Remember when we were kids, and life used to scare the pants off us? Remember being so afraid of the dark, so terrified of that long walk through the trees in the dusk? I had a childhood friend who, after visiting us, would run home across the yards, terrified that ghosts were closing in behind him. The fact that we would yell and describe in detail the demons chasing him, of course, made him run all that much faster.
But then we grew up, and learned the dark was just that stuff that took over when we turned out the lights. As we got older, things seemed to lose their mystery, and their menace, too. Frankly, a home foreclosure at this point may be scarier than a home intruder.
Well, okay, maybe not. But I make movies, and I’m soon to make a horror film (The Mourning Portrait), which I must confess I’m somewhat ambivalent about. Horror movies, as fun as they are, seem to be akin to roller coaster rides — they give us a vicarious thrill, a sense of death and danger even in complete safety. Which is cool, if you need that sort of thing.
But lately, nobody I know needs that sort of thing. Death is always near (just ask Brittany Murphy or Vic Chesnutt), and to be ‘playfully’ reminded of that fact seems a bit odd. If you need to be playfully reminded of death, you may not be fully alive — especially in this delicate day and age. I have a feeling people involved in workplace shootings and violent car-jackings aren’t renting Drag Me To Hell lately.
For people who have active imaginations, like I do, horror movies can be pretty rough. We tend to see things that aren’t there. When I’m in the shower with a head full of suds, sometimes its all I can do not to open my eyes to catch the long-haired girl from The Grudge standing there staring at me. Do you know what I mean? Is this fun, or truly unpleasant?
I recently read Stephen King’s Everything’s Eventual, and the story The Road Virus Heads North is just awful. Maybe in a good way, sure, but it still hasn’t left my head. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? (On the other hand, King’s terrifying and oddly ageless story The Man in the Black Suit is scary and enhancing in all the right ways.)
I like a good scare myself, but in the end, I don’t go see too many horror movies. The fact that most of them are poorly made is only part of the reason. The other part is that I don’t need to be reminded that death is always around the corner. I see it on the news. I see it in our city streets. And of course, I’m delighted to be lucky enough to make a good horror movie, and you can be damn sure that I’ll do my best to make it as memorable as possible. At the same time, though, I’ll try to make it as meaningful as possible — to give the audience something to take home besides a simple thrill ride.
There’s been lots of talk about how the horror moves of the 70’s — The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, The Omen — are a sort of response to Vietnam and Watergate and so on. That may be true, but I doubt many Vietnam vets are cheering to zombies being blown away. They don’t need that vicarious thrill — they lived it. And are most likely trying to forget it.
What I do know is that, as I get older, I’m more interested in meaning, and less in vicarious thrills. I want to enrich, not to deplete. Life is delicate, not cheap.
But maybe that’s just me.