On the screen I see myself stalking and killing, stalking and killing. I look down at my heavily booted foot, at my roughly gloved hand, and at the violence and desecration that I have caused. I see Alice, knowing that she will be my next intended victim, and I invite her to look at me. As I approach the mirror that is the screen through her eyes, I am in shock. I am not the strong, rugged man I imagined myself to be. I am Mrs Voorhees, a middle aged woman.
The above scenario is based on the plot of Friday the Thirteenth. Jump forward to the next film in the series and our killer is the previously dead (and now undead) Jason Voorhees. One more sequel later and he picks up his iconic hockey mask.
As a teenager, I always had a fixation with anything horror. My favourite films were from the Friday the 13th series (as you could probably guess); my favourite TV shows were American Gothic and, later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I remember camps back in the first couple of years of high school where we’d sit around the campfire and tell stories, where the teachers and supervisors would tell us of disfigured people who haunted the very woods we were staying in (often followed by several late night pranks). A number of years have passed and the horror bug still hasn’t left me. Stephen King novels dominate my bookshelves while vampires crowd my DVD library. Mortal Kombat lives inside my PS3.
I’ve learned a lot from horror. Admittedly, I didn’t learn to listen to authority figures – the didactic lesson of most slasher flicks and many urban legends. I wasn’t fooled by the threat of decapitation or being garrotted (instead of detention or being grounded) if I partook in underage sex, alcohol or drug use. Rather, through studies at university and by reading Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws, I learned that horror throws away contemporary views of gender. Slasher films in particular invert dominant ideas about men and women. A careful analysis of the symbols used therein associates the male killer with feminine characteristics and the ‘final girl’ with masculine traits.
I could talk more on this but it’s not what this post was going to be about. Instead, what I want to explore is what I liked about horror and why I still like it.
On some levels, watching and reading horror was a rite of passage, it was about transitioning from a boy to a man. It was about proving that I had the intestinal fortitude to put myself in fearful situations, ride the wave of adrenaline that comes with it and come out the other side in one piece. To add some context my teenage years were spent in Karragullen, an agricultural community surrounded by bushland. Properties were much larger than you’d find in typical suburban areas, neighbours were rarely seen. My step-dad worked away, my mum had a friend with a child the same age as my infant brother and would often be at their house. I was alone, isolated – like the teens in the movies I was watching. To top it off, the area seemed popular with escaped prisoners and people committing suicide (I’m being absolutely serious here, no exaggeration intended). If you think the shadows and noises in your suburban abode are scary try spending the night in Karragullen while you’re deep in fight-or-flight mode. It’s this adrenaline that really makes the experience. It’s like a natural high. That’s why people go on roller coasters or jump out of planes. As scary as it is while you’re going through it, the lingering effects of the adrenaline make it a positive experience. It’s cathartic.
I’ll admit, on some level watching horror was also about the boobs. As cautionary tales, slashers warn teens that underage drinking, drug use and premarital sex lead to certain death and what easier way is there to show that sex = death than by showing characters engaged in sexual activity. As a pubescent teenage boy, the prospect of seeing boobs was definitely part of the attraction. It’s a pairing that makes sense too. I’ve learned since that the body during sex goes through similar processes to when you’re afraid – there’s a definite increase in heart rate, blood pressure and respiration during both circumstances.
Moreover, horror films make you feel smart. The formulaic nature of many horror films creates a sense of dramatic irony as the viewers are more aware of the expected outcomes than the characters. Interestingly, this often leads to a more interactive audience than you’ll find watching other genres. It becomes like a sport then as people bark instructions (“Don’t go in there!” instead of “Kick it!”) at the screen despite knowing that the people on there can’t hear what they’re saying. It can also be fun predicting the order and manner in which characters are going to die. Modern horror pokes fun at this. Films like The Cabin in the Woods deliberately tease the audience, providing multiple options to keep the audience guessing.
It was, and is, also a thrill to see what the horror mongers were going to come up with next. What bizarre new images were Clive Barker and Stephen King going to conjure next? (The woman in room 217 stayed with me for years – it is no coincidence she returned when King finally penned a sequel to The Shining.) What startling new deaths could special make‑up effects artist Tom Savini come up with? What new fatalities could Ed Boon and company devise? Regardless of the brutality expressed across these media, I could access them all in the safety of my own home.
John Edward Campbell, an expert in media studies at Temple University, says horror appeals to teens and twenty-somethings because they “are more likely to look for intense experiences”. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing now, looking for “intense experiences” as a means to add spice to a life that is frighteningly perfect.