Tag Archives: monsters

The Science-fication of Horror

In the days of olde, let’s say the 1940’s and back, horror movie monsters were the stuff of legends and myth. They were the vampires and werewolves of Eastern Europe. They were the mummies of Ancient Egypt. They were the primitive beasts from the Pleistocene Era. They were the ghosts and ghouls from Victorian castles.

With few exceptions, these beasts came lurking out from the shadows of superstition. They were magical or gypsy curses or hell-borne. Their reason for being was shrouded in the darkness of antiquity.

There are exceptions, of course. There are your Doctor Frankensteins and your Doctor Griffins and your Dr. Jekylls. But they are not so common and the science they practice is only step removed from wizardry and alchemy.

But then came the Atomic Bomb and people realized, suddenly and violently, that science could result in far more potent horrors than one ever found in the works of Stoker, Shelley or Wells.

The 50’s are plagued with atomic horrors, beasts irradiated and made large, deformed and horrific and bent on the destruction of mankind. They were garden variety pests that could chow down on sky scrapers. They were men and women blessed by radioactive stature. They stood tall and large and obscene and loomed like mushroom clouds over the landscape.

At the same time, the Space Race was getting started in earnest and people looked to the skies and saw the potential for menace. Whether space vegetables (either in the form of  pods or James Arness) or giant, crawling eyes or small, crawling hands, we saw invaders from the stars with the same hellish intents as our communist neighbors.

The gothic and the ghastly fell away to make way for horrors created by what Americans saw every day in the paper. Our fears are always defined by the larger pop culture and it rarely takes much to see what inspires our nightmares.

As we head into the late 60’s and 70’s, serial killers dominate the papers and we get Psycho, Black Christmas, and Halloween.

More and more, our fictional fears become more grounded in reality. We are reduced to large men with sharp knives. No matter how colorful or indestructible they are, they are still just glam rock versions of Bundy, Manson and Dahmer.

And that began a slow change within the traditional horrors and it can be seen in the zombie genre most clearly. Before Romero, zombies were voodoo and that was that. Witch doctors cast spells and lo, there came the walking dead.

But in The Night of the Living Dead, there is a passing reference to a comet and the walking dead, albeit in a very slight and subtle manner, are given a scientific reason for their improbable existence. Further, the “zed word” is never mentioned in the movie. The zombies are distanced from their religious roots, from folklore and from legend. As the “of the Living Dead” series progresses, Romero dissects them a little bit more each time. They are subjected to medical experiments and researched and psychoanalyzed.

And that’s what begins to happen to all of the old movie monsterss. Take any movie script involving vampires  or werewolves and you can do a find and replace for “magic” with “virus” and boom, you have the modern horror movie. It’s not a curse, it’s a disease.  It’s not magical, it’s biological. The modern audience does not accept magic as the obvious explanation. The audience needs explanation and dissection and vivisection. There needs to be analysis and intervention.

In all of this, there is a very key point: there is a need to understand the monster so that it can be destroyed.

Horror is our release valve for the internal pressures built up from fear and anxiety and worry. There are a thousand different anxieties that we face day to day and we have very little control over most of them. The horror fictions are only an effective release when we have a way to deal with the monsters they present.

A monster borne of magic is less effective as a release valve, when we don’t believe in magic in any form and cannot relate to the monster on any level, either as a believable threat or confrontable menace. As Americans become more secular, the idea of a monster that can be turned aside by a cross becomes less palatable. But a monster that can be turned aside by an injection or by a prescription becomes that needed release.

Horror, to be effective and relevant, is always adapting. It shapes our fears into beasts that can be killed. It turns car accidents and cancers and school shootings into fanged and fearsome dragons that can be slayed with the correct incantation and the right weapon.

As time passes and we grow more knowledgeable as a society, these dragons must adapt to be more sophisticated and more resilient and reflect our knowledge. The tools to defeat them grow increasingly more complex in response.

As time goes on, it will be more difficult for horror to function as an effective means for release. As knowledge and information become more accessible, our awareness will make it less possible to escape and to enjoy the fictions we create to avoid the painful truths of reality. At that point, fiction will stop being a bastion against reality and humanity will need to confront what it needs to do to continue as a species.

-D-

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31 Days of Spoooktacular: Masks

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Masks are scary. And not just masks of scary aliens or wolves or demons. I know for a fact that there are people who find the above mask creepy, even though there is nothing inherently creepy about it. There’s no blood or fangs. There’s nothing sinister about it. It represents no gender, race or deformity. It is a blank form.

And yet, this mask elicits uneasiness. If you don’t think this is scary, think about Michael Myer’s mask. It is a white, featureless face. Or think about Jason’s mask. It’s just a hockey mask. Before Friday the 13th Part III, people used to wear it as protective equipment. Now you can’t see that particular mask without immediately thinking of a machete wielding psychopath.

So many of our current monsters wear masks, from gas masks to hockey masks to ghostface masks. The blank, expressionless face is inherently frightening to us. I’m not going wax philosophical and psychological about why I think this is. It’s a gut feeling and gut feelings don’t need much analysis. It’s the return of that base fear, the one that drives all fears; our fear of the unknown.

We derive so much information from the face: age, gender, race, culture (piercings? tattoos? make-up?), emotions, illness. The face is our go-to point for knowing a person. The faceless mask, the one that’s not just a monster’s visage, is inherently creepy because it is still human, undeniably, incontrovertibly, but still so alien. There is no information to be gleaned. There is nothing to tell you about the person behind the face. Unlike a werewolf face, which just howls evil, the faceless mask could be…anything. It is up to the wearer to interpret how to portray this face.

If I did want to go deeper, and started laying some psychology on the table, I’d say that the faceless mask shows us what we already know: When we get down to it, a person’s face doesn’t tell us anything about who they, no matter how many times we comment on someone who has a kind face or has devilish features or a sinister countenance or a gentle look. A person does not wear their souls on their face, no matter how much we wish they did.

That mask, the blank one with no clues of the humanity beyond it, reminds us, all too much, of the fact that the stranger next door could be anyone behind that smile and that wave.

That they’re all masks.

-D-

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October 23, 2012 · 8:45 pm

31 Days of Spoooktacular: The Haunting of Dylan Charles

I recently talked about the fact that I now live in a haunted apartment. I don’t know who or what it’s haunted by, I just know that, on occasion, it gets all creepy up in here.

There have  been new sounds added into the mix. We both heard the sound of something thumping on the side of the house, though when I went onto the porch to investigate, I didn’t see anything there. There are the usual creaks and moans as though someone was walking on the ceiling and doors continue to open and close of their own volition.

But here’s the thing about ghosts I don’t understand; why? Assuming that you have a soul and assuming that this soul survives beyond death, then why would you give a good goddamn about what’s going on here on Earth? Your very existence has been altered in a fundamental, mind-boggling way. The very matter from which you are made is completely redefined and you’re just going to hang out in some old apartment and bang the pans together?

I don’t think so.

I think we can rule out that ghosts are dead people just based on the fact that I would hope people had better things to do after they die, assuming the existence of an eternal soul. Also, sidenote, if you’re religious, how do you explain ghosts? Are they caught in Limbo? Did they get lost on the way to Heaven/Hell? Either way, it would seem to point to some weird loophole in the mechanics of the afterlife. “Oh! I’m going to Hell? No thanks, I’ll just hang out on Earth for a few more decades.”

I do like the idea of strong, emotional events (murders, suicides, explosions in the old mines) leaving a kind of resonance in the area. It’s not the actual spirits of people, it’s a discordant harmony worked into the aether of a particular place. That would explain why it stays so localized, as opposed to just wandering around at will, like I sure as hell would do I could go anywhere I wanted in a phantasmagoric vapor.

But I’m pretty sure that science hasn’t proven that emotions leave imprints in inanimate objects. Science HAS proven that certain sound frequencies (infrasound) can cause feelings of dread, uncertainty and fear and even cause hallucinations in a listener and that these infrasounds are not uncommon in places that were reportedly haunted. Which all makes perfect sense and I’m glad that science has finally put this ghost nonsense to bed.

But that doesn’t quite explain the strange slime I found oozing from the tap this morning. Or the ring of dark, dried…something on the ceiling of my office that comes and goes. Or the whispered screams that come from our closet at 3am. Or the sound of footsteps behin

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31 Days of Spoooktacular: Even a Man Who Is Pure in Heart

For 31 Days of Spoooktacular, I wanted to do the occasional spotlight on the monsters that have formed the deep and gristly backbone of pop culture. Through a society’s monsters, you can tell a lot about that society. What scares us, helps to define us. It is no coincidence that, in the wake of World War II and the Emergence of the Atom Bomb, atomic horrors plagued our silver screen.

More telling, is the changes we made to old legends.

The werewolf, in the olde days, in the olde country, was a man or woman who had made a pact with the devil and, through that pact, had gained certain supernatural powers, including, but not limited to, changing into a ferocious beast. The idea was that this was a gift, a boon for giving oneself to evil. They were satisfying their baser urges.

Once it entered modernity, specifically the movies, the werewolf became a different kind of creature. No longer was the lycanthrope a witch or savage, but an innocent who had been cursed by the bite of another werewolf. The transformation could only happen under the light of a full moon, or a around a full moon. The person change against their will and, once transformed, lost all control.

It became a symbol of repression unleashed, of inner savagery, a beastial nature unchained.

In more recent years, it has followed the route of vampirism. Rather than a supernatural curse or a religious affliction, vampirism and lycanthropy have both become diseases. The disease is transmitted by a bite or scratch and produces extreme changes in both physiology and psychology.

It is the last gasp of the mythology to survive in our modern times as a viable thing that exists beyond entertainment, as a lesson. Because that’s what monsters are. Monsters are how we teach our children fear and how to deal with that fear. Be careful after dark. Do not talk to strangers. Stay in church and with your community. Do not go up to make-out point.

We use our monsters to learn what to be afraid of and how to deal with that fear. The lessons we learn from our folktales are meant to leave lasting repercussions that affect our behavior well into adulthood. The werewolf, the vampire, the ghoul, the goblins; they have lost resonance. They don’t function in our world anymore. In spite of increasingly desperate attempts to make them relevant, they are falling behind.

They have nothing left to teach us. They have nothing to scare us with. In a world with bombs and serial killers and viruses; the occult loses all meaning. The werewolf has lost his bite.

-D-

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31 Days of Spoooktacular: Portrait of a Slasher Movie

The slasher movie is, by far, one of the subgenres of horror that most sticks to a formula. And here is the formula:

Pre-Credits Kill+Character Introduction+Cat Scare*+Minor Character Killed Off+Pointless Drama/Comedic Scene+Secondary Character Killed+Hero(ine) and Killer Meet-Up+Hero(ine) Triumphs+One Last Scare=Slasher Movie

This is, for the most part, how every slasher movie plays out. You have the pre-credit sequence kill, which is either part of the back story or is set in modern day and sets off the chain of events. This is where you’ll see characters defiling graves or having sex when they should have been paying attention or telling stories around a campfire about the killer. If this is a sequel, this is where you’ll most likely see a character from the previous movie get killed off (see Friday the 13th Part 2 or Scream 3).

Then comes the cast introduction. During this point you’ll see a barrage of cliches come at you. Don’t worry! Most will be dead in 90 minutes. This is also the point where you’ll meet an ancillary character. Now, the ancillary character can fulfill numerous roles. They’re the Red Herring: “Who’s that?” “Oh that’s crazy Bob, he lives in the woods where we’ll be camping!” The Red Herring will show up lurking, here and there, through-out the movie and then will end up dead at the three-quarter mark.

There’s the Small Town Sheriff. He will say, in one form or another, “Those damn kids!” before the movie is over. Though he’s going to be an asshole throughout the entire movie, he’ll most likely show up toward the middle or end and seem like he’s going to do something to affect the outcome and give the audience false hope. He’s actually going to be murder fodder and everyone’s hopes are dashed.

There’s the Doomsayer. He (or she) is an old and crusty oldtimer who knows more than everyone else, but will be completely dismissed as being either old, crazy or both. The Doomsayer can also play the part of The Red Herring. It’s a toss-up to whether the Doomsayer will show up beyond the Introduction.

Then there’s the Cat Scare. The Cat Scare is when a character hears a noise, goes to investigate and finds a cat. It is almost ALWAYS a cat. And it’s always a cat that has somehow ended up in a cupboard. I have owned numerous cats, but they rarely ended up in cupboards.

Right after the cat scare, Minor Character death. The Doomsayer is a good choice for this, but sometimes it’s the gas station attendant or the lonely hitchhiker or any person who is not one of the fresh young teens.

Then you have the pointless drama and light-hearted comedy to trick you into thinking that that this movie is more than nubile young people being offed with chainsaws.

This is when the secondary characters start dying, one by one and, depending on how many characters there are, depends on how long this process will take.

After all the non-essential personnel are removed, the hero or, more frequently, the heroine meets up with the monster. If the monster is masked, this is where he’ll be de-masked. If the killer is actually the boyfriend, long lost-brother or the mother of a deformed little boy who drowned in the lake, this is where the shocking twist is revealed.

After the Killer is dispatched, the Hero(ine) and her/his Boyfriend/Girlfriend walk away from the body. Then the body moves, or the little boy comes out of the lake or the second killer steps out of the shadows or the Hero(ine) turns around with a crazy look in her eyes and you know SHE’S the killer now. This is the Final Scare. It can be either followed with a re-assuring shot of the Hero(ine) waking up or a freeze-frame of the Final Scare.

Bam. You don’t ever need to watch a slasher movie ever again. Because you just did. All of them.

-D-

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It’s on the Air

You can’t sense it, but I can. I step outside and I can smell it, hovering on the fringes, hanging back from the senses; that lingering odor of decay in a basement that promises something hidden under the floor. You don’t notice it.

But it’s coming.

It’s in the way the shadows are cast now; Longer, darker, stretched thinner like tension in a darkened alley when you see a slow movement behind that dumpster. You don’t see it, not like I do.

But it’s coming.

In the back of your mind it tickles; a fingernail running down your spine, the breath of a whisper on your ear in the middle of the night. It’s the hum in the air around a downed power-line. You ignore the feeling.

But it’s still coming.

Be prepared….

It’s almost Halloween.

-D-

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Plans Macabre

So Halloween is rapidly approaching and how. I know you’re probably not as excited as I am, since most people who get excited about Halloween are under ten and thinking about candy. As someone who indulges in horror year-round (writing it, reading it, watching it), it’s always nice when October comes slouching ’round and everyone else starts talking scary movies.

And I have plans. Some are fantastical and out there and are most likely not going to happen. I’m not even going to tell you what they are to avoid your inevitable disappointment.  I do have more workable plans however and you’re going to hear about those. There’ll be movie reviews and pontificating blog entries about the nature of horror. There’ll be me pitching my book at you repeatedly (it’s a book of scary stories, perfect to get you in the mood for scary stuff). There might even be pictures.

It’ll be exciting. You’ll be excited.

Dylan Charles

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