D’Argonne: Notes on horror and Halloween
Halloween is my favorite holiday. Every October I nestle myself in front of the tv carving sinister, toothy jack o’lanterns while horror movies flicker in the background. The other night I turned on an old favorite, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 indy classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
For those who haven’t seen it, there’s quite a few unnerving moments throughout the film, though one stands out to me in particular. Our young heros Kirk and Pam approach an old house in search of gasoline to refill their van. While Pam stays put on a swing in the front yard, Kirk enters the house.
He approaches a doorway with an unsettling squealing sound coming from behind it. As he gets close he stumbles, a disarming gaffe and near break in the tension. But before he can recover Leatherface is on him. The massive figure emerges from the darkness and delivers a hammer blow to Kirk’s head, sending him convulsing to the ground. Leatherface drags him inside, and slams the door.
The whole ordeal takes only a few seconds, but the effect is lasting for the audience. Our introduction to Leatherface was short lived, and our knowledge of what lies behind the door limited. In that moment what you’re really afraid of are the possibilities. What’s beyond the door? And for a second, your imagination takes care of the rest.
Horror movies are too often tossed aside as shallow genre pieces, not to be taken seriously. In reality they can serve as substantive reflections of our shared experiences and collective cultural anxieties, while at the same time providing insight into our more personal fears.
Chainsaw is a perfect example. A group of young, liberal friends butchered in rural America. The casual death of the 1960s counter-cultural movement. Even the setting is highly political: a small Texas town gasping for air, made obsolete by industrial capitalism.
It’s in horror’s DNA to be political, even if it’s not always on purpose. It just so happens that horror typically thrives along with a level of social unrest. Monster movies kicked off the American horror film industry alongside the first world war, a period in the genre fueled by disfigurement and classic gothicism (Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera).
After WWII there’s a revival in the genre, but the focus has shifted toward a more contemporary anxiety for the nuclear age. Films with radioactive monsters and post apocalyptic settings took over including The Blob, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Tarantula. Japan followed the trend, unleashing Godzilla for the first time.
The origins of gothic literature in general can be traced to times of incredible social distress in the 1780s in the midst of the American and French revolutions.
Horror movies show us what we’re afraid of, and perhaps more importantly, what we’re afraid of becoming. They’re expressions of repression, transgression and base fear. And while I’d love to write volumes more about horror movies and the lessons we can learn from them, I’ll begrudgingly leave you with a final thought: as you pop in a scary movie to watch this weekend pay close attention to why it’s scary, and what it might be trying to say.
Happy Halloween, Grand County.
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