I spent years avoiding fear. Turns out, I was avoiding myself.
One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.
Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase—
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter—
In lonesome Place—
Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.
The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O’erlooking a superior spectre—
– Emily Dickinson
One of the beautiful gifts my husband has given me over the course of our relationship is horror. Specifically, horror films. I know, not exactly flowers or jewelry. In my opinion, horror is much better than either of those.
Growing up, I was discouraged from “opening my heart” to the darker elements of imagination. The “occult” (which included such things as magic, vampires, dragons, Harry Potter, zombies, Lord of the Rings, Halloween, and, ironically, The Chronicles of Narnia) was a slippery slope down which I would tumble into the pits of damnation should I so much as peer over the edge. In addition to seriously hampering my trick-or-treating game—I’ve literally never been—this cut me off from a large chunk of popular culture. This is not to say I didn’t dabble illicitly on occasion (mostly in anime and manga, because the classic horror/occult “warning signs” weren’t so obvious to my parents coming from a foreign culture), but for the most part, I was a “good kid.”
My husband, on the other hand, had a much less fraught relationship with all things spooky. While we were dating, he shared with me a smattering of his favorites (The Shining, Donnie Darko, Rosemary’s Baby). The first time I felt my heart race in his dark living room, I was hooked.
What was this sensation I felt deep down in my core?
I was ravenous to experience it again and again, all the while pondering what exactly it was that made it so irresistible. Why were these the films I could talk about and analyze for hours, when the average comedy or action adventure was a fun experience, but could be reviewed in a few sentences? I wanted to be SCARED.
Eventually I came to some conclusions.
Fear is both universal and incredibly specific. It’s important to our survival. Fear sends us messages from deep in our brain stem. Fear is chemical, cultural, evolutionary, and situational. Why is a cat afraid of a cucumber? Probably because it looks like a snake. Why do we freak out when we feel a tickle on our arm? Seems like a useful reaction to a potential poisonous spider. Why fear the dark? Because what you don’t know CAN kill you.
There’s plenty of research out there about the purpose of fear, and I encourage you to dig in if you get the chance. My personal fascination is the human impulse to recreate the sensation. Why do we seek to incite through art a feeling designed for our survival?
Maybe because, in a way, our fear defines us. It represents our limitations. Boundaries we don’t want to cross. The programming of fear is so powerful we require only the vaguest sensation or pattern to kick our whole body into action. Fear is involuntary, and to a certain extent, fear controls us. Imagine a gun pointing at your forehead. Cold sweat on the back of your neck and the palms of your empty hands. Your first inclination is to obey whoever has their finger on the trigger. What if you had the chance, in the safety of your living room or a movie theater, to explore why that is?
This is where horror comes in.
We’re afraid of a lot of things. Some of these things are pretty easy to explain.
Other things are a little more complicated.
And then there are the fears you can’t even name.
The fears that keep us in our pre-defined lanes in society.
The fears that keep us from changing careers.
The fears that keep us from saying hello to a homeless person on the street.
The fears that keep us from sharing ideas.
The fears that keep us in a bad relationship.
The fears that keep us from telling HR about our boss’s inappropriate comments.
The fears that keep us around other people like us.
The fears that keep us ignorant.
The fears that keep us silent.
Scary, isn’t it? Just imagining all the fears hiding in our blind spots.
Horror has the ability to hand you a flashlight, so you can peer into these deep dark corners of your psyche.
Herein lies the joy of analyzing horror. Through artistic experiment, we can start to learn a little about what makes our minds, our cultures, and our species tick. Watching Rosemary’s Baby, we realize that a Satanic coven next door is pretty creepy, but there’s something much more complicated making us squirm as Rosemary paces the floor of her apartment or starts to sweat while making a call in a phone booth. The scariest element of The Shining is not a potentially sentient hotel. The bunny man in Donnie Darko is not just a bunny man.
Obviously, not all horror is created equal. Not every scary movie has volumes to say about the human condition. Believe me, after I devoured my husband’s catalog of legendary horror, I was willing to watch just about anything to get my fix. Gore for gore’s sake and derivative slasher flicks may be symptomatic of certain cultural trends, but they don’t necessarily have a lot of meat on their bones, so to speak. Elements like layered storytelling, limited exposition, a well-defined point of view, and a certain amount of ambiguity help a horror concept grow from simple experience into art.
A favorite theme of mine is horror that explores power imbalance.
The gun in my example above is a concrete example of fear springing from one party having an abundance of power over another. Rosemary’s Baby is a more subtle example. Why can’t Rosemary escape her increasingly disturbing living situation? Because her husband controls their income, her access to friends, society’s perception of her, even the phone in their apartment.
Rosemary is also an example of a particular sub-genre that experiments with fear in a very important way: Feminist Horror.
If you think about it, being a woman is a rather frightening thing in our society, and pretty much always has been. In a way, it’s easier for the male society at large if we’re afraid. If we act like the weaker, simpler, more delicate sex they’d like us to believe we are, then we stay at home and out of their way, away from their jobs, the public eye, and their privileged spaces. They give us the “job” of doing the only thing they can’t do themselves (have children) and some other tasks they find menial and inconvenient (keeping house). This isn’t to say that having children and keeping house aren’t perfectly reasonable things to want to do, as a woman. It’s just unacceptable that anyone’s motivation for doing so should be fear and intimidation inspired by another, and that, societally, is what’s happening to so many women.
This is where horror can help. Horror takes us out of our own day to day blinders and lets us look from the outside in at what our fears really mean. If we insert feminist themes into the landscape of horror, we can pick apart the guts of the problem. We can watch Rosemary and begin to understand that Satanists are the least of her problems, and notice reflections of ourselves in her situation.
Knowing what you’re afraid of is the first step to fixing the problem.
Now, this blog certainly isn’t written only for other women to read. Men can reap the benefits of feminist horror just as readily. In parallel to women recognizing and acknowledging their own fears, men have the opportunity to see, from the outside, how it is they might inspire fear and abuse power imbalances that benefit them in our culture.
It’s my intention—both because I feel it will be beneficial and because I enjoy it SO much—to take up some space on this blog writing about my takes on various entries in the Feminist Horror sub-genre that have really spoken to me over the years. The first will be a piece on the recent Aranofsky film, mother! To say that it moved me deeply would be an incredible understatement. I welcome any and all recommendations for films to watch or write about. I also welcome dialogue on the films I post about! Sharing different viewpoints is another fruitful enterprise in rooting out the causes of power imbalance and inequality.
As Emily Dickinson says, “One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted,” and I would argue no one is immune to ghosts in their corridors. In fact, I believe all of us non-chambers are quite haunted, and if we want to be able to look in the mirror without “borrowing a Revolver,” we must seek to address our ghosts head-on.
Join me, and we can walk into the dark together.