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July 16, 2003

Tacit Knowledge -- Horror Movies

Friedrich --

Do you go for horror movies? I almost never do, unless they've got some other angle -- unless they've been made arty, or sexy, or comic. (Or, best yet, all the above.) I'm not remotely tempted to see that new Danny Boyle zombie movie, for instance. The Wife, on the other hand, loves horror, and the straighter and more earnest the better.

I find it a very specific and peculiar taste. Years ago, I was talking to a Hollywood executive who'd given the green light to some horror movie projects. I was young enough still to be fascinated by what my tastes might mean, and I was going on and on about why the movies didn't work for me, and what that might mean about me. Me me me. And, with some exasperation (rightly so), the executive stopped me and sputtered, "What you don't seem to understand is that we don't make horror movies for you. We make them for three very specific audiences. We make them for Catholics, for blacks, and for teens."

I wonder if that rule still holds as true as it apparently did back then. What with so much going cyber-sci-fi and cyber-Goth these days, perhaps the taste for horror has become a little more general. What's your impression?



posted by Michael at July 16, 2003


Horror movies--not my cup of tea. (The speculations that follow are probably as accurate, therefore, as a blind man speculating about the nature of color.)

Horror movies remind me of going on amusement park thrill-rides: the "pleasure" seems to be in having surrendered control in a situation that at least suggests physical danger. I dimly recall enjoying this as a teen, but have completely lost the taste for this as I've gotten older. Is there something special about the relationship of Catholics and blacks to authority that makes the "rough trade" of horror movies look intriguing? Or is it a sense of power to be had by identifying with the evil authority figure who is calling the shots?

An employee of mine in his forties (who is probably a Catholic, I've got to ask him) is a big fan of horror flics. When he discusses them he seems to enjoy parsing the exact calculus of who is really in danger and who isn't, which is apparently occurs according to a "rulebook" that you understand if you've seen enough of these movies. So, perhaps, the real intrigue of these movies is the attraction of being able to "keep your head" and know the rules in a bad neighborhood.

Just a couple of thoughts...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 17, 2003 2:05 AM

I am a horror fan, tho of an irritatingly snobbish cast, and I can tell you exactly why I like it. Sex. A really great horror film leaves you staggering and sweaty and shaking, the effects mimic a sexual response, as well the giddy adrlenaline aftershock of fear. The fear response is closely connected to a sexual one (How many romance novels contain bad boys, dangerous women?) so horror movies can provide both reactions without the actual danger.

Also, in the romanticism vs classicism argument, horror movies depend on being "whisked away!" on total auidence invovelement and immersion (otherwise the fear/sex response wont work) often to the point of throwing out reason.

(As a complete side note, my gushing love for the recent movie The Ring comes from its complete non-rationality. No, it doesn't make sense when you think about it afterword, but thats why it's so horrifying in the theater. THe villian is a creature from the subconcious, attacking with dream language and symbols, with no motive other than perpetuaing madness. How could you fight against something that doesn't obey the laws of reason? Something beyond gross matter and easy battles. Very Lovecraftian.)


P.S I'm not Catholic, black, or a teen (anymore)

P.S The asethetic of Horror is appealing to me. There was an excellent essay somewhere on the beauty of Gothic Horror genre, with all it's pale madiens and dark towers. Italian films seem to have done it better, but for pure mannered artness, I'll take Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. Not a great flick, but I'd frame any scene from it on my wall.

Posted by: John Leavitt on July 17, 2003 12:10 PM

Judging only from the reactions of a few friends, it seems to me that part of the appeal is that horror movies make such a big deal of providing dramatic incarnations of pure Evil. Some of my Catholic friends, I notice, seem to crave regular striaghtfaced jolts of this: "See! Evil really exists!!!" It'd make sense for teens, too, feeling the hormones rise up inside them: Eeeek. Although I wonder if the new, like-totally uninhibited teens have the same cravings. Maybe it all looks like a campy, can't-believe-people-once-got-upset-about-this hoot to them. Blacks? Hmm. Well, I do notice that black audiences often seem to like to talk back to the screen -- there's that great call-and-response tradition in black entertainment. Maybe horror movies provide a good occasion to have some call-and-response fun.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 17, 2003 1:28 PM

Being terrified has a way of helping one focus - and focus is a crucial aspect of escape.

That's my non-black, non-catholic, non-teen view.

Many people are closet horror fans. If I die, my outlook address book will out them.

Posted by: j.c. on July 17, 2003 3:55 PM

Some of my Catholic friends, I notice, seem to crave regular striaghtfaced jolts of this: "See! Evil really exists!!!"

Okay, that moves the problem one step backwards, but doesn't solve it. Why is the knowledge that Evil really exists gratifying? Because that means that Good really exists? (Not sure that is actually valid logic.) Moreover, assuming one has no doubts about the existence of Good/God--admittedly, a big assumption--then surely one would prefer a universe without Evil.

Friedrich's facile psychology/theology: the desire to validate the existence of Evil would seem connected to an urge to slide off the hook of personal responsibility for Sin.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 17, 2003 4:44 PM

I don't like horror films. But I've often wondered about people who do. Two things I've always thought about it were, 1) adrenalin. Some folks really like to get their adrenalin going. I'm not one of them.

2) Ecstacy, in the sense of being taken out of oneself or stasis. ex-stasis. A Jungian psychologist once wrote a book called Ecstasy in which he says that we need ecstasy, but that it's not a common thing in our culture and that folks search for it wherever they can get it and will even go for 'negative' ecstasy. Like rubbernecking at a car wreck... or maybe horror movies.

[Middle English extasie, from Old French, from Late Latin extasis, terror, from Greek ekstasis, astonishment, distraction, from existanai, to displace, derange : ek-, out of; see ecto- + histanai, to place; see st- in Indo-European Roots.]

Posted by: Dixon on July 17, 2003 5:28 PM

I used to like old horror movies when I was a teenager. They never scared me all that much. I guess I enjoyed feeling braver than the characters in the movie and braver than other teenage girls who were always going on and on about how scared they were when they watched horror movies.

Posted by: Lynn S on July 17, 2003 7:58 PM

"Why is the knowledge that Evil really exists gratifying? Because that means that Good really exists? (Not sure that is actually valid logic.)"

In the South Park movie/musical Satan himself sings, "What is evil, anyway? Is there reason to the rhyme? Without evil there can be no good, so it must be good to be evil, sometimes!"

I think both Friedrich and Matt/Tray are on to something in the Catholic worldview.

Posted by: Nate on July 17, 2003 10:11 PM

Horror is a genre much like any other. You see enough films of any genre and before long you start to discern the underlying "rules" of each.

I think Mr Leavitt nails it with his choice of words "throwing out reason". The rise of the Gothic revival when it belatedly reached literature in the 1760s was, in some part, motivated as a reaction against the Enlightenment and the rationalism of that age. Gothic eventually turns into what we would recognise as horror fiction, and the tendency to abandon reason is retained; as a genre it's founded upon the irrationality of the events it depicts. As for why people find this sort of thing entertaining, that's something I'm not sure of. Maybe they get off on horror films as a form of reassurance that those things couldn't happen in the real world they live in. I don't know.

As for the demographics, well, I've never been black, never been Catholic (although there's a long story attached to why I am not Catholic that I won't go into), and when I was a teen I didn't like horror films. I've only come into a liking for them since entering my 20s. I have no idea why this should be.

Posted by: James Russell on July 18, 2003 2:54 AM

James, in my helpless childhood, the appeal of horror was certainly "a form of reassurance that those things couldn't happen in the real world they live in."
And of course, in horror movies - with rare exceptions like Body Snatchers - eventually everyone agrees that there's a monster. That's always satisfying.

Posted by: j.c. on July 18, 2003 5:48 PM

First of all let me say that I am a Black, 45 yr old male.
Most Horror movies turn me off, because they seem to exhibit this same formula. Young white teens doing stupid things. Young white teens in the woods, drinking and having sex. Young white teens in camp drinking and having sex. Skinny dipping in a pond at midnight. Young white teens in Catholic School..drinking and- well you know. Over qualified Thin white female lead; Romantic lead- thin white male. One or two blacks in supporting roles. (Sassy female, cowardly black male) Usually first to die as well. It’s the whites that save the world from the grave evil.

Whites tend to stay in the house if its haunted. No matter how bad the infestation of Ghosts, goblins and demons. But let a few blacks move in their neighborhood and their gone quicker than you can say Boo! In Gremlins..The housewife defends her kitchen against an invading horde of little demons with nothing more than a butcher knife. If I go to horror movies its to watch how stupid white teens can get. And how unrealistic they are portrayed in the face of overwhelming danger. They don’t run, they go to check things out. “Stay here..I’ll be right back” a white teen would say. “Ha! Screw you! I'm gone.” Says the black teen. Like Cedric the Entertainer said..”We run.” We don’t even have to know why we runnin. But if I see you run..Im gonna run. We can talk about why we was runnin, after we get there.

If a House speaks, and asks a black family to doesn’t have to ask twice. Whites stay cause they cant afford to lose the equity. The Catholic element seems to try to give credence to the notion that demons only deal with Catholics. Similar to the notion that UFOs only seek out rednecks. Protestant ministers..are looked on as a joke. Money grubbing sexual predators. Let alone the fact that the Catholic Church has been racked with scandal about its pedophile priests.

Hard to believe that they would have any moral authority left after that. White teens get stuck in the woods after partying and come across an ancient evil, to me they got what they deserved. I mean how many times must Jason convince white teens that Crystal Lake is not a safe place to party? The reason you don’t see that many blacks in Horror movies is cause we have too much sense. Something not right? We gonna run! And be alive to Ask questions later.
That’s why we talk to the screen..for we cant believe that she would go in that basement after finding out the light doesn’t work; and finding blood on the walls. We cant believe he would be so stupid as to check that crashing sound out behind the Old Smith house.

For some whites..they have to wait for the special effects to finish before they run. They have to wait for the guy to finish his transformation into a full-fledged Werewolf before they start running. By that time its too late. Black pretty much know that if you start growing teeth, and sprouting horns right before my eyes..I dont need to wait an see how things turned out. Im runnin.


Posted by: Michael Gibson on October 19, 2003 1:31 PM

LOL. That's one of the funniest things I've ever read, Michael. If you want it, you've got a big future for yourself either as a horror-movie screenwriter or a standup comic. Thanks for stopping by.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 19, 2003 1:41 PM

That’s nice of you to say.
I wasnt sure if this site was even active after I wrote it.
But it has been my experience.
Just finished watching the Blair Witch Project.
No new ground covered.
Should change the title to.."See? I told you to stay out of them damn woods!"

I really wish there were more of us in Horror movies..but we don’t tend to stay in the same place long if the situation is threatening. I didn’t believe House on Haunted Hill with the black guy. He would have ran along time ago. He would have left with the help. Not did I buy Thirteen Ghosts. Again the sassy black female made it to the end by staying out of the way. She didn’t go check anything out. And she didn’t follow anyone’s advice. When faced with the unknown..I just don’t believe that we blacks are all that brave. Self-preservation wins out every single time.

The new Disney Movie with Eddie Murphy going to live in a haunted Mansion wrecks of unbelievably. First of all we are not moving into any house that doesn’t have cable. Movie history shows we make better cowards. (mostly for comedic affect) Remember the black guys in movies like Topper saying..”Feet don’t fail me now!” We’ll leave the saving of the world to the white guys and gals.

I wouldn’t know the first thing about writing reviews. When you think of the vocation you think of some ultra deep mucky-muck, raised in the very bosom of bourgeois; supping from café lattés and formula. College educated- with some experience writing for newspapers. Sadly I have none. Just stumbled across your page while looking for subjects (oddly enough) on Blacks in Horror movies. Other than “Tales from da Hood” I cant think of too many with more than a few blacks as part of the cast. Like I said those movies wouldn’t last long..for we gon run

Posted by: Michael Gibson on October 26, 2003 7:04 PM

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