I wrote three years ago that horror was having a bit of a moment. It had always been popular, but taken seriously only in fits and starts. That changed in the middle of the last decade when studios like Blumhouse and A24 started taking risks on ambitious and nuanced but still scary “prestige” horror films that paid off in sales, in critical acclaim, and (selectively) in awards season. Two years later I also noted that trends tend to bottom out after a certain period. Quality lessens, even if ambition remains high, but soon even that goes, leaving an aesthetic and narrative rut, right back where everything started.

It’s the typical Spenglerian cycle of triumph, decadence, and decline in miniature. It’s also pretty low stakes because, as I said earlier, horror is popular and will remain so. Moreover, horror’s greatness will rise anew sometime in the future and all the horrid shameful masterpieces of the low period will be forgotten or remembered ironically. For all of its grim content, horror is never lacking in cause for celebration, or self-praise.

Indeed, all this triumph makes me wonder what society is like from the point of view of the minority, of someone who does not like horror, who cannot stand the sight or suggestion of it. I feel a certain guilt because people who are repulsed by horror are terrible conversation partners. We of the majority are so accustomed to administering the conversation that insistence on any other subject is just intolerable; while the admission of skimming Wikipedia plot summaries in place of watching the film just to keep up is a sign of weakness. Probably the most productive conversation I ever had with a non-horror fan was centered on Midsommar, a film we had not seen and had no interest in seeing, though for different reasons[1]. But afterward, our unequal footing — me in the golden glow of freedom, her in the shadowed gloom of oppression — reasserted itself as unshakable as ever.

How then to remedy this? One way, certainly, is the giving of ground. Let them talk about whatever pleases them, be it young adult fantasy, locally brewed pale ale, Marriage Story, or whatever else people who don’t like horror like to watch instead. The thought of it sounds … not uncompelling, even a little exciting. And maybe as a last resort we may venture to such an extreme. But that’s not very productive; at least compared to the corrective we horrorists have been so negligent in offering: explaining why we love horror.

The anti-horrorists are rolling their eyes surely. “You explain your love of horror all the time, as you force me through another screening of Session 9.” Fair enough, but those have never amounted to much for me beyond distinguishing two broad types.

One is the “thrill-seeker” who chases every extreme the genre has to offer, no matter how gruesome or dull or poorly made. The tendency is escapist and diversionary, leaving the consumer with what Stephen King described as “that same feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.” It’s the same impulse that brings people to “extreme haunters” like Russ McKamey, who for the price of a bag of dogfood and a waiver will torture you for as long as you can take it, when the screen- or page-based adrenaline rush is insufficient. These consumers are the most numerous, as market trends will show, they don’t take much to entertain; their imaginations are basic while their sensations are avaricious.

The other type is the aesthete, who does not go to horror to escape from the world but to find embellishment of its worst aspects. Horror turns an existential circle into a philosophical square. This strain is not new, finding its most total version in the work of Lovecraft, but has lately become more common (or at least louder) with the rising prestige of the genre. There is an assumed antagonism between the two camps, as seen by Stephen King’s unceasing complaints of the “coldness” of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Critical and audience responses for films like The Witch also tend to show divergence, the former celebrating nuance, the latter condemning sterility. This need not always be the case, in fact more often it is not. Horror comes from ideas as much as stimuli. The most enduring recent case is The Night of the Living Dead. Eli Roth has tried many times to create smart exploitative horror, though I can’t help but think he is forever in despair for never having come up with anything nearly as effective as Teeth. Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps the most successful melder by any standard, but many more outwardly awful works are deep in spite of themselves.

I consider myself to be part of both camps, as I’m sure more people than we think do likewise. Horror being both escapist and philosophical isn’t so controversial, it’s more of how that emanates for each person. Lots of horrorists like to see the genre’s best ideas in a world-historic scope, but often the outcomes are more intimate and idiosyncratic, though by no means detached. It is a matter of pinpointing which work or works have had the most impact. This is usually one that is read or viewed innumerable times, and which never loses potency the more it is read or viewed. This seems daunting if you’ve consumed horror in gluttonous frequency, but it can be narrowed down. At least I narrowed it down.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake of Ringu, The Ring. It was during my freshman year in college, in the dorm room across from mine, whose occupant was exalting the film’s unnerving effect a few months before in Spanish class after he saw it in theaters. We were watching on his TV, of course, much more appropriately, causing me to conclude that he drastically undersold the film. I don’t know what became of him or anyone else in the room at the time, but that college memory has been resolute in my mind ever since. I have watched the film many times over the last 18 years, despite (well, because of) being frightened by it every time. The core philosophical quandary it produced for me was always there, but as ever it took me a while to articulate. (Spoiler alerts incoming, for babies.)

The Ring tells of a Seattle reporter (Naomi Watts) who investigates the unexplained but visibly terrible death of her niece (Amber Tamblyn), which she traces to an urban legend about a VHS tape that kills you after watching it. The reporter confirms the reality of the legend the hard way, terror (and archive-based research) ensues. It’s not hard to glean some themes on the film’s own terms. The small virtue of being an “unusual” family with an “unusual” child is one, albeit lifted from The Shining. It gestures vaguely toward a critique of technology, but what it has to say about “going viral” is ill-prepared for what was to follow in short order. Indeed, The Ring’s digital-light approach to data collection probably makes it the last horror film of the microfiche era. Its most solid theme from my viewings, however, is death. That’s nothing new for horror, but The Ring put a provocative spin upon it.

The Ring essentially tells of a psychic virus[2], the mortality rate of which is zero percent provided you do what it wants within the seven-day timeframe it sets: show the video to someone else. The symptoms of the virus and the consequences of failing to spread it are depicted with iconic effectiveness. You are tortured with hallucinations, trans-dimensional burns, and nosebleeds for a week and suffer so grievously on the final minute that you are unrecognizable at the end of it. It is, on the face of it, an unenviable last week of your life, and one that promises little to you afterward given it is dealt by an eternally embittered ghost. On the other hand, given the choice of competing versions of the inevitable, it is kind of compelling, and to a certain extent noble.

The true character of our lives comes from the circumstances of our death. A good life, we hope, better entails a good death, well cared-for and relatively light on suffering but which in any case ends with a formal burial in a place where loved ones can and will remember you. This is not always the case, as The Ring’s antagonist Samara Morgan (no relation) can tell you, having been unsuccessfully murdered by her mother and left to starve at the bottom of a well. The film from her perspective is about the transference and perpetuation of pain. From her victim’s perspective it is more complex. Being in Samara’s control for any amount of time is not ideal, yet underneath the control, the fear, and the pain she wants you to feel is a kind of mercy. Though you are on your own about the cure, Samara is remarkably straightforward about her process and intentions. You have x-amount of time before I do y, because of q-reasons that I have esoterically given. This is more than Samara got, this is more than most people get.

The Ring goes farther than most horror films in depicting the myth of the meaningful death. For all the trouble Samara puts her victims through, their lives are still made instrumental as part of a larger plan. The victims, moreover, are given options as to that instrumentality. They can aid in its spread and survive or they can put a stop to it and die. The choice is easier to consider in the abstract, and much harder with the similar options real life sometimes gives us. But this mode, with its countdown and the possibility (fleeting though it would be in the digital era) of moral victory, is still better than the more possible outcomes of reality. I think about this when I consider all the dystopian options my future has to offer, stemming as much from my own poor judgment as the uncontrollable downward drift of the times in which I am stuck. The best-case scenario being a quiet fade-out in some dingy corner of an institution for human odds n’ ends, hopefully discovered in a reasonable amount of time, followed by a group cremation and a trip to the nearest Staten Island landfill.

That is an unusual line to take given that horror is often accused of gratuitous dispensation of bodies. True enough, there are no martyrs in horror, but everyone stuck in a horrific world, for good or bad or for whatever, plays their role and does not go unappreciated in one way or another.

***

[1] I did manage to see it later but my poor impressions going into it were not fundamentally altered.

[2] The viral nature of the video is explored in a more traditionally biological way (similar to smallpox) in Koji Suzuki’s novel series on which the Japanese films are based. In his sequel Rasen, the virus is revealed to be more complex and able to spread through words as well as images.

“What? Who cares?” –Me

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