The Vital Lessons of Horror

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A still from As Above so Below (2014). As the characters descend into the catacombs, they come to face more and more of their own personal fears.

Previously published on Medium

“Wake up. You are still sleepy, but you must get up. Eat breakfast, don’t question it. Wash yourself, brush your teeth, put your clothes on. Go to school. Never mind that you don’t like it, do it anyway, learn what they teach you, Or you won’t get to eat. You need to learn. It is vital that you know. Hours will pass. Learn to recite things, memorize the alphabet. It’s important. You will come home. Do you know everything? No? No games for you. Go study. Did you learn it all? Are you sure? …Well… ok. Do what you want. Do it, and be happy.”

This is perhaps something that we may be telling a child, if we treated them like we did machines. They are are human though, we know that, they can do things that our computers and inventions cannot. Additionally, some of the things that our machines can do, kids and human beings do faster, and with more accuracy and precision. Despite these obvious facts, these are more or less the instructions that we give our children, when they are beginning to navigate the external world.

While it is a formula for personal survival, this model of education only works for an extremely simplified life. Which is fine, to an extent, as we can ignore many complications as best as we can: If we had the choice to either give to a charity that works with orphanages or use the money to go on a fancy vacation, pondering the question of ‘which choice is better”, is optional. After all, who is going to notice if I pick one over the other? Why should I strain myself to help others in need? So what if an orphanage won’t get some money, or if my kids will have to do some chores. I’m standing here, happy and without a care, and that is most important.

Unfortunately, as we simplify the world around us, certain realities get wiped under the rug and are left to be ignored. The psychological life of orphans, the confusion in left-out persons in either personal or wider societal events, have significant consequences on the relationships they have with the world as they, and we, grow older. This is why many people visit therapists and coaches in order to uncover these hidden truths, and to come to a better understanding of themselves.

Beyond the Meagre Classroom

Yet, therapists are not paid uncover truths, but to, so to speak “reexperience them”. No matter how often we go over our issues and uncover hidden truths, there are mental infections and conditions that still cause anxiety, panic, or other unpleasant emotions, that we cannot resolve using mere words.

When a person emotionally hurts another for example, lectures on what happened won’t mend the damage, but a sense of understanding would. Both persons have the choice to deal with the event in question in two different ways. One method is to deal with the event head on, to come to a mutual understand, while the other is to ignore the event. The former will result in a healthy psychology by facing our fears of the event and resolving them, while the other, in time, will create distress. The former allows us to regulate our emotions, while the latter does not, which is why the former must be chosen, as often as possible, if we are to live a healthy life. Unfortunately, this cannot always be.

There is a philosophical problem known as “Mary’s room”, that uncovers an interesting little fact about knowledge. Suppose a person named Mary, grows up in a black and white room (with many shades of gray) and doesn’t see any color throughout her life. She becomes a scientist, with a focus on color theory. She works very hard in her field of interest, she publishes huge amounts of work on color, and in time, knows virtually everything there is to know about the subject.

Now suppose she wakes up one morning, and all of a sudden, she can see color. Note, that she could still distinguish red from blue before, because she was seeing different shades of gray, but she can now see red as everyone else does.

And this is the dilemma: Did she learn anything? If she knew everything there is to know about color, then clearly she didn’t learn anything by seeing something new. But if she did learn something new, which is something most people would argue, then we arrive at a startling suggestion: There is knowledge, in this case some knowledge about color, that can’t be learned from what people tell you, or from what you read. The knowledge needs to be experienced. Similarly, we cannot resolve psychological issues by talking about them, but need to experience a release of suppressed emotions. If we never had the chance to smell cinnamon, while everyone around us goes on and on about how wonderful it smells, then we will want to smell it as well, as opposed to understanding it in some scientific sort of way. Not because it cannot be described, but because the experience of it is more important than any material description of it.

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Gaspar Noë’s French extremist film Climax (2018), widely classified as a horror film, uses unusual experiences in the characters to uncover and resolve hidden racist, sexual and emotional turmoils.

Drugs, Sex and Other Catalysts

If pure sensory input can achieve new knowledge, it is clear then, that delinquent actions like sex or drugs can act as therapeutical devices as well. When done for the thousandth time, they are ineffective, but occasional such events, I would argue, can teach us something about something, that allow us to revisit past events that went forgotten, or in a spookier way, are within us even though they have never been known by us in the first place.

We mentioned that we can deal with events in two ways: ignore them, or don’t ignore them. In a somewhat confidence shattering experiment, there is a third way to deal with an event and that is to register it, but to never know that it has been registered in the first place. Neuroscientist Stanslav Dehaene set up a monitor which showed a little video to a few participants, while he kept a control group on reserve that didn’t watch it. The viewers saw a few flickering circles and squares on a black background, and nothing more. The researcher would then ask them questions that seemed to not relate to the video, nor to the participants.

To one’s astonishment, the experimental group answered the questions more correctly than the control group did. Why, one would ask? The answer has to do with delayed consciousness, which is what Dehaene was studying. It turns out, when the brain registers an unusual event in the visual frame, it disassociates the consciousness of the participant from the visual apparatus and takes about 0.02 seconds in order to process this information, store it in a short term/long-term memory circuit, and return the participant’s consciousness back to the visual motor. And that’s the trick: he turned off the conscious ability of the participants, not ability to take in incoming information. What happens, is that in that tiny tiny window, new images were flickered on the screen, that participants did not see, but that their brains have registered, which were the answers to the questions the scientist has prepared.

This means that information can be coded into our brains without us ever being aware of it, one way or another. And if there is enough coding of such information, things that seem innocuous, can become hallucinatory. For drugs like LSD, it is clear what I mean by this. But sex can also induce wordless information acquisition, as well as marriage, ones first child, and other rites of passage, which is probably why these rites exist in the first place. They serve as an emotional maturing, or of solidification of experiences that our normal lives cannot produce. Where these important events do not occur, insecurity, low self-esteem and nightmares arise, and will render one more hostile, aggravated, and unhappy, as shown by Freuds writings.

And these effects are only the beginning. When one tries to identify who, or what caused the blocking of these rites, it doesn’t matter to the subject whether or not the answer they produce is correct. They only care to find a way to emotionally relieve themselves from the injustice they perceive to have been subjected to. Searching for scapegoats and treating them with hostility is thus better understood, and the most vulnerable people become targets: Minorities, women, immigrants and anyone who is different, than what one is familiar with.

A Nefarious Solution

I at least, don’t think this is a good thing. Sure, blaming a group of people, or individual persons is easier working through ones issues, but it doesn’t make them the originators of pain and doesn’t make it right to blame them. But the damaged soul wants only to be free from these shackles, and the stronger the push to blame others, the more violent such people become, as unrequited world-views harbour more and more hatred for everything around them.

It is acceptance of such easy answers, and repression of the truth that allows for a human being to continue their lives and not relive their past, because they covered them up with a self-destructive illusory replacement. By attacking other world views, a person continues to fall into isolated madness, because any opposing opinion of the world, would cause the illusion to shatter, and to expose a sliver of the starting point at which the trauma occurred, while still covering up the essence of the event.

Ignoring ones own intuition, ignoring things that one has taken for granted is a frightening experience, regardless of of our circumstances. Even so, we must accept what has happened, relive the moment of time to resolve the rite, or the trauma in order to render our lives into an accepted reality. And only then, can we return to our normal lives, equipped with more knowledge, and a more peaceful attitude, to continue living as best as we can.

It is from this standpoint, that I want to argue that horror allows us to undergo the acquisition of new knowledge, that we would otherwise never arrive at. While there are countless horror films that are mostly all jump scares (The Grudge, 2004) and gothic atmospheres (Suspiria, 1977), the most important narratives of horror in any medium guide us towards our inner repressions which we fear to uncover, and try to upend and resolve them. This is what film critic Robin Wood labeled “the return of the repressed” (also indirectly mentioned by another film critic, Carol Clover) when talking about horror films, in that the repressed comes back to haunt the protagonists. This is clearly on show for so many recent horror films: Babadook (2014, death of the husband), Raw (2016, instinctive cannibalism), Hereditary (2018, ignorance of destiny), It Chapter 2 (2019, the slaying of the monster in Part 1) and 1922 (2017, the killing of the wife/mother).

Even in the ultimate precursor to modern horror, Frankenstein’s monster clearly has longings for being accepted for who he is, which because of neglect for this inner life, takes it out on Frankenstein to fatal ends. A similar point can be made with Psycho (1960)

Horror shows us in a more effective manner than any person could, that repressing our feelings will lead us down dark roads, of confusion and terror, from which we may never come back from. The genre serves us, by pitting us up against our fears, in hopes that we should find peace in the things we cannot change, and give us strength to continue fighting against the things we can, to ultimately pull us out of the onset of apathy, delirium and fear caused by the biggest villain of our lives, namely ourselves (there is a good reason why Scooby-doo’s villains are all humans in disguise).

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A still from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The film showcases the limits of our knowledge about the unknown and subtle suggestions of where evil on the outskirts of society has come from.

Evil as a Construct

In each one of the films mentioned above the protagonists are fighting monsters and apparitions of their own making. That is all fine and well on a personal level, but it is dangerous to make sense of the world using only repression as our thinking tool. If we explain all evil by people being repressed in some shape or form, it only tells half the story: People can be emotionally liberated and still indulge in evil, such as in the majority of white collar crimes. The rapists in the 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade, would also unquestionably be indulging in evil.

At this intersection, we are blessed with the film Us (2019) by Jordan Peele, that takes the idea of repression, and flips it on its head, making the protagonists the antagonists and vice versa: Characters are played by the same actors, but are separate characters at the same time. Are we the Evil? Are we the Good? The movie ends on the wise note, that we are all the same, with the same desires, same wishes, same thoughts, except that our circumstances have been brought about through forces (like coincidence), of which we know nothing about.

In Stephen Kings literature (The MistThe GunslingerCarrie) and other narratives like the Silent Hill Series, characters that buy into the idea that there is a higher power leading us, are generally represented by stock religious characters, that use their black and white worldview to purge the world of non-believers, to avoid confrontations with the truth. They posit a type of “Us vs Them” mentality, which given the nature of Peele’s film, becomes convoluted and unclear.

“Who is on my team”, becomes the central question. In Zombie films, the good guys tend to be anyone who isn’t a zombie (with exception of The Walking Dead, 2010-Present). The Night of the Living Dead (1968) by George A. Romero, showed us this exact scenario, in a timely manner: A black man is the protagonist. Women are as powerless as men against the living dead. We are all in this together, is the overall feeling, against some force we do not understand. And if we don’t work together, we will die. It’s a fantasy that imagines boundless team work, the only way the world is going to get through the plethora of crises facing it. We are starkly reminded of how unrealistic such a utopia would be: Our hero is carelessly disposed of in the final scene of the movie.

In the end, it wasn’t the living dead that was actually the most shocking about the film. It was the racism that killed the black man, regardless of the things he has done for everyone around him.

Another film, I Spit on your Grave (1978), while a wholly painful movie to watch (almost half the movie is spent watching the protagonist get raped), is a film that has the potential to showcase that, while men might forget the sexual assaults they have downplayed or committed, these acts can lead to bad things happening, such as to themselves. Everyone in the movie commits some quite unpleasant acts, sure, but it’s the misogynist viewers who degrade women, that might find a new set of values from watching the film: You rape women and women might kill you. Therefore, to avoid death, respect women.

The Portal of No Return

Of course, the message can be as obvious and corny as you wish. But for people who are exposed to a new type of metaphysics, what is supposedly known must be redefined, with prior things we take for granted upended, in order to make sense of how the horror could have come about. This is why the horror genre is more poignant than other ones, because it forces one to reconsider ones values. While racism can be dealt with in historical dramas (12 Years a Slave, 2013), sexism in super-hero movies (Wonderwoman, 2017) and Xenophobia in thrillers (Sin Nombre, 2009), horror is the only genre that challenges you to face ones fears, and temper with psychological roots that would otherwise continue to grow within you.

Because fear is an emotion that many of us don’t experience very often, the experience of a horror film is registered as unusual to our daily lives. This event would sort of simulates a rite of passage, which is why one should indulge in horror, even if only infrequently. The genre is necessary for us to find and understand the world and to purge evil from our lives.

This is why in childhood, when our inner character is shaped, horror, in one form or another, is vital, as we must expose ourselves to as much information as we can. Character can be shaped at all ages, sure, but it also becomes very difficult in time as our neuroplasticities become solidified. Facing our fears then, has a notorious time limit, which we should not underestimate. If we indulge in idleness, we become those old men who shout at kids to get off their lawns, or these old women don’t care about the youth of today.

A vital quality that we should all acquire then, is bravery. Brave to stand up for what is right, brave to accept kindness and youthfulness, but most of all brave to face ourselves, look them in the eye dissolve them. Horror narratives prepare us for the darkness that we think surrounds us, and informs us through our senses, that there is in fact little true evil in this world. There is only madness in the people we interact with, as well as the mythical unknown, which only needs to be uncovered, in order to take away its power. Anything else, is science fiction.


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