A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Why I Can't Watch Horror Movies

Recently M and I tried to watch The League of Gentlemen.  I say we "tried" to watch it not because it isn't good but rather because it does what it does so well that M and I are so discomfited by its blend of comedy, tragedy, and horror that we can hardly stand to watch.  At the end of episode two, M picked up the remote and said, "Well?  Carry on?  Or no?"

"Uuuhh," I said, the very picture of eloquence.  "It's like I want to know, but I don't want to see."

That is how I often feel about horror, or at least about horror that professes to have something to it other than being just a fright-fest or a bloodbath.  Things like Psycho and The Shining hold a certain fascination for me, though I will not watch them, while the Saw films, for instance, do not interest me in the slightest.  About Psycho, I think maybe I would like to know, provided I do not have to see.  I do not even want to know when it comes to Saw.

Because, you see, I am missing whatever gene or synaptic pathway or cultural proclivity it is that makes so many people like horror movies.  I have heard the theories: that they release tensions.  That they allow us to experience fears safely.  Sounds good, I guess.  I can buy that this is true for some people.  I can even understand a certain amount of gleeful delight in the gruesome.  But here's the thing: I don't like to be scared.  I don't like anticipating being scared.  I don't like the moment the scare happens.  And I really don't like trying to fall asleep the night after the scare when I can't get the scary image out of my head.  Horror movies don't release any tension for me; they create new tensions, tensions that pop into my mind unlooked for in the night, days, weeks, sometimes years, later.  A friend and I mainlined the first season of Supernatural on DVD a few years ago.  I was wary of the effect all those ghosts and monsters and demons would have on me, but there was so much good stuff going on there aside from the horror and I wanted to know.  I should have known better.  I still have nightmares.

Part of the problem is that I respond to the wrong bits.  Or that I respond to the right bits wrongly.  An early scene in The League of Gentlemen sees a young hiker wander into a shop in the village of Royston Vasey and there be accosted by the shop owners' xenophobia and general creepy wackiness.  And the scene is hilarious.  (Two catch phrases stemming from this scene--"Are you local?" and "Don't touch the precious things!"--have become part of our household lexicon, despite our giving up on the show.)  But the scene ends ominously, and we discover later that the shop owners have killed the hiker and burned his body.  (My brain insists that they've also eaten him, but I don't think there's actually anything in the episode to suggest this).  Aside from being fairly well creeped out by this revelation (I think that was probably intended), I'm also let down that a character who was introduced early and seemed important has been dispensed with so summarily.  I was settling in with him, dammit!  I was preparing to get to know him, and now he's just gone.  This sort of reaction I am not at all sure was intended.  And it is this desire to see the show do things I do not think the show has any interest in doing that disinclines me toward watching it, more than the creepiness.  I am uneasy that I will become invested in characters who will never see resolution, that I will see things that require a catharsis that the show will never offer.  This is almost certainly an unfair judgement of a show of which I have seen only two episodes, but the fear of these outcomes is enough to make me wary of watching any more.  

Something we have been successfully watching is Northern Exposure, which the Netflix sleeve for The League of Gentlemen (un)helpfully compares to LoG.  (Who writes those Netflix sleeves anyway?  They seem always to be comically wrong or hopelessly inane.) If I squint, I can see a vague kinship between the two (both involve an isolated town with zany local residents who have unusual attitudes toward the macabre, and both are comedic), but their tones are so resoundingly different.  While watching The League of Gentlemen, I began to feel like I could lose my grip on reality at any moment, and that if I did, I would find myself in a dark chaos, perhaps in the company of an evil clown.  Northern Exposure often provides the same sense of reality coming unglued, but with NE I feel that if I were to let it, what I would find would be enlightenment, or perhaps the face of God.

I suppose the bottom line is that if I'm going to be led into darkness, I want to be able to trust that I'm going to be led out again.  And because so much of the method of horror involves violating trust (a horror film is always trying to "get ya," by making you jump, by making you scream, by grossing you out), I just can't find a way to enjoy movies which employ it.  But I can't help feeling, sometimes, that I'm missing out on some really cool things because of it. 


  1. THIS. I know that's become my standard response to most of your posts, but it doesn't stop being true. It's that issue of having the "wrong" reaction to the work, to fixating where we know we're not meant to. (But if you make Minor Character Z interesting, of course I'm going to fixate!) That's why I'm so uncertain, too, of the end of GRRM's novels: I don't trust them. I don't trust anything about that series. That's off-topic, but the sentiment remains.

    And I'm perplexed by the connection Netflix made to Northern Exposure. I've seen some of that, and while I found it amusing enough, it never hit that fascinatingly transcendent point you mention.

    Anyroad. You've articulated this really gorgeously. Thankee.

  2. Thanks, mate! (And, you're welcome.)

    "if you make Minor Character Z interesting, of course I'm going to fixate!"

    Yar, this. It's like Spence in freaking Ronin. (I'll concede there might have been reasons other than character why I was fixating on him, but.)

    Re: GRRM, yes. That is pretty much why I couldn't keep reading Game of Thrones despite being utterly fascinated by it otherwise.

  3. You didn't just put the image of an evil clown in my head. It's BEDTIME, you brat!!!

  4. Dreadful sorry. Tweren't bedtime when I posted. Clearly, you should check the googleywebs more obsessively.