safe or mainstream parameters. Unfortunately, that survival often looks bloody, hits hard and fast and feels excruciatingly terrifying. Horror can feel close to home; the unraveling of a thrilling plot can provoke a therapeutic processing of real-life traumas. This is not to say iterations of the genre don’t still get it wrong at times – the aforementioned shows included – and play into offensive stereotypes and illusions like any other kind of cinema. Horror television and gaming often miss the mark as much as any genre in honoring respectful representation across identities of race, sexuality and gender, and we need more diverse depictions within those intersections of identity than we have now. But responsible horror television can provide an honest outlet to feel the very real and systemic pains wrought on these identities in a creative environment that embraces those dubbed as “other”: an outlet that prioritizes the heaviest emotions, shocking images and hard truths of marginalized life that are otherwise erased or watered down in entertainment for others’ comfort. I find sanctuary in stories and atmospheres that are honest about evil and trauma.These are explorative spaces where I can imagine triumph for the oppressed amid these very real terrors. It is a space where the “weird” can be strange, and it can be a universe in which the marginalized are allowed to fight for their own survival while overcoming the most gruesome horrors the human mind can imagine.
For some viewers, horror cinema, much like Halloween, offers room to become or perceive someone or something else: a small escape from expected stereotypes and performances and a reprieve from the experience of being ostracized in the worlds they are told they must inhabit. I find while watching things like “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “Midnight Gospel” that I am offered a mirror into what people might be capable of surviving and enduring, no matter how grisly the circumstances. And more than that, the best ones present a picture of what life could be like after the “hell” is conquered, for all of us.
I sometimes yearn for a day when my thrill-seeking and methods of processing my traumas and lived experiences might be satisfied by tamer Halloween idols such as pumpkin patches, and less so by gruesome representations of the worst of human terror or the horrors of marginalization. But for now, I must find some comfort in depictions of unbridled outcasts persevering amid the ghosts and gore.