I’m not very good at writing about things that are terrifying. My writing style and general outlook on life tend to naturally carry me away from that, into more flowery and romantic things. I only know that I’m bad at it because as I was beginning to write this piece, I tried to establish some bleak and dreary tone about the state of society as it relates to Halloween and Horror cinema, and I found myself just dumping vaguely creepy platitudes about the way people see the holiday, and it was all goofy and shitty and dumb.
I think this kinda happens to encapsulate the exact phenomenon I find so puzzling about the way Halloween works. I must disclaim that October is absolutely my favorite month of the year. It feels like life is happening, the weather is perfect, everybody is together celebrating the season. October in Athens is particularly special, although it’s pretty hard to pin down why. Everybody just kinda is in on whatever we all get to share this month, and it’s wonderful. That being said, every year without fail people hype October to oblivion. “Spooky season is coming! Spoopy!” Everybody chants this stuff almost ritualistically in September, posting that same gif of that person in those black tights dancing with that Jack O’ Lantern on their head. As the month continues, everyone does the costume parties, goes to the pumpkin patches, eats the pumpkin stuff, yada yada.
People watch the same horror movies, too. People watch the schlock, the classics, and the contemporary stuff. This is not a bad thing, and I’m not downplaying horror films in the slightest. There are lots of truly wonderful horror films, and some of them are quite scary, but nevertheless I have always found it a bit puzzling. You settle in, pop your popcorn, surround yourself with the people you care about (or at the very least the people that you’re interested in) and then you watch the scary stuff.
This glib approach to it all comes with several clarifications, naturally. I am not saying here that Halloween is stupid, and horror films are stupid, and it’s all dumb and not even real! And I’m better than you because I know that! I’m not saying that, although I kinda felt like I had to start off the essay by making it seem like I was saying that because it’s kinda fun to be inflammatory sometimes. However, I am by no means placing myself above the holiday celebrations that come with Halloween; that’s haughty and elitist. I love all the October stuff and Halloween stuff as much as the next person. The fact remains, though that when people enter the Halloween season, they do the same things. They perform the same rituals, revel in the same activities, watch the same films, and share the same togetherness. And they always will. This is a good thing, and a happy, wonderful thing. October is a lovely time of year, and it’s probably my favorite.
But, the fact of the matter is that all this, all these activities and especially all these films…it’s kinda all…..the same.
Horror film, and the spectatorship henceforth, exists with this same flavor of…sameness. Horror is arguably the foremost example of true genre, and thus it arguably is the foremost example of a cinema that just chugs through the same things. Any horrifying film, with variation, prances dramatically along the same formulaic illusion: that it’s all genuinely horrifying, and these real terrors should haunt us all the time forever. This guides me to the central question that I want to posit, all of these things being kept in mind:
How is all of this sameness considered scary at all?
When I think about things that are truly horrifying, shocking, and terrifying, I almost always find myself naturally tracking to the unknown. The fear of losing all this life, the fear of some safety or peace being corrupted by some human, specter or force that is far more formidable than anything I’ll ever have at my disposal….the terror of whatever that thing is that no human has ever or can ever understand…….THAT’S the truly horrifying stuff. Many horror films tap into this. General horror tropes give audiences glimpses and emulations. There’s the glance toward the shadowy black forest, a void expanse that seems to stretch into the furthest reaches of our subconscious while sitting directly in front of us, the ambient hum of a room or location that the audience clearly knows contains whatever darkest fears exist that we have yet to imagine. The genre tropes give us glimpses into that feeling. They provide insight. However (and this is the most crucial difference between what we as audience members have experienced as horror cinema and what actually constitutes a genuinely horrifying cinema) insight is only emulation when placed at the foot of genuine experience. Settling into a seat with popcorn and loved ones to watch a scary thing is not immersion into something fearful. It is immersion into one’s own safety. We watch horror films to recognize how safe we are. What about these sitting around and watching a movie that you know is going to end, that you know was filmed in a studio, is ever going to generate true terror? (Aside: Blair Witch is arguably the only mainstream exception that truly challenges this; a film that convinces millions of its authenticity succeeds in approaching true horror. The Exorcist gets kinda close, but that’s just because of all that Christian rabblerousing.)
If true horror only comes with being confronted by things that truly threaten our sense of safety, whether that be emotional or physical, than I will argue that the only truly horrifying cinema is cinema that is unconcerned with convincing the audience that they are scared. Cinema that transcends the necessity to provide the audience with the expected shocks and scares, opting instead to reach into abstraction to extract some deeply seeded and ravenous part of the unsettled soul….that is where only the most authentic horror lies.
Black Ice, one of the most popular films in Stan Brakhage’s 1990s silent series created entirely with paint on film stock, is inspired by a nasty fall on ice that Brakhage experienced in the late 80s. The fall resulted in injuries that required intensive eye surgery for the director, and he almost lost his vision as a result. The film is much like the rest of Brakhage’s films in this series: it consists of brief flickering images, all created by Brakhage’s brushstroke. The frames move so quickly that, in silence, the visual sensation of motion fades into one’s subconscious, and the flowing tones and shapes meld together and guide the viewer into a serene and subliminal state of dissociative reflection. Black Ice is different from the rest of his filmography however, because the image performs in a dynamic language that is not present in any of his other films. The blobs and hues seem to shove themselves toward the audience, and the motion begins to convince the viewer that the colors and images on the screen are seeking to reach out and suck you in, so that you can be trapped with them inside their refractory vortex of frozen shade. I don’t want to suggest that horror film must be directly related to some tangible, provable trauma in order to become convincing and/or authentic, but Black Ice’s elegant sense of unease communicates a lack of safety that is hard to find in any studio-made horror film. Gone is the sense of time or closure, gone are all concerns with character, resolution, outcome. There is only movement and darkness. Complete uncertainty, total alienation. Will I be trapped in this when it’s all over? THAT is a horror movie.
Toshio Matsumoto’s Atman functions within a similar structuralist belief system. A singular figure wearing a terrifying mask is positioned in the center of a field somewhere, and the camera appears to move in a circle around them. At the beginning of the film, the camera erupts into an overwhelming pattern, the camera rushing closer to the figure and backwards, around and around, flashing strobe patterns across the screen to the grating, disquieting sounds of shrill electronics. The motion is entirely unlike any that we find in our regular lives, and entirely unlike any that we find in horror cinema. It is aggressively uncomfortable, especially when the image in question is trained upon an imposing and terrifying figure. It confronts the audience with the most primal sense that an audience member can have: when will this be over? When will I finally get relief from this torment?
Halloween is all about the spooky things and the scary things, and everyone loves to watch a horror movie around this time of year. Halloween is about the togetherness that we share, and I would venture to say that most horror cinema, on social function alone, operates within this optimistic and unified framework. A horror film can hardly ever be horrifying, because inherent to the social framework of the genre is a sense of being with those that you love, in a time of year that you love. The only truly terrifying cinema is the cinema that forces us into things that we don’t understand, into an incongruent and incomprehensible place of association, uncertainty, and darkness. These movies are examples of that, and honestly, films like these are the only things that I personally think constitute genuinely horrifying cinema.
You can find these films on YouTube. Watch them with your friends and laugh and have a good time to completely prove me wrong and render this entire essay meaningless.